“Job Creators” and the Echo of Slaveholding Republicanism

A 19th century southern "job creator" rests comfortably on his porch while one of his dutiful employees looks on with great reverence.

A nineteenth century southern “job creator” rests comfortably on his porch while one of his dutiful employees looks on with great reverence.

Greetings fellow plebeians. Have you done your patriotic duty lately and courteously genuflected before our great nation’s sacred bestowers of all things employment based? Yes, I of course refer to that most noble, industrious, ultra-rich, and all around better-than-you group of Americans referred collectively by that oversized chamber pot known as the political pundit industry as “job creators.” If you have not yet shown due and expected deference to these money-swollen lords of society, then I suggest you do so quickly; for you see, the “job creators” are angry, and when they get angry, they refuse to cast their magical, job-creating spells like so many disgruntled Hogwarts rejects.

Why are the “Job Creators” angry, you ask? Well, allow me to enlighten you. Some audacious lower members of society, especially Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Soviet Union) have been unduly chastising our glorious plutocratic overlords. Warren has used her relatively brief Senate position to attack Wall Street with a combination of old-time progressive populist rhetoric and actual legislation that would reign in the casino-like excesses of the financial services industry. The “Job Creators” are not pleased.

Bloomberg’s Zac Bissonnette, for example, recently accused Warren of harboring “disdain for the private sector” by having the gall to propose legislation that curtails hiring discrimination based on credit scores. Moreover, a few years’ back, the ignominious trolls over at the Libertarian unicorn production factory known as Reason.com claimed that Warren “wants America to be more like Communist China.” The Peoples’ Republic of China, of course, has been an authoritarian capitalist society for a while now, but whatever. These types of accusations from American conservatives are bolstered by an idea that they believe to be fundamental to American society: that the wealthiest members of society must be respected, nay, worshipped by the smudge-faced commoners because they hold the power, through their control of capital, to create jobs for everyone else. In short: piss them off and they’ll “go Galt.

At the heart of the “job creators” mentality is that wealth in its own right amounts to virtue, and that virtue, by extension, must be acknowledged. Thus, the “lesser” members of society who aren’t wealthy should be all-too-happy to accept the scraps of benefit free, low-wage Wal-Mart greeter and Wendy’s Frosty incubator jobs that the “job creators” create for the proletarian masses.

The term “job creators” itself is a concoction by right-wing marketing nematode Frank Luntz, a guy whose stock-in-trade is using gentle euphemisms to make conservative policies sound less odious than they actually are. To plenty of folks, “jobs creators” sounds better than terms like “oligarchs,” “leeches,” “tax cheats,” well, you get the idea. Luntz is also the guy who refashioned the positive sounding “inheritance tax” into the negative sounding “death tax” in order to convince Americans that not taxing the inherited wealth that spawns “job creators” like Paris Hilton actually benefits average people.

Remeber back when President George W. Bush's massive tax cuts caused the "job creators" to create jobs? Neither do I.

Remember back when President George W. Bush’s massive tax cuts caused the “job creators” to create jobs? Neither do I.

Plenty of Americans — though not a majority — have bought into the idea that the wealthy must be given constant policy tongue baths via lower taxes, less regulation, and exemptions from giving minimum wage and health benefits to employees, lest they pack up their money and leave the country. No matter that, despite the flagging economy, corporations have been sitting on huge piles of cash without hiring workers for the last few years. And no matter that the ultra-wealthy don’t really create jobs. The idea of “job creators” is a myth that won’t die because it has historical precedent. Looking back to the nineteenth century slave-holding South, the notion of due deference being shown to the wealthy in exchange for labor benefits was a key argument favored by pro-slavery ideologues.

Defenders of American slavery cast their arguments in terms designed to appeal to the broader white masses, in both the North and South. They argued that racial slavery ensured social harmony because it made all free white men equal in their shared superiority over enslaved blacks. In this respect, wealthy slaveholding planters demanded the support of their “peculiar institution” from the majority of white southerners who didn’t own slaves on the basis that slaveholding created wealth that benefitted all of society — not just the rich. Not only were slaves valuable property in-and-of themselves, but their labor was valuable as well. Thus, wealthy planters and their defenders cast themselves as the “job creators” of the Old South. They told poor and even middle class whites to support slavery because doing so always made them better off than black slaves, who did the dirtiest, hardest work in society.

