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  • Confederate Political Economy: Creating and Managing a Southern Corporatist Nation by Michael Brem Bonner
  • Bruce E. Baker
Confederate Political Economy: Creating and Managing a Southern Corporatist Nation. Michael Brem Bonner. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2016. ISBN 78-0-8071-6212-5. 260 pp., cloth, $48.00.

In Confederate Political Economy, Michael Brem Bonner sets out to explain the nature of the Confederate state and political system, something many others have done before him. What differentiates this study from previous ones is that Bonner does an exceptionally good job of situating his analysis in its historical moment and examining the Confederacy on its own terms and in its own time. Because the Confederacy was established to defend the institution of slavery and failed to do so, there is always a temptation to see the entire enterprise as the end of an antebellum order based on human bondage that had to be swept away so the United States could modernize. In fact, Bonner's argument, avoiding hindsight, is that the Confederacy represented an early example of the sort of corporatist state we tend to associate with the twentieth century and that the pressures of war required this form of governance.

"Corporatism," Bonner explains, "is an arrangement of shared governance and responsibility between the public and private sectors in which government, business, and labor provide direction for mutually beneficial policies" (9). The Confederate version was "expedient" because all the decisions that shaped it were taken in the midst of the crisis of war, rather than as a result of careful planning. Bonner's book argues that this corporatist state took shape in the political culture of the Confederacy and was fundamental to understanding its industrial policy and ultimately how the states and the citizens of the Confederacy were governed.

Bonner lays the foundation for his study with an organizational examination of the political culture of the Confederacy. The Confederate Constitution was fundamentally different than the U.S. Constitution since it provided for a much stronger executive branch, unconstrained by a Supreme Court, and facilitated the centralization of power, allowing for easy relationships between the public and private sectors. The Confederate government's extensive use of secret sessions, not just in the formulation of the constitution but in legislative business, shielded its operations from democratic scrutiny and criticism.

The most important industry in the Confederacy, a nation that spent its entire existence at war, was munitions. At the beginning of the war, the Tredegar Iron Works was already well established, "the most important heavy industrial complex in the Confederacy" (71). Ensuring that it was contributing to the war effort was crucial to making sure Confederate soldiers had something to fight Union forces with. As a [End Page 421] result, the Tredegar always had the upper hand in negotiations with the government and was able to secure favorable contracts. In contrast, the Shelby Iron Works in Alabama was less developed, and the Confederate government invested in expanding its capacity early in the war. However, the terms of the government contracts the Shelby won insisted on steady repayment of the government loan, creating a conflict between doing government work or securing higher paying private work to make enough money to keep going. An alternative to this sort of back-and-forth relationship with private industry was for the Confederate government to establish its own munitions factories. Josiah Gorgas, head of the Ordnance Bureau, successfully built a powder works at Augusta, Georgia, from scratch. In the case of the Selma Manufacturing Company, the Confederate government purchased outright and expanded an existing enterprise. In all these cases, Bonner points out that the Confederacy operated flexibly, neither leaving private enterprise completely free nor controlling the means of production in some sort of ideologically driven state socialism but trying whatever worked to provide the materiél its military required to preserve the nation itself.

Bonner's last chapter, which describes what he calls the "Confederate system … the actual governance of the Confederate states, the intersection of policy with southern citizens, and the corporatist nature of railroad policy," does not hang together quite as clearly as the others, though as the author points out, these topics allow...


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pp. 421-422
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