George Novack

The Struggle for National Supremacy, 1789-1848

(August 1939)

First Published: New International, Volume V, Number 8, August 1939, pp.237-240.
Transcription/Editing: 2005 by Daniel Gaido.
HTML Markup: 2005 by David Walters.
Public Domain: George Novack Internet Archive 2005; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

In 1848 American society was divided into three distinct interdependent systems of production: the slave plantation system, the wage labor system of industrial capitalism, and the small family farms. Each of these systems of labor was concentrated in a particular part of the country. The planters and their chattels were rooted in the Southern states; the manufacturers and their wage workers were located for the most part in the Northeast; the largest yet least centralized class of small farmers was scattered in varying proportions throughout the land. Its most important segment lived in the inland region along the Great Lakes and in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys.

These three principal branches of national economy supported the three great classes which dominated American political life between the First American Revolution and the Second: the Southern planters, the Northern bourgeoisie, and the petty proprietors of the town and country. Such subordinate social strata as the proletariat of the North and the poor whites of the South were but slightly and indirectly represented in national affairs. Negroes and Indians, like the women, were excluded from participation in politics. Political activity was the prerogative of propertied white males with power accruing to them in geometric proportion to the amount of property at their command.

The mutual relations between these three major social forces determined the political situation at any given moment. Although the lesser bourgeoisie, the family farmers in the rural regions together with the shopkeepers and craftsmen of the cities, composed the mass of the population, their political weight did not correspond to their numerical size. The leading political roles were taken by representatives of the two ruling minorities, the big planters or the big bourgeoisie, whose mighty economic power and superior social standing compensated for their lack of bulk.

With the adoption of the Constitution in 1789 and the launching of the Republic a new social order had been erected upon the equilibrium established among the three classes as the result of their preceding revolutionary struggles. The mercantile and planting aristocracies formed the corner-posts and the petty-bourgeois plebeians the pedestal of the new state. Thus the political system of the Republic inverted the real relations of the social order. Whereas the social pyramid rested upon the toiling masses, the basis of the political system rested upon the interrelations between the two governing groups.

The struggle for hegemony between planter and capitalist was the axis around which the political history of the United States revolved between the two revolutions. Their contest, beginning shortly after the birth of the Republic, continued to be the cardinal preoccupation of American statesmen until its climax in the disruption of the Union they had organized together. Whoever does not keep firmly in mind the fact that the gravitational center of American politics during the first seventy-two years of its existence lies precisely in this major conflict runs the risk of losing the guiding thread in the labyrinth of events.

The artisans of the Constitution assumed that the planters and capitalists would share sovereignty in the new nation. This theory of a balance of power was based upon a transitory conjunction of mutual interests. In reality, the Constitution simply defined the terms and provided the arena in which their contest for supremacy was to work itself out. The Constitution did no more than adjust the most pressing points of difference between the two classes; it could not, by its very nature as a compromise agreement, determine which should rule over the other. The answer to this crucial question could be given only as the result of further struggle between them.

No sooner, therefore, had the machinery of the new government been put into operation than the erstwhile allies found themselves opposed to each other on a number of important issues. Their contest for supremacy was resumed on a broader scale within the framework of the Republic. Seven decades of parliamentary struggle, and ultimately a civil war, were required to determine, once and for all, whether planter or capitalist was to dominate the United States.

A graph of their struggles would show a series of acute crises, alternating with periods of comparative harmony between them. Setting aside the storms and stresses within each, the contest between the two opponents passed through three well-defined stages of development from 1789 to 1860.

In the first period of their relations during the administrations of Washington and Adams the commercial capitalists controlled the Federal machine. Piloted by Hamilton, the most far-sighted of the American statesmen, they succeeded in enacting the most important parts of their program. The national debt was refunded and the state debts assumed; a national bank was chartered and a system of internal imposts and revenue taxes instituted; federal troops sent into Pennsylvania to crush the Whiskey Rebellion established the authority of the central power; a pro-English foreign policy was pursued; the dictatorial Alien and Sedition laws were passed. Around the struggle over these issues the division between the merchant capitalists and the commercial agrarian interests which is the key to early American political history crystallized into the Federalist and the Democratic-Republican parties.

