Printer Friendly

The origins of black sharecropping.

Sharecropping developed after various other production schemes failed. By 1868, it was the predominant capital-labor arrangement throughout the South. In retrospect, the development of sharecropping seems a tragedy, because it is associated with the kind of static, hopeless poverty and debt cycles that afflicted the entire South well into the twentieth century. The freedmen attained an economic status akin to peonage, in addition to having their hopes for political and social equality dashed. If the entire South suffered, it was the freedmen who paid the highest price. Ignorant and impoverished, they were easy targets for exploitation by landlords and merchants alike; moreover, their options were entirely curtailed by the vehement racism in the South, by legal restrictions and partiality, and by the postbellum financial institutions and resurgent plantation economies, which reentrenched a powerful white elite. According to this retrospective viewpoint, sharecropping resulted from the intense explicit or implicit desire of white Southerners to keep blacks subservient to them. Whereas this viewpoint seems plausible and contains more than a few elements of truth, the viewpoint also overly simplifies a whole range of historical considerations.

The exploitation scenario misses or ignores the crucial role played by blacks themselves in the development of sharecropping--indeed, as a preferred contractual agreement. The essentially Marxian interpretation also pits class against class in uncharacteristic ways, grossly simplifying divisions between poor whites, planters, merchants and Republicans of all stripes. The use of misnomers is especially common, for in no wise can the so-called planter elite of the postbellum South be compared to the planter elite of the antebellum South. In no wise can the plantation economy of the Old South with slavery intact be compared to the plantation economies of the smaller production units under sharecropping arrangements.

The action of the capitalist economy in both protecting freedmen and determining the final form of capital-labor organization is likewise minimized. The problems associated with post-1875 Redemption, with injurious national policies, with structural problems and weaknesses in the Southern economy, are confused with the natural and rational response to adverse circumstances that resulted in the development of sharecropping in the first instance. This is not to say, however, that racism did not largely shape the political and social context--and hence, the political economy--in which the market responded. Hence, sharecropping may have been the optimal result possible within a sadly narrowed sphere of alternatives,(1) but it certainly was not the unqualified result of Southern racial prejudices, nor the imposed order of a class elite.

At the conclusion of the Civil War, almost all the freedmen lived in the devastated South. The positive inheritance of slaves was slim: they possessed few skills, and those they did possess related almost exclusively to agricultural production; they owned no property but the clothes on their backs; they were predominantly illiterate; they had very little experience in independent management but were, instead, trained in docility and deference to the master class and habituated to extreme dependence. Still, in the summer of 1865, they were free at last and no longer the legal property of other men.(2) Although nearly two percent of the entire black population died as a result of the war and its aftermath, mostly in epidemics,(3) the freedmen greeted the news of emancipation with happy tears. Their first reaction was to celebrate and to salve a vacation from labor-- and to test the bounds of their new-found freedom.(4)

Of course, the most basic and symbolic characteristic of freedom is mobility--the ability to physically move about at will. So thousands just "up and went," with no particular place in mind. They roamed the countryside awhile, sought out family relations, and congregated in shantytowns around Southern cities and towns. Almost universally, at least temporarily, freedmen left the limits of the old plantations on which they had lived and labored a lifetime. Rumors spread amongst the mingling, mobile black population that land would be distributed to them by the government. Many dreamed of "forty acres and a mule" with which to begin life anew as an integrated part of American society and the proprietor of one's own land. Inside of a year, however, a different reality became obvious to most. Even if they held to faint hopes that one Christmas or New Year's Day they would be given land, necessity drove them to make other arrangements in the meantime. By 1868, it should have been apparent that land confiscation and redistribution was not in the realm of American political possibility. President Johnson's general amnesty proclamations and the conservatism of Republican and business interests in the North precluded the option.(5)

Although four percent of the black Southern population was able to find permanent employment in cities away from plantation agriculture (Ransom and Sutch, p. 62), urban job opportunities were simply insufficient to accommodate the vast majority of freedmen. Desperation, familiarity with people and surroundings at the old places coupled with reunion of many lost loved ones, as well as the urgings of Freedmen's Bureau agents--all contributed to the return of most of the freedmen to areas at or near their rural origins. It should be remembered that this was not by any means a forced pinpoint relocation of ax-slaves. The process was, however, an emergency expedient in the context of widespread civil unrest and potential large-scale starvation. As they returned to familiar areas and plantations, freedmen found that they did possess one significant resource, and that resource gave them some bargaining power in determining the conditions under which they would work. The resource they had was labor (Higgs, pp. 5, 39).

Landowners were as desperate to reestablish production as freedmen were to generate incomes. Planters still owned land (capital) and had always required the freedmen's resource (labor) to yield their staple crops, but since they no longer owned labor, they would have to contract for it. Sugar and rice plantations were already hopelessly lost in most cases, but cotton production could be saved at less capital expense. The entire Southern economy hinged on the ability to bring capital and labor together in a timely fashion. Potentially, some contractual relationship would suffice in lieu of outright ownership of labor--some free labor alternative found to give the plantation system viability and to bring prosperity again to the Southern economy. Anyway, that was the necessary presumption after Confederate defeat.

