The Far Right's Toxic Forbears: Super-Wealthy Secessionist Slaveholders

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Dr. James Brewer Stewart is the James Wallace Professor Emeritus at Macalester College, founder of Historians Against Slavery, and leading authority on American history.  His book on abolitionism, Holy Warriors: The Abolitionists and American Slavery, is considered the best in the field. 

We are, the cliché goes, reliving the Gilded Age. Then as now the mega-rich wax ever fatter while the chasm between poor and prosperous yawns ever wider. Then as now over-consumption by the kleptocracy is an obscenity. So is the brutal suppression of organized labor. So is the buying and selling of elective and appointed offices. So is the mounting repression of Indigenous peoples, immigrants and African Americans. If history is not repeating itself, as the commonplace goes, it surely seems to be closely in rhyme. But really it’s not. And that’s really dangerous. To explain:

Historically speaking, Commodore Vanderbilt and the Koch Brothers are entirely different species of plutocrat. The good Commodore amassed wealth and deployed it in order to get still more by beggaring his neighbors: full stop. For the infinitely more ambitious Koch brothers limitless wealth means underwriting networks of specialists, media outlets, think tanks and academic outposts, institutions that work together to engineer a slow moving coup d’etat. A fatter investment portfolio does not interest them. What does is taking control of American governance and bending it to their antidemocratic will. And there is a still more important contrast. While the Commodore was all greed and no ethics, the Koch brothers truly believe that they are deeply moral people who are doing us all an enormous service. That makes them far more dangerous than any later nineteenth century tycoon.

So the Gilded Age analogy fails us and it is imperative that we get the history right. Unless we decisively map the Koch brothers historically to learn what they truly represent, we greatly diminish our ability to resist their initiatives, overturn their claims to morality and work for a less divided nation. (That bromide about winners writing history could not be more apt.)

So if not the “robber barons.” who? An answer emerges once we’ve identified people in our history who look and behave strikingly like the Koch brothers and their associates—specifically a small group that is mega-wealthy, super- privileged, highly self aware, morally self-confident, ideologically driven and deeply engaged in long-term efforts to seize the levers of government and upend American democracy. And who best fills this profile? By this historian’s reckoning, it is, in general, the Old South’s slave owning aristocracy, which, according to its antislavery critics was always plotting to transform democratic government into a slaveholder’s republic. And to get specific, we turn our attention to the ultra wealthy cotton planters of South Carolina who appointed themselves command central for any and all initiatives favorable to slavery. They made no bones about it. They took as their mission to bend diplomacy, the law, politics, warfare, threats, intimidation, guerrilla insurgency and even bodily assault to the task of enshrining slavery as the supreme law of the land. As close historical approximations of today’s hard right, they easily qualify.

There is a valuable lesson in all this for today’s progressives. Dig deeply into the history of slaveholding South Carolina and it soon will become obvious that the ideology embraced by its cotton planting politicians and the doctrines espoused by today’s hard right share strands of historical DNA which makes them “kissing cousins.” Pair these two and past and present do actually rhyme. This comparison also warns us in no uncertain terms that this younger hard right “cousin” threatens our democracy just as gravely as its secessionist elder once did. Such a loaded indictment requires extensive substantiation and that is precisely this essay’s intention

How to accomplish this? By forgetting about the Koch Brothers for the next several paragraphs and making a fast time-travel trip back to South Carolina where, as noted, zealous slaveholders dedicated themselves to expanding the reach of slavery no matter what the collateral damage. It was not for no reason that everyone referred to these hot-blooded politicians as “fire-eaters.” Sound historical scholarship will be guiding our journey and upon its completion we will have gotten to know these “fire eating” extremists and to have identified the genetic coding they share with today’s hard right. We arrive in the summer of 1833, a year that saw South Carolina’s leaders pitching the Federal Union into chaos. They had decided to defy “confiscatory” tariff legislation that they condemned as “enslavement” by the “tyrannical” Federal Government and now they were girding themselves for secession or more likely civil war.

This “tariff of abominations” enforced a trade policy that devalued the commodity that drove their profit margins, cotton being exported on the world market. To this the South Carolina State Legislature responded by decreeing the “enslaving” tariff null and void. Now the planter class was mobilizing militia to repulse Federal authorities, who they pictured as brandishing whips and manacles while President Andrew Jackson (a slaveholding one-percenter himself) prepared to put down insurrectionists with armed force.

