Friday, October 17, 2014

American Slavery: Aberration or Founding Principle?

A former slave displays the scars from
being bullwhipped, 1863. Source

'Zekiel saw de wheel of time
Wheel in de middle of a wheel
Ev'ry spoke was human kind
Way in de middle of a wheel
—"Ezekiel Saw the Wheel," Traditional Negro Spiritual1

Slavery was the flywheel on which America’s market revolution turned—not just in the United States, but in all of the Americas.
—Greg Grandin, How Slavery Made the Modern World

Raphael painted, Luther preached, Corneille wrote, and Milton sung; and through it all, for four hundred years, the dark captives wound to the sea amid the bleaching bones of the dead; for four hundred years the sharks followed the scurrying ships; for four hundred years America was strewn with the living and dying millions of a transplanted race; for four hundred years Ethiopia stretched forth her hands unto God.
—W.E.B. DuBois, Africa, Its Geography, People and Products

~   ~   ~

Recently, I've had cause to return to the subject of slavery, because of a project my father and I are working on together. (More on that in the near-ish future.) You may recall that the last time I visited the subject, I talked about reparations for slavery and the idea of collective responsibility for wrongs.

Slavery fascinates me because it is the stick in the spokes of any purely positive view of American ideals and history. Take this one, for example:
American Exceptionalism and greatness means that America is special because it is different from all other countries in history… The sad reality is that since the beginning of time, most citizens of the world have not been free. For hundreds and thousands of years, many people in other civilizations and countries were servants to their kings, leaders, and government. It didn’t matter how hard these people worked to improve their lives, because their lives were not their own…The United States of America is unique because it is the exception to all this. Our country is the first country ever to be founded on the principle that all human beings are created as free people. The Founders of this phenomenal country believed all people were born to be free as individuals. And so, they established a government and leadership that recognized and established this for the first time ever in the world.2
Slavery gives the lie to this. The sad reality is that since the beginning of American history, most of its residents have not been free, either.3 And that should prompt us to seriously question whether the original Americans believed that all people were "born to be free as individuals."

Have the temerity to suggest this in public, however, and you risk the wrath of people who are really into American exceptionalism:

My point in saying this is not "Anything that Thomas Jefferson ever wrote about liberty is invalid because slaves,"4 nor is it that we should tear up the constitution5 (partly because Thomas Jefferson did not write the constitution: it was written by a whole team of dudes and he was not one of them).

What my point is is merely that slavery complicates things, and that it's worth paying attention to.

In my experience, there are basically two broadly opposed views of American history, and thus two ways of accounting for slavery as a part of American history. First, if you believe that America was truly founded on the principles of individual liberty and equality, and that it has in fact been an exceptional country from its founding, then slavery and sexism and racism and colonialism and all the other oppressions and inequalities in American history are aberrations. They represent nothing about the true American spirit; they were simply things that needed to be struggled with, fought, and gotten past in order to truly fulfill the American vision.

The other view of American history is that, as a country, it is no different from what you would expect of the people putting it together at its time: a crowd of elite white men. In forming a new nation, they naturally sought to protect their own interests, and the inevitable result was that slavery, white supremacy, economic inequalities, sexism, and colonialism were built into the system from the start as founding principles. The movements to overturn these injustices have had to fight against the very spirit of the country itself, which might explain why so many Americans have historically opposed said movements.

I have next to no patience for the former reading of American history. But as attractive as the latter reading is to me, I think it's missing something.

Which is to say: nuance exists.

Harriet Tubman with rescued slaves. Source

There's a notion in the study of American history, on the Left in particular, that Lincoln and the wave of Republicans who were elected in 1860 had no intention of ending slavery in the slave states.6 The Civil War, according to this view, was exclusively about preserving the Union. Supporters can point to several actions by Lincoln early in the war as evidence: a pair of executive orders in 1861, rescinding the freeing of slaves in Missouri and reversing the abolition of slavery, declared by a Union general, in three border states that had remained in the Union. In 1862, Lincoln even writes a letter stating that, if he could, he would end the war without freeing a single slave. The South was bad, sure, but the North was full of racists, too. The Civil War was a mistake and a sham.7

All of this happens to fit fairly well with the second, more cynical view of American history that I described above. The Civil War was primarily about projecting power and authority and crushing rebellion, rather than the destruction of an odious institution: and why should it be otherwise, if the odious institution was designed from the beginning to be at the heart of American life?

As it happens, though, this reading also completely ignores what the abolitionist movement in America really was—the ideas behind it and the constraints it operated in. To fully understand this, we need to take quick leap backwards in time to the Constitutional Convention:

In the 1780s, slavery looked very much to be on the wane in America. The abolitionists at the Convention were confident that it would soon die out on its own, and felt more or less comfortable compromising with pro-slavery convention members on slavery in order to get other favorable terms for their other ideas. What they did not feel comfortable with, however, was allowing people to be described as "property" in the new constitution. So it was that slavery was indelibly, legally inscribed in the US constitution, but the slaves themselves were described everywhere as "persons held in service" rather than the more usual "property in man." These facts were to have consequences for both sides.

Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the Unites States, Howard Chandler Christy. Source
Note the lack of Thomas Jefferson, assuming you're able to distinguish him from all these other white dudes. 

