How Southern Plutocrats Betrayed America

The slaveholding oligarchy was defeated in the Civil War. But concentrations of wealth and power continue to threaten our democracy.

We have been talking more and more in recent years about the power of the super-rich, and also about statues of Confederate generals. Is that just a coincidence?

Maybe not. In From Oligarchy to Republicanism, a stimulating, if often cantankerous, history of the Civil War and Reconstruction, political scientist Forrest Nabors argues that the problem of plutocracy and the fate of the Confederacy were always deeply intertwined. Beginning in the 1830s, the United States had become not one country, but two: a northern republican regime that remained true to the vision of the founders, and a southern oligarchic regime that rejected the country’s original core values. In Nabors’s telling, the fundamental clash between North and South was not over slavery or states’ rights, but over which of these two political ideals would prevail. He gets a lot wrong, but what he gets right is deeply relevant today.

From Oligarchy to Republicanism: The Great Task of Reconstruction
by Forrest A. Nabors
University of Missouri Press, 420 pp.

Nabors’s narrative is dominated by the contest between republicanism and oligarchy. The first, in his account, found expression in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Just who is the “We” in that sentence, and who counts among “all men,” has, of course, been contested throughout American history. But Nabors is right that many of the founders did embrace what was, at the time, a radical commitment to equality, rooted in a faith in the natural rights of all humanity. Even slaveholders like Thomas Jefferson subscribed to a quasi-theological political philosophy that asserted, as a matter of principle, the equality of all human beings, the dignity of the individual, and the sacredness of liberty.

Nabors calls this vision “republicanism,” and credits it with a positive influence on the actual pattern of property ownership in the non-slaveholding North. Here, too, he is on solid ground: for millions of white men, the early republic was a country of yeoman farmers and small-scale producers who enjoyed an impressive degree of economic independence and civic autonomy.

All this would change in the 1830s, Nabors tells us, with the ascendency of oligarchy in the South. By oligarchy, Nabors means not merely inequality, but, rather, a system in which a rich minority uses its control over governmental institutions to transform wealth into rank, giving them ironclad control over the levers of political power, the most lucrative economic resources (slaves and land), and even the cultural conventions that justified these special privileges. Southern oligarchs were, of course, slaveholders. Yet for Nabors, the essential fact is that they used their wealth to entrench themselves in power at the expense of both African Americans and the white majority. By the 1830s, the “core idea upon which America was founded,” Nabors writes, ceased to be relevant in a “great part of the nation where slavery had obtained.”

The mastermind of this rising oligarchy was South Carolina slaveholder John C. Calhoun. Rejecting the founders’ misgivings about slavery, Calhoun defended it as a positive good for the enslaved as well as the enslaver. Emboldened by Calhoun, for the next quarter century a cohort of proslavery oligarchs would dominate the South—and eventually the country—as an un-American “race of kings.”

Nabors has trouble explaining how Reconstruction, which supposedly defeated oligarchy, was followed by the rise of business moguls like Jay Gould, John Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie. If the slaveholders were oligarchs, what about the industrial elite?

Opposition to this rising oligarchy, Nabors contends, was centered in the North, where lawmakers remained committed to the republican values of the founders by championing such policies as free education, public works, and the rule of law. By the 1850s, this agenda would be embraced by the Republican Party—the party of Abraham Lincoln.

Among the issues Republicans popularized was the perniciousness in the pre–Civil War South of vast landed estates, which one congressman derided as a “land monopoly.” This indictment serves as a pointed reminder of how controversial the idea of monopoly was in this era of American history. Anti-monopolists fixed their sights not only on financial institutions such as the Bank of the United States and corporate combines such as Western Union, but also on the concentrated ownership of land, including the gigantic slave-labor agribusinesses that were known as plantations.

In Nabors’s telling, the clash between the Union and the Confederacy was linked with, yet distinct from, the abolitionists’ moral crusade against slavery. Relying primarily on speeches given by Republican congressmen, he argues that most Unionists fought not to end slavery but to destroy oligarchy. The abolition of slavery was a means to this end.

Following the South’s defeat, the Republican Party set out to “reconstruct” the Union. Reconstruction ended ignominiously, leaving millions of African Americans landless, vulnerable to homegrown white terrorists, and stripped of the political rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. But Nabors judges Reconstruction a success, because it achieved what he calls “regime change”—the toppling of the antebellum oligarchs who had dared to threaten the foundational republicanism of the Union. (The neoconservative echo is not accidental: Nabors recently wrote an essay for the conservative website the Federalist titled “Why the Time Is Ripe for a Free Iran.”) Thus the onward-and-upward ring of the book’s title: From Oligarchy to Republicanism.

