Peace on the Wakarusa, Part Three

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

The Peace Conference, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

The Wakarusa peace treaty commenced with some face-saving and proceeded into apparent concessions from the people of Lawrence, but concessions drafted in a decidedly ambiguous way. Proslavery and antislavery partisans could easily read promises not to impede legal process or as a victory for their side, depending on what they considered legal process. Lawrence’s leading men promised to use their influence to aid Wilson Shannon if called upon for legitimate purposes, but they sat in judgment of those purposes. If these concessions removed the stated reason for the proslavery army to come and invest the town, then they did not necessarily remove the substance of the complaint. Charles Robinson and James Lane left open the door for them to continue essentially as they had, whilst giving Shannon just enough of a fig leaf to try disbanding the besiegers, and extracted from him the promise that anybody the army had captured would see release into their hands.

Shannon might not have loved these dubious concessions, but he wanted the army gone and bloodshed averted above all else. If he had dreams of settling Kansas politics along proslavery lines once and for all, as others had, then they died with news that Missouri had once again come to Kansas. Prosecuting that case now would only prolong the crisis. Shannon also had to grant some concessions of his own.

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

Armies of all forms in all eras make poor guests. In investing Lawrence, the proslavery men had put themselves in close proximity to anybody who lived just a short ways outside of the town. My sources don’t go into this at length, but it seems that they did as most armies do in the presence of a hated foe and engaged in some destruction of property and souvenir hunting. Consequently, peace depended on Shannon’s pledge

to use his influence to secure to the citizens of Kansas Territory remuneration for any damages suffered, or unlawful depredations, if any have been committed by the Sheriff’s posse in Douglas County.

I doubt that anybody received a dime of that remuneration, but it made for a reasonable enough demand. It might also have saved some face for the free state leadership, who could say that they came away from the table with something aside bare peace itself. Thus they might look less like they had pleaded for the governor’s mercy and accepted his rescue, as Shannon would later paint them, and more like an honest belligerent party. The agreement that the free state men could keep their arms would go further to that end, however probably the typical free state militant understood his gun as his personal property. As such, it wouldn’t have constituted an acceptable concession at all but rather an egregious affront. What had they done, in bearing arms for their defense and harming none, to warrant confiscation?

Furthermore, Wilson Shannon had to give his word

that he has not called upon persons resident in any State to aid in the execution of the laws, and that such as are here in the Territory are here of their own choice, and that he does not consider that he has any authority or legal power to do so, nor will he exercise any such power.

Daniel Woodson

Daniel Woodson

Though they probably didn’t believe him, Wilson Shannon appears to have told the truth far better than the free state men had. They swore up and down that they had no paramilitary about with the design of resisting Kansas’ laws, whilst the men who signed the treaty both held high offices in the Kansas Legion that proposed to do just that. Neither the free state writers then or after, nor subsequent historians, have uncovered any evidence that Shannon himself sent a summons to Missouri. The territorial Secretary, Daniel Woodson, had done that but Shannon himself seems innocent. Thus Shannon took what everyone recognized as a lie in trade for his true word, though the free state men undoubtedly saw it otherwise at the time.

The treaty concluded with lines that highlighted, and significantly undermined, the ambiguity with which it had opened:

we wish it understood that we do not express any opinion as to the enactments of the Territorial Legislature.

Missourians needed to go home. In exchange for that, Lawrence promised that the dispute which brought them across the border and so fired their passions, would continue unabated.



Peace on the Wakarusa, Part Two

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

The Peace Conference, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

The Wakarusa peace treaty declared the entire Coleman-DowBransonJones affair a huge misunderstanding. Wilson Shannon, away at Shawnee Mission, might very well have misunderstood events. Samuel Jones, in seeking Lawrence’s ruin, and Samuel Newitt Wood, in rescuing Branson from Jones, certainly did not. But the matter did descend on Lawrence through the action of Wood and his men on their own rather than by some official sanction of the town. In the interests of peace, the people of Lawrence declared that they knew nothing about the rescue until Wood had done the deed. They also rather implausibly declared that they had and intended to have no organization dedicated to resisting the laws of Kansas. The signatories to the treaty, James Lane and Charles Robinson, served as officers in no such organization. Robinson certainly had no fancy sash to mark his status as one.

