America’s First Red Scare

For many of its ideologues, a slaveholding Confederacy was meant to be a bulwark against radical politics of all stripes.

The plantation home of Jefferson Davis located on Davis Island, about twenty miles down the Mississippi River from Vicksburg, MS.

During the winter and spring of 1861, political tension and fear gripped Missouri. Slaveholding planters in the countryside eagerly wished to join the seven seceding states of the Deep South. Workers in cities like St Louis stood in opposition.

Advocates from both sides argued their case in print and in public. Conservative newspapers warned Missouri’s citizens to beware of heeding the advice of “scarlet red speakers.” Slaveholders denounced abolitionists, immigrants, and activists as “Pure red republicans! People rotten from the ground up, red all the way through to their kidneys.”

In the meantime, the city’s Unionists armed to prevent the secession of the state. Progressive Republicans, soldiers, and the German immigrant community took the lead. Revolutionary veterans from Europe, including such radicals as Heinrich Börnstein, editor of St Louis’s German-language newspaper Anzeiger des Westens, played a prominent role in helping to organize the new Union volunteers.

On May 10, 1861, the loyal regiments marched to the outskirts of town where they dispersed and disarmed a gathering of secessionist militias. As the victorious units marched their captives back through the city, radical journalists likened the scene to the revolutions that had swept Europe in 1848. “It was one of those splendid moments,” wrote one, “when emotion glowing deep in the heart of the masses suddenly breaks into wild flame.” The defeated Confederate sympathizers proved less enthusiastic. “These reds and forty-eighters are to blame for everything,” remarked one conservative editor.

These admonishments sound as if they might have come directly from the “red scares” of the twentieth century, but in this case they spoke directly to some of the key issues at stake in the ensuing Civil War. Though little recalled today, in the years before the Civil War Americans debated not only the future of slavery but also the future of free wage labor. Americans argued over the merits of socialism, communism, and the meaning of the revolutions that had swept the Western world during the preceding century.

The Civil War engaged all of these issues. Secession sought first and foremost to protect the institution of slavery; however, by establishing a Southern nation, Confederates also sought to forestall progressive political and social change, which they believed threatened to transform the American republic.

Of course, the Civil War was not a class struggle in the traditional sense. Industrialists and commercial farmers joined Northern workers in supporting the Union, and Southern planters fought alongside yeomen and subsistence farmers in the Confederate ranks. However, the Confederacy’s advocates were not shy about claiming that their new nation’s slave-based social order might offer a model for conservative statesmen to emulate anywhere in the world.

In the years before the Civil War, white Southern intellectuals grew increasingly worried about progressive Northern thinkers. During the 1840s and 1850s, Northern reformers had advocated not only abolitionism, but also working-class trade unionism and utopian socialism. The Yankee editor Horace Greeley took the lead in popularizing radical politics. In the pages of his widely read newspaper, the New York Tribune, he exposed readers to the latest work of contemporary social theorists.

Albert Brisbane of Batavia, New York, was one of the most notable antebellum radical thinkers. While studying in Europe, he discovered the teachings of the French utopian socialist, Charles Fourier.

Fourier believed that the future stability of society depended on close association between capitalists and laborers. He advocated the formation of cooperative communities, which he called “phalanxes,” in which workers and owners would live and labor together in harmony, with each receiving a fair share of the profits. Brisbane translated Fourier’s work into English and published it in the United States. Admirers of his writings even formed a few experimental phalanxes of their own in several Northern states.

The events of 1848 introduced more radical ideas to America’s progressives. Revolution broke out in France, Austria, Italy, and the German states.

Most of the insurgents hoped to establish representative governments in Europe, governments which would guarantee freedoms of the person and the press. Members of disempowered ethnic groups demanded the right to form nations of their own.

Some revolutionaries expressed more radical demands. Workers in Paris proclaimed that all men should have the “right to work,” and in response the revolutionary government established National Workshops, one of the world’s first experiments in state socialism.

Though the National Workshops and most of Europe’s revolutions failed, in the years that followed the ideals of 1848 remained alive in the United States. Readers of Greeley’s New York Tribune, for example, heard from Louis Blanc, a member of the French revolutionary government who had helped to establish the National Workshops. Blanc believed that the state could play a role in easing the plight of the urban poor by controlling the means of industrial production.