The brief reign of the commercial bourgeoisie ended in 1800. With Jefferson’s election the planters ascended the throne and became the real rulers of the Republic. For the next sixty years their word was law in the United States. The planters dictated the major domestic and foreign policies of the country; made its wars; annexed new territories; nominated presidents and Supreme Court justices; and staffed the government offices and armed forces with their appointees. The planters had no monopoly of state power. They governed in grudging or in willing collaboration with segments of the Northern bourgeoisie and Western farmers. From 1800 to 1860 specific combinations of class forces at the top changed many times, but they had one common denominator: the planters exercised their domination through them all. As the senior partner in the government, they had the last word on all questions affecting their vital interests.

If the lines of class interest were so tightly intertwined in many of the most important internal issues that it is sometimes difficult, and always tedious, to disentangle them, the dictatorship of the planters stands out clearly in the sphere of foreign affairs, the touchstone of social supremacy. The main lines of American foreign policy from Jefferson’s administration to Lincoln’s election were laid down in accordance with the interests of the planters and their allies. The purchase of Louisiana, the war of 1812, the conquest of Florida, the promulgation of the Monroe Doctrine, the annexation of Texas and the Mexican War: the Gadsden Purchase, the Ostend Manifesto—all these actions were undertaken with an eye to the promotion of the agrarian interests, in most cases against the bitterest opposition of Northern merchants, monied men, and manufacturers. [1]

The course of territorial expansion followed the path marked out by the planters. Compare the diametrically different policies of the government in regard to Mexico and England in 1844. Despite the popular war-cry of “54-40 or Fight”, the representatives of the slave power voluntarily compromised with England over the Oregon boundary dispute, while they maintained an attitude of irreconcilable aggression toward Mexico until they had swallowed up half its lands and were preparing to bite off the rest, simply because cotton could be raised and slavery extended on the Mexican acres but not in Oregon. For similar reasons the Democratic government forced Commissioner Parker to abandon Formosa and blocked plans of commercial expansion in the Far East.

Positive proof of this negative side of the planters’ foreign policy was provided shortly after the Civil War. No sooner had the government changed hands than the direction of territorial expansion changed with it. Although they did not hesitate to buy Louisiana in 1803, the slaveholders would certainly not have paid millions of American dollars for Alaska in 1869.

Since neither capitalists nor planters commanded enough power or numbers to rule in their own right, they were compelled to seek supplementary political support among the masses. This meant above all going to the farmers who constituted the vast majority of the population.

The role of the farmers in nineteenth-century American politics is a magnificent illustration of the axiom that an economically subordinate class cannot be the supreme power in political life. The American farmers lacked the internal cohesion, the integrated economic strength, and the broad political outlook to lead the nation. By far the most numerous portion of the people, they were also the most heterogeneous and dispersed. The settled and prosperous farmers of New York and Pennsylvania were almost as far removed in the social scale from the pioneer squatters and immigrant homesteaders of the West as the wealthy cotton planters were from the piedmont farmers and poor whites on the mudsill of Southern civilization. The farmers were divided geographically, economically, politically. The Appalachians separated the Eastern from the Western farmers, the Ohio River the Western from the Southern farmers. One part of the Western cultivators found their chief markets in the industrial East and Europe; another in the slaveholding South. Economic dependence led to political dependence. One section of the farmers attached itself to the Democratic party of the planters; others linked themselves with the parties of the Northern bourgeoisie, the Whig and later the Republican parties. Scattered, absorbed in local concerns, without direct connection or community of interests with each other on a national scale, they could conquer power in a single state but not in the Federal government.

