Nina Silber: ‘Slavery’ in Depression Era America

This War Ain't Over by Nina SilberToday we welcome a guest post from Nina Silber, author of This War Ain’t Over:  Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America, just published by UNC Press.

The New Deal era witnessed a surprising surge in popular engagement with the history and memory of the Civil War era. From the omnipresent book and film Gone with the Wind and the scores of popular theater productions to Aaron Copeland’s “A Lincoln Portrait,” it was hard to miss America’s fascination with the war in the 1930s and 1940s. Nina Silber deftly examines the often conflicting and politically contentious ways in which Americans remembered the Civil War era during the years of the Depression, the New Deal, and World War II. In doing so, she reveals how the debates and events of that earlier period resonated so profoundly with New Deal rhetoric about state power, emerging civil rights activism, labor organizing and trade unionism, and popular culture in wartime.

This War Ain’t Over is available now in both print and ebook editions.


‘Slavery’ in Depression Era America

Despite its historical remoteness, the US Civil War continues to stand as a critical marker for Americans today. We see it in the red state/blue state maps that ominously bear the imprint of the Union and Confederate divide.  We hear it in the often garbled language of politicians reaching for role models from an earlier era.  And, of course, we are continually made aware of competing memories of the Civil War in persistent debates about Confederate monuments and the Confederate flag.

In the 1930s, the Civil War was also an ever-present touchstone, not so much in discussions about monuments or flags – neither of which received much attention in these years – but as a memory that seemed to shed light on the economic and political struggles of the Depression era and as a culturally vibrant reference point in film, fiction, theater, art, and music. In and around Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, the Civil War analogy was invoked with increasing frequency – with comparisons often made between the crises of the 1860s and the 1930s. “There had never been a time,” observed FDR’s advisor Rexford Tugwell regarding the Great Depression, “the Civil War alone excepted, when our institutions had been in such jeopardy.”  For Tugwell and Roosevelt, the Civil War analogy drove home a critical political point: the current crisis was not something individualized and private – a framework traditionally used for understanding economic calamity – but something national in scope that demanded the kind of active, government involvement used in wartime.  From this premise, it took only a short step to connect Lincoln, and his legacy, to FDR.  The hugely influential Lincoln biographer, Carl Sandburg, gave a subtle rendition of this argument, suggesting that the Civil War president came to office with “a sense of change, of some new deal.”  Democratic Representative Frank Dorsey of Pennsylvania was more explicit.  Noting Lincoln’s outrage over turning “precious human beings” into chattel, he hailed Honest Abe as “the new dealer of the late 1850s and the early 1860’s.”

As Dorsey’s reference suggests, one metaphor used often in these discussions was “slavery”.  Invoked repeatedly, perhaps no term was subject to as many meanings and distortions. During the 1930s it was possible to hear the word slavery used to describe: the exploitation suffered by white factory workers at the hands of profit-hungry owners; the misery experienced by southern farm laborers, white and black, post-Civil War; the subjugation of the entire South at the hands of Yankee exploiters; and, sometimes, the historical experience of black enslavement.  By the end of the 1930s, yet another definition was added: the oppression of those living under the rule of fascist (and sometimes communist) dictators.

In this far-flung discourse, one point stood out with increasing prominence: while black people had certainly known a condition of “slavery”, theirs was an experience largely in the past, and not one defined primarily by economic exploitation.  From the perspective of the 30s, the more urgent “slavery” affected white people whose economic misery seemed to sit at the very core of Depression era suffering. When Roosevelt and other New Dealers spoke about “slavery”, or about Lincoln’s role in ending it, they worked hard to shift the emphasis to white people.   One political representative, for example, decried the “virtual economic slavery” plaguing many Americans, who, he contended, otherwise enjoyed the freedom to work where they wished and elect their public officials.   This was hardly an apt description of most black peoples’ experiences.  Roosevelt himself praised Lincoln as “an emancipator – not of slaves alone but of those of heavy heart everywhere.”  Even among popular front playwrights and authors, many of whom worked for the federal arts initiatives, the principle focus tended to fall on white peoples’ “enslavement”.   In a play authored by future Casablanca screenwriter Howard Koch, one character remarks that Lincoln “freed those who were called slaves; it is for us to free those who are called free” – a cue that signals a group of miners to march with a banner that reads “Free the Whites”.

No one accentuated the “free the whites” theme more than Hollywood which constantly used all the symbols associated with slavery – whips, chains, dogs pursuing runaways – to portray the imprisonment of white people, whether white men laboring in chain gangs or white men and women enduring the suffering that befell white southerners after the Civil War.   The most spectacular presentation of this came in Gone With the Wind, both book and film, which imagined white people laboring like “field hands” while black characters displayed ignorance about the work – raising cotton, delivering newborn babies – demanded from enslaved people in the antebellum South.  Less well known was the 1942 film, Tennessee Johnson, a somewhat improbable biopic about Andrew Johnson.  Honoring the Reconstruction president while vilifying Thaddeus Stevens, the movie portrayed young Andy Johnson as a tailor’s apprentice who must wear leg chains as a mark of his subservience.  Released from his shackles after a successful escape, Johnson keeps the chains for the rest of his days as a reminder of his confinement.  Following the war he shows them to Stevens, the supposed champion of black freedom, who asks: “what in tarnation is that thing”?  Stevens’ query, in effect, drives home a central feature of Depression era culture: the erasure of black enslavement, and of white people’s culpability, by appropriating slavery’s symbols as a means to invoke sympathy for white suffering.


Nina Silber is professor of history at Boston University and author of The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865-1900, and Gender and the Sectional Conflict.