As I have explained, it is a myth that the South has always been committed to conservative or lolbertarian politics and economics. Even in the Southern Nationalist movement in the antebellum era, there was a difference of opinion on that issue. It was best exemplified by the conflicting opinions of Louis T. Wigfall and James D.B. De Bow on the modernization of the Southern economy.
The following excerpt comes from page 133 of Michael Lind’s Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States:
“In 1861, former US senator from Texas Louis T. Wigfall told a British correspondent: “We are a peculiar people, sir! We are an agricultural people; we are a primitive but a civilized people. We have no cities – we don’t want them. We have no literature – we don’t need any yet … We want no manufactures; we desire no trading, no mechanical or manufacturing classes … As long as we have our rice, our sugar, our tobacco, and our cotton, we can command wealth to purchase all we want from those nations with which we are in amity, and to lay up money besides.”
The journalist James B. D. De Bow, writing before the Civil War, did not share Wigfall’s complacency: “Our slaves work with Northern hoes, ploughs, and other implements. The slaveholder dresses in Northern goods, rides on a Northern saddle … reads Northern books … In Northern vessels his products are carried to market … and on Northern-made paper, with a Northern pen, with Northern ink, he resolves and re-resolves in regard to his rights.”
In the years before the War Between the States, Lind notes:
– The North had 22,000 miles of railroad to 9,000 miles in the South plus the industrial capacity to make necessary repairs during a prolonged war.
– The North had 19 million people compared to 9 million in the South of whom 3 million of those were slaves.
– The North had 10x the industry and the manufactured products of the Confederacy added up to less than one-fourth of New York’s manufacturing alone.
– The North had 14 of the 15 largest American cities.
It was much worse than that.
Midwestern agriculture is vastly superior to Southern agriculture for a variety of reasons. The North is also more blessed than the South in its mineral resources.
The following excerpt comes from John Kvach’s De Bow’s Review: The Antebellum Vision of a New South:
“A Review contributor questioned why more Southern shipbuilders had failed to materialize, despite the South’s abundance of lumber, naval stores, and cotton to transport. A disenchanted reader noted that the delegates to the 1858 Vicksburg Commercial Convention had traveled on northern-built railroad cars and rode on iron rails produced in northern factories. Once they arrived at the convention, delegates used chairs and desks that had been assembled by northern workers and after a long day retired to “lie down to dream of southern independence in a Yankee bed.”
Louisiana’s great fire-eater, James D.B. De Bow, was a long time advocate of Southern industrialization and economic modernization before and after the War Between the States:
“In the decades preceding the Civil War, the South struggled against widespread negative characterizations of its economy and society as it worked to match the North’s infrastructure and level of development. Recognizing the need for regional reform, James Dunwoody Brownson (J. D. B.) De Bow began to publish a monthly journal—De Bow’s Review— to guide Southerners toward a stronger, more diversified future. His periodical soon became a primary reference for planters and entrepreneurs in the Old South, promoting urban development and industrialization and advocating investment in schools, libraries, and other cultural resources. Later, however, De Bow began to use his journal to manipulate his readers’ political views. Through inflammatory articles, he defended proslavery ideology, encouraged Southern nationalism, and promoted anti-Union sentiment, eventually becoming one of the South’s most notorious fire-eaters …”
De Bow was the most well known proponent of Southern industrialization in the antebellum era:
“De Bow became the first Southerner to recognize and promote a comprehensive regional economic and social vision that blended the South’s past with a more diverse future. He foresaw how slavery and plantations could coexist with railroads, factories and cities. He wanted readers to understand that industrialists, merchants, and planters had similar goals and that they all needed to work together to improve the South’s future.”
De Bow believed Southern economic independence would provide a better foundation for national strength. It would be interesting to hear his take on the rise of China:
“De Bow’s overall vision for economic reform relied heavily on the actions of individuals and communities. In his mind, individual planters and farmers would operate well-managed agricultural units and supply the region with needed produce and cash crops for export. Equally efficient factories would produce needed goods and supplies for southerners and reduce the region’s dependence on northern and European manufacturing. Smaller peripheral towns would then become conduits for local trade and funnel commerce to larger international ports, and a system of railroads would link the South together and, ultimately, create a unified region built equally around commerce, manufacturing, and agriculture. This plan, De Bow argued, would allow the South to become independent of northern interests and assume a larger role in national and international affairs.”
De Bow observed that Southerners were even dependent on the North for their ideas:
“The reading habits of Americans worked doubly against southern editors because northern journals dominated the reading habits of southern readers and most northern readers had little interest in southern journals.”
He anticipated private sector-state cooperation and articulated a national economic development strategy for the South in the antebellum era:
“On the second day of the convention, De Bow presented his comprehensive plan to improve and diversify the southern economy. Invoking memories of an Old South that had supplied many of the nation’s most prominent politicians, he reminded delegates that southern entrepreneurship had produced the first transatlantic steamship and the longest railroad in the world by the 1830s. He admitted, however, that those days had passed and that northern advances had overtaken southern political and economic dominance. He blamed southerners for this decline, specifically pointing to their overdependence on agricultural production, which limited the South’s industrial and commercial development. He proposed a specific plan that linked the interests of planters, merchants, and industrialists. Railroads would open new territory, foster innovation, and expand the commercial network of the south. Factories would stimulate the extraction of raw materials, create new urban centers, and increase the south’s global economic status. These changes, De Bow promised, would lead to greater profits for all southerners.”
