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Excerpts from "Battle Cry of Freedom"

In an effort to escape the dreary drumbeat of daily news, I'm reading James McPherson's mammoth Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (1988). Came across a couple of passages in the first chapter that I liked, so I thought I'd post them here. They're pretty elementary, but they can serve as reminders to non-historians of the value of Marxism—in the first case (the first passage) of its moral value, and in the second case of its analytical value. That is, the first passage below reminds us of the truism that modern capitalism is an odious, intrinsically anti-democratic way of organizing society and was lucidly seen as such by its early victims, while the second passage, on the transformation of the family and the emergence of feminism following the introduction of the capitalist mode of production, reminds us of the utility of historical materialism as a method of understanding society. (It's still incredible to me that most historians and social scientists are, in effect, idealists rather than materialists, since idealism is utterly shallow and gets the order of causation exactly wrong. See Marx's The German Ideology. Or, more briefly, this article of mine, as well as some of my early blog posts.)

Incidentally, the book is also of interest in its innumerable quotations of Southerners who were fanatically convinced of the truth and justice of a political cause and social system that were among the most evil in history. Here, for example, are some Southern reactions to Congressmen Preston Brooks’ bestial, nearly fatal beating of Senator Charles Sumner in 1856, after Sumner had given a speech in Congress denouncing slavery:

Newspapers in his own state expressed pride that Brooks had "stood forth so nobly in defense of…the honor of South Carolinians." The Rich­mond Enquirer pronounced "the act good in conception, better in exe­cution, and best of all in consequence. The vulgar Abolitionists in the Senate are getting above themselves… They have grown saucy, and dare to be impudent to gentlemen!... The truth is, they have been suffered to run too long without collars. They must be lashed into sub­mission." A Louisiana planter and former army officer, Braxton Bragg, wrote that the House should pass a vote of thanks to Brooks. "You can reach the sensibilities of such dogs" as Sumner, wrote Bragg, "only through their heads and a big stick." Brooks himself boasted that "every Southern man sustains me. The fragments of the stick are begged for as sacred relicts."

And here are reactions to Lincoln’s victory in the 1860 presidential election:

"On the 4th of March, 1861," declared a Georgia secessionist, "we are either slaves in the Union or freemen out of it." The question, agreed Jefferson Davis and a fellow Mississippian, was "'Will you be slaves or will be independent?'… Will you consent to be robbed of your property" or will you "strike bravely for liberty, property, honor and life?" Submission to Black Republicans would mean "the loss of liberty, property, home, coun­try—everything that makes life worth having," proclaimed a South Car­olinian. "I am engaged in the glorious cause of liberty and justice," wrote a Confederate soldier, "fighting for the rights of man—fighting for all that we of the South hold dear."

“The rights of man.” I can only imagine what the ghost of Thomas Paine thought of this, enslavers appropriating the language of the Enlightenment. As one reads quotation after quotation of this stuff, one thinks of right-wing trolls today, frenziedly attacking anything that hints of equality, democracy, or compassion for the oppressed. They’re the same people.

Jefferson Davis considered the Emancipation Proclamation to be “the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man.”

I still haven’t lost my original naïve fascination with the fact that the large majority of people in history have been certain of their own rightness when, on big questions of philosophy, morality, science, history, and the like, they’ve been wildly wrong. History teaches us, among other things, that we ought to be extremely humble in our claims to knowledge. (And humble in our relations with others, partly as a corollary but also because humility is humane.) Avoid all certainty until, at the very least, you’ve thoroughly investigated a question from all sides, read arguments and examined evidence from all sides, consistently approached conventional authority—and your own ego—with a spirit of skepticism. And even after all this, never abandon your skepticism, never lose yourself in the mass (including the “left-wing” mass).

There’s a temptation to treat two opposing sides of a given issue with some degree of evenhandedness, especially if both sides are fully persuaded of the merits of their case. Journalists and intellectuals succumb to this temptation all the time. The fact, of course, is that fervor of conviction means nothing at all: abolitionists were wholly right and millions of Southerners wholly wrong (in the sense of having barbarous, unenlightened values they tried to justify through objectively false considerations such as that Blacks were intellectually and morally inferior to whites). Savage cruelty and brutish stupidity can be, and usually are, certain of their own nobility and intelligence. The predictability of it is tiresome. Just as 150 years ago the majority “knew” that Blacks (and Native Americans) were inferior—when it was the whites who were the barbarous ones—so today the majority, or at least most of the elite, take it for granted that political “moderation” (conservatism), rather than far-left dissent, is the rational, mature, and moral thing. A few generations from now, if people are still around, they’ll look back on contemporary society somewhat as we look back on the Confederacy.