Those matters disposed of, the people of Lawrence and environs

pledge ourselves to aid in the execution of the laws, when called upon by the proper authority in the town or vicinity of Lawrence. And that we will use our influence in preserving order therein; and we declare that we are now, as we always have been, ready at any time to aid the Governor in securing a posse for the execution of said process.

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

The free state party sometimes declared it knew no state officers appointed in Kansas. Yet its leaders found it in themselves to recognize Wilson Shannon when he came before them with an offer to save their lives if they would kindly save his career. This sounds like a capitulation, and rightly so, but they promise to use only their influence to serve process, and only in and around Lawrence. They make no promise about supporting Shannon elsewhere, and by placing themselves in charge of process the free state men positioned themselves to exert a de facto veto over said service. We will form posses for you around Lawrence and we, not Shannon or Jones, will implicitly decide when the situation calls for one.

To emphasize the point, immediately after the concession comes a qualification:

Provided that any person thus arrested in Lawrence or vicinity, while a foreign force shall remain in the Territory, shall be duly examined before a United States District Judge of said Territory, in said town, and admitted to bail.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

No carrying our people off to the Missourians. The whole matter must begin and end in Lawrence. Furthermore:

that all citizens arrested without legal process, by said Sheriff’s posse, shall be set at liberty.

If Jones has anyone, he must release them. If Jones wants to arrest anyone, he will only do so with the cooperation of Lawrence. If they do cooperate, he must surrender his prisoner to federal custody and that prisoner must receive bail. This all comes extremely close to declaring status quo ante bellum, as if nothing had happened at all, but with just enough of a fig leaf for Shannon to say he did his part and have an excuse to send the besiegers home.


Peace on the Wakarusa, Part One

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

The Peace Conference, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

Wilson Shannon came into Lawrence and found a document waiting for him. Though antislavery writers habitually describe Shannon as weak, easily led, none too bright, and an explosion hazard in the presence of an open flame, they didn’t have quite the sucker they thought if they hoped that he would sign anything at all. He dug his feet in and Shannon, James Lane, and Charles Robinson spent a fair portion of December 8, 1856, in further negotiations. In they end they did reach an agreement, which the Herald of Freedom would print on January 12, 1856. Therein, George Washington Brown reports a rumor current as of the negotiations:

Judge Wm. A. Story, who visited the camp of the Missourians, […] tells me that up to eight o’clock Saturday morning peace negotiations had not been ratified; but not to be alarmed, that blood would not be shed. He says the Yankees offered to give up their arms, deliver the men who resisted the laws, and acknowledge the supremacy of the laws of Kansas Territory. Gen. Atchison made this statement to him.

This sounds plausible enough on the surface. At eight in the morning on Saturday, December 8, the proslavery besiegers and antislavery besieged had no agreement signed. The pledge to surrender arms doesn’t sound remotely plausible, even in light of Shannon’s version of events, but Atchison might have made the claim as part of the effort to prevent a wildcat attack on Lawrence.

Brown, who had the pleasure of experiencing Lawrence’s siege from the inside, did not feel judiciously inclined toward the Senator from Missouri:

If General Atchison made these statements, the arc-ruffian is a liar as well as a demagogue and traitor. Neither the Yankees in Kansas, nor the Free State soldiers who assembled at Lawrence, ever offered to deliver up their arms, nor promised obedience to the infamous enactments of the Ruffian Barons.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

To prove the point, Brown printed a copy of the settlement. He noted, with relish, that he had it in Shannon’s own hand and published it in defiance of the Governor’s wish to keep the details secret. By that point, of course, the document had long since leaked. Sure enough, it holds no mention of surrendering arms. Brown may have impugned Atchison’s character anyway; and few could blame him for it. But he had the facts on his side.

The treaty commences with reference to the “misunderstanding” over Jacob Branson’s rescue from Samuel Jones

and some other matters; and whereas a strong apprehension exists that said misunderstanding may lead to civil strife and bloodshed

Shannon and the people of Lawrence jointly committed themselves to

avert a calamity so disastrous to the interests of the Territory and the Union

As preambles go, this reads as remarkably even-handed. Shannon, Lane, and Robinson really did agree in wanting to avoid bloodshed and on the momentous risk that open battle might pose to the nation. Calling the affair fruit of a misunderstanding allowed everyone to save some face. But to this point, the treaty speaks only of how the dispute arose. The meat of the document follows in a remarkable run-on sentence that only the nineteenth century could love, which I shall break down issue-by-issue:

We, the said citizens of said Territory, protest that the said rescue was made without our knowledge and consent, but, if any of our citizens were engaged, we pledge ourselves to aid in the execution of any legal process against them

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Brown’s emphasis does not appear in other copies (Please see the correction below.) and likely did not appear in the original, but the emphasis preserves the free state position that Jones held no rightful office as sheriff and could serve no lawful warrants as he owed his position and power to the bogus legislature. At the same time, Shannon and others could read this as an affirmation of just the opposite. As a lawful sheriff, Jones could serve lawful warrants. Lawrence just agreed to that in black and white. The ambiguity served both parties, though in accepting Shannon as Kansas’ legal governor it leaned somewhat more in a proslavery direction.

