Who really built America?

The story the History Channel left out

The country’s immense wealth was not built by the very rich, but by slaves and workers, on land stolen from Native peoples.

This article was published in the 'The Economic Crisis and the Class Struggle' Edition of Liberation.
View the complete issue.

The History Channel recently completed a series called “The Men Who Built America,” which focused on the titans of industry in the Second Industrial Revolution of the late 1800s and early 1900s. The main figures covered in the series are Cornelius Vanderbilt (railroads), John D. Rockefeller (oil), Andrew Carnegie (steel), J. P. Morgan (finance and electricity) and Henry Ford (automobiles).

A more accurate title for the series would be, “The Rich White Men Who Exploited and Robbed America.” The series reveals the extent to which these capitalists—who were rightly known as “robber barons” in their era—sought power and profit above all else. It shows how they bought and directed politicians to serve their economic interests. Some scenes reveal the extent to which these men, in their pursuit to control patents and intellectual property, held back innovation. Far from “free competition,” in which the best products win out, they used all their influence to avoid competition by monopolizing entire industries.

The final episode lends some time to the extreme inequality and miserable conditions of the society they ruled and workers they employed. One example: In 1900, steelworkers often worked 12 hours a day, six or seven days per week, and one out of every 11 died on the job. The series features the bloody 1892 Battle of Homestead, in which Carnegie’s executives called out private mercenaries to militarily put down striking workers.

Like so much else on the History Channel, however, the series is straight out of the “Great Man” school of history. The actions and thoughts of individual (usually white) men, acting on their own, are the determining factor in how history develops. Marxists, by contrast, put individuals in the context of the social trends and classes they represent, and emphasize the contributions of the great mass of exploited people, men and women, whose names history never bothered to record.

From this standpoint, the question “who really built America?” delivers a very different answer. Karl Marx wrote in “Capital,” “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins, signaled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.”

Land theft and genocide

The material foundations of industrialization were the expropriation of land and natural resources, cheap labor, and the accumulation of capital. That is a story that begins long before the Second Industrial Revolution.

To start, there is the question of the land on which “America” was built, the ground from which oil and coal were extracted, and over which the railroad tracks were laid. The land known as “America”—a term that actually includes North and South America—existed long before European colonization.

What made the land accessible for development and rapid expansion was the systematic dispossession of Native American peoples through violence or the threat of violence.

This settler-colonial project was explained in the racist terms of a “superior” civilization carrying out its “destiny” to expand westward and replace “savagery.” It took place over centuries and was not completed until the era of the Second Industrial Revolution, when the last battles were fought to defeat Native armed resistance in the Southwest.

While a policy of war and “Indian removal” existed from the beginnings of U.S. development, disease was the main killer of the Native peoples. A population of between 5 and 10 million in the pre-Columbus territory of the present-day United States had plunged to a historical low of 250,000 in the 1890s. Throughout the Americas, millions died from smallpox, influenza, viral hepatitis and other illnesses, as well as the genocidal policies of armed massacres, removal from their lands, and the slaughter of millions of buffalo. The proliferation of European rodents and livestock also wreaked havoc on the ecosystem of the Americas, which sustained the Native population.

Slave labor

When it became clear that Native Americans were dying out too quickly to be useful laborers, settlers turned to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Settlers reaped huge profits from African people who were enslaved to provide labor to maintain the colonies. In different stages of development, all the colonies that became the United States—North and South—utilized slaves in nearly every arena of labor.

Plantation slavery soon spread throughout the Americas, providing agricultural production for the colonizers at very little cost.

It is impossible to know how many Africans were forced into slavery in the Americas from the time of Columbus through the 19th century, but at least 12 million African men and women were taken to the Americas as slaves. Due to the brutal and unsanitary conditions on slave ships, nearly one in five slaves died along the way.

The slave trade provided the European and U.S. ruling classes with centuries of unpaid labor. In the 1600s, the Spanish began using African slaves, as well as Native peoples, in gold and silver mines. Most European colonies used the plantation system to produce sugar, cotton, tobacco, indigo, rice and other crops for export to the European market.

This process provided Europe and the United States with enough material wealth to boost powerful financial institutions and spur the rapid advances in technological development and production known as the Industrial Revolution.

Even today, many U.S. companies can trace their success to profits made from slavery. A 2002 lawsuit against Aetna, CSX and Fleet Boston sought reparations for African Americans based on these companies’ participation in the slave system. Aetna made its money insuring slaves as the property of their masters, as did J.P. Morgan & Co., ancestor of present-day JPMorgan Chase. CSX is the present permutation of a company that used slave labor to lay railroad tracks. Fleet Boston—now incorporated into Bank of America—was founded by a slave trader.

Industrial Revolution based on wage slavery, national and gender oppression

The Civil War accomplished the abolition of chattel slavery—human beings owned outright—in the South. Chattel slavery was replaced by sharecropping and capitalist exploitation, in which workers’ survival is wholly reliant on the wage or salary given to them by the employer that profits from their labor. The abolition of slavery did not put an end to the super-exploitation and oppression of Black, Native, Latino and other peoples, which continues to this day.

In the era of the Second Industrial Revolution, in which the robber barons flourished, tens of millions of largely poor European and Asian immigrants were drawn to the country’s factories, mills and railroads. Their dangerous and deadly jobs often delivered only a subsistence wage. Women and children formed a super-exploited caste of workers in many vital industries.

Millions of farmers, Black and white, were also drawn to work in the cities, having been deprived of a living—or their land altogether—by expanding agribusiness and land speculation. Mexican workers became the backbone of the southwestern agricultural workforce, doing the backbreaking shifts in harvest time that kept the growing country fed.

In the South, major industries used convict lease-labor, a form of slavery in which government officials used the criminal justice system to supply free Black labor to their corporate friends. Black women served as domestic workers in the homes of middle- and upper-class white families, and undoubtedly in the homes of Morgan, Ford, Chase, Vanderbilt and Rockefeller.

Nationwide, through each of these stages of development, women of all backgrounds carried out daily unpaid housework—the unpaid labor that made all else possible.

The industrial titans promoted policies of colonial expansion overseas to expand U.S. access to markets and resources, seizing the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Mariana Islands in the Spanish-American War. These imperialist conquests, combined with less overt—but no less brutal—forms of colonial rule in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, generated immense wealth that built the United States into a global power.

That’s the short story of who really “built America.” We look forward to the day that television programming is directed by those whom the History Channel has left out, so that the people’s story finally receives the justice it deserves.

In addition to people’s control over the media, the Party for Socialism and Liberation stands for the seizure of the major banks and corporations, reparations and self-determination for oppressed nationalities, and the abolition of exploitation for private profit.

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