How the Civil War Changed the Way Americans Thought About Economic Inequality

tags: Civil War, Reconstruction, democracy, emancipation, economic equality

Daniel R. Mandell is the author of The Lost Tradition of Economic Equality in America, 1600–1870available now from Johns Hopkins University Press.

In the run-up to the 2020 election, some Americans are increasingly worried about the immense power that wealth plays in the country’s democracy. Those concerns would not have surprised Americans in 1776 — they assumed that property and political power were intertwined. Indeed, one had to own property to vote, although in America (unlike England) landholding was widespread and therefore most free men could vote. But even as Americans praised their new republic as uniquely egalitarian, they worried that a future aristocracy of wealth would corrupt its politics. Some even called for legal limits on property ownership. After 1800 the country changed markedly, as individual property rights became increasingly sacred, wage labor became increasingly common, and the gap between rich and poor widened. States gave voting rights to all white men, making race instead of property the foundation of politics. But the tradition of American economic equality persisted in the Workingmen’s parties of the 1820s and the communitarian movement of the 1840s.

That egalitarian tradition surged during the Civil War. As the war became a campaign to end slavery, some leading Republicans envisioned using confiscation to reshape the aristocratic South into a more equal society in terms of property ownership and power. As growing numbers of black people fled slavery, Union officers offered those refugees land on abandoned plantations. Egalitarian land reform became official policy in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation, as President Lincoln issued an order allowing freedmen to claim up to 40 acres of abandoned or confiscated land for $1.25/acre.

Northern reformers saw redistribution as linking the egalitarian tradition of the American Revolution to the needs of emancipated Americans. The abolitionist Wendell Phillips told an enthusiastic crowd that “If the people own the land, it is a democracy; if a few men own it, it is an oligarchy,” and that since the U.S. for generations had robbed millions of men of their lives and labor, it “owes to the negro not merely freedom — it owes to him land” — reflecting the view dating back to John Locke that a man’s labor gave value to the land. In early 1864, Congress considered a bill that would have allowed freedmen to claim up to 160 acres of confiscated lands in the South. Although the bill failed, its goal was applauded by many. The New Orleans Tribune, the first black-owned newspaper in the South, insisted that “no true republican government” could exist “unless the land and wealth in general, are distributed among the great mass of the inhabitants” and that “an oligarch of slaveholders or property holders” had no place in America.


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