The people of Lawrence further declared they had

no knowledge of the previous, present, or prospective existence of any organization in the said Territory for resistance against the laws, and that we have not designed, and do not design, to resist the legal service of any criminal process therein

The emphasis again. With one hand, the antislavery party concedes everything and with the other takes it back on the heels of a lie that everyone had to know. Of course they had an organization for resisting the laws, which they had designed and had in fact used to resist process. But they could parse the distinctions carefully enough to make the statement technically true. If it fooled no one, then it at least included a weak promise of future good conduct. The Missourians might take that as a sign that they had frightened Lawrence into submission.

Update: Since writing this post, I’ve gone over my copies of the treaty again and found that the one in Wilson Shannon’s version of events, available in Brewerton, does have italics where Brown does to emphasize the word legal. However, Brewerton’s copy also uses italics to emphasize other passages, both consistent with published versions of other period documents (whereas, provided further, etc) and selections particularly relevant to Shannon’s position and/or Brewerton’s own proslavery interests. As such, I still consider Brown’s choice of italics an editorial decision on his part, but I did error in saying that the other copies of the treaty at my disposal all lacked italics.

The Peace Conference, Part Four

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Parts 1, 2, 3

We left Wilson Shannon issuing orders to prevent a wildcat attack on Lawrence. The ability of those orders to really prevent an attack premised upon rejecting his authority must not have reached very far, but Shannon had at his disposal men held in high esteem. David Rice Atchison, Albert Boone, and the militia commanders had lived in the area for years. The proslavery army knew them for solid men and would tellingly thank Atchison and Boone for their help in later accounts. Shannon also hoped for the arrival of Colonel Sumner and his 1st Cavalry from Fort Leavenworth, but to no avail. He wouldn’t receive Sumner’s final refusal to come until he returned to Shawnee Mission.

Negotiations continued the next day, December 8, 1856. Shannon promised that he would return to Lawrence at eight in the morning, but arrived “at a somewhat later hour than he had designated.” Charles Robinson saw fit to remark on the point when telling the story to Brewerton, which might sound petty and peevish. But Shannon himself had warned the free state leadership that the army might slip his control and attack them if they couldn’t reach an agreement that at least saved face. Not knowing how it would end, Robinson must have had an anxious few hours. Did Shannon’s delay mean that the proslavery men would attack? Had the governor lied to them from the start, to give the army time for preparations? Even if he hadn’t, it might mean that he couldn’t come as the struggle to restrain the horde demanded his full attention.

Shannon had a similarly anxious morning, concerned about the news of the plot to attack Lawrence. Before setting out for Lawrence, Shannon redoubled his efforts to engage prominent proslavery men in defusing the situation. This time he aimed for more than just calming tempers:

Upon consultation with these gentlemen, one of the most distinguished, proposed to select a committee of thirteen captains, to meet at Franklin a committee from the Lawrence camp, with the view of frankly interchanging opinions, and if possible, coming to some amicable settlement of our difficulties, which were now becoming hourly more complicated.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

The most distinguished gentleman sounds a bit to me like Atchison. It would make sense for the Governor to consider the Senator most distinguished and Shannon repeatedly acknowledges his help. But the governor doesn’t name names. Whoever proposed the idea, he signed off on it and then went back to Lawrence where he intended

to procure the appointment of a similar committee on their part, and bring them out to Franklin, which had been selected as a proper place for negotiation.

On his way to the besieged town, Shannon stopped at Franklin and met with his committee of thirteen captains. They agreed to remain there and wait for him and a delegation from Lawrence. He arrived to find a document awaiting signatures:

These written stipulations were, so far as their promise to execute the laws was concerned, identical with those verbally agreed upon the day before. But there were other matters which entered into this document, distasteful both in their subject-matter and phraseology. These I caused to be struck out. The remodelling and correction of this paper delayed us until four, P.M., when generals Robinson and Lane repaired with me, as a committee authorized to act for the Lawrence people, to Franklin, where we procured a room and organized the committees for business.

