From Chapter 3: Class alignments in the South after Appomattox
....Arguing in Congress for a land reform, Thaddeus Stevens presented the following statistics. The land of the richest 70,000 slave owners and public lands in the hands of the ex-Confederate states totaled 394 million acres. There were at most one million Black families in the South. To give each 40 acres would thus require only 40 million acres, a fraction of what was available. Stevens proposed selling the remainder to pay the federal war debt.
Even if one were to object that not all 394 million acres of Southern land was suitable for farming or that Stevens’s figures were exaggerated, it is obvious that such an expropriation would have provided more than enough land. And it should also be kept in mind that the Western territories were then being opened up for homesteaders (each settler entitled to 160 acres), thus providing additional vast acreages which could make feasible a land reform for the benefit of the ex-slaves. But such a reform ran contrary to the interests of the victorious Northern capitalists.
Historically the capitalist class in its revolutions against the feudal landowners of Europe, especially in France, had promoted land reform to win over the peasantry. Only after consolidating its power did it turn against its own past and oppose bourgeois-democratic revolutions elsewhere.
This process is most clearly seen in the expansion of European industrial capitalism into the colonial areas. While the bourgeoisie had favored land reform, industrialization, and even parliamentary democratic forms of governmental rule for France, it later opposed all three in its colonies. Vietnam under French control, for example, was denied self-determination, parliamentary forms of rule, land reform, or industrialization. The bourgeois revolution— unlike capitalism— was not for export. The rise of imperialism definitively turned the bourgeoisie against its own revolutionary past.
In the United States the bourgeois revolution took a form quite different in many respects from that in France. It was carried out in two struggles separated by over seventy years and was not fought against a nationally entrenched feudal landowning class. In the United States there never existed a “peasantry” like that in Europe but rather a huge layer of property-owning small farmers. In both the first and second American revolutions the bourgeoisie offered only limited land reform to the small farmers to win their support. During the second American revolution no land-reform measures were offered in the regions previously under capitalist domination.
What land reform was carried through was at the expense of the Native Americans and in essentially unsettled territory. The inducement offered the small farmers was free land through the Homestead Act. This not only benefited the landless farmers but enabled those sinking into debt to sell out for enough money to furnish a stake for a new start in the West. Nor was there any other way to so quickly and effectively settle this area for capitalist exploitation.
After the small farmers settled the West, the inexorable mechanism of capitalist competition brought about their gradual expropriation to the benefit of the bourgeoisie, which turned its back on the very ally that made possible its rise to political power and had assured its victory over the slavocracy. Through excessive railroad freight charges, control of the marketing of the crops, bank mortgages and credit, capitalism ground down the small farmers. By 1890 the records showed that two-thirds of the homesteaders had failed to retain their farms. Moreover, a quarter of all the farms in the U.S. were being operated by tenants— with almost half of these outside the South. Even most of those who still nominally owned their land were being turned, in effect, into laborers for big capital. By 1890 28 percent of all farm holdings in the U.S. were mortgaged. It is estimated that in Kansas, for example, one-half of all farm homes had mortgages on them, many having several. More and more the small farmers were being physically removed from the land to join the urban working class.
Unlike its French forerunner a century earlier, the American industrial bourgeoisie during the second American revolution was already a fully developed class with political hegemony in a substantial sector of the country— and with its opponent class concentrated in a smaller and less developed region. It was this regional character o f the second American revolution which permitted the industrial capitalists to mobilize a sufficiently powerful social force to achieve victory while limiting the concessions they offered to the lower strata of the population. The relationship of class forces never compelled the bourgeoisie to add land reform for the ex-slaves to its one truly revolutionary concession— the abolition of slavery.
Upon termination of the military conflict the initial reaction of the ruling class in the North was to bring concessions to a halt.
Northern capitalists were decidedly against a land reform in the South. They envisioned instead quick profits from the purchase of plantations and investment in cotton and other staple crops of the region. Southern land looked more promising than that in the West. There would be no problem of bringing new and resistant soil into cultivation but simply of exploiting already improved farmland in a region possessed of the necessary infrastructure of roads, bridges, towns, etc., and of utilizing a labor force already on the scene.
Though the slavocracy disappeared, the plantations not only survived but in some cases grew even larger under new owners. After the Civil War the amount o f cotton grown in the South— following a brief period of crises— began rapidly to expand once again even at the expense of other crops. For a long time it remained the nation's largest export product, and as late as 1910 American cotton still represented most o f the world’s production.