This division between self and other, subjectivity and objectivity, appearance and reality, is endlessly intriguing to me, for some reason. For instance—to take an example at random—on one side is the widespread American idea that Harry Truman was right to drop atomic bombs on Japan, while on the other side is the fact that if an “other” had done something comparable—a Stalin, or even, say, some European or Asian imperialist—we’d see it, with more justice, as a monstrous, unspeakable crime. It’s so hard to be honest and objective with ourselves!

As ever, then, the imperative is to remove yourself as far as possible from your own selfish little subjectivity. To be an anti-Confederate, so to speak—an anti-racist, an anti-capitalist (the enslavers were capitalists, after all), an anti-conformist. That seems to me the main lesson of history.

But enough of this. Here are some excerpts from the book, for what they’re worth.


...It was not so much the level of wages as the very concept of wages itself that fueled much of this [labor] protest [in the decades before the Civil War]. Wage labor was a form of dependency that seemed to con­tradict the republican principles on which the country had been founded. The core of republicanism was liberty, a precious but precarious birthright constantly threatened by corrupt manipulations of power. The philoso­pher of republicanism, Thomas Jefferson, had defined the essence of liberty as independence, which required the ownership of productive property. A man dependent on others for a living could never be truly free, nor could a dependent class constitute the basis of a republican government. Women, children, and slaves were dependent; that defined them out of the polity of republican freemen. Wage laborers were also dependent; that was why Jefferson feared the development of industrial capitalism with its need for wage laborers. Jefferson envisaged an ideal America of farmers and artisan producers who owned their means of production and depended on no man for a living.

…Capitalism was incompatible with republicanism, they insisted. De­pendence on wages robbed a man of his independence and therefore of his liberty. Wage labor was no better than slave labor—hence "wage slavery." The boss was like a slaveowner. He determined the hours of toil, the pace of work, the division of labor, the level of wages; he could hire and fire at will. The pre-industrial artisan had been accustomed to laboring as much or as little as he pleased. He worked by the job, not by the clock. If he felt like taking time off for a drink or two with friends, he did so. But in the new regimen all laborers worked in lock-step; the system turned them into machines; they became slaves to the clock. Manufacturers encouraged the temperance movement that gath­ered force after 1830 because its Protestant ethic virtues of sobriety, punctuality, reliability, and thrift were precisely the values needed by disciplined workers in the new order. Some employers banned drinking on the job and tried even to forbid their workers to drink off the job. For men who considered their thrice-daily tipple a right, this was an­other mark of slavery.

In the eyes of labor reformers, capitalism also violated other tenets of republicanism: virtue, commonweal, and equality. Virtue required in­dividuals to put the community's interest above their own; capitalism glorified the pursuit of self-interest in the quest for profits. Common weal specified that a republic must benefit all the people, not just fa­vored classes. But by granting charters and appropriating money to es­tablish banks, create corporations, dig canals, build railroads, dam streams, and undertake other projects for economic development, state and local governments had favored certain classes at the expense of others. They had created monopolies, concentrations of power that endangered lib­erty. They had also fostered a growing inequality of wealth (defined as ownership of real and personal property). In the largest American cities by the 1840s, the wealthiest 5 percent of the population owned about 70 percent of the taxable property, while the poorest half owned almost nothing…

[At the center of protest] was an antimonopoly crusade that channeled itself through the Jacksonian Democratic party. This movement united trade unions and labor spokesmen with yeoman farmers, especially those in the upland South and lower Northwest who stood on the edge of the market revo­lution apprehensive of being drawn into it. These groups evinced a producers' consciousness based on the labor theory of value: all genuine wealth is derived from the labor that produced it and the proceeds of that wealth should go to those who created it. These "producing classes" did not include bankers, lawyers, merchants, speculators, and other "capitalists" who were "bloodsuckers" or "parasites" that "manipulated 'associated wealth'" and "have grown fat upon the earnings of the toil-worn laborer." Of all the "leeches" sucking the lifeblood of farmers and workers, bankers were the worst. Banks in general and the Second Bank of the United States in particular became the chief symbol of capitalist development during the 1830s and the chief scapegoat for its perceived ills…


The economic transformation had an ambiguous impact on another group of political outsiders—women. The shift of manufacturing from household to shop or factory altered the function of many families from units of production to units of consumption. The transition of agricul­ture from subsistence to cash crops had a similar though less pro­nounced effect on farm families. These changes modified the primary economic role of most free women from producers to consumers. (Slave women, of course, continued to work in the fields as they had always done.) Instead of spinning yarn, weaving cloth, making soap and can­dles and the like at home, women increasingly bought these things at the store…

The economic transformation took men as producers out of the home into office or factory. This separation of job from home evoked a notion of separate "spheres" for men and women. Man's sphere was the bus­tling, competitive, dynamic world of business, politics, affairs of state. Woman's world was the home and family; her role was to bear and nurture children and to make the home a haven to which the husband returned from work each day to find love and warmth at the hearth. To the extent that this "cult of domesticity" removed women from the "real world" and confined them to an inferior sphere, it was a setback to any quest for equal rights and status.

