Seven score and ten years ago, almost the entire white South fought a war to save slavery. Only four slave states declined the crusade in the end, for the most part with significant internal divisions and a number of their white residents taking up the cause anyway. For generations thereafter, many of those white southerners mourned their dead and bitterly resented their loss. They might admire the tragic sacrifices of their friends, family, and hallowed ancestors. They might celebrate the valor of those men. They did both with the full knowledge that those same men fought to win rather than courageously lose. Like people the world over, they could cast themselves in the same place as those hallowed ancestors. Surely if they could help, then things would have gone differently.
Shelby Foote almost says it in Ken Burns documentary, in the course of quoting Faulkner:
William Faulkner, in Intruder in the Dust, says that for every Southern boy, it’s always in his reach to imagine it being 1:00 on an early July day in 1863. The guns are laid. The troops are lined up. The flags are already out of their cases and ready to be unfurled. But it hasn’t happened yet. And he can go back to the time before the war was going to be lost. And he can always have that moment for himself.
One must understand that Foote means every white Southern boy. In that moment, with all things in the balance, all things seem possible. Maybe a single time traveling boy couldn’t change the outcome. Maybe legions of them would fare no better. To put oneself there makes one part of something grand, a participant in the noble struggle. He imagines a world that could have been. If his struggle fails, then he falls as a hero. He proves his manhood, his pride, and writes his own elegy in dreamed blood -his own, someone else’s, but never a slave’s- to the tragic passing of a noble age. At least by the twentieth century, and probably before, that white Southern boy would have had some white Yankee boys for company.
Foote doesn’t say all that goes into the dream. He knew, of course, but one no longer says such things openly. Now more of us imagine ourselves in blue. We have the luxury of pretending that if we lived then we would have the same values we do now and so of course we would fight to free the slaves. If we have traded one form of cheap virtue for another, then at least we traded up.
Or we hope we have. Some of us refuse to. Probably more of us lie about it, to others and to ourselves. Take, for example, Jack Kelly of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He declares himself, in the customary ritual of those about to prove otherwise, a proud Union partisan happy to hop in the time machine and go back to destroy slavery:
if I had to live in an earlier period, I’d want to be a soldier in the Union Army. I can think of no greater cause than to fight to eradicate America’s original sin.
Good for him. But as these things do, he goes downhill from here.
Slavery isn’t America’s original sin because it was unique, or uniquely horrible here. If prostitution is “the world’s oldest profession,” slave trading is second. Since the dawn of recorded history, slavery has been practiced in nearly every society known to man.
Kelly can only acknowledge the evil of slavery if he can share the blame around. On the heels of admission, he reaches for exculpation. We all know the horrors of slavery, or so we imagine. Few receive much education on the subject, fewer still inquire on our own. We know we will find nothing pleasing there, but decline to test the proposition. Jack Kelly certainly didn’t. He wants to acknowledge slavery, but immediately move past it as though Americans enslaved in a brief, transient, incidental way rather than building a continental order centered on the deprivation of people they declared black for the exaltation of those deemed white.
He has some superficial facts. Other cultures did practice slavery, though race-based slavery seems to have developed specifically in the context of the Early Modern Atlantic. This at least distinguishes New World slavery from ancient slavery or Arabian slavery. Slavery in the United States has other distinguishing traits. Less involved with the dangerous processing of sugar and operating largely north of the favored habitats of tropical diseases, the United States developed a self-sustaining slave population. We usually did not kill slaves faster than births could replace them. Does that make white Americans virtuous, or should recognize that this achievement only appears ostensibly benign as it renders bondage all the more durable? Enslavers would reap lives for profit either way. The source of the harvest does matter and we should acknowledge how it differently shaped the Caribbean and the United states, but I don’t know that we should pat ourselves on the backs for coming out one way or the other on it.
Even if we might make such a decision, we would praise not the determination of people but geography. If one could turn a profit growing sugarcane in Virginia, Americans would have done it just as much as the British did in the West Indies. We know from the example of the Carolina lowcountry that American enslavers had no qualms about forcing slaves to toil in areas they understood as replete with lethal diseases.
Kelly will have none of that. He spreads the blame to everyone, parceling it out so finely that not enough adheres to any particular group for us to really notice.
The words “slavery” and “benign” ought never to appear in the same sentence, but slaves in the American South and the British Caribbean (usually) were treated less harshly than in most other places where slavery has been practiced — especially in ancient times.
