Posts Tagged ‘Abolition of Slavery’

Abraham Lincoln on trial for racism

May 31, 2021

Standing Lincoln sculpture in Chicago’s Lincoln Park

I was brought up to revere Abraham Lincoln as the Great Emancipator.  But in recent years, I’ve read more and more claims that, in fact, he was just a white racist.

Last year some of the Black Lives Matter protestors toppled statues of people they considered symbols of American’s racist past.

They didn’t stop with Confederate generals, but went on to destroy statues of iconic American statesmen, up to and including Abraham Lincoln himself.

In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot appointed a Monuments Project advisory committee to evaluate the city’s public statues, and the committee produced a list of 41 as possible candidates for removal.

The list includes five statues of Abraham Lincoln, as well as two of George Washington, one each of Benjamin Franklin and Ulysses S. Grant, and various French explorers, Civil War generals, generic Indians and other notables, plus plaques commemorating the first white settlers of the region.

The committee did not list Chicago’s statue of Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln’s great opponent on the issue of slavery, but it said it might recommend other statues for removal later on.

The Indictment

The case against Abraham Lincoln is as follows.

During his whole political career, he never was an abolitionist.  In fact, he went out of his way to assure white Southerners that he had no intention of abolishing slavery where it was.

Instead he was a supporter of the Free Soil movement, which opposed adding new slave states to the Union.  The Republican Party was founded to support Free Soil

Some Free Soilers were abolitionists, but others were outright white racists and many didn’t care one way or the other about slavery in the South.  Their objection was to free workers having to compete with slave labor.

Lincoln in many of his public statements despaired of white people and black people living together peaceably with equal rights.

Like many others of his day, he hoped that black Americans could emigrate to Liberia, a quasi-independent African nation established by the USA for that purpose.

Once elected President, his priority was to save the Union, not to abolish slavery.

He only issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 when the Confederacy seemed about to win recognition from Britain and France, as a means of rallying progressive world opinion to the Union side.

Even then, the proclamation only applied to areas under control of the Confederacy.  It freed not one slave in Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri or any other area under Union control.

The defense

Opposition to the spread of slavery was a big deal.  Both opponents and defenders of slavery believed that, without new territory for slave-worked plantation agriculture, slavery would die out in the USA.

That’s why, after Lincoln’s election, seven Southern states declared their independence before he was even inaugurated.

He did not try to entice these states back into the Union through compromise.  Instead he asserted federal authority by ordering the resupply of Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, S.C.

His priority was to save the Union.  If the Union had not been preserved, there would have been no possibility of abolishing slavery.

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David Brion Davis on the history of slavery

November 2, 2016

One of the things I’ve come to realize is the central importance of African slavery not only in the history of the United States, but of the whole New World and the British, French, Spanish and Portuguese empires.

My understanding has been greatly helped by the historian David Brion Davis.   He wrote about slavery as a moral issue—how it was justified in the first place, and how the Western world came to turn against it.

I’ve read his principal books—The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (1966), The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (1975), Slavery and Human Progress (1984), Inhuman Bondage: the Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (2006) and his latest book, which I finished reading last week, The Problem of Slavery in The Age of Emancipation (2014).

davisslaveryemancipationbwoakes02161391905742Slavery is a problem because in Western culture because of the heritage of the Greeks and Romans, who regarded freedom as necessary to human dignity, and because of the Christian religion, which taught that all human beings are equally children of God.

In the ancient Mediterranean world, there were two kinds of slaves—debt slaves and war captives.  Selling yourself or your children into slavery was the ultimate form of bankruptcy, and it exists in the world today.  I read somewhere that the world’s largest concentration of slaves are debt slaves in India.

Ancient armies did not have facilities for keeping prisoners of war.  Their choices for dealing with defeated enemies were to kill them (or at least kill all the adult males) or to enslave them.

When the Atlantic slave trade began, the rationalization was that the African slaves had been defeated in war in their own homelands and already forfeited their lives.