It was also a verity in Republican free-labor ideology, and planters were neither happy nor too optimistic about the prospects. Indeed, planters and white society viewed Reconstruction in general and new capital-labor relations in particular from the standpoint of minimizing inevitable relative loss. Freedmen viewed Reconstruction and new capital-labor relations from the standpoint of maximizing prospective gain. So freedmen went back to work, this time for wages. Once at work, freedmen could, ostensibly, consider means by which to improve their material conditions further.

The payment of wages in some form was the most common way to compensate laborers before 1867. Because of the shortage of currency, wage laborers were usually paid with a share of the crop rather than in cash. Wage laborers worked in a gang under an overseer, and their tasks and hours were clearly specified by contract. All work was closely supervised, and infractions (such as failure to show up for work) resulted in pay withheld or some other punishment.(6) For numerous reasons, the wage experiment proved unsatisfactory to planters and to freedmen (Higgs, p. 45). Planters complained that laborers shirked on the job, necessitating a heavy expense for supervision; moreover, the wage laborers were too undependable, deserting at critical times, regardless of sanctions. Planters yearned for means of physical enforcement, but these were no longer legitimate, nor were they to be tolerated by freedmen or federal agents.

Planters also found that without the power of compulsion, the overall supply of labor had shrunk dramatically. Economies of scale had gone out of their previous enterprises, due to a de facto labor shortage caused by withdrawal of labor from the market. In other words, freedmen were no longer willing to work as intensely or for as many hours as they had previously in bondage. Moreover, women and children largely withdrew their availability for field hire. While planters often interpreted this phenomenon as evidence of the Negro's inherent laziness and unwillingness to work without coercion, this partial withdrawal of labor actually represented a choice comparable to that of other free-labor populations both to consume more leisure and to devote more time (and labor) to other pursuits, including child-rearing and domestics. For the freedmen as with other free men, quality of life was more than wages. It meant time to enjoy those wages, and it meant full and secure nuclear-family relationships, as well as time to strengthen key institutions such as the church.

Through the wage system, planters could no longer obtain the same amount of labor nor expropriate the product of labor without compensation. The decline in hours worked by the black population was between 28 and 37 percent. Yet this still enabled black material income to increase some 29 percent. From the freedmen's perspective, it was like doing much less for more. From the planters' perspective, it was a 36.5 percent decline in per capita crop production from the withdrawal of labor alone. This, after losing their biggest source of actual capital investment worth billions--some 59 percent of their total wealth, as well as collateral for any future loans--through the uncompensated emancipation of their chattel property or slaves (Ransom and Hutch, pp. 4-6, 47, 52).

Many planters did retain ownership of their lands. In the Black Belt of Alabama, for example, the family persistence rate of planter elite was 43 percent through the decade of the war and Reconstruction (Wiener, p. 9). Yet the price of land also plummeted by 50 percent, and the federal government imposed the added burden of a cotton tax--in addition to local and state taxes, which increased dramatically under Reconstruction regimes. All Confederate bonds and currency were worthless, as the federal government repudiated these (codified in the Fourteenth Amendment). All told, personal wealth probably diminished by 70 to 80 percent for those who even "persisted." Needless to say, the national political power of the planter class was gone forever, and local political hegemony of planters was severely altered. As the English chronicler Robert Somers noted on travels through the Reconstruction South, old homesteads and old families did become centers for Southern economic revival. Nevertheless, one loses perspective by calling old planters <<elite>> in the postbellum context. Planters were never able to compensate for their losses, nor for the fundamental difference between antebellum and postbellum capital-labor and political environments.(7)

No free-labor alternative could possibly allow the planter to recoup his lost capital or to approach pre-war-level productive output and margin of profit. All of which is not to say that the planter did not try. Indeed, he sought to simulate slavery the best he could. He put laborers in the old slave quarters and forbade liquor and sometimes even visitors. The terms of his contracts might prohibit conversing in the fields or leaving the plantation without permission. Inevitably, he required the freedman to be "peaceable, orderly, and pleasant, . . . kind and respectful" (Wiener, pp. 3839). Planters even tried (unsuccessfully) to form cartels with each other, in order to limit concessions made to the freedmen.(8) Much is made of these attempts, as if they were attempts to reimpose slavery by another name. The planters' actions are often interpreted as mean-spirited and racist.

Indeed, most of the planters were racist, but it is possible to explain such actions in other ways: as evidence of selfish concern for economic well-being and efficiency, for instance-a common characteristic in the North and South, at least since the Age of Jackson. One might also explain mean treatment of the new employees as conditioned (or preferred) response from years spent exercising martial-style leadership. Not unlike the relations between Northern captains of industry and workers, interpersonal relations with subordinates were not the planters' strong suit. It is also likely that Southern planters vented a great deal of vitriol in the aftermath of civil war, defeat and emancipation, and such no doubt reflected deep-seated racism. However, considering Southern military heritage, notorious "armed camp" mentality, as well as the fact that the South had just been fully mobilized, the planters' view and treatment of laborers may not be so far removed from a sense of military necessity or the style of Roman officers with their centurions. Even the tendency to want back their "own" Negroes (Wiener, p. 39) indicates a military predilection for personalized leadership and division of labor, as well as the feeling of security that would come from "knowing" their men. Moreover, Southern men were culturally predisposed to believe more in autocratic-style leadership and broad individual "command" prerogatives. Southern exercise of command was decentralized and laissez faire in society, as well as on the battlefield.(9) Whereas Southerners would often decide the most basic issues arbitrarily without hesitation or consultation, Northerners were far more likely to commit decisions to councils, or to deem certain decisions outside the proper purview of individuals.