He says it in so many words: slaves in the United States and the United Kingdom’s Caribbean colonies had it comparably good. This might or might not withstand careful examination, but he clearly implies that we should take the mote of blame he has left we virtuous whites with and place it elsewhere. Kelly has suggestions:
Our word “slave” is derived from “Slav,” the peoples most frequently enslaved during Roman times. Throughout history, only a relatively few slaves have been black. And for every African brought to North America on (mostly British) slave ships, dozens and possibly hundreds more were taken east by Arab slave traders.
This makes for a nice distraction: those bastard Romans might have enslaved my own ancestors. I don’t know that they did. The Italians and Spaniards in particular who enslaved Slavs generally collected them from the north shore of the Black Sea, while my Polish antecedents run closer to the Baltic. I lose track of them in the 1820s, so some remote relative might have lived further south and ended up in the belly of a slave ship. Kelly thinks this deeply significant, even though his column addresses American slavery. He still has blame to spread around, so as a good American he places it on the British. They must have somehow, by dark arts known only in the perfidious heart of Albion, forced innocent white Americans to buy the slaves off the ships to grow the tobacco and cotton and thereby reap profits from reaping lives.
By the way, Arabs also traded slaves. Those slaves even often had white skin, just as the Slavs did, which renders them especially significant. They constitute, we decided, an us rather than a them. We should consequently feel their suffering most keenly in our natural solipsism. We should remember it in our discussion of slavery in the United States. We should not draw any inferences from an American abandoning our customary parochialism to discuss the misdeeds of others in a piece that concerns itself, allegedly, with our own.
Once Kelly declares for the Union and abolition and shines the spotlight on any slaves save those the United States military emancipated, he comes at last to a unique trait of American slavery which makes it especially egregious. Even he cannot deny that
What made slavery America’s original sin was its violent conflict with our founding principles. If “all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” what gives some men the right to own others?
Kelly can only acknowledge white America’s great sin to highlight white America’s great nobility. Our white skin and our American residence made us so virtuous as to transmute slavery from lives stolen and children bought and sold, into a kind of heroic flaw. He would do to read how eighteenth and nineteenth century Americans squared the circle between whites-only freedom and slavery, but then he would have to learn how the latter shaped the former. Some Americans acknowledged the conflict, including the slave-owning, slave raping author of that famous line. Others, like the slave-owning Vice-President of the Confederacy, saw it and rejected Jefferson. Still more understood what many of the founding generation actually practiced, when not speaking idle words about universal rights: freedom flowed from slavery. By making the black man (women rarely entered into it, unless the slaveholder felt like coerced company that night) permanently and nigh-infinitely inferior to the white, the very contrast made whites feel freer. White skin established a floor on which one could sit and never sink, at least in pride. It put whites, no matter how poor, in solidarity together against blacks. We see the conflict now, with slavery gone, but the two merge easily enough again when one starts talking about the continued plunder of black America.
Jack Kelly gives us a perfect illustration of just that in himself. Lest one think that I unfairly dredge up the past to damn him, consider this:
Slavery was horrible, but no black American living today has suffered from it. Most are better off than if their ancestors had remained in Africa.
Kelly wrote these words just a few days ago, in a 2015 with the internet and Civil Rights legislation, Black History Month and obscure blogs. Robert E. Lee wrote these in 1856:
In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially, & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things.
Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow, though hardly as famous as the then-obscure Virginian, made much the same argument two years prior. Where Lee adhered to a mix of Positive Good and Necessary Evil ideas to defend slavery, reaching the same end either way, Stringfellow had no time for such solipsistic fretting:
Slavery is no evil to the negro. If we look at the condition of the negro in Africa, the land of his nativity, we find the most pitiable victim of a cruel master, the most wretched slave in America, when contrasted with a prince of his tribe in the deserts of Africa, is as a man contrasted with a beast! The mightiest of the negro race, in his native land, not only sacrifices his human victims to his Gods of stone, but is so loathsome in his filth and nakedness, that Giddings, or Gerrit Smith, would fly from his presence
Kelly doesn’t say that slavery did no wrong to black Americans, but he made the argument that they came out better for it. Break a few lives, sell some children, rape some women, but it all works out in the end. After all, slavery brought Africans to America where they could bask in the glory of white virtue and have whatever scraps we in our magnanimity deigned to concede to them.
Don’t take my word for it. Have the argument straight from John C. Calhoun:
Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually. It came among us in a low, degraded, and savage condition, and in the course of a few generations it has grown up under the fostering care of our institutions, reviled as they have been, to its present comparatively civilized condition. This, with the rapid increase of numbers, is conclusive proof of the general happiness of the race, in spite of all the exaggerated tales to the contrary.