But did domesticity constitute a real setback? Historians have begun to qualify this interpretation. The economic transformation coincided with—and in part caused—a change in the quality of family life as well as the quantity of children. As the family became less an economic unit it ripened into a covenant of love and nurturance of children. The ideal of romantic love increasingly governed the choice of a marriage partner, a choice made more and more by young people themselves rather than by their parents. And if wives now had a lesser economic role, they enjoyed a larger familial one. Patriarchal domination of wife and chil­dren eroded in urban areas as fathers went away from home for most waking hours and mothers assumed responsibility for socializing and educating the children. Affection and encouragement of self-discipline replaced repression and corporal punishment as the preferred means of socialization in middle-class families. These families became more child-centered—a phenomenon much noted by European visitors. Childhood emerged as a separate stage of life. And as parents lavished more love on their children, they had fewer of them and devoted more resources to their education by sending them to school in greater numbers for longer periods of time.

This helps explain the simultaneous decline of the birth rate and the rise of education in the nineteenth century. Women played a crucial part in these developments and derived significant benefits from them. Middle-class marriages became more of an equal partnership than ever before. In some respects women attained a superior position in the part­nership. If men ruled outside the home, women tended to rule within it. The decision to have fewer children was a mutual one but probably most often initiated by women. It required some sacrifice of traditional male sexual prerogatives. The principal means of contraception—con­tinence and coitus interruptus—placed the responsibility of restraint on males. Fewer children meant that middle-class women in 1850 were less continuously burdened by pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing than their mothers and grandmothers had been. This not only enabled them to give each child more affection; it also freed them for activities outside the home.

For, in an apparent paradox, the concept of a woman's sphere within the family became a springboard for extension of that sphere beyond the hearth. If women were becoming the guardians of manners and morals, the custodians of piety and child-training, why should they not expand their demesne of religion and education outside the home? And so they did. W omen had long constituted a majority of church members; dur­ing the Second Great A wakening they increased their prevalence in that realm. This evangelical revival also produced a "benevolent empire" of Bible societies, moral reform organizations, and social uplift associa­tions of all kinds—most notably the temperance and abolitionist move­ments. Women were active in all of these efforts, first in separate female societies but increasingly in "mixed" associations after women abolition­ists made this breakthrough in the 1830s.

Women's advances in education were even more impressive. Before the nineteenth century girls in America, as everywhere else, received much less formal education than boys, and a considerably higher pro­ portion of women than men were illiterate. By 1850 that had changed in the United States, where girls went to elementary school and achieved literacy in virtually the same proportions as boys—the only country where that was yet true. Higher education was still a male domain, but several female "seminaries" for advanced secondary schooling were founded during the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Oberlin College admitted both women and men soon after its founding in 1833. Even more important, perhaps, was the feminization of the teaching profes­sion. Like most other social and economic changes, this process began in New England and spread gradually westward and southward. By 1850 nearly three-quarters of the public school teachers in Massachusetts were women.

Another educating profession was opening to women during this era—writing for publication. The new emphasis on home and family created a huge audience for articles and books on homemaking, child-rearing, cooking, and related subjects. Women's magazines proliferated to meet the need. A paying profession arose for female writers. The expanded literacy and leisure of women, combined with the romanticism and sentimentalism of Victorian culture, also spawned a lucrative market for fiction which focused on the tribulations of love, marriage, home, fam­ily, and death. A bevy of authors turned out scores of sentimental best sellers—"that damned mob of scribbling women," Nathaniel Haw­thorne called them, perhaps in envy of their royalty checks.

Therefore while the notion of a domestic sphere closed the front door to women's exit from the home into the real world, it opened the back door to an expanding world of religion, reform, education, and writing. Inevitably, women who could write or speak or teach or edit magazines began to ask why they should not be paid as much as men for these services and why they could not also preach, practice law or medicine, hold property independently of their husbands—and vote. Thus "do­mestic feminism"—as some historians label it—led by an indirect route to a more radical feminism that demanded equal rights in all spheres. In 1848 a convention in the upstate New York village of Seneca Falls launched the modern woman's rights movement. Its Declaration of Sentiments, modeled on the Declaration of Independence, proclaimed "that all men and women are created equal" and deserved their "ina­lienable rights" including the elective franchise. The convention met in a church; one of its two foremost organizers, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, had been educated in the first women's seminary, at Troy, New York; the other, Lucretia Mott, had started her adult life as a schoolteacher; both had been active in the abolitionist movement. These activities constituted part of the back door of domestic feminism which in 1848 nudged open the front door a tiny crack.


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