Certainly there was no parallel in the North to the incredible amounts of power exercised daily by individual white masters over their slaves, or to the insulation from others' critiques that masters enjoyed on their sprawling plantation fiefdoms. Much of what seemed mean or vindictive to Northern eyes was literally part of the Southern way of life; in particular, Southerners admired and expected those in positions of leadership and authority to exercise power decisively. The Southern gentleman was to be a "master." He would therefore be as autocratic as altered circumstances allowed. There is a corollary to the kind of military leadership practiced by the likes of Joe Johnston and Braxton Bragg at home on the plantation. It may be that the image of the Southern plantation master and the idealization of his manly strength persisted, even if the antebellum planter class did not. Hence it was proper for the "better" landlord to command the "lesser" wage earner or cropper.(10)

Primary source accounts reveal numerous altercations during free-labor plantation operations in the Union-occupied South, which relate directly to an interference with the command prerogative of former masters acting as overseers, etc.(11) Violations of the prerogative of command frequently manifested themselves as incidents involving Southern reactions of hostility toward government, toward "meddling" Northerners or "uppity" Negroes, toward any man who refused to acknowledge or respect the "master's"--read employer's--perceived realm. What Northerners interpreted as contempt for the Union and for Negroes involved more complex issues of culturally defined limits on the scope of legitimate authority and on discretionary exercise of power by individuals. Southerners were entirely unfamiliar with free-labor practices and would need to develop their own over time.(12) The development of a unique Southern conception of employer-employee relationship helps to explain almost universal Southern support for right-to-work laws and pronounced regional antipathy towards unions. Of course, Northern factories during Reconstruction and throughout the Gilded Age had their share of inequalities and petty rules too, and both the North and the South were characterized by more deferential relationships in the workplace and in society than exist today.

For the freedmen's part, it was the similarity to their previous condition of servitude that made them dislike the wage system, especially as planters sought increasingly to model contracts to achieve such similarity. Freedmen also complained that employers failed to pay wages in full, that rations supplied as wages were poor, that extra work was demanded without extra pay (Higgs, p. 45). Whereas planters attempted to impose the similitude of slavery in wage contracts and labor organization, freedmen rejected these contracts and refused to work in gangs. Whereas planters tried to form effective cartels, these were undermined by keen competition for labor and by the actions of the Freedmen's Bureau (Higgs, pp. 4748). Attempts failed to preserve the plantation as a single, large-scale unit, because planters could not persuade enough freedmen to work in labor gangs for wages at anywhere near the number of man hours required. The planters increasingly divided their plantations into small plots and assigned to each plot a single family, which was paid with a share of the crop the family produced. The old slave quarters were broken up and replaced with cabins scattered across the plantation. This amounted to a major concession to the freedmen and was universally disparaged by planters themselves (Wiener, p. 66). In the South Carolina Low Country, planters were similarly forced to accede to demands of freedmen to work under the decentralized task system. Planters there also agreed to a "two-day system," under which hands worked for landowners approximately two days in exchange for land allotments they farmed any way they chose (Strickland, pp. 146, 150-154).

Crop-lien laws, which were designed to solve immediate post-war credit security problems, inadvertently caused new problems, since they were based on the assumption that former slaves would become wage workers for former masters on commercial plantations organized and managed along prewar lines. When tenantry resulted, the lien laws worked to the detriment of large landowners and provided workers the means to escape dependency on their employers, since each debtor had a legal contract that included a right in the gathered crop. Workers, lessors, planters and merchants all claimed such rights. Sadly, however, the value of the crop was often too small to satisfy combined claims.(13) Republican state legislatures viewed the plantation breakups positively, but the increasingly precarious nature of the landlord's position in credit arrangements may have provided some of the impetus for Democratic Redemption. Before Redemption, sharecroppers had ownership or first lien of the crop until they divided it, i.e., until they paid the rent and whatever else they owed for advances. Not surprisingly, redeemer legislatures moved quickly to make landowner liens superior to others. After 1875, new legal definitions were also employed to limit sharply the rights of a particular kind of worker, e.g., the cropper. The effect was to give landlords statutory power over tenants, as well as some protection from competing merchants.(14)