The Nullification Crisis played out in a state of modest size that was nevertheless home to nine of the twenty wealthiest slaveholders in the entire South. Together, according to the census of 1860 they each held title to an average of 638 enslaved persons, each of whom bore an average price tag of just over 12,000 inflation adjusted dollars. Do the math and it totals out to an investment worth just over $7,500,000. To get close to the bottom line, now add in the value of plantation real estate. Mega-wealthy really does define these “fire eaters” perfectly.

At the same time South Carolina’s unique demographics left these wealthy nullifiers squeamishly representing the tiniest sliver of the state’s white minority population.. Surrounding them was an enormous black majority, all but a few enslaved, that outnumbered the white population by a three to two margin statewide. In some coastal regions the ratio jumped to ten to one. Now add to this threatening situation the fact that in 1833 these same elite slaveholders were facing not only a serious internal crisis but also a succession of unprecedented external assaults on their “peculiar institution.” As the Nullification Crisis went forward waves of deep racial volatility rocked the entire nation. The system that held the black chattel of the “fire eaters” in perpetual bondage bid fair to be blown apart.

Here are the specifics, rendered as headlines in the present tense:

● Black Bostonian David Walker’s pamphlet urging African Americans to insurrection is circulating in the slave states –

● White “immediate emancipation” abolitionist editor William Lloyd Garrison first publishes his immediately controversial The Liberator

● Black and white abolitionists establish a national network of agitators, the American Anti-Slavery Society who condemn human bondage as a moral and ethical nightmare

● Enslaved Nat Turner foments insurrection in Virginia leaving fifty seven dead whites

● Virginia’s profoundly shocked Legislature responds by debating the best way to rid its state of slavery

● Jamaica explodes in insurrection, the largest slave uprising ever in the Western Hemisphere, mobilizing as many as 60,000 slaves

● A deeply shaken British Parliament responds by forcing its colonial planters into a buy-out that frees their 800,000 slaves.

Deeply disturbing racial convulsion obviously weighed heavily on these super-rich fire eaters as they pushed for nullification. They warned of their own “enslavement” by grasping federal power but their fears for their own liberty were driven by an unspoken terror of African American upheaval to which all the ominous signs listed above seemed to point.

At this juncture one may inquire, “Have we isolated any DNA as yet?” Enter historian Nancy Maclean with assurances that exactly this will happen once we agree to depart from South Carolina temporarily and accompany her forward in time to deeply white racist Richmond, Virginia in the mid 1950s. The city, she explains, was at that time rife with explosive conflicts between militant Civil Rights advocates demanding desegregation and deeply dyed white supremacists practicing “massive resistance.”

Meanwhile, in the midst of the furor, Nobel Laureate economist and Richmond resident James M. Buchanan was making himself the hard right’s intellectual founding father by elaborating economic theories that mimicked the segregationists’ playbook. He, like they condemned the tyranny of overreaching Federal Government, demanded “state’s rights” and celebrated the sanctity of personal choice in order to argue for privatizing an enormous spectrum of state-financed public services and shrinking the welfare state. The rest, according to MacLean, is history.

For us hunters of historical DNA, however, what’s important is the close symmetry to be found between the troubling racial scene in South Carolina and the climate of white bigotry that surrounded Buchanan. Even more telling across the centuries is their all but identical responses to the menace posed by freedom seeking African Americans.

With sit-ins and Klan rallies erupting around him Buchanan, like the nullifiers, fastened his attention on the overreaching, grasping, oppressing government power over highly privileged whites, saying not a word about the menace of militant blacks. The DNA shared by alt-righters and fire eating slaveholders now begins to come into focus and what takes shape in our vision is two ideologies, born in the midst of racial crisis, both advancing the interests of ultra rich white people while never trafficking openly in white supremacy. Were the fire eaters racists? Surely. When not forced into silence by immediate fears of dangerous black unrest as they were during the Nullification Crisis, they disparaged African Americans constantly. How about James M. Buchanan and the Koch brothers? Who knows? Even still this “family likeness” constitutes its own evidence as a predictor of the alt-right’s positions on US race relations. And there’s more DNA to analyze.