This form of proslavery advocacy eventually coalesced into a complete ideology known as “proslavery republicanism.” While republicanism entailed a government based on the will of the people through equal popular representation, proslavery republicanism stated that only white men were guaranteed participation in a republican society. As historian Stephanie McCurry notes, “the modern slave republic was defined above all else, as its defenders never tired of saying, by the boundary that separated the independent and enfranchised minority from the majority of dependent and excluded others.”* The “excluded others” were black slaves (and women). Proslavery republicanism ensured all white men that even if they were poor and beholden to the South’s planter oligarchs, they were still, in comparison to black slaves, “equal” to the rich, and should therefore be content with their lot or else work to improve their condition.

Statistically speaking, the average white southerner had little hope of reaching the planter class via slave ownership, but the oligarchs reaped the rewards of wealth and power from keeping such a dream alive among the common white South. The lower classes were less likely to rebel if they believed that they could one day enter the planter class — even if that hope was mostly a pipe dream.

Proslavery republicanism was, therefore, the glue that held the old southern socio-economic order together, despite its many internal fractures that often revolved around issues of class division. Perhaps the most famous proslavery defense came in the form of the so-called “Mudsill Speech” delivered by South Carolina slaveholder, and all-around slime ball, James Henry Hammond. I wrote about Hammond’s speech in a previous post, but it bears repeating. Hammond, a guy who admitted in his journals (!) to molesting his own nieces, defended slavery on the grounds that:

In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. That is, a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill…it constitutes the very mud-sill of society and of political government; and you might as well attempt to build a house in the air, as to build either the one or the other, except on this mud-sill.

The “mud-sill” class to whom Hammond referred were slaves, and he and other advocates of proslavery republicanism argued that even white Americans of lower classes should support slavery, and the planter oligarchies it created, because they benefitted from creating a permanent “mud-sill” class over which they could claim social and economic superiority. This was a form of trickle-down economics, in which wealthy planters courted, and often got, the support of less well-off groups based on the assumption that what was good for the rich was good for everyone (or at least all white men). Did it work, you may ask? May I point to exhibit A: the Confederate States of America, a short-lived proslavery republic in the name of which thousands of slaveholders and non-slaveholders alike died during the Civil War.

If James Henry Hammond were alive today, he'd tell you to support tax cuts for the rich on the basis that "hey, at least you ain't a mudsill." He'd also want to spend some time with your nieces.

If James Henry Hammond were alive today, he’d tell you to support tax cuts for the rich on the basis that “hey, at least you ain’t a mudsill.” He’d also want to spend some time with your nieces.

Historian Larry Tise observes that proslavery republicanism was “a system of values and beliefs that reconciled for Americans the inevitable conflict between the nation’s revolutionary ideals and the facts of enslavement.”* So powerful were these contradictions that we’re still dealing with the fallout from slavery to this day. Hence, the major underlying theme of proslavery republicanism; its emphasis on due deference to the rich in the name of the greater good, survived the demise of slavery and continued to resurface in latter-day conservative defences of all forms of social and economic privilege. This defense of privilege is the same notion that underpins the contemporary right-wing American obsession with worshipping wealthy “job creators.”

So the next time someone warns you about the supposed dangers of taxing the super-rich, or waxes apocalyptic about the alleged detrimental effects of raising the minimum wage, remember that in America, we used to claim that slavery ensured freedom. The maintenance of peasant-and-lord style mentalities like the “job creators” myth doesn’t help those who are unemployed in a nation swimming in wealth, and its bodes ill for the continued vitality of truly equal, small “r” republican governance. In the U.S., wealth has always equaled power, and if you think the so-called “job creators” are standing up for anyone’s interest but their own, then I suggest loading up your Confederate musket, ’cause your gonna’ need it.

* See Stephanie McCurry, “The Two Faces of Republicanism: Gender and Proslavery Politics in Antebellum South Carolina ,” Journal of American History 78 (March., 1992): 1246.

* See Larry E. Tise, Proslavery : A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701-1840 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987), 361.

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0 Comments

  1. (D-Soviet Union)…that’s brilliant. I must say, Jarret, you’re the most well-researched, well-written and thought-provoking writer of all the blogs I read. I appreciate it.

    • Well gosh, thanks for the compliments! I’m just a guy occasionally writing about history, and if something sticks for someone, all the better. Wish I had a bit more time to post more often, though. I should have a new post up today or tomorrow. Take care!

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