Bell’s Dissent, Part Eight

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell (Whig-TN)

(Parts 12, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)

Having floated his plan to redraw the Missouri Compromise line a bit further north, so both sections could have a state or two added in time, Tennessee’s John Bell took aim at men who considered themselves the great humanitarians of the age. They wrote and spoke endlessly about the evils of slavery. Their scruples, however, vanished when it came to depriving Indians of land:

Several honorable Senators have spoken strongly and eloquently of the duty of observing sacredly and inviolably all the obligations attaching to a certain compact, or understanding, entered into many years ago between the two great sections of the Union; and some of them, in their appeals to the people upon the subject, denounce any violation of that understanding as dishonorable. Yet when it is proposed to violate the public faith plighted to the feeble Indian tribes on the frontier, not a word is interposed to save the honor of the country. We hear no appeal appeal to the sympathy or the justice of the country on their behalf. While the Senate Chamber rings with stirring appeals upon the subject of the wrongs of the African, the wrongs of the Indian are passed by in silence! No memorials are presented in his behalf. Yet, are not these Indians, men? Are they not our brethren, of the human race, like the African? Are they not born with the same equality of rights -inalienable as those of the African or the white man?

Bell had a point. The Appeal focused on the evil of giving land that rightly belonged to white men over to slaves and their masters. Depriving Indians did not enter into it. But then one would not hear John Bell go on about the relief of his African slaves either. Depriving Indians did not enter into that either.  When it came to his own property and his own institutions, Bell found plenty of room for distinction. He means to call free soilers and antislavery men hypocrites, not to set a standard for his own behavior. If pressed, he could probably give any number of reasons why black Americans deserved and even benefited from slavery and like reasons why it did not suit American Indians.

The situations look similar to us and touch on many of the same issues, but we should resist the temptation to view them as identical. Both involve great injustice sanctified by the racism of the time. Both involve many atrocities, large and small. Both contributed powerfully to the development of the United States. Both forced population transfer and slavery look to us like the acts of one of the great twentieth century touchstones of evil: Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. But not all crimes against humanity are the same, even if they all horrify us. Population transfer, or ethnic cleansing to give it the name popular when I attended high school, involves a great deal of suffering and can certainly reach the level of attempted genocide. Bell himself saw that, and welcomed it, as the eventual fate of the American Indian.

But ethnic cleansing doesn’t usually involve slavery. Though white Americans did at times enslave Indians, either by name or in everything but name, they did not do so on the same scale as they did imported Africans. Nor did they engage in concerted, large-scale campaigns to wipe black Americans out or exile them to remote corners of the continent where they could die quietly. The colonization movement tried to exile them back to Africa, a continent they saw as foreign as any white American did, but never became the dominant strategy for solving white America’s African problem. The two situations overlap, and involve many horrors of similar gravity, but do also substantively differ.

In saying that, one invites the question of which party had it worse? Who wins the Oppression Olympics and thus deserves the fullest attention of our conscience. I have thought so myself. Separation does imply morally meaningful distinctions. One might call separate inherently unequal, following the logic of Brown. But on further consideration, understanding the past requires us to accept these distinctions where they existed. White Americans treated black Americans and American Indians very differently even if it treated both very horribly. We should not let our understandable and, I think, laudable desire to condemn both to blind us to the facts.

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