Even more radical views also found their way into print. Americans became familiar with the ideas of the French socialist Pierre Proudhon during the 1850s. Proudhon was among the first radical thinkers to contemplate the total abolition of private property, arguing that accumulated wealth could only serve to oppress others. During the same decade, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published a regular column in the Tribune.

The revolutions of 1848 also brought progressive thinkers to the United States directly. During the 1850s, thousands of immigrants from Ireland, the German states, and other corners of Europe arrived in the country. Many had revolutionary backgrounds. In the United States they hoped to achieve the values of social democracy that had been thwarted in Europe.

Wilhelm Weitling, for example, an associate of Marx and Engels and an early contributor to the Communist League, settled in the United States in the late 1840s. In his new home he played a key role in establishing a German trade union movement.

Another Communist associate of Marx and Engels, Joseph Weydemeyer, who served in the Prussian army and published revolutionary journals during the 1840s, fled to the United States after the failure of the 1848 revolutions. In America, he continued his career as a left-wing journalist and founded one of the first Marxist organizations in the United States, the Proletarierbund, whose work culminated in the establishment of the American Workers’ League.

When the Civil War broke out, Weydemeyer joined the Union army and eventually became a colonel. Thousands of other Germans joined him in the Union ranks, many of them led to the field by such forty-eighters as Franz Sigel, Carl Schurz, and Friedrich Hecker.

These radicals joined an already well-established progressive community, especially in the cities of the Eastern seaboard. During the antebellum era, an assertive and self-conscious native-born working class had developed in New York and elsewhere. During the 1830s, a General Trades Union of journeymen wage-earners led strikes for higher pay in Manhattan, a Working Men’s Party sought political power, and reformers like Thomas Skidmore and George Henry Evans published newspapers that spoke to the working masses.

Though only a small minority of Northern workers were socialists, a growing number became convinced that the best way for the state to engineer social equality was through the distribution of public lands. The arguments of these “agrarians,” as they were called, held that the perpetuation of large landed monopolies stunted the economy and forced common people into wage labor.

They called for the government to offer small farms in the West to working-class Americans so that they might escape the cities and carve out an independent, self-sufficient existence on the prairie. Sympathetic congressmen attempted to meet their demands in a proposed “Homestead Bill,” which was blocked in the prewar years in part by Southern politicians fearful of the spread of free-soil politics to the West.

White Southerners believed that the North’s social, political, and intellectual ferment threatened the security of slave property. The doctrines of socialism and communism proved almost as disturbing as abolitionism. Given the small size of the South’s white wage-earning class, conservatives in the region didn’t have reason to fear the development of trade unionism, nor were they particularly bothered by critics of the industrial system.

Attacks on private possessions of any kind, however, made slaveholders worry about the security of their own “peculiar” form of property. Certainly the thought that governments might acquire the power to better the lot of workers led them to fear that lawmakers might also take action on behalf of slaves.

Northern reformers who questioned the legitimacy of large landholdings also proved disturbing. Planters were well aware that their estates came closer than any other institution in America to resembling the latifundia of Europe, which revolutionaries had been attempting to destroy for more than half a century.

The development of Southern nationalism sprang in part from the desire to forestall the influence of radical ideas on American society. Conservative Southern writers developed a term for left-wing social theory — “red republicanism.”

The noted historians Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese found no direct evidence that any white Southerners had read Marx’s Communist Manifesto, but the Genoveses argued that they would not have had to in order to understand the doctrines of socialism. Educated Southerners read widely in the years before the Civil War. They were quite familiar with the ideas presented in the most popular journals published in Europe and the Northern states, and they took to print themselves to refute the ideas they found most threatening.

One of the most fiercely anti-socialist Southern thinkers in the years before the war was South Carolina’s Louisa McCord. McCord came from the upper echelon of Southern plantation society. Her father, Langdon Cheves, had served as president of the Bank of the United States, and, in her adult life, she and her husband David James McCord owned land and numerous slaves.

