When was "ZOMG!!! Socialism!!!!" first deployed in Congress? In 1848, in defense of slavery
The Junto is a very good blog for American history geeks -- and who doesn't want to be an American history geek? As far as the story in the headline goes:
As far as I can make out, the first reference to “socialism” on the floor of Congress came from North Carolina representative Abraham Venable in July 1848. During a debate over the Wilmot Proviso, Venable indulged himself in a familiar litany of destructive Northern manias, which ranged from “the wicked schemes of Garrison” to “the wild excesses of Millerism, and of Latter-Day Saints, the abominations of Socialism, and of Fourieriesm… and all the numerous fanaticisms which spring up and flourish in their free soil…”
This kind of pro-slavery, anti-Northern rant was the context for most mentions of “socialism” in Congress during the next several years. As Karl Marx himself pointed out, once the European revolutions of 1848 encouraged conservatives to identify their opponents with the s-word, they began to do so with mechanical consistency: “the theme remains always the same, the verdict is ever ready and invariably reads: ‘Socialism!’ Even bourgeois liberalism is declared socialistic… bourgeois financial reform socialistic. It was socialistic to build a railway where a canal already existed, and it was socialistic to defend oneself with a cane when one was attacked with a rapier.”
In America, strikingly, it was most socialistic to question the practice of owning property in other human beings. Yet the southern planters who cried “Socialism!” had a better case to make than most conservatives. The anti-slavery movement, in its determination to redefine the idea of property itself, did pose a revolutionary threat to America’s existing political economy.
Calhoun himself, as Hofstadter noted, linked criticism of slavery to criticism of capital as early as 1836: “A very slight modification of the arguments used against the institutions which sustain the property and security of the South would make them equally effectual against the institutions of the North, including banking, in which so vast an amount of property and capital is invested.”
In his 1850 speech, Robert Hunter turned Calhoun’s observation into a prediction: “Sir, it is well that we should consider where these abolition doctrines will lead us. The property holder of the North may experience no inconvenience from them as yet, but his time will come—sooner or later, it must come.”
For many historians, the larger anti-slavery threat to property came during Radical Reconstruction—and then was beaten back by fearful Northern capitalists. Perhaps, as some have recently argued, the property holder’s time will come again. If it does, we can be sure that contemporary conservatives, like their antebellum ancestors, will have no hesitation about dropping the s-bomb.
If you look at the Civil War as a war between two capitalist systems -- one founded on human ownership, the other on human rental -- then the "Civil War" looks a lot more like a revolution, where an entire political economy is overthrown and extirpated, and the "Revolution" looks a lot more like a civil war where the Atlantic is the Mason-Dixon Line. The catastrophic failure of Reconstruction to wipe out the slave power also appears in sharp relief; we should ended doing to Confederate iconography what the Germans did to Nazi iconography. Instead we get the Stars and Bars plastered with cavalier abandon over consumer goods from coffee holders to caps to trucks, wherever the need to show reaction in the form of faux rebellion manifests itself. Too bad John Wilkes Booth didn't miss....