The Cause of War and the Fiction of Democracy


This excerpt from Donald Davidson’s "Still Rebels, Still Yankees and Other Essays" (LSU Press, 1957) underscores the position slavery held before the colonial secession from Great Britain, from whom that institution of African slavery came. He also mentions the reasons why slavery expanded—Northern inventor Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, and England’s imperial possessions as markets for textiles.

In the last paragraph, Davidson’s view could easily be read today as contemporary musings on the paradox of American government, and coming from the mouth of a Ron Paul.

Bernhard Thuersam, Executive Director
Cape Fear Historical Institute
Post Office Box 328
Wilmington, NC 28402

The Cause of War:

"Negro slavery was with us before the Revolution and before the true, or Jeffersonian revolution. While our traditional, democratic society was achieving its equilibrium, slavery remained, a vestige from colonial times. At first it was not a disturbing factor and sentiment existed, in both North and South, for checking and removing it. Doubtless it would have been checked and removed but for the entrance of disequilibrizing forces. In the North these were the new interest of manufactures and the rise of militant abolitionism. In the South they were the invention of the cotton gin and the rapidly increasing demand for cotton fiber by Great Britain, which was selling textiles to its expanding imperial market. The North was lucky and not "caught"—that is, discovered by the pietists with an "anachronism" on its hands, which though affording a supply of controlled labor, nevertheless was an intrinsic domestic danger and a focus of perilous national controversy—a weapon, if fact, which the analytical, dispassionate, impersonal, nonviolent, unsentimental brethren of the North could and ultimately did drive to the heart of the South.

The situation was very complex because this slavery was not just slavery. It was African Negro slavery and therefore raised both the slavery question and the race question. The North took the romantic position that the complexities did not matter; it was willing to risk any disequilibrium that might result from abolishing slavery, especially since all the risk would be borne by the South. The South took the realistic position that the risk was too great, and it was not to be thought of. The South knew that it could not maintain its society in the desired equilibrium unless the alien element, now vastly enlarged, could be strictly controlled. And if it could not maintain the equilibrium, it could not maintain democracy for white people."

On Postwar America:

"We keep the fiction of democracy, but behind the fiction what do we see? The strongest central government we have ever known; the most elaborately restrictive and regulative laws; a continually increasing tendency of the government to call for and indeed exact unanimity of opinion, to brook no criticism, to demand almost servile obedience. The Democratic party itself, still invoking the name of Jefferson, has taken these steps using the idea-men of the North as its Dorian knights and the Southern politicians as its willing helots. In short, once society was thrown into disequilibrium—as it was thrown by the industrial regime—it became necessary to institute the rule of force, exerted at every point of our lives in order to maintain even the semblance of democracy."