We give and we give, our white nobility so staggering that it blinds even us to the fact:
It says something good about today’s white Americans that so many feel guilty for a sin neither they nor most of their ancestors ever committed. But white guilt has a pernicious effect on our politics.
We must, in fact, admit that we have become too noble for our own good. We must harden our hearts and take a good, long look at black America. There we see not the results of our plunder, but only the inherent vice of black skin:
The black community is uniquely troubled, in large part because white racism is blamed for social dysfunction that has other causes. To address those causes, white Americans must abandon an undeserved guilt, and black racists who blame all their problems on white racism must stop preying upon it.
We ended slavery and that instant everything magically became equal. It’s all done now and has been done for so long we might as well forget it, just as we forget our possibly-enslaved Slavic ancestors. No amount of difference can come down to white malice, as white skin makes you innocent. Only our great nobility leads us to think otherwise. Kelly asks us to believe that white and black Americans live on different planets, entirely devoid of interaction, so therefore any pathology exhibited by the latter cannot have come from the depredations of the former, or reasonable reaction to the same.
Kelly would have us direct our attention not at white racism, which he seems to understand as nothing more than a kind of personal dislike rather than a vast system of theft, rape, and murder, but to the fact that black Americans in their perfidy hate white Americans. They prey upon us, like the cunning slaves of old preyed on the consciences of their enslavers to escape whippings. I don’t know a word of Kelly’s piece that could not have easily come from the pen of a nineteenth century proslavery theorist, save only those that an enslaver would not know and the endorsement of the United States war effort alone. By implication, Kelly at least opposes new efforts to reduce the effects of structural racism upon black America. In referring to this predation upon the white conscience in continuous terms, Kelly further indicts not just new efforts or recent efforts at redress, but also those which white Americans have after agonizing struggle accepted with hesitance, halfheartedly and full of what he must construe as noble resentment.
I can only think of Samuel Cartwright:
When sulky and dissatisfied without cause, the experience of those on the line and elsewhere, was decidedly in favor of whipping them out of it, as a preventative measure against absconding, or other bad conduct. It was called whipping the devil out of them.
Kelly paints black Americans as sulky and dissatisfied. If they have a cause, it cannot come from white America. Therefore we must embark upon a new plan of discipline. They have taken advantage and we apparently show them what for. Black Americans have only themselves to blame, enriched in idleness by our too-keen consciences. If black American cannot feel the natural gratitude it owes to white America for the tremendous services rendered unto it, good and hard, then we can give them reminders. We can imagine they will learn no other way. Flesh, blood, and screams torn away by the lash only prove they never stop trying to turn our consciences in their favor.
I don’t know any way to say this except to say it outright: Jack Kelly is a white supremacist. If he doesn’t agree entirely with their methods of securing the power of the white race over then black, then he agrees wholeheartedly with their goals and endorses the chief thrust of their arguments. He sees African-Americans as fundamentally shiftless and conniving. Such faults somehow do not afflict white Americans, even though we speak the same language and have shared the same nation for centuries. What immunizes us, if not the same thing that afflicts them? We find virtue in whiteness by finding vice in blackness. White skin frees us because black skin enslaves them.
Jack Kelly has an editor at the Post-Gazette. He writes for them regularly, so I imagine he received pay for this column. His editor read the piece and signed off on its contents, deeming it fit to print and worthy of his readers’ attention. So have multitudes of other white Americans down the centuries. Their number has declined only through great struggle accompanied by numerous reverses as one means of plunder gives way to another, slightly more sophisticated means. We should take no pride in the fact that some people born with the same hue of skin as our own helped achieve the gains, unless we place great moral stock in our whiteness. We should remember that more took part in fighting, sabotaging, and ultimately rolling them back.
Whatever parts they cast themselves in, whatever uniforms they imagine wearing, Jack Kelly and the multitude like him put themselves into something far different from the armies of abolition. By word and deed they cloaked themselves in what passes for gray and imagine still that hot July day, a bit before one in the afternoon, when it all held in the balance. They know if they can get there, as they keep trying to do, they can make it all turn out differently this time. We make excuses, avoid the uncomfortable arguments, and let the old proslavery line go unchallenged. I’ve done it myself. But the path of least resistance does not lead to a blue uniform on top of Cemetery Ridge with Jeff Daniels for company. We have carefully arranged it so that white Americans find it easier to march across the field under fire. If our past deeds say something about us, then that one speaks most eloquently.