This combative, iconoclastic book, packed front to back with rich research, fresh approaches, and provocative claims, holds great significance for all who study the antebellum era and the coming of the Civil [End Page 848] War. Author James Huston proves himself an inventive methodologist, a trenchant interpreter, and a zestfully engaging writer. Back in the day, similar accolades greeted the publication of two canonical monographs on Civil War causation whose Marxist foundations Huston works his hardest to destroy—Eugene Genovese’s Political Economy of Slavery: Studies in Economy and Society of the Antebellum South (1961) and Eric Foner’s Free Soil, Free Labor Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (1970). Once under way, he expands his demolition project to include among numerous additional targets David Brion Davis, John Ashworth, Jonathan Glickstein, Amy Dru Stanley, Seth Rockman, and John Larson, each of whom in one way or another has connected (wrongly according to Huston) free labor antislavery ideology to Yankee-inspired industrialization and argued that it served, at least in part, to justify the exploitation of northern urban workers.
To the contrary, Huston insists, free labor ideology amplified the values of the North’s multitudinous small farmers, not the power of a handful of labor-exploiting factory owners. “Free soil” was all about northern agriculture, not about industry:
For the past fifty years antebellum historians have built an interpretation of sectional antagonism that uses free labor as a device to show the aggressions of industrial capitalism. This effort has been almost wholly misguided. . . . What connection did Lincoln have with urban industrialization? Answer, none. . . . The Lincoln ideal was rural. The image was of Abe the rail-splitter, not Abe the machinist.(188–89)
What led to Civil War, according to Huston, was instead an explosive clash of values between egalitarian Free State small farmers wedded much more to securing economic competence than to capital accumulation and a voracious planter class whose bloated land holdings, exploitative labor practices, and personal contempt for work of any sort explicitly mimicked Great Britain’s landed aristocrats: “The core ideological difference between North and South was neither the free labor ideology nor the patriarchy of the plantation,” Huston stresses. “The clash was between the self-mastery of the family farm and the mastery-over-others of the plantation” (xiv).
To substantiate these claims Huston develops a richly documented account, much of it statistical, of the conflicting long term developments in British and antebellum American agriculture from the seventeenth [End Page 849] century onward and their profoundly disruptive contributions to sectional politics. Summarizing ruthlessly: After the fall of Oliver Cromwell, England’s aristocrats began cashing in. Leveraging their formidable political privileges and rich inheritances, their rapacious enclosure of peasant landholding, and their excruciating coercion of dirt-cheap wage labor, they engrossed massive tracts, littered the countryside with outsized manor houses, soaked themselves in luxury, and heaped scorn on those who worked for a living. Well before 1700, the South’s planter class had begun copying this behavior, but under starkly opposite circumstances. While North American real estate came cheap, the available agricultural wage labor force was initially white, tiny, expensive, and patently unexploitable. But once the planters solved this problem by substituting enslaved Africans, they, like the English they closely emulated, fashioned a ruthlessly oppressive labor regime overseen by land-amassing, leisure-addicted conspicuous consumers (that is, by themselves) that generated the sharpest of racial and class differences. Slave owners ruled. Those who owned only themselves and sought to preserve their personal independence—that is, small family farmers—cowered at the “cotton kingdom’s” margins or fled to the northern countryside. Upon crossing the Mason–Dixon Line, however, they found themselves surrounded by literally millions just like them, small-scale family farmers who made up the overwhelming majority of the North’s population. These were self-sustaining families that lived modestly, worked incessantly, celebrated labor’s ennobling qualities, valued economic stability...