The first white opponents of Western slavery were the Quakers and other peace churches.  Since war was anti-Christian, the Quakers believed, then slavery, as the fruit of war, also was wrong.

Quakers were leaders of the anti-slavery movement in both Great Britain and the United States; many and maybe most white members of the Underground Railroad were Quakers.

Another strain of opposition to slavery came from the rationalistic thinkers of the 18th century, who opposed hereditary privilege and believed that government should should be based on recognition of human rights.

They were not as wholehearted as the Quakers.  Slaveowners such as Thomas Jefferson admitted that slavery was in theory a great evil, but insisted that the times and conditions for emancipation weren’t right.

The invention of so-called scientific racism was in part a response to qualms of people like Jefferson.  If black Africans are not as human as white Europeans, then slavery does not have to be justified.  There is no reason not to treat enslaved people as if they were livestock.

This argument did not touch the Quakers and other religious opponents of slavery because they opposed slavery on moral grounds, not scientific grounds.

Black people, both free and enslaved, meanwhile fought for their own liberation, in slave uprisings and in appeals to white people for the abolition of slavery.   Without their struggle, the majority of white people might have been able to ignore the moral issue indefinitely.

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The passing scene – August 20, 2015

August 20, 2015

Struggle and Progress: Eric Foner on the abolitionists, Reconstruction and winning “freedom” from the Right, a conversation with Jacobin magazine writers.

Eric Foner

Eric Foner

Historian Eric Foner pointed out that the abolition of slavery was truly a second American Revolution.  It involved the confiscation without compensation of the most valuable form of property at the time—enslaved African people.

The Civil War is sometimes interpreted as a triumph of industrial capitalism over a backward agrarian economy.  Foner said that, although this is true in a way, the pre-Civil War capitalists got along very well with the slaveowners.

The abolitionists included moderates, radicals, wealthy philanthropists, lawbreakers, politicians, former black slaves and racists who opposed slavery because it was harmful to white people.  Although sometimes working at cross-purposes, Foner said their diverse approaches created a synergy that made the movement stronger.   This has lessons for our own time.

The Last Refuge of the Incompetent by John Michael Greer for The Archdruid Report.

John Michael Greer wrote that a successful revolutionary movement will (1) discredit the existing order through relentless propaganda, (2) seek alliances with all those with grievances against the existing order, (3) create alternative institutions of its own and (4) offer a vision of hope, not despair.

In the USA, this program is being carried out not by what Greer called the “green Left,” but the “populist Right”.

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The facts behind the movie “Belle”

June 11, 2014

The other evening I saw “Belle,” an enjoyable movie about Dido Elizabeth Belle, the daughter of a West Indian slave, who was adopted into the family of William Murray, the Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales.

It’s a sweet love story.  It is an interesting picture of the life of the 18th century British aristocracy, and the interplay of race and social rank.  And the real Belle must have been a remarkable person.  BUT:

It is less than just to Lord Mansfield, who is depicted as an old fogy who needed to be prodded by idealistic young people to do the right thing.

Lord Mansfield was an opponent of slavery who, as a judge, was faced with the fact that slavery was established in law.  Only a naive person would think that he was in a position to abolish slavery simply by decree.  But he established judicial precedents, within the existing law, that weakened slavery.

Mansfield in the movie is shown as reluctantly accepting the child Belle into his household because she is the illegitimate daughter of his nephew, Admiral Sir John Lindsey.  In fact he was not reluctant at all, and Belle was not a blood relation.  She was the daughter of a pregnant mulatto woman liberated from a Spanish ship that Lindsey captured in war.

The movie focuses on the Zong case, in which Mansfield ruled against owners of a slave ship who claimed insurance compensation for chained slaves overboard on a voyage.

The Somersett case, in which Mansfield ruled that a runaway slave need not return to his master, was much more significant.    Mansfield’s decision was that, in the absence of a specific law establishing slavery, it could not be permitted because it was inherently “odious”.