At this point let’s whisk ourselves back to the South Carolina nullifiers, get personal and introduce ourselves to the honorable Henry Laurens Pinckney, son of the eminent Founding Father, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, sole owner of luxuriant Pinckney Island just off the Carolina coast (now a 4,056 acre National Park Wildlife Preserve) and master of close to 400 enslaved people who work his three rice and cotton plantations (inflation adjusted value of the enslaved from 1833 through 2016, approximately $4,876,190.55). If there ever was a one per-center he is it, financially speaking a kissing cousin of the Koch brothers. He is also a five star “fire eater.” So eloquent an advocate of nullification is Pinckney that his planter associates have selected him unanimously to address the throng in Charleston assembled to celebrate the Fourth of July in 1833. As he concludes his address he challenges his fellow whites to resist what he deemed Federal overreach to the death if need be, painting a truly terrifying picture of the enslavement that awaits them if they fail:

And what is slavery? The cancer of the soul-the grave of genius and of every noble feeling—to be called a freeman and know that you are not free- to speak of your property and know that you are not free to enjoy its fruits- to speak of your rights and know that you have none worth naming and that you dare not speak of them without the forbearance of a master— to relinquish your judgment and violate your conscience at the bidding of a tyrant-to look at the sun and be rebuked by its brightness—to look at the heavens and know that they blush at your degradation—to look at the mountain and know that you crawl on the earth like a worm.

As Pinckney transfers to his ultra privileged self the degradation he visits on his slaves the irony and self-deception of his statement are jaw dropping. At the same time, remove the racism and it is hard to imagine Ayn Rand improving Pinckney’s statement. James M. Buchanan, one strongly suspects, likely would have approved. Separated by over a hundred years, his and Pinckney’s basic contentions regarding power, property, wealth and the state line up surprisingly well. So, in the face of racial upheaval, does his instinctive drive to save his own skin and stand up for powerful whites. But what counts most for building our DNA sample is Pinckney’s unrelenting anger at those he sees as impinging on his liberty, his fear for his autonomy and his deep self-absorption. Surrounded and outnumbered by enslaved black people his response was deeply visceral. This is no surprise to distinguished historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown, close analyst of the planter class’s profoundly undemocratic values. They prized above all a deeply internalized sense of honor and jealous protection of personal liberty, Wyatt-Brown explains, which they confirmed by wringing gestures of deference from everyone “beneath” them, black and white alike. Sensitive to any transgression of their codes, they usually hit back extremely hard. Particularly in South Carolina, insults between fellow slaveholders led to honor- upholding duels, and “insolence” from those “below” them to verbal humiliation, thrashings or worse. Historian Nancy Isenberg strongly confirms this caste of mind when demonstrating the profoundly repressive impact of slaveholder ethics and behavior on non-elite whites. So does the work of a leading scholarly expert in South Carolina antebellum politics, Manisha Sinha, which demonstrates that the planter’s drive to dominate placed them in direct opposition to the rules of democratic conduct and governance To South Carolinas zealous slaveholders the exercise of liberty required the absolute right to dominate.


So what has this historical foray given us to fill out our DNA chart? First, we can see that militant slaveholders and today’s alt-righters share an explosive anger gene when sensing impingement on personal liberty or when encountering substantial opposition. In Pinckney’s case, its manifestations are palpable. How about the Koch brothers? Again who knows, but for the media outlets that they and their fellow super-rich own and control, anger is almost too mild a descriptor (think Rush Limbaugh or Michael Savage).

Second, we discover that South Carolina’s nullifying slaveholders and today’s hard righters share a profound misunderstanding of the consequences of their actions. Their common problem is self-deception, a diagnosis with which biographers of antebellum slaveholders are well familiar. (Drew Faust’s study of South Carolina slaveholding grandee James Henry Hammond is a superb example.) They document this unconscious duplicity whenever their subjects, people exercising hugely outsized power, convince themselves that their actions serve everyone else’s best interest, not just their own, even though they manifestly do the opposite.

South Carolina’s planters grew terrified of their own enslavement partly out of instinctive economic self-interest and partly out of fear of the racial turmoil surrounding them, but also because they deceived themselves into believing that they were the benefactors of those they were enslaving. Being cast into “bondage” by means of the tariff, they emphasized, would actually visit greater disaster on the people to whom they held title than on themselves.