The failure here was political and unrelated per se to the economic arrangement of sharecropping. Just as the Supreme Court between 1873 and 1896 whittled away protections afforded by the Constitutional Amendments, redeemer legislatures moved to restrict freedmen's rights as men and as workers. The process nevertheless took a generation. Impoverishment and labor control followed political and statutory change and not economic arrangement (Woodman, New South, pp. 93-94, 113-115). Furthermore, the economic arrangement afforded considerable protection and promise to freedmen before the politicization of race led to Redemption and eventually to the rigid legal, formalized system of Jim Crow. Race is empirically less a factor in economics than in politics, since markets provide some protection against discrimination by raising costs.(15) The latest scholarship emerging from the ruin of Marxist economic paradigms shows that labor is more influential in setting real wage rates than capital, and the entire framework supporting exploitation theory is false. Based on similar rationale, freedmen had as much leverage over the terms of sharecropping contracts and far more than most historians have appreciated. It was impossible for employers and landowners to arbitrarily set wage rates or share-crop terms at anywhere near minimum subsistence, without resorting to government power to circumvent the market.(16) Indeed, the continued decline of the Southern economy after Redemption encouraged legislative measures that undercut the natural protection and benefits afforded by sharecropping.

The typical structure of the new plantation during Reconstruction involved a section farmed directly by the owner or manager of the plantation (average 330 acres) and the remainder cultivated by tenants or sharecroppers (average of ten croppers with 39 acres each). In terms of improved land, tenants were responsible for three-quarters of the plantation acreage under actual cultivation.(17) Share tenancy was not a method of race control. Rather, freedmen had a continuum of preferences in which, other things being the same, land ownership was most preferred, followed by fixed-rent tenancy, share-rent tenancy, and--least to be preferred--working for wages. The terms of share contracts varied enormously with respect to how farm inputs and outputs were divided between the landlord and the tenant. Sometimes there was a share rent on some crops and a fixed rent on others (e.g., one-half of the cotton plus fifty bushels of corn for the rent of cabin and land). The complexity and variety of arrangements makes them difficult to analyze, but clearly they were quite flexible contracts, easily altered to suit the demands of landlords and tenants. Variability held out some hope to freedmen that things were better elsewhere, even as close as the next plantation. Moreover, there was usually some labor turnover at the end of each contract year, as many freedmen opted to go find out (Ayers, pp. 195-197, 200). Above all, share contracts were neither standardized nor one-sided. Black tenants had a strong voice in determining the terms of share-rent contracts.(18) Sharecropping spelled the end of plantation economies and transformed the organic plantations into so many small farms and independent production units, notwithstanding concentration of land ownership (Ransom and Sutch, p. 68).

From the planter's perspective, a problem with share tenancy agreements was that his principal means of control was to refuse to renew tenant leases, i.e., to threaten to evict or to actually evict at the end of an annual lease. The all-or-nothing alternatives limited planter interference and punitive flexibility and gave blacks unprecedented freedom and autonomy to organize time and labor (Wiener, p. 67). Whereas some have argued that annual contracts involved with sharecropping immobilized plantation workers for most of the crop year,(19) one might also assert that the annual contracts provided job security when security was at a premium for landowners and laborers. The argument is also not unique, in that almost every form of employment involves at least some sort of contractual agreement over a discrete period of time. The length of the contract had to do with the nature of agricultural work and the cotton crop in particular(20) and not with "racially based authoritarianism."(21) It could hardly be less than a year, unless laborers worked under centralized operations in gangs. The absence of labor at any of several critical steps in the productive cycle of cotton might result in ruination of the entire crop (Mann, p. 418). The concept of "immobilization" also presumes both the desire to leave and the existence of a superior practical alternative.

Even Jay Mandle, who laments the failure to confiscate and redistribute private property to the freedmen, admits that European immigration coupled with Northern and Southern racism, foreclosed potentially better economic opportunities elsewhere.(22) There is also every reason to believe that freedmen preferred familiar surroundings and local networks of kin and friends, at least for the time being, to moving far away and starting a totally alien enterprise. Moreover, blacks did use their autonomy to improve terms of contracts at subsequent renegotiations. Whereas many laborers received just one-tenth or one-eighth of the crop (plus food, clothing and shelter) in early sharecropping experiments, the percentages grew to one-fourth by 1868 and to one-half by 1870.

Planters were forced to make these concessions just to keep their plantations from remaining idle. After 1870, tenants who provided only labor normally received one-half of the crops plus a cabin, fuel and garden plot. When Robert Somers observed these arrangements in 1870 and 1871, he considered them quite generous. Still he lamented, like future observers, that freedmen refrained so adamantly from wage labor, which was preferred from a purely economic standpoint. Indeed, it is a common fallacy to attribute future economic progress or entrepreneurial acumen to land ownership, as if the absence of radical land reform precluded capital accumulation or the rise from poverty for the freedmen. The experience of every single immigrant group, before and after the closing of the frontier in the 1890s, disproves the contention. Ironically, planters found that all their land provided them with very little upward mobility after the plantations broke up; most longed to get their money out of the land and start new businesses. Because there were few buyers and hard times persisted, planters started abandoning their lands and old plantation homes as early as the 1880s for residences in the cities. The old aristocracy, to the extent it persisted longer, became absentee landlords, whereas others joined the rising merchant class (Ayers, pp. 24-25, 200-202).