This was roughly the same position that Abraham Lincoln took prior to being elected President.  He said he did not have the legal authority to abolish slavery where it existed, because it was established by the Constitution, but slavery was so obviously wrong that it could not be allowed to spread into new territories.   This was unacceptable to slaveowners, which is the reason for the Civil War.

At the end of the movie, it seems to me, the characters spoke and thought more like contemporary people than people of their own time.  As if the present generation represents a pinnacle of wisdom!  I think that is a common flaw of historical movies.  I think Amistad would have been a better movie if the John Quincy Adams characters had made the arguments that the real John Quincy Adams made, and not what Steven Spielberg thinks he should have made.   The movie Lincoln was better because it put Lincoln in the context of his times.

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Click on ‘The Black Must Be Discharged’: the Abolitionists’ Debt to Lord Mansfield for more background by Stephen Underwood for History Today.

Globalization and the world slave work force

October 23, 2013

slavery-map2

About two-thirds of the world’s estimated 29.8 million slaves are forced laborers, working for private employers to supply materials and components for products sold in world markets.

Tim Fernholtz of the Atlantic gave some examples.

This summer, an Australian man imprisoned in China reported that prisoners were making headphones for global airlines like Qantas and British Airways. Some 300,000 sets of the disposable headphones were made by uncompensated prisoners who were forced to work without pay and regularly beaten. The index says that there are about 3 million slaves in China, in state-run forced labor camps, at private industrial firms making electronics and designer bags, and in the brick-making industry.

Companies like Apple, Boeing and Intel—among thousands of others—have been under pressure to document that the tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold they use aren’t being mined by slaves in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a civil war has led armed groups seeking funding to force civilians to work. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission adopted a rule forcing American firms to trace the minerals they use to their origins, and while business lobbies have sued to overturn it, industry leaders have begun planning to file the first required reports in May 2014.

In the Asian seafood industry, migrant workers may become forced laborers who harvest and prepare mackerel, shrimp and squid bound for markets around the world.

Côte d’Ivoire is the world’s leading supplier of cocoa—some 40 percent of the global supply—and much of it is grown and harvested by some children engaged in forced labor. In 2010, Côte d’Ivoire said 30,000 children worked on cocoa farms, although Walk Free’s index estimates as many as 600,000 to 800,000. While this has been widely reported on since 2000, and the global response has been strong, compared to that of other allegations of forced labor, the problem has not really been solved. As of 2012, 97 percent of the country’s farmers have not participated in industry-sponsored campaigns against forced child labor. Mondelēz International, the world’s largest chocolate producer, which owns brands such as Milka, Toblerone and Cadbury, has struggled for years to take forced labor out of its supply chain. It committed $400 million to a program aimed at creating a sustainable cocoa economy last year, but its efforts have been ineffective so far.

The best way for us Americans and citizens of other wealthy countries to promote freedom and democracy is to stop our corporations and governments from supporting slavery and autocracy.   This seems do-able to me.

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Slavery in the world today

October 22, 2013

slavery-absolute-numbers

Slavery is outlawed under international law and in most parts of the world, but there are still nearly 30 million slaves in the world today, according to the anti-slavery organization WalkFree.  These are literal, not metaphorical, slaves—forced laborers, child soldiers, forced prostitutes and others held in bondage.

Some are debt slaves, sold into slavery to pay their own or their parents’ debts.  Some are unauthorized immigrants, lured by false promises of a job and then trapped in a country where they have no legal rights.   Some are simply victims of force.

The map above shows the estimated number of slaves in each country.  Nearly half of the world’s slaves—an estimated 14 million people—are in India.   But few countries are completely without slaves, and the USA is not one of them.