The nineteenth century witnessed several abortive attempts of the farmers to assume control of the government. In no case did they come closer to that goal than to obtain a minor share of the state power in coalition with one or the other of the two ruling classes. The peak of the influence before the Civil War was under Jackson’s administration. Even then, like the Social Democracy in post-war Germany, the farmer’s representatives only participated in managing the affairs of state but they did not rule. The repeated failures of the most progressive farmers to perfect an enduring national party of their own, notably the experiments with the Free-Soil and early Republican movements, demonstrated their inability to forge the most elementary instrument for taking power.

Prevented by their social heterogeneity, their geographical division, their economic subservience, and their provincial outlook from following an independent, united, and consistent political course, the representatives of the various sections of the farmers fulfilled the function of mediators between the two opposing camps. They were the arbiters of their disputes and the buffers of their collisions. It was no accident that Henry Clay, “the Great Compromiser”, came from Kentucky, or that Stephen Douglas, which attempted to reenact the conciliatory role of Clay in a new and different historical situation and failed so miserably, came from Illinois.

The farmers, and especially the frontier farmers, were natural allies of the planters. The political alliance between the agrarian interests, first consummated under Jefferson, continued to be the backbone of the Democratic Party and the cause of its success. The agrarian democracy acted as brokers between the planters and capitalists, serving the interests of their bosses in order to advance their own. The farmers obtained their own demands only as a pendant to the planter or capitalist program. Nine times out of ten, however, the farmers came out of political transactions with their superiors holding the short end of the stick. The frontiers men together with the planters foisted the war of 1812 upon the young nation in the hope of winning Canada. But while the Southerners succeeded in snatching Florida from the feeble hands of Spain, the unfortunate Westerners failed in their efforts to wrest Canada from England. The same thing happened in 1844 in regard to Texas and Oregon.

The farmers were to have no better luck in their dealings with the big bourgeoisie later. The Homestead Act, part of the price paid by Northern capitalists for the Western farmers’ support in the armed struggle against the slaveholders, ended in a similar fiasco. While the government bureaus bestowed baronial domains upon the land speculators, railroads, mining, and lumbering corporations, and big ranchers, the small homesteader had to sweat for years to possess his quarter section.

After Jefferson’s victory in 1800, the merchant aristocracy never recovered its lost leadership. The merchants were forced to cede a portion of their political power to their agrarian opponents for every commercial concession they obtained from their regime. So long as the commercial capitalists remained the dominant section of the bourgeoisie, the capitalists offered no serious challenge to the rule of the planters. The friction between them shook the framework of the Republic twice but it never split or overturned its foundations. During the “era of good feeling” following the War of 1812 the merchants became reconciled to playing second fiddle in the national orchestra conducted by the slaveholders. When Cotton was crowned King, they not only bowed low before his liege lords at Washington but became their most ardent attorneys in the North.

How passionately these men of property defended slavery—and for what reasons—can be seen from the following outburst on the part of a “New York Merchant of first rank” in 1829 to Reverend Samuel May, a prominent abolitionist.

Mr. May, we are not such fools as not to know that slavery is a great evil; a great wrong. But it was consented to by the founders of our republic. It was provided for in the Constitution of our Union. A great portion of the property of the Southerners is invested under its sanction; and the business of the North as well as the South, has become adjusted to it. There are millions upon millions of dollars due from Southerners to the merchants and mechanics of this city alone, the payment of which would be jeopardized by any rupture between the North and South. We cannot afford, sir, to let you and your associates succeed in your endeavor to overthrow slavery. It is not a matter of principle with us. It is a matter of business necessity. We cannot afford to let you succeed. We mean, sir [said he, with increased emphasis], we mean sir, to put you Abolitionists down—by fair means, if we can, by foul means, if we must. (William Lloyd Garrison, by John J. Chapman, p.32.)