During the 1840s, McCord became enamored with the work of the conservative French economist Claude Frédéric Bastiat. McCord’s reading of Bastiat led her to denounce the supposed dangers of socialism. She railed against Proudhon’s famous declaration that “Property is theft,” fearful that it would encourage what she called the “ignorant masses” to indulge in “license” and “anarchy.”

She agreed with Bastiat’s contention that reducing the length of the working day would check production and result in shortages and famines. She worried that passing laws to improve wages would rob workers of ambition.

“That the state,” McCord wrote, “should be able to give everything to everybody, yet require nothing from anybody is certainly an unfathomable enigma.”

McCord most feared that socialism and what she called the “hydra of communism” would infect American society. Though the failure of the 1848 revolutions had halted radical reform in Europe, she was well aware that they had prompted thousands of progressive thinkers to cross the ocean.

She also knew that European revolutionaries would find plenty of like-minded thinkers among America’s native-born labor reformers. McCord claimed to detect “at every turn” the “insidious effect” of what she called “the extravagant madness” embodied in the “dream of fraternity and socialism.” For proof, she pointed to the presence in American society of abolitionists, free-soilers, and “agrarian” land reformers.

For McCord and many other white Southerners, the preservation of slavery offered the best hope for arresting progressive politics and solving the problems of modern society. The Southern intellectual George Fitzhugh was among the most prominent thinkers to argue that a society founded on racial slavery would prove superior to one founded upon the “wage slavery” of industrial capitalism. Fitzhugh infamously asserted that slavery was more humane than free labor because supposedly paternalistic slave owners provided their workers with food, housing, and medical care.

When the free-soil Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, seven states of the Deep South seceded in order to establish a nation based on slavery. Four more would follow after conflict erupted at Fort Sumter.

Confederates took few pains to hide the nature of their revolution. During the early days of the secession movement, incoming Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens asserted that the new Southern nation would be founded on the “truth” of racial inequality, with its “cornerstone” resting upon the institution of slavery. Other Southern white politicians denounced the “Black Republicans” who they believed threatened to introduce racial equality to the nation.

In the Southern press, Confederate sympathizers built on Fitzhugh’s ideas. Some argued that slavery would prove not only better for the working class, but also better for society as a whole. Enslavement of blacks, some thinkers held, would promote harmony among whites, thereby preventing revolution and class conflict.

One pro-Confederate editor declared during the war that “the beneficent institution of slavery relieves these Confederate States of that terribly urgent social question which is always keeping European empires uneasy at the feeling that they are standing upon ground pregnant with the elements of volcano and earthquake.”

The implication was clear — the establishment of a slaveholding Confederacy would forestall the development of progressive politics in America. One anonymous editorialist coined a term for the South’s conservative project — “White Republicanism.” The essayist explained that he had chosen “the word ‘white’ in order not to be confounded with either the ‘Black republicans’ or the ‘Red republicans.’ ” The Richmond Enquirer made the case more bluntly. Slavery, the paper argued, offered the Confederacy a “bulwark against anarchy and socialism.”

The Civil War destroyed slavery and the social order white Southerners had hoped to construct upon it. During the war, the Republican Congress passed the Homestead Act, provided land grants for the establishment of a system of state universities, and sent the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery to the states for ratification.

In the years that followed, Northern lawmakers enacted the Fourteenth Amendment, which defined federal citizenship, and the Fifteenth Amendment, which extended the right of suffrage to black men. These policies moved the United States closer to embracing a more activist government, one that would play a role in engineering more just social outcomes for its citizens.

Though by the standards of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, these steps might seem halting and modest, for many white Southerners the policies of the victorious Republicans represented nothing less than the embodiment of the communism, socialism, and “red republicanism” they had denounced and feared.

Northern victory, of course, did not bring socialism to America. Indeed, Abraham Lincoln’s version of free-soil ideology proved more congruent with capitalist free enterprise than with socialist reform. The end of Reconstruction and the rise of segregation thwarted the promise of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.

Still, the defeat of the Confederacy laid the groundwork for the development of a more progressive federal government and, at the same time, discredited the frightening social vision that motivated the planter class and its many allies.