What no founding father anticipated was the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 and the resulting cotton boom in the Southern states, with an accompanying boom in the American slave trade. While the Northern states phased out slavery gradually over a few decades, as the constitution's authors had anticipated they would, the South expanded its slave population by hundreds of thousands. Abolitionists soon realized needed a plan for eradicating slavery, because it was clearly not going to die out on its own any time soon.

Because slavery was written into the constitution, abolitionists and slaveholders alike agreed that the federal government had no power to abolish it in the states: that was up to the states themselves. Abolitionists, though, felt strongly that the constitution did not actively support slavery. The preamble spoke in terms of fundamental human equality; the constitution as whole spoke of slaves not as property, but as persons. In the abolitionists' reading, the constitution considered slavery an unnatural state, that had to be actively instituted by local state laws in order to exist. The conclusion that abolitionists drew was that, while the federal government couldn't ban slavery in the states that already had it, it could ban it everywhere else: on the high seas, in trade, in the capital, and in new territories.

Thus was born the abolitionists' political strategy for ending slavery: use the power of the federal government to form a "cordon of freedom" around the slave states. Cut off the expansion of slavery, and, "like a scorpion surrounded by fire," it will surely sting itself to death.8

This is what the Republicans planned to do, and it's what they would have done if the slave states had not seceded. Secession was not a panicky overreaction on the South's part: it was a completely rational response to its opponents coming to power with a policy in hand, ready to undermine its economic foundations.

The war itself was waged on the legal grounds of preserving the Union. The constitution granted the federal government the power to quell insurrection and rebellion, which is what the secession of the South was. When Lincoln writes of waging war to preserve the Union, of ending the war without freeing slaves, he speaks not of his personal desires: he is after all a man who has always hated slavery, for a variety of reasons. Rather, he's speaking of what is constitutionally allowed for the federal government to do. The war was waged to preserve the Union, but the Union was broken to preserve slavery, and mending the Union was meant to bring about an end to slavery. 

Battle of Port Hudson, J.O. Davidson. Source

The abolitionists saw in America's founding documents the right to liberty and equality. For them, the institution of slavery was an obvious contradiction to these rights, and to the natural law of the world itself. Slavery had to be destroyed, and its destruction was consonant with the true principles on which America was founded.

Whether we agree with them or not—whether we see slavery as a founding principle or a temporary blight on our nation's true nature—it's worth pondering whether the abolitionists would have succeeded if they'd seen the situation differently. If liberty and equality are not key American principles, how can you build an American political movement to bring them to bear? If oppression of all kinds is the bedrock of the American way, can you erase it without remaking the nation itself?

In other words, if you want to make a truly pessimistic reading of America's origins and history, you need to confront the possibility that America cannot be changed. I think the abolitionists, as well as other American movements for liberty and equality, point us in another direction.

Great good and great evil have dwelt here from the beginning. The task of Americans who want justice is not to burn it all down and start anew, nor is it to throw up our hands and say, "To heck with this, I'm moving to Switzerland." Rather, it is to build movements that point people toward justice, and seek actively to root out and destroy oppression, recognizing all the while the potential for either outcome has been there from the beginning.

1. I haven't been able to find a recorded version of this song with precisely these lyrics, which I found here. The linked version above is easily the best one I've been able to find, a gleefully weird rendition by Louis Armstrong and co.
2. This quote is from a book about American history that Rush Limbaugh wrote for kids.
3. Note that, if you tell American history starting with the founding of the English colonies—and, in my experience, that is how we tell American history to our children—then we've been a free society for about a hundred years less than we were a slave society (149 years vs. 258, counting from the first permanent settlement at Jamestown, where there were indeed slaves.) Adding to this the even lengthier period of legal subjugation of women to men, in the form of, for example, the lack of suffrage rights until 1920, and the legality of marital rape until 1993, we have a compelling portrait of a society in which most members have not been free for most of its history.
4. Although the whole "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants" thing is pretty terrifying, and also pretty wack, in my opinion. That said, it was an offhand remark in an obscure letter, not a lifelong personal maxim. So far as we know.
5. Though there is certainly a case for that. At any rate, the constitution could certainly use a number of amendments right about now, on things like campaign finance, the right to voteprivacy, and others.
6. What follows borrows heavily from the work of James Oakes, whose wonderful book, Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865, I'm currently reading. Much of it is summarized in an excellent article that you can find here.
7. James Oakes puts it better than I can, but I'm resisting quoting him at length in the main body of this post, because frankly I use block quotes way too much on this blog: "We are repeatedly told that the North did not go to war over slavery. The Civil War is once again denounced as morally unjustified on the grounds that the North was not motivated by any substantial antislavery convictions. Emancipation itself is described as an accidental byproduct of a war the North fought for no purpose beyond the restoration of the Union. A recent study of the secession crisis states that during the war, slavery was abolished 'inadvertently.' Contemporary scholarship is saturated by this neo-revisionist premise. Like the antebellum Democrats and the Civil War revisionists, neo-revisionists have insistently shifted the terms of the debate from slavery to race. Virtually any Republican in 1860 would have recognized this argument as Democratic Party propaganda."
8. Apparently, scorpions don't actually commit suicide when surrounded by fire, in part because it's physically impossible for them to do so. Which may actually point toward the possibility that slavery was simply never going to end on its own, regardless of the hopes/fears of Americans in the 1800s. This quote is from secessionist senator Robert Toombs, who was describing the Republican policy in what he presumably meant to be negative terms, but it just ended up sounding kind of awesome.

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