I reviewed Kvach’s book on De Bow in 2015 while studying the economic history of the South:
Lately, I have been on a tear about economic nationalism.
I have reviewed Paul Theroux’s travelogue Deep South, which brought up the subject of deindustrialization and globalization in the South, and Clyde Prestowitz’s The Betrayal of American Prosperity, which explores how the doctrine of unilateral free trade has been undermining the American middle and working class. Coming up soon, I plan to review Donald Trump’s new book Crippled America whose presidential campaign has stimulated new interest in the issue.
Before moving forward though, I thought it would be a good idea to go back to the past. More than anything else, it was the crushing defeat of the Confederacy which made up my mind on this issue. As a Southern Nationalist, the defeat of the first Southern Nationalist movement should be our starting point for any discussion of what the economy should look like in a future independent South. 1 out of every 4 Southern White men died trying to secure our independence but failed largely because they lacked the material means to do so.
It occurred to me that this was not a new debate. I recalled reading a profile of James D.B. De Bow in Eric Walther’s book The Fire Eaters. I have also cited many articles from De Bow’s Review here over the years. Thus, I already knew that De Bow was both a fire eater and an economic nationalist, and since I have already written so much about Robert Barnwell Rhett and William Lowndes Yancey here it seemed natural to explore the life of Louisiana’s great secessionist.
By pure chance, I stumbled across John Kvach’s De Bow’s Review: The Antebellum Vision of a New South while scrolling through Kindle the other day. I wasn’t aware of the existence of this book which was published in 2013, but I am glad that I read it, even if the author is critical and unsympathetic to Southern Nationalism. James D.B. De Bow was an unusual figure in the Southern Nationalist movement for many reasons: he lived almost his entire life in the urban South in Charleston, New Orleans and Nashville, he was a statistician and a journalist by profession, he was a practical-minded, business-oriented modernist, and he was a non-slaveowner.
Originally from Charleston, De Bow moved to New Orleans – the South’s largest city – where he established a national reputation as the editor of the antebellum South’s most influential magazine, De Bow’s Review. As the editor of the Review, De Bow became deeply involved in the prewar Southern commercial convention movement from 1845 to 1861, which were forums where Southern planters, merchants, professionals and industrialists gathered to discuss new business opportunities and the trajectory of the South’s economic development.
As a Southern patriot, economic booster, and statistician, De Bow became increasingly alarmed by the South’s growing commercial, agricultural, and industrial dependence on the North. This ultimately lead him down the road of economic nationalism and De Bow spent the rest of the antebellum era promoting a more diversified Southern economy with a stronger infrastructure and industrial and commercial sectors. He was a voice in the wilderness in those years.
By the mid-1850s, the Yankee threat was looming large on the horizon: open warfare had broken out in Kansas, California had been admitted as a free state, and the Republican Party had been formed to block the expansion of slavery into the Western territories. The Northern-based Republican Party was full of abolitionists who proposed nothing less than choking the Southern economy and destroying slavery which would obliterate in a single blow all the capital that Southerners had invested in the institution – and virtually all the capital in the South was tied to slavery in some way or another.
Even as a non-slaveholder, De Bow could see the economic ramifications of the Republican platform – a death sentence to the Southern economy for slaveholders and non-slaveholders alike – and this is what pushed him into the Southern Nationalist camp. Henceforth, De Bow’s Review became an organ for pro-slavery writers like George Fitzhugh and leading fire eaters like Edmund Ruffin, and the Southern Nationalist message reached the ears an elite audience which included some of the wealthiest and most influential men in the South.
In making the case for secession, De Bow lost his objectivity and exaggerated the strengths of the Southern economy while glossing over its weaknesses. When the war finally came in 1861, it exposed those weaknesses and exploded any number of treasured theories. De Bow himself was financially crippled by the war and was forced to suspend publication of the Review as his world crumbled around him. Unlike Edmund Ruffin, he was able to move beyond the collapse of the Confederacy.
After the war, a contrite and humiliated De Bow repudiated secession and threw himself into the task at hand: relaunching the Review, guiding the reconstruction of the devastated Southern economy, and learning from the mistakes of the war so that the South could be rebuilt on a more sound foundation. In his last article in the February 1867 issue titled “Manufactures – The South’s True Remedy,” De Bow ruefully noted that the Confederacy would have won the war and its independence if it had only developed a stronger and more diversified economy in the antebellum era. Unfortunately, the myth that “cotton is king” and its simple formula of investing in ever more land and slaves prevailed. It left us dependent on the North for food and manufactured goods, then dependent on the hope of British intervention, and finally destitute, dependent and reduced to the status of a Northern colony.
De Bow’s life was cut short by a sudden illness in 1867 and the Review folded two years later. For almost 25 years, De Bow had articulated all the concepts that would become the foundation for the New South, but his legacy was lost amid the post-bellum mythmaking that the Old South had been a romantic land of dashing cavaliers and moonlight and magnolias, and that more practical-minded businessmen, professionals and industrialists were a product of the New South.
James D.B. De Bow’s life sheds light on the continuities between the Old South, Confederacy and the New South which include urbanization, industrialization and modernization. Many of the things that De Bow initially envisioned were realized in the New South.
Note: In hindsight, I would say that De Bow had the better of the argument. Similarly, I would say that history has discredited the lolbertarian economic paradigm.