Which leads Nabors to what is perhaps his most provocative claim. If today’s neo-Confederates knew their history, he thinks, they would stop romanticizing the Lost Cause and wrap themselves in the American flag. The actual Confederacy—as opposed to the magnolia-and-mint-julep fantasy of its present-day apologists—was, Nabors makes plain, run by a blatantly anti-egalitarian, anti-democratic ruling class that fought an unjust war against the only republic worthy of the name. “At their first encounter with the ruling class of the antebellum South, the same Americans who proudly wave the Confederate flag today would likely feel their American blood boil, hoist the Stars and Stripes, and reach for their guns. They know not what they do.”

To make his case, Nabors analyzes the speeches of Republican congressmen between 1863 and 1869, providing an exhaustive, if at times exhausting, introduction to the formative ideals of the Republican Party. Many invoked natural rights, which provides Nabors with his primary evidence for continuity between the large-R Republicanism of the mid-nineteenth century and the small-r republicanism of the founders. And he evaluates the accuracy of the Republicans’ pronouncements by comparing how the North and South differed in their commitment to such institutions as public education, free expression, and widespread land ownership. On each count, the North came out ahead.

Southern oligarchs were, of course, slaveholders. Yet for Forrest Nabors, the essential fact is that they used their wealth to entrench themselves in power at the expense of both African Americans and the white majority.

As arresting as Nabors’s revisionism might be, there are problems with his story. Most obviously, to call Reconstruction a success despite its utter failure to end white supremacy is both morally obtuse and philosophically confusing. What is so great about a republicanism that tolerates the perpetuation of a racial caste system built on brutal violence? Might the pre–Civil War oligarchy have lost the war and won the peace? After all, its post–Civil War successors scored a major victory when they built the discriminatory legal order known as Jim Crow.

Nabors’s treatment of slavery is similarly suspect. It is now widely accepted that the Constitution led directly to the emergence of what political historian Don E. Fehrenbacher has termed a “slaveholding republic.” To posit, as Nabors does, that the country was a land of freedom until it changed course in the 1830s is an evasion of reality.

Nabors also has trouble explaining how Reconstruction, which supposedly defeated oligarchy, was followed by the rise of business moguls like Jay Gould, John Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie. If the slaveholders were oligarchs, what about the late-nineteenth-century industrial elite? Nabors attempts to distinguish post–Civil War industrialists from pre–Civil War southern slaveholders on the grounds that the “robber barons” could not translate wealth into rank. From the standpoint of Nabors’s natural rights fundamentalism, this made them no more privileged than the ex-slaves. But that is an implausibly formalistic understanding of equal rights. Plutocrats are plutocrats, then and now—as countless Americans believed in Jay Gould’s America, just as they do today.

In The Republic for Which It Stands (2017), historian Richard White termed the post–Civil War anti-monopoly critique of big business the single most significant political movement of the age. Whereas Nabors sees the southern oligarchy as a political artifact that, like the Confederacy itself, could not survive military defeat, White recognized that oligarchy could take many forms, and was by no means vanquished on Civil War battlefields.

Nabors revels in his bad-boy iconoclasm. Yet what is good is not new, and what is new is not good. Readers interested in less tendentious, better researched, and more engaging surveys of Republican Party ideology—each of which, like Nabors, downplays the efficacy of Republican lawmakers’ moral indictment of slavery—will be better served by Mark Wahlgren Summers’s Ordeal of the Reunion (2014) and Heather Cox Richardson’s To Make Men Free (2014). Those seeking a more fully worked out analysis of the challenge to the republic posed by the slaveholding oligarchy will find much to ponder in James L. Huston’s The British Gentry, the Southern Planter, and the Northern Family Farmer (2015).

Even so, Oligarchy and Republicanism repays careful reading. While the slaveholding oligarchy has been defeated, economic concentration persists, and a constellation of huge corporations stalk the land. If the republic is to survive—and it is a sign of the times that this question is being soberly discussed, and not only on the political left—Americans from across the political spectrum might well wish to ponder anew how we might build and sustain institutions to promote the founders’ ideals. Oligarchy is un-American, and Nabors has done us all a service by explaining why.

Richard R. John

Richard R. John is a professor of history at Columbia University, where he teaches courses on the history of capitalism, communications, and American political development.