Wages alone might certainly provide an egress from poverty, as it did for Jews, who reinvested at very high percentage levels of their earnings. It is also true that when whites and blacks were paid entirely in cash, no racial differential in remunerations can be found (Higgs, pp. 65-66). On the other hand, plantation owners could not afford to pay high enough cash wages, and federal agrarian policy hampered the viability of a straight wage system, without some sort of adjunct crop-sharing (Jaynes, pp. 243-244). As it was, after 1870 and by 1880, there was a discernable trend from share-rent to mostly fixed-rent arrangements (Higgs, pp. 4851). This helped eliminate the risk of possible cheating at settlement time and gave the black tenant farmer an unconstrained incentive to produce at optimal output. Capable black farmers could attain a virtually independent position under a fixed-rent contract. A few were able to use surplus proceeds to obtain land of their own, as 9.8% of Southern cultivated land in 1880 was owned by blacks (Ransom and Sutch, p. 83). In 1900, 25 percent of black farmers in the South owned their own farms.(23) Moreover, in just the first decade after emancipation, overall property ownership among Southern blacks, including personal and household effects, farm equipment, etc., increased 240 percent.(24) The fact that progress did not continue at the same pace under a system that arguably discontinued following changes to the law, politics and finance, is hardly fair indictment of the system in the first instance.

What contemporary observers and some historians have failed to realize is that "sharecropping" (used here loosely as share or fixed-rent tenantry) did not result from white people "putting" or "keeping" the freedmen anywhere. Trends cited above clearly suggest that freedmen intentionally put and kept themselves out of white people's way. This is not explained fully by white racism. Planter racism did not force blacks to insulate themselves. Black aversion to slavery did. Planters liked to think that slavery taught blacks how to work hard. In one respect, that may be true. However, it is well-known that training administered one way may instill a confidence and propensity to perform; done another way, it may instill an aversion to the task and a number of defensive reactions. Freedmen's aversion to anything that smacked of slavery may have resulted in their foregoing economic opportunities. Freedmen refused to work not only in plantation gangs but also in railroad construction gangs, ditch gangs, and the like. One could speculate about other related aversions, disadvantageous in the long run, such as resistance to instruction and supervision. Federal forces found intense opposition by freedmen to close supervision or to routine military corporal punishment, whether or not the same treatment was applied impartially to whites and blacks.(25)

Notwithstanding racism amongst Northern employers, it is unlikely that freedmen would have subjected themselves to the disciplined regimen of the factory system, which antebellum Southerners disparaged as wage slavery. Moreover, it is not altogether clear that blacks were refused hire any more than other ethnics. Irish, Germans, Italians, Poles, Jews, Slavs, etc., were just so many substitutes for cheap labor in the industrial period. Each group, in its way, repulsed the Anglo-American majority by affronting dominant cultural sensibilities and challenging Victorian values. Nativism reached fever-pitch in the country during the 1920s, especially in response to so-called "new" immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. It should also be noted that Chinese met with violence and faced the same explicit racism that blacks did. The fact that Chinese immigration was curtailed by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 may implicitly substantiate the claim that blacks were excluded from Northern hire and so "confined" to the South. What may be more instructive, however, is to note that the Chinese did not remain stationary but migrated to various employments throughout the West and to New York City. Chinese experienced racism and responded by working as launderers, miners, railroad construction workers, and wage laborers of all sorts. This suggests the availability of other employment opportunities besides sharecropping. It also suggests that such "opportunities" may not have been superior, if weighed according to the priorities and decision criteria of the freedmen themselves.

Recall that blacks during Reconstruction were insistent on segregated schools and segregated churches and were largely ambivalent to integration elsewhere. Sharecropping gave freedmen similar, short-run advantages just as segregation did; unlike segregation, however, sharecropping also provided the prospect for longer-term upward mobility. Although the planter or his agent often checked on tenants, the planter or agent could not use collective labor in work gangs, nor specify the division of labor amongst tenant family members. Indeed, the better freedmen farmer could be sure that the boss would concentrate his highly divided supervisory time on weaker farmers.(26) Historian Jay Mandle in early and recent work has asserted that sharecropping did not allow freedmen the chance to gain managerial experience or to experiment in farming techniques. While the value of the latter may be doubtful, the former aspect is patently false.

For the first time, freedmen were able to manage a household and a family and the majority of horticultural and agricultural activities on a wide physical expanse of land. Freedmen had domains, as well as time and resources under their control. The sharecropping arrangement actually brought some women and children back into fields as time allowed and self-interest dictated. In addition, if we conceive of management more broadly, we also find that employer-owners allowed their employee-tenants access to many more resources on the plantation. Sharecroppers typically had the right to cultivate garden plots, to hunt and cut wood in the forests, to fish in the streams, to raise swine and poultry. Former slaves saw these highly prized concessions as means to expand control or "management" over their own lives and to labor for their own benefit (Berlin, Freedom, p. 52). Control over their working lives and access to these other economic resources were requisite to fulfilling the freedmen's priority quest for individual and collective autonomy. Decisions about the management of large production were incidental within this broader context of freedmen's aspirations. The management decisions freedmen wanted to make concerned the day-to day activities of themselves and their families.(27) It is precisely the prioritization of nonpecuniary concerns that led freedmen to choose share wages over regularly paid cash wages or other possible employment, even though officials of the Freedmen's Bureau would have had it otherwise in many instances.(28) Freedmen preferred sharecropping, because it necessitated relatively isolated work settings (Mann, pp. 415, 424 425) and because they either rejected or cared little for the landowner's market-oriented capitalist goals.(29)