Shannon doesn’t say just what he found repugnant in the proposed treaty. Charles Robinson’s account doesn’t mention any revisions explicitly, but he has the drafting take place entirely on the morning of December 8 and agrees with Shannon that the proceedings took until four in the afternoon. That looks like a tacit admission that further back and forth took place.


The Crime Against Flint

Gentle Readers, you might remember that I hail from Michigan, right about the first knuckle on the index finger. That puts me live rather north of the Michigan that makes the news, including Flint. I think that I have gone there no more than half a dozen times, though I’ve driven past it more often on the interstate. I don’t have any strong memories of the place. I think that had someone seized me and forced toxic waste down my throat, I’d remember it. I’d probably call the police too. Most anybody could say that, unless you live in Flint. The series of events that led to the poisoning of Flint have been summarized elsewhere. I will only repeat the essentials.

Flint, like many rust belt towns, has long had money problems. For the past few years, Michigan has had a law on the books that lets the state assume control over local governments to sort those problems out. That all may sound fine on paper, but for a litany of ugly reasons headed by white supremacy the cash-strapped communities usually have majority black populations. Something on the order of half of the state’s black population live in municipalities where the state has taken over. Emergency managers come in with full plenary powers. They can do whatever they like to set the financial house in order, which largely means cutting services. In Flint’s case, they also cut thousands of throats as surely as if they bent screaming children over altars and drew the knife across them like the villain of an Indiana Jones movie.

People don’t behave like that. Nobody will put up the altar and do the deed so flagrantly. We prefer to keep our hands clean. Thus the rhetoric about tough choices and how communities with depressed tax bases and people deeply in need of services need to learn to live within their means. Nothing helps a person learn to walk quite so much as cutting off their legs. They need to take personal responsibility. Other people always do. Flint took responsibility, thanks to its satrap from Lansing, by cutting itself off from a longstanding arrangement that delivered its drinking water from Detroit. That deal cost Flint money and Flint had a perfectly good river, loaded with industrial waste and farm runoff for generations, running right through town. What could possibly go wrong if the city switched to that water supply until, a few years down the road, it could get its water from Lake Huron?

Everything, of course:

By the fall of 2015, news began coming out of Flint about undrinkable water, kids getting sick and a stonewalling state government. I headed back to Flint for a week. I saw orange water running from a hydrant. I read FOIA’d e-mails that prove the city and state decided not to chemically treat Flint’s water, something required in every town, village and city in America. There was the woman whose water tested for lead at a toxic-waste level. This was after officials told her she was nuts, even though her daughter lost chunks of her hair in the shower, while her four-year-old son remained dangerously underweight and his skin became covered in red splotches any time it was exposed to the water.

These things happen, right? Sometimes people have allergies or whatever. The authorities declared the water perfectly safe.

An old friend disagreed, but for a different reason. General Motors announced it was discontinuing use of Flint water in one of its plants, because the high level of chlorides found in the polluted Flint River could corrode engine parts. So while the state was saying the water was still safe to drink, GM was saying it wasn’t safe to be used on car pistons.

Flint River water proved so corrosive that it ate into Flint’s aging pipes. Lead paint in a house counts as a dangerous hazard one must disclose if trying to sell it because lead poisoning debilitates people, especially children, for life. Lead water? Not a problem. Drink away.

The state denied anything had gone wrong to the bitter end, finally forced to admit wrongdoing by dedicated activists and aggrieved, injured residents. Now the National Guard passes out bottled water. We have a state of emergency and money coming in. We tell ourselves that we will do right by Flint for once. Had we done right in the first place; we wouldn’t be here. The state went so far as to cook test results, an action inexplicable unless they knew full well what had gone wrong and sought only to cover it up:

While the state downplayed the poison levels in Walters’ house through an assortment of tricks, including taking a sample at a trickle rather than a steady flow, Edwards took 30 samples with steady water flow. The average came in at 2,300 ppb, and one came in at a nearly unbelievable 13,500, well above the EPA standard for toxic waste.

The state’s reputation cost more dearly than the lives of those it allegedly served. In the usual way, others paid the cost of that reputation.

