We know what America is today, and has been in the last century. And we can look at what America was in the generation of the founders, and we can read their vision for it. And we can see the wrenching turn in the nation's destiny that stands between us and them.
By the mid-1800s the North was boosting its population and aggressively asserting state power in the interest of its own industrial capitalism. The South was not. The two sections were diverging, and it was the North that had evolved a new culture since 1787, one that sought to control the national destiny.
Before the seats vacated in 1861 by the Southern congressmen were cold, the economic order of the United States had been turned on its head: the tariff had taken off on an upward trajectory that would leave even industrialists breathless. The nation's resources were thrown open to private profit; and the whole banking and monetary system was revamped to suit investors and creditors. A tax scheme was created that weighed against the small consumers, the North's factories (and even its army) were thrown open to immigrant contract labor, and the federal government was using the U.S. military to put down labor strikes. Congress and the President gave another 100 million acres to various railroads, free of charge.
After the war, Reconstruction had far more to do with reordering the South as a section and reducing it to the status of a financial-industrial colony than with black people. Fear, vengeance, love of union, and interest in civil rights may have played a part in Reconstruction, but it seems clear, especially after the 1876 election, that what the South suffered had much more to do with the establishment of permanent Republican party control, tariff protection, and rigging the nation's financial arrangements to suit bankers, creditors, and New England industrialists.
In the 1870s, when the North debated within itself topics like the black vote and delaying the readmission of Southern states, the argument in favor was frankly presented as being good for the tariff and government bonds and New England "ideas of business, industry, money-making, spindles and looms."
Midwestern farmers, the same men who swelled Sherman's army that broke the South, bore the brunt of the new order and soon found themselves being herded into the same colonial status the South had resisted, in vain. By the time William Jennings Bryan and others rose up to defend them, in rhetoric reminiscent of John C. Calhoun, it was too late. The country had been turned over to foreclosing banks and greedy railroads so thoroughly that Missourians were ready by 1880 to make a hero of a murderous ex-Confederate named Jesse James.
After the war, state legislatures trying to protect their people against predatory trusts and capitalists were thwarted by the Supreme Court, which swept away state laws to regulate corporations (230 in 1886 alone), using the argument that corporations were "persons," and thus protected by the due process clause of the 14th amendment. Between 1890 and 1910, of all the 14th amendment cases brought before the Supreme Court, 19 dealt with black people, and 228 with corporations.
That's what America bought with four years of hell and 10 years of civil enslavement of the South. Even in New York City in the 1850s a respectable fortune was a few hundred thousand dollars. In the next generation, of "Robber Barons," of big fortunes and big depressions, men like Rockefeller and Carnegie were able to amass countless millions. The culture that gave birth to Washington and Jefferson was branded as backwards and immoral. The sectional balance cherished in the vision of Madison and Hamilton was swept away in the name of greed.
Whatever else it was besides, the South had been the brake on these forces, which were pent up in New England and itching for dominance. The region's distinct economy and social values blocked this "progress." The South favored restricted central government, purely local financial agents, and a leisurely way of life. The South was pulling hard after 1850 to avoid becoming a backwards dependent of a North that was now opposed to everything about the South except its cotton and its money.
Greed hid behind anti-slavery morality. Practical selfishness and pious abstraction merged beautifully. The Lord's "terrible swift sword" that smote the South was made in some Connecticut mill whose owner piled up millions in the process. It is important to remember that outright anti-slavery work -- as opposed to a sense of sectional rivalry and resentment -- was limited to a very small class in the North. Prominent among that class were a great many leading capitalists.
In New York City during the war girls sewed umbrellas from 6 a.m. to midnight, earning $3 a week, from which their employers deducted the cost of needles and thread. Girls who made cotton shirts received 24 cents for a 12-hour day. One historian, after studying in intimate detail a cluster of Northern cotton factories, summed up the owners' abolitionism like this:
"By making chattel slavery the uniquely immoral form of human exploitation, abolitionism undercut the mounting working-class complaints about wage-slavery and beatified the capitalist order. These abolitionists hated slavery not just for its inhumanity but also for impeding their vision of a capitalist society of free individuals whose labor could be freely exploited."
The Republican Party's conviction that it has the God-given right to legislate the morality of all Americans runs right back to Civil War. The GOP has never quite forgotten it was the party that God anointed with victory. Henry Wilson, the dedicated abolitionist who headed the important Senate committee on military affairs during the war and was later vice president under Grant, declared the Republican Party had been "created by no man or set of men but brought into being by almighty God himself ... and endowed by the creator with all political power and every office under Heaven."
The Republicans committed themselves to being the "Party of Piety," and gave us Anthony Comstock, the original national censor. The first act regulating U.S. mail content was passed in March 1865, spawned by complaints that boys in blue were getting obscene carte de visites and dirty novels. Congress made mailing such material a crime. One of Comstock's most illustrious victims was Ezra Heywood, the veteran abolitionist who had mailed pamphlets that criticized marriage and advocated birth control. The old man (well into his 60s) served two years at hard labor.
Lysander Spooner was an influential and ardent abolitionist and a true American radical humanitarian in the mold of Thoreau. By 1867, he had come to understand that the war was a defeat for men like him. The North had fought for the principle that "men may rightfully be compelled to submit to, and support a government they do not want; and that resistance, on their part, makes them traitors and criminals."
Southerners saw this sooner. They saw the victory of Lincoln in 1860 as defeat after a long struggle, the final reduction to helplessness in the face of a majority determined to force its social and economic values on the whole nation.
You can love your homeland and still lament the place it might have been. Is 20th century America -- with its Babbittry, its rotten bureaucracies and its destructive disregard for natural resources and human lives -- really the best we could have done? Or did we take an unbalanced, headlong tumble into modernity because the Northeast, child of industrial capitalism and Puritan morality, became "America" by grinding an economic and political rival under its heel?