Planters did not withhold capital to "primitivize" plantation economies. They had no excess capital to invest in machinery. Unlike post-1940, a black response to Northern labor demand could not trigger the process of labor-displacing technological change. The requisite threshold could not be achieved, certainly not before 1924, even though some significant migration North occurred after 1910 in response to industrial and wartime labor demands. The reason is the simple fact that the overwhelming majority of Northeast and Old Northwest labor demands were easily satisfied by the tremendous influx of immigrants from Europe, over fourteen million after the Civil War until immigration was curtailed in 1924 by an American nativist backlash. Comparisons between Northwestern wheat-farmers and Southern cotton-growers are like comparisons of apples and oranges. The failure of American blacks to make rapid economic progress was part of a larger failure of the Southern economy to grow and develop after the Civil War. Sharecropping was probably an inevitable development between 1865 and 1875; indeed, sharecropping was a progressive stage in the economic development and general welfare of freedmen under the circumstances. Unfortunately, national public policies adopted after the war inhibited further development or faster progress.

Regardless of Supreme Court or federal resolve to insure freedmen's Constitutional rights beyond 1877, different policies may have arrested the drift towards institutionalized oppression after Redemption. Chief among inhibitors to development and regional economic progress were the financial and marketing intermediaries so crucial to staple agriculture (Ransom and Sutch, pp. 8-9, 12-13). The collapse of the Confederate monetary system was exacerbated by federal banking regulations which discouraged development of national banks in agricultural regions, as well as by federal taxes imposed on state-chartered banks. Indeed, the National Banking Act (1864) cracked down on so-called wildcat banks and heavily centralized banking operations in a way that discouraged capital investment in the South and encouraged it in the urban, industrial North.(30) Unchartered private banks--usually adjunct to other businesses such as general stores--emerged to fill the artificial void created by these government policies.(31)

These merchant-bankers could obtain a local monopoly power and exploit income generated in Southern agriculture by charging excessive interest rates. Moreover, these merchants encouraged dependence on cotton, and because landlords were as dependent on credit from merchant-bankers as were tenant farmers, the South's prosperity was curtailed by debt and the wiles of fluctuating world cotton prices. Hence, financial institutions prevented savings and investment and tended to stagnate the Southern economy. For this structural reason, the Southern economy stayed disjunct from the rest of the national economy, which thrived during the same time-frame. Moreover, the Southern Upcountry lost its characteristic self-sufficiency and became more closely integrated into the rest of the South's poverty and dependent on the same new merchant class.(32)

In an economy that did not grow, prosperity for one group could only be gained at the expense of another group. The comment is telling, because the worst violence and outrages against freedmen were committed by poor whites, who came out of the hills to enter into similar tenant arrangements with the planters. Economic hardship and transformation affecting the Upcountry also led white yeomen into sharecropping arrangements, and this development proved fertile soil for the growth of Southern Populism (Hahn, Roots, pp. 156-160, 164-165, and passim). Indeed, sharecropping as a tenant-farming arrangement had a long history in England, even before it started in the United States. Therefore, sharecropping could not be a racist measure per se, but it evidently represented a coveted and relatively profitable arrangement for poor whites and poor blacks. Political, legal and social discrimination aimed towards economic deprivation grew worse in the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries. Moreover, only after 1886 were more blacks than whites lynched in the South, and the total number of annual lynchings did not peak until 1892.(33) Most figures used in attacking sharecropping as a racist, class imposition also come from post-1890. By this time, railroads had penetrated the hinterland, a new merchant class had risen in the towns and countryside, and debt cycles connected to merchant-banking and crop liens were well advanced.(34)

The North did not intentionally use monetary and fiscal policies to hold the South in a permanent, semi-colonial status. The same dynamics and calculus that produced Northern political dominance produced dominance in the field of finance. Obviously during the Civil War, the North enacted policies without opposition (Hahn, "Class and State," pp. 92-93); during Reconstruction, the North imposed these and other policies through fiat. The North was more populous, in addition to being more thoroughly franchised after the war; hence Northern interests dictated federal Reconstruction policy, postwar Constitutional amendments, and federally chartered bank policy. Moreover, it was Confederate fortunes that had been dashed. Many Northern fortunes had been made by the Civil War, and it was this money there was to invest. It was natural the money should be invested in the burgeoning cities and industrial potential of the North and Old Northwest. It was natural that credit be extended to urban commercial enterprise in the North over risky agricultural recovery in the South. There certainly was no precedent for a postbellum "Marshall Plan" for the South, any more than there was a precedent or Constitutional basis for massive land redistribution.