The map below shows the estimated proportion of the population of each country that is enslaved—about one out of every 25 people in the nation of MauritiusMauritania, one out of 48 in Haiti.  The percentage of slaves in the United States is small, but that is still 60,000 people.  India is near the top in the prevalence of slavery as well as absolute numbers.

slavery-per-capita-map-wo-arrows.OLCjpg

Click on Globalization and the world slave work force for a post on how global companies benefit from slave labor. [added 10/23/13]

Click on This map shows where the world’s 30 million slaves live | There are 60,000 in the U.S. for background by Max Fisher of the Washington Post.

Click on WalkFree.org – The Movement to End Modern Slavery for more information and suggestions for action.   Hat tip to occasional links and commentary.

The greatness of Lincoln on film

November 29, 2012

I saw Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln movie during Thanksgiving week, and liked it a lot.   It was well-written, well-acted and well-staged, and so far as I can tell, broadly true to history. The movie focused on a few months in early 1865 when Lincoln pushed the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, through Congress.  It showed the two sides of Lincoln, the cunning politician and the idealistic believer in freedom and democracy.  If Lincoln had been less of either, slavery would not have been abolished when and how it was.

An early scene showed two black Union soldiers talking to someone with his back turned; then the camera revealed the person to be Abraham Lincoln, whose expression of good-humored, kindly shrewdness showed Lincoln as I imagined him.  Daniel Day-Lewis is a splendid actor.  After watching him as Lincoln, it is hard to recall he played Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York. 

Tommy Lee Jones was great as Thaddeus Stevens, the radical abolitionist Congressman, who is depicted as a man ahead of his time, as he was, instead of as a dangerous extremist, as he usually is shown.  Sally Field (no longer young and perky) gave a fine performance as the troubled Mary Todd Lincoln, as did David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward.

The movie provides much-needed push-back against revisionists who claim that Abraham Lincoln was a power-hungry opportunist who cared nothing about slavery.  There are two versions of this—a left-wing version that says Lincoln was a servant of capitalism and a right-wing version that says the Civil War was really about state’s rights.

The Southern leaders in fact only cared about state’s rights as a means of defending slavery.  They used the power of the federal government to override Northern states that harbored fugitive slaves.  It is true that Lincoln did not run for President as an abolitionist.  A Thaddeus Stevens could not have been elected.  Lincoln’s platform was to stop the spread of slavery into parts of the nation where it did not then exist.  This, he claimed, would lead to the gradual extinction of slavery.  The Southern leaders agreed.  They thought Lincoln such a threat that they led their states out of the Union.

Lincoln wrote a famous letter to Horace Greeley, saying his priority was to save the Union by any means necessary, whether that meant freeing the slaves, leaving them in bondage or freeing some and not freeing others.  This was a correct priority.   Emancipation of the slaves would have been meaningless if the Southern whites has established an independent slave nation.  But when he wrote this letter, the Emancipation Proclamation was in a desk drawer, awaiting a Union victory for Lincoln to issue it.

Critics of Lincoln said the Emancipation Proclamation, which referred only to slaves in areas then in rebellion, did not free a single slave.  This isn’t so.  Many slaves fled behind Union lines to freedom.  The Emancipation Proclamation was based on Lincoln’s claim of wartime authority to confiscate enemy property.  He did not have the authority under law to emancipate slaves generally on his own decision.  This required a Constitutional amendment, which, as the movie shows, he introduced in due course.

Emancipation of the slaves had political and strategic benefits.  It deprived the South of its work force and its moral claims.  Black troops added to the Union strength.  But it had its costs.  Northern whites were divided on this issue.  Southern whites were motivated to fight to the bitter end because emancipation meant an end to their way of life.  Without emancipation, the Confederates might have surrendered before Sherman’s march through Georgia and the rest of the physical devastation of the South.  Or a compromise peace might have been negotiated, as the movie indicates, and the war ended sooner, but with slavery intact.

Click on Lincoln: A More Authentic Wonderment for an appreciation of the movie in the New York Review of Books.

Click on Fact-Checking ‘Lincoln’: Lincoln’s Mostly Accurate, His Advisers Aren’t for historical background in The Atlantic.