I’m sure many of you, Gentle Readers, know all about this. It made the news, as well it should. I can’t improve greatly on the numerous articles about Flint’s plight, except on one point. Most of the pieces I’ve read on it have this strangely detached attitude. They speak of Flint’s plight almost like a natural disaster. Natural disasters just happen. You can’t blame someone for a hurricane. You can’t prevent one either. Failing that, journalists grope in the dark and do their best to spread blame so liberally you would think the entire state, select parts of the federal government, and perhaps a menagerie of fictional characters all came together to poison Flint. No one decided, so we have no one to blame. That we elect people, from Michigan’s governor on down, who did decide and inevitably left a paper trail doesn’t enter into it.

The people of Flint haven’t suffered a natural disaster. Nearly a hundred thousand people just like you and me didn’t get caught in a storm. People poisoned them. These people had every responsibility to see to their welfare and used the vast powers granted them, allegedly to that end, to pour toxic waste down their throats, burn their hair away, and poison their children. I don’t know if they acted first out of ignorance, itself inexcusable, or indifference but that doesn’t change the result. You don’t do this kind of thing if you think the lives of the people affected are worth anything. We once experimented on black Americans, giving them syphilis and then not treating it just to see what happened. Now we have used the water system for an experiment of far greater magnitude.

In light of this, I must conclude that the elected officials of my state differ from a lone mass murderer in two important ways: They have greater ambition than both and will likely never see the inside of a prison. If they did, people might conclude that they had done something wrong.

Want to help Flint? The Huffington Post has a list of resources.

The Peace Conference, Part Three

George Douglas Brewerton

George Douglas Brewerton

Parts 1, 2

I think that we’ve finished with Thomas Fleming for now, Gentle Readers. I confess a very slight temptation to find a cheap copy of his book on the coming of the Civil War for a more thorough consideration, but the Fleming hasn’t given me much cause to view the endeavor as time well spent. I don’t read history as quickly as I would like (A typical history takes me a week or more to get through.) and I have many books competing for my time and research budget.

That takes us back to Kansas, Lawrence specifically, where Wilson Shannon, Albert Boone, and a few others came into town to negotiate an end to the crisis known to posterity as the Wakarusa War. They met with the free state leaders, principally Charles Robinson and James Lane, after seeing the body of Thomas Barber. That meeting, on December 7, 1855, did not go well. Governor Shannon still held out hope that he could convince the free state men to disarm, even in the presence of a hostile army besieging them. On discovering that Robinson and Lane would no more agree to that than they would agree to fly out of Lawrence in a magical tea cup, he tried to offer a voluntary disarmament. Maybe everybody didn’t have to give up their guns, but would at least some people?

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

They would not. Nor did they trust Shannon. Whatever he might have told Robinson and Lane whilst closeted together in the Free State Hotel can’t have done much to persuade him. It seems likely that he didn’t share a copy of his message to Franklin Pierce, the most convincing testimony to his aim for a peaceful solution, as he didn’t mention doing so. He may have said something about it at the time, but without a copy on hand I can’t imagine the free state men believing him. Shannon had gone out of his way, before even entering Kansas, to dig himself into a proslavery hole. Maybe even the paper wouldn’t have helped, but it might have gone further than his word. To be fair, Shannon didn’t think at all highly of them either. He spends some time in his interview with George Douglas Brewerton impugning their honesty much as the free state men impugned his.

An unsatisfying day of talks behind them, Shannon and company dined with the Robinsons and then returned to the besiegers’ camp on the Wakarusa. There he conferred with the proslavery leaders:

I immediately sought an interview with the most influential men of that camp, stated to them the result of my visit to Lawrence, and reported what the citizens of that town would, and would not, do in the matters under consideration. To a large majority of the Wakarausa camp the concessions made by the Lawrence people were wholly unsatisfactory, but a number of the leading men, although dissatisfied with the terms offered, agreed to use their influence with their companions to induce their immediate and peaceable withdrawal.

Shannon talks around the concessions agreed to more than he talks about them. According to his version, Robinson and Lane gave ground on nigh every point save the guns. According to Robinson, they did not. Alice Nichols describes the negotiations as at a deadlock, but Nichole Etcheson thinks that they reached some kind of agreement, committing it to paper in Lawrence while the Governor informed the leading proslavery men. Etcheson cites a New York Times article to which I lack access. Robinson puts the actual drafting off to the next day. Either way, I think that Etcheson’s version makes more sense, as Shannon says that he had something more to tell the proslavery leadership than that he came back empty-handed.

