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Disunited States of America

On Independence Day, would we all be happier with even more independence? What if government of the people meant that the Red people in the South and the Blue people in the North had a border between them?

This question used to be of interest mainly to Southerners mourning their Lost Cause, but nowadays Northerners have their own reason to lament. The South is gaining seats in Congress at their expense, and four of the last five presidents have come from the South.

If the South were a separate country, Northern liberals wouldn't be ranting at George W. Bush and Pat Robertson. They wouldn't be frantically trying to find a candidate who appealed to the Bible Belt and pretended to enjoy Nascar races. They might never hear a Garth Brooks song or have to stop at a Cracker Barrel Old Country Store.

Southern conservatives wouldn't have to fight for moral values against godless Yankees. They wouldn't have to watch John Kerry go hunting. Michael Moore would be an obscure foreign filmmaker. Talk-show hosts wouldn't be rallying their audiences against Hillary Clinton because she'd never have been elected to their Senate. Politics in both countries might be less partisan, even civil.

I realize this prospect sounds farfetched, but it's not crazy to imagine that the South could have become independent. It's a "counterfactual" possibility that has been seriously debated by historians.

The pessimists include Roger Ransom, who lays out a detailed scenario in his recent book, "The Confederate States of America." Ransom, an economic historian at the University of California at Riverside, imagines the Confederate armies in the West and at Gettysburg making a few different moves that stymie the Union, leaving the war stalemated in 1864.

As a result, Lincoln loses the election, and his successor signs a peace treaty allowing the South to secede. The Confederacy stretches from Virginia down to Florida and out to the western edge of Arizona (with the international border running along the upper edges of Kentucky, Arkansas, Oklahoma and New Mexico).

Slavery remains legal, in Ransom's alternate history, but when world demand for cotton declines in the 1870's, slavery becomes a political and economic liability. The Confederate government, struggling to diversify its economy, emancipates the slaves and compensates their owners (who would have been lobbying for such a buyout).

On balance, Ransom figures, Southern whites would have fared a little better economically in a separate nation. But blacks would have done much worse, and not only because slavery would have lasted longer. Once freed, they wouldn't have been given equal political or economic rights in the Confederacy, and Northerners might have tried to stop them from immigrating — maybe with the seal-the-border fervor of today's Minutemen.

Ransom's pessimism is shared by another historian, John Majewski of the University of California at Santa Barbara. He imagines blacks suffering for decades, first under slavery and then under an apartheid system. He speculates that people in both countries would have ended up poorer, especially in the South, because of trade barriers between the countries and the lack of a single large market.

But there's also the optimistic scenario of Jeff Hummel, an economic historian at San Jose State University, the author of "Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men." He believes slavery would have collapsed quickly if the South had been allowed to peacefully secede and the North had simply stopped returning runaway slaves.

Unable to stop slaves from escaping, Hummel argues, the South would have been forced to abandon the system, and freed blacks could ultimately have been better off than they were during the Jim Crow era.

Hummel imagines that both the South and the North could have done well economically as independent nations — Canada, after all, is not exactly a Third World country. In fact, he thinks people in both countries could have been richer and freer because of smaller national governments. For example, their competition for trade with Europe would have prevented them from imposing the high tariffs that the United States maintained in the late 19th century.

I side with Hummel's optimism, although it's possible that something could have gone very wrong between the North and the South — like another war, as Ransom envisions would have occurred in the early 20th century. I don't buy that scenario, but if you do, then the current Red-Blue divide doesn't seem so bad after all.

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