Nevertheless, federal policies were particularly grievous to the South. The National Banking System literally forbade use of real estate as collateral for loans, but land was all planters had left after the abolition of slavery.(35) At state level, the principal source of tax revenue to which Reconstruction legislators could turn was the land tax, as opposed to the antebellum tax on slaves. The resultant financial squeeze drove many small farmers to support Democratic Redemption.(36) Not unexpectedly, given the long-standing dispute between sections over the issue, the North also used its political hegemony to raise protective tariff levels two and one-half times their immediate post-war level. Numerous national measures provided positive incentive to settle the West and to invest in the West, to the detriment of investment in the New South. Moreover, the Immigration Act of 1864 legalized entry of contract labor from Europe and Asia under terms worse than those of sharecropping (Heilbroner and Singer, pp. 141-145). The result was an inexhaustible pool of cheap labor for the North and large capital reservoirs earmarked for Northern and Western investment. The South's economy stayed largely isolated, and the South became a low-wage region in a comparatively high-wage country over time (Wright, p. 12). A former slave observed his own predicament in the South this way: "There were more laborers than there was money to pay them ...."(37)

The greatest failure of Reconstruction may have been economic, but the origins of black sharecropping are not the same as the origins of Southern black and white poverty.(38) The plantation order did not persist long after the Civil War, and black poverty was not the result of plantation mode-of-production repression and enforced immobility, let alone sharecropping. The New South to that extent was not analogous, say, to Guyana, Barbados and northeastern Brazil, and the freedman never became an "interchangeable part of the machinery of plantation organization" as some historians maintain (Mandle, Roots of Black Poverty, p. xiv). The freedman became a small farmer. The power of the landowner to evict was not necessarily the power to control, albeit the power to evict annually did exact a cost, say, in disincentives to long-term scientific farming. This may indeed have stifled tenant agricultural "experimentation."

Comparative studies are difficult and inconclusive, especially the comparative studies of what was and what might have been. Recent historical determinism that blames contemporary poverty or social inequality on sharecropping is presentism at its worst. The logic fixes causation to the year 1865 and subsequent "failure" of Reconstruction; it misreads several unique causal sequences, especially one over the past thirty years. Historians "ought to be suspicious of any model that views continuity rather than change as the essence of the historical experience, while ignoring the active participation of the former slaves themselves .... "(39) Had total confiscation and redistribution of land taken place, black progress still might not have been better, as the experience of Jamaica attests. Indeed, land grants provided to freedmen in the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia did not raise the freedmen in these locations from poverty, albeit these examples stand in stark contrast to the successful case of Davis Bend, Mississippi. The success of Barbados whilst continuing labor under gang systems for wage payments may vindicate Somers or any number of modern commentators, but the freedmen understandably rejected the gang-semblance to slavery.