The Governor himself told Brewerton that, while they wold not surrender their arms, they would commit

on the part of the citizens of Lawrence, that if at any time I would make a requisition in writing, stating that those arms were required for the purpose of preserving peace and good order, they would use their influence to comply with that requisition.

In other words, the free state men would not use their militia against Shannon personally. If he, in his official capacity, asked for their armed help, the leaders would try to deliver it. This doesn’t sound much like a concession from the free state men. Rather, it sounds like one from Shannon. William Addison Phillips, privy to some of the discussions at the time and a close friend of the Robinsons’, said as much outright:

The free-state men merely desired to use the governor in the way he had been used by others. They wished him to authorize them to defend themselves, and to strip the ruffians below of their cloak of legal authority. Such were the motives of General Robinson and the free-state leaders.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Phillips also adds that Shannon tried to drag things out in hopes that the 1st Cavalry would ride to his rescue. The Governor, Phillips tells, lost track of that particular stratagem when plied with sufficient alcohol. Maybe, but free state men tended teetotal and seem to have understood proslavery politics and inebriation as nearly the same state.

Regardless of how it happened, Shannon went back to the Wakarausa camp and informed the proslavery men of the shape of the settlement. They, David Rice Atchison included, agreed to do what they could to douse the flames. It seems that word soon got out. As I’ve discovered since last mentioning it, Shannon received J.C. Anderson’s letter

At 1 A.M., Dec. 7, I learned from a reliable source that a plan was on foot to raise the “black flag,” with the view of throwing off the authority of the Territorial executive and its officers and attacking Lawrence upon their own responsibility. I renewed my endeavors for peace, and with the leading men did all in my power to dissuade these hot-headed people from so unauthorized a movement.

Brewerton prints orders, dated December 8, instructing the militia generals to “immediately use [their] whole force to check” any wildcat attack. These orders refer to negotiations in progress, so it makes more sense if they went out on the seventh unless Shannon counted the night of December 7-8 as part of the former day when he got the news, but the latter when he issued the orders. He might have done just that. Nineteenth century Americans didn’t live by the clock like we do. They would probably find trying to pin it down precisely fussy to the point of absurdity. They will have to forgive this obscure corner of posterity for likewise having the peccadilloes of his time.

Thomas Fleming’s Evidence, by the Numbers

Yesterday, I looked into Thomas Fleming’s theory that white Americans embraced slavery not out of white supremacy or greed, but rather fear of slave revolts and to spite abolitionists. He argues that therefore the nation might have avoided a civil war and the ensuing decades of racial hatred by a plan of compensated emancipation or by spreading slavery across the continent. If only those wicked abolitionists had not forced white southerners to keep pillaging the lives of black Americans to fill their own pockets, we might have avoided racism. To add to the already lengthy catalog of absurdities we must believe in order to take Fleming seriously, he asks us to believe white supremacy developed not in the 1600s, but rather circa 1865. The reasons to reject Fleming’s theory only constitute the entire history and historiography of American slavery, which one cannot ask him to sully his eyes with before opining on the subject. What reasonable person would expect him to behave like a historian?

But Fleming does present two pieces of evidence for his proposition:

Two thirds of the plantations in the South had black overseers – talented black men to whom the plantation owners gave the responsibility of raising and selling their crops. Numerous other plantation jobs that required skilled labor were also performed by black men.

Fleming still asks us to ignore how black skin made one a presumed slave who must prove otherwise, while white skin made one inherently free. This alone would make the system clearly one of white supremacy even if the rest holds true. One the point of slaves performing skilled labor, Fleming found a stopped clock moment. Enslavers did have many slaves trained in skilled trades, which reduced their slave labor camps’ reliance on the cash-driven commercial market in the perpetually cash-poor South. By doing so, they made their plantations more efficient and profitable than they would be if the enslavers had to instead pay for the skill and labor of white craftsmen. Furthermore, a slave so trained could fetch a significantly higher price in resale than an ordinary field hand. Thus we cannot understand the presence of skilled enslaved people, always a minority of enslaved labor regardless, as a challenge to slavery or a departure from racist norms. Rather the enslavers reinforced and improved their pillage of black lives by seeing some of their human property trained. Even in Nazi Germany, where the regime literally planned the extermination of people deemed subhuman, the typical concentration camp had attached factories where the state