As the Northern merchants degenerated into utterly reactionary accomplices of the slave-owners, the sole progressive force within the capitalist ranks were the manufacturers, who were destined to be the beheaders of the slaveholders and their successors as rulers of the Republic. In more or less constant opposition to the planters from the earliest days of the Union, they came into sharp conflict with them in 1819 over the question of the extension of slavery into the territories, in 1832 over the “Tariff of Abominations”, and in 1845over the Mexican war. The first struggle ended in a drawn battle; the last two in crushing defeats for the industrialists. They did not begin to gird themselves and organize their forces for the final showdown until the rise of the Republican Party in the Fifties. Before they met in mortal combat, however, the slaveholders were to enjoy a noon-hour of absolute mastery over the nation.

The third and final chapter in the struggle for national supremacy between the planters and capitalists was just beginning in 1848. This period had three chief characteristics. It was marked by the ever-tightening autocracy of the slaveholders attended by a steady diminution of their economic weight; by the economic and political ascent of the industrial bourgeoisie and the deepening antagonism between them and the slave power; and by the gradual recession of the conciliatory petty-bourgeoisie into the background as the head-on collision between the rival contenders for power approached.

With the growth of the nation since 1789 all three classes had considerably increased their size, wealth, and domain. These quantitative changes were accompanied by even more important qualitative transformations. The planting aristocracy of the Atlantic seaboard, whose fortunes had been founded on tobacco and who had given so many leaders to the Revolution and to the Republic, had become impoverished and decayed, yielding their power and place to the new nobility of King Cotton. The commercial aristocracy of the Northern seaports had been shouldered aside by the rising manufacturers, whose demands thundered for recognition in the halls of Congress. The small farmers who had been packed between the Alleghenies and the Atlantic Ocean were beginning to build an empire of their own upon a foundation of foodstuffs in the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys and along the Great Lakes.

Political interrelations had changed with these alterations in their internal social structure. The planters who had allied themselves with the capitalists to form the Union were now at sword’s points with the industrialists and preparing to depart from the Yankee Republic. While the Northern merchants of the seaboard cities maintained close ties with the Southern slaveholders and still supported the new as they had upheld the old, the bonds between them were weakening. Instead of being allied against common enemies, the Northern merchants now stood in the old position of the English merchants as exploiters and oppressors of the planters. The farmers were beginning to split into two parts, the free-soil farmers of the North Central states going over to the camp of the industrialists, while the more backward farmers of the Southern and border states, retaining a certain community of interests with the slaveowners, continued to follow in their footsteps.

All these relationships were to crystallize into firm formations in the years between1848 and 1860 and to be precipitated in 1861.


1. This was substantially the opinion of Henry Clay.

“During the first twelve years of the administration of the Government, northern counsels prevailed: and out of them sprung the Bank of the United States; the assumption of the State debts: bounties to the fisheries; protection to the domestic manufactures—I allude to the act of 1789; neutrality in the wars with Europe; Jay’s treaty; alien and sedition laws; and a quasi war with France. I do not say, sir, that those leading and crowning measures which were adopted during the administration of Washington and the elder Adams were carried exclusively by Northern counsels. They could not have been, but were carried mainly by the sway which Northern counsels had obtained in the affairs of the country.

“So, also, with the latter party, for the last fifty years. I do not mean to say that Southern counsels alone have carried the measures which I am about to enumerate. I know they could not exclusively have carried them; but I say they have been carried by their preponderating influence, with cooperation, it is true, and large cooperation, in some instances, from the Northern section of the Union.

“And what are those measures during the fifty years that Southern counsels have preponderated? The embargo and other commercial restrictions of non-intercourse and non-importation; war with Great Britain; the Bank of the United States overthrown; domestic protection; protection to manufactures enlarged and extended; (I allude to the passage of the act of 1815 or 1816); the Bank of the United States reestablished; the same bank put down; reestablished by Southern counsels and put down by Southern counsels; Louisiana acquired; Florida bought; Texas annexed; war with Mexico; California and other Territories acquired from Mexico by conquest and purchase; protection superseded and free trade established: Indians removed west of the Missouri: fifteen new states admitted into the Union.’’—Speech on the Compromise Resolution, delivered in the Senate, Feb. 5-6.


Last updated on: 4.2.2006