Racism no doubt curbed educational opportunities for freedmen, as well as the ability to purchase land outright. The failure of government to guarantee equal protection of the law, as well as capricious acts of violence by poor whites against freedmen, considerably raised risks associated with economic activity or assertiveness. The freedmen thus valued present consumption and present security over future returns. Sharecropping emerged as a rational response to postbellum circumstances. While it represented a compromise between capital and labor, it was labor-oriented. Planters could not command labor to do more than labor was willing. Freedmen chose autonomy and relative independence and destroyed the plantation system. Subsequent national policies perpetuated regional poverty and encouraged a Southern reactionary response over time. Significant racist barriers to black economic progress would result, but sharecropping was not the culprit. (1) Harold D. Woodman. "Sequel to Slavery: the New History Views the Postbellum South," Journal of Southern History, , 43 (November 1977), 535-536, 538. (2) Robert Higgs, Competition and Correction: Blacks in the American Economy, 1865-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), p. 4. (3) Roger L. Ransom and Richard Sutch, One Kind of Freedom: The Economic Consequences of Emancipation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), p. 54. (4) See Higgs; also Ransom and Sutch. (5) Steven Joseph Ross, <<Freed Soil, Freed Labor, Freed Men: John Eaton and the Davis Bend Experiment,>> Journal of Southern History, 44 (May 1978), 213-232. (6) Jonathan M. Wiener, Social Origins of the New South: Alabama, 1860-1885 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978), pp. 37-38; and Higgs, p. 43. (7) See Steven Hahn, <<Class and State in Postemancipation Societies: Southern Planters in Comparative Perspective,>> American Historical Review, 95 (February 1990), 83-98. (8) Higgs, pp. 4748; and Ralph Shlomowitz, "`Bound' or `Free'? Black Labor in Cotton and Sugarcane Farming, 1865-1880,"Journal of Southern History, 50 (November 1984), 570-571. (9) See Thomas Lawrence Connelly, The Politics of Command: Factions and Ideas in Confederate. Strategy (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973), pp. 189-190. (10) See Grady McWhiney and Perry D. Jamieson, Attack and Die: Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage (University: University of Alabama Press, 1982), chpt. 12, and Michael C.C. Adams, Our Masters the Rebels: A Speculation on Union Military Failure in the East, 1861-1865 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1978), chpt. 1, for related discussion on these aspects of Southern temperament. (11) Ira Berlin, et al., eds., Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867, Series 1, Volume III (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), passim; see for example the exchange of letters regarding St. Helena Island, South Carolina (1862), pp. 171-176. See also the account of Low Country South Carolina (1867) by John Scott Strickland, "Traditional Culture and Moral Economy: Social and Economic Change in the South Carolina Low Country, 1865-1910," in Steven Hahn and Jonathan Prude, eds., The Countryside in the Age of Capitalist Transformation: Essays in the Social History of Rural America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985), p. 150. (12) See Harold D. Woodman, "How New Was the New South?" in A Agricultural History, 58 (October 1984), 529, 532-534, 540, 545. (13) Harold D. Woodman, New South-New Law: The Legal Foundations of Credit and Labor Relations in the Postbellum Agricultural South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995), pp. 4. 7-9, 15, 22-27. (14) Woodman, New South, pp. 27, 4549, 53-56, 68-71, 78; and Edward L. Ayers, The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 44. (15) Thomas Sowell, Race and Culture: A World View (New York: Basic Books, 1994), esp. chapters 4 and 5. (16) See George G. Reisman, Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics (Ottawa, Illinois: Jameson Books, 1995), chapters 11 and 14. (17) Jay R. Mandle, The Roots of Black Poverty: The Southern Plantation Economy After the Civil War (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1978), pp. 40-41. (18) Higgs, pp. 45-47; and Schlomowitz, pp. 574-575, 596. (19) See Gerald David Jaynes, Branches Without Roots: Genesis of the Black Working Class in the American South, 1862-1882 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 224-249. (20) Susan A Mann, "Sharecropping in the Cotton South: A Case of Uneven Development in Agriculture," Rural Sociology, 49 (Fall 1984), 415, 424; and Ralph Schlomowitz, "Plantations and Smallholdings: Comparative Perspectives from the World Cotton and Sugar Cane Economies, 1865-1939," Agricultural History, 58 (January 1984), 14-15. (21) Jay R. Mandle, "Continuity and Change: The Use of Black Labor After the Civil War," Journal of Black Studies, 21 (June 1991), 424. (22) Jay R. Mandle, Not Slave, Not Free: The African American Economic Experience since the Civil War (Durham: Duke University Press, 1992), pp. 14, 25-32. (23) Thomas C. Holt, "Afro-Americans," in Stephan Thernstrom, ea., Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Croups (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980), p. 14. (24) Loren Schweninger, "Black Economic Reconstruction in the South," in Eric Anderson and Alfred A. Moss,Jr., eds., The Facts of Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of John Hope Franklin (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991), p. 184. (25) See Berlin, Freedom: A Documentary History, pp. 45-50; and Ira Berlin, et al., Slaves No More: Three Essays on Emancipation and the Civil War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 135-138 and 182-184. (26) Wiener, p. 37; see also Higgs. (27) Eric Foner, A Short History of Reconstruction, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1990), pp. 48, 80, 175-176; and see Berlin, Slaves No More, pp. 86, 108-109, 145, 167. (28) Woodman, pp. 531, 534, 536-537; and Schlomowitz, "`Bound' or `Free'?" pp. 583-585. (29) See Strickland, pp. 162-163; and Philip D. Morgan, "Work and Culture: The Task System and the World of Lowcountry Blacks, 1700-1880," William and Mary Quarterly, 39 (October 1982), 595-597. (30) Robert Heilbroner and Aaron Shiger, The Economic Transformation of America: 1600 to the Present Third Edition (New York: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1994), p. 141. (31) See Ayers, p. 13, (32) Ransom and Sutch, pp. 109-110, 114-115 and 186-188; Steven Hahn, "The `Unmaking' of the Southern Yeomanry: The Transformation of the Georgia Upcountry, 1860-1890," in Hahn and Prude, pp. 187-193; and see Steven Hahn, The Roots of Southern Populism: Yeoman Farmers and the Transformation of the Georgia Upcountry, 1850-1890 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), pp. 165-169. (33) U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1970 Census of Population, Subject Reports PC (2)-1G (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1973), p. 44; U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1970 Census of Population, General Social and Economic Characteristics, California, PC. (1) C6 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1972), pp. 384 and 403. (34) Dewey W. Grantham, The South in Modern America: A Region at Odds (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1994), p. 5: and see Hahn, Roots, chapter 5. (35) Gavin Wright, Old South, New South: Revolution; in the Southern Economy Since the civil War (New York: Basic Books, 1986), pp. 87-89. (36) J. Mills Thorton III, "Fiscal Policy and the Failure of Radical Reconstruction in the Lower South," in J. Morgan Kousser and James M. McPherson, eds., Region, Race, and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp. 350-351. (37) Daisy Anderson, From Slavery to Affluence: Memoirs of Robert Anderson, Ex-slave (Steamboat Springs, Colorado: Published by the author, 1986), p. 48. (38) John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss, Jr., From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans, Sixth Edition (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988), p. 216. (39) Eric Foner, Nothing But Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983), p. 52.
COPYRIGHT 1995 Mississippi State University
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Riddle, Wesley Allen
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Date:Dec 22, 1995
Previous Article:Strangers on Williams's stage.
Next Article:Emotional distance as narrative strategy in Elizabeth Spencer's fiction.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters