Posts Tagged ‘American Slavery’

War in the heart of America

February 28, 2018

During my lifetime, I’ve read a fair amount about the Civil War, but two books that I read during the past few weeks bring home its reality in a new way.

They show how different the war was to people at the time than it seems in the light of history, and how events could have turned out differently from the way they did.

It was not inevitable that the war would last as long as it did, that the North would win or that slavery would have been abolished even if the North had won.

The two books are IN THE PRESENCE OF MINE ENEMIES: War in the Heart of America (2003) and THE THIN LIGHT OF FREEDOM: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America (2017) both by Edward L. Ayers.

His window into the war is a collection of source material—letters, dairies, newspaper accounts and the like from two communities— Franklin County, Pa., and Augusta County, Va.—collected over a period of decades as part of a special project of the University of Virginia.

The two counties are at opposite ends of the Great Valley running north and south between the Blue Ridge and the Appalachians, which was a major battleground of the war.

They were more alike than they were different.   Both consisted of prosperous small farms and small towns.  Augusta was different from the plantation South; Franklin was more typical of the North.

Ayers began with accounts of the 1859 celebration of the Fourth of July in the two counties.   The white people of both considered themselves loyal to the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.   Both wanted to preserve the Union.  Neither wanted to abolish slavery.

Yet within a few years they were at war and hated each other.   Reading these books helps me understand places such as Bosnia and Lebanon, which differing peoples can live together in peace for generations, yet, in a short period of time, be brought to the point of killing each other.

In the 1860 election, Augusta County supported the Constitutional Union party, which was pro-slavery, but anti-secession.  Franklin County supported the Republican Party, which was anti-slavery on only one point—that slavery should be barred from United States territories, in order to protect Northern white workers from competition with slave labor.

Slaveowners in the Deep South saw this as an ultimate threat, because no new slave states would have been admitted to the Union, which in the long run would have made slaveowners a politically powerless minority.

In Virginia, delegates from Augusta County voted against secession.  But as secession proceeded, the question changed from favoring the Union vs. secession to favoring the North vs. the South.  Once the decision was made, the anti-secession delegates fought bravely the Confederate Army or otherwise supported the war wholeheartedly.

The white people of Augusta County were willing to break up the Union in order to preserve slavery.  The white people of Franklin County became willing to abolish slavery in order to preserve the Union.   Black people in both counties had their own w

None foresaw how long the war would last, how many lives would be lost nor what the result would be.

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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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What does the USA owe its black citizens?

May 28, 2014

Almost all nations have things in their past that their peoples find hard to come to terms with.   We Americans have not yet come to terms with our nation’s history of slavery and white supremacy.

Racism in the United States is more than just the bad attitudes of certain white individuals toward black people.  It is the history of government action t0 enslave black people, to deny black the rights of citizenship after slavery was abolished in law, and to exclude them from full participation in society.

The New Deal was tailored so as to freeze out black people from most of its benefits.  Social Security was written so as to exclude domestic servants and agricultural laborers, which were the majority of black people in the 1930s.  The Federal Housing Administration for decades had a policy of refusing to lend money in any neighborhood in which a black family lived.  White suburbanites who said that the value of their house would be destroyed by having a black family in their neighborhood were speaking the literal truth.  This was official government policy.

Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic goes into all this an interview with Bill Moyers, which is shown above, and in an article, The Case for Reparations, in the  Atlantic’s  June issue.

Coates reported on black families who escaped to Chicago from the Deep South, where they were outside the protection of the law, where their incomes were sobject to the whims of white people, and where their property could be taken from them at any time.  In Chicago, they were confined to ghettoes by action of the government, the banks and white mobs, who had the same impunity as white mobs in the South.  Their red-lined neighborhoods are the parts of Chicago where poverty and crime are highest today.

Nor is this all in the past.  The new voter ID laws and other voting restrictions are aimed at discouraging black voting.  Refusal to expand Medicaid disproportionately affects blacks.  Drug laws are enforced selectively against poor young black men, who as convicted felons are then excluded from the protection of anti-discrimination laws for the rest of their lives.

Coates doesn’t deny there has been progress.  The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had a better start in life than Frederick Douglass, but he did not have an equal start with white peers.   Black people once were barred from many occupations.  Now it is just more difficult for them to be hired.

“Reparations” is a trigger word that is easily misunderstood.  Coates did not call for the government to write checks to the descendents of American slaves.  Rather he called on Americans to recognize that the nation (not just white people, but the nation as a whole) owes something to black people, and to discuss just what that is.

I have reservations about the word “reparations,” but I think that Coates is absolutely right to say that we Americans need to face up to our history—the bad along with the good.  I think every American should read his article.

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12 Years a Slave: reviews of the movie

December 7, 2013

In my previous post, I shared my thoughts on the movie, 12 Years a Slave.

Here are some links to reviews and articles that give deeper background and different perspectives.

A Confederacy of Kidnappers by Matt Karp for Jacobin.  Hat tip to tashqueedag.

Henry Louis Gates on 12 Years a Slave and The African-Americans, an interview in Time magazine.

Jezebel and Solomon: Why Patsey Is the Hero of 12 Years a Slave by Amy Davidson for The New Yorker.

Silenced by Christopher Benfrey for the New York Review of Books.   This is an interesting review, but the things Benfrey criticizes as being corny and sentimental are based on facts as set down in Northrup’s book.

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12 Years a Slave: the movie and the book

December 6, 2013

I have long understood the evils of slavery on an intellectual level – that is to say, I kind-of, sort-of, in-a-way understood them.  But seeing the movie, 12 Years a Slave, and reading the book has helped me to understand it in a deeper and more visceral way than I did before.

12 Years a Slave is the true story of Solomon Northrup, a free black man who lived in Saratoga, N.Y., who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, and who survived to tell the story of what happened to him.  The movie is true to the book.  Some details are left out, and some are changed in unimportant ways, but anybody who sees the movie will get the essence of the book.

The movie is a powerful evocation of the slave-holding South.  The movie helps me imagine, as much is possible for me to imagine, what it would be like to be ripped out of my everyday life, and suddenly thrown into a situation in which I had no rights and no identity, subject to people with the power to commit rape, torture and murder without any consequences.   The scenes of everyday slave life are as powerful as the scenes of whipping and abuse.

Northrup experienced the extremes of slavery.  His first owner was William Ford, a sincere Christian, who sought to treat slaves as humanely as possible without giving them freedom.  Under him, slavery was probably as endurable as it was anywhere in the South.  But Northrup spent 10 years of his servitude subject to the power of the half-insane sadist and sexual predator, Edwin Epps.

Epps’ chief victim was a young slave woman named Patsey, whom he used as a sex object, then allowed his jealous wife to abuse and have whipped.   It culminates in a scene that is almost too painful to watch.  Epps, to please his wife orders Northrup to whip Patsey half to death, and then takes the whip himself.

While the movie is true to the Northrup’s experience, Northrup’s book gives you insight into his mind.  He accurately describes not only what happened to him, but what he observed—the conditions of life, how the system worked, how sugar cane and cotton were grown.   He judged people, even white slave-owners, as individuals, and he never gave way to hatred of white people in general.  I don’t think I could have done that in his situation, even assuming I would have survived in the first place.

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