May/June 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 3
Taking a deep breath, Fm going to nominate the presumed “hinge” of U.S. economic history, the North’s victory in 1865. The Beardian gospel of my youth was that by breaking the power of the planter class, it opened the way to the industrialization and unification of the United States (see the closing lines of John Brown’s Body ). That view satisfied lots of people: progressives who saw the victory of “the national idea” as part of the inevitable march of modernism; simplistic economic determinists who put the whole Civil War down to a contest between contending forms of capital; and, finally, pro-Southerners always happy to focus on any explanation of secession other than the determination to protect slavery. But the United States already was an industrial and exporting nation by 1860, in spite of dwindling Southern agrarian clout in Congress. Had the South won its independence and even a small piece of the territories, the United States of America would have rushed right ahead with its economic development, continuing to overshadow its backward and autocratic neighbor, until the people of the Confederate States of America smartened up, threw out their separatist leadership, replaced slavery with some other form of white control, and sought reunification. I’m not minimizing the great human issues and tragedies of the war, but it did not spell the difference between our being a nation of factories and one of farms.
By the same token, I’d pick 1619, a year before the Mayflower , when some twenty Africans were brought to Jamestown by a Dutch trading vessel. What if the tobacco growers of Virginia had simply turned them away? What if they had decided that black labor wouldn’t work for them as well as it did for the owners of sugar plantations in the West Indies? Or that they didn’t want slaves competing with freemen in the fields? Or, more likely, that they just didn’t want blacks in their new communities? Can you imagine United States history without black Americans, slave or free? Without that “other” against whom white Americans defined themselves and who forced whites constantly to wrestle with their contradictory feelings and principles? Without the multitude of black voices in the chorus of our culture? I certainly can’t. That day in 1619 made us a biracial (later to become a multiracial) society, like it or not. And I am surprised how rarely I see it referred to with the gravity it deserves.