Why? Because, as they repeated endlessly, black enslavement was a “positive good” for everybody, for poorer whites whose rights they claimed to protect and particularly for the black people they exploited. Their generous paternalism toward their enslaved kept them well fed, healthy and protected from lapsing into barbarism or even extinction. Likewise, when the Koch brothers demand the removal of their governmental manacles they also insist that everyone gains. As with the “unshackling” of the planter class, the results of their liberation generate a “positive good” or, if you prefer, “trickle down” benefits. The economy’s already productive citizens, its “makers,” will seize the opportunity to realize their fullest potential and make the economy sing. Its “takers,” its welfare addicted masses, will be freed of their dependence on liberal democracy’s corrupting largesse and be given the precious opportunity to embrace self-sufficiency on their own.

What’s obliterated in both self-deceiving visions is obvious—the dismaying real world consequences of these elitist beliefs for countless people who lack power, particularly those with darker complexions. What’s empowered are feelings of impunity, utter confidence in the righteousness of ones cause and a zeal for highly coordinated organizing that easily breeds conspiracy—Our “kissing cousins” though separated by nearly two centuries finally share the spotlight on one panoramic historical stage

So the final strand in the shared DNA, and the most dangerous one, is an urge for concerted planning to jettison egalitarian democracy in order to replace it with something “better.” Remember those earlier references to slow-motion coups d’etat? The antebellum South Carolina Constitution, the most antidemocratic in the nation, included property requirements for voting so strict that the planter class, en masse, constantly re-elected one another. In addition, it permitted them to further magnify their power by allowing them to hold more than one governmental office at the same time. They were further bolstered on the national level by the infamous “three fifths compromise” assuring slaveholders’ and their northern allies’ control of the House of Representatives. There, in 1850, they and their racist free state sympathizers pushed through the disgraceful Fugitive Slave Law requiring every northerner, on pain of imprisonment, to assist in capturing black refugees from slavery. In this instance as it is so often, the “states rights” principles of political reactionaries were revealed to be convenient fictions.

And for the Koch brothers, who backed the research of James M. Buchanan, what is their 21st century equivalent to forcing northerners to work as slave catchers? Plainly, it is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which is their means for making their brand of far right ideology legally binding practically everywhere. How? By infiltrating the legislative agendas of state governments so that they enact gerrymandering, right-to-work laws, the privatizing of government services, and the shredding of safety nets, and assaults on publicly funded universities.

But the Koch-supported conspiracy most toxic to democracy is the convening of a national Convention designed to amend the United Sates Constitution, a project that 29 state legislatures (so far) have ratified. “Fire eaters” harbored the same exact ambitions when demanding changes to the Constitution to legalize nullification and to enshrine “peculiar institution” as the supreme law of the land. In 1856 they finally succeeded in the second of these objectives when the United States Supreme Court nationalized slavery and white supremacy in Dred Scott vs Sanford. By comparison, the more ambitious Koch bothers and their web of super rich connections seek to tear up our framework of government and replace it with their own that outlaws labor organizing, requires balanced budgets, strips down the tax code, enshrines the surveillance state and who knows what else?

Sometimes one strand of DNA carries a fatal disease. For Pinckney’s time it delivered a horrifically costly emancipatory Civil War. For ours, it opens the prospect of living in the world the planter class once decided literally to kill for, a nation fully subservient to the tyranny of the minority.

So how does one derail a slow-motion coup d’etat? Our history replies by reminding us of the tidal wave of northern voters who mobilized themselves and flocked to the polls in 1856 to begin the transformation of electoral politics in the direction of freedom and emancipation. Why? Because they had come to understand the dangers of the “slave-power conspiracy.” They rightly feared it, genuinely hated it and wanted to throttle it. Who aided and abetted? Egalitarian politicians such as Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner and Salmon P. Chase. Grass roots radical agitators such as Frederick Douglass, Lucy Stone and Wendell Phillips. Ordinary farmers, artisans and factory workers. The disenfranchised and the marginalized, voteless women and free people of color whose rights, according to the U.S Supreme Court, “no white man is bound to respect.”

In the end, remember, in the election of 1860 millions of clear-eyed voters smashed a profoundly corrupt two party system. After that the “fire-eaters” lost. Remember too that past and present can be made to rhyme.

Copyright: James Brewer Stewart: Not to be reproduced or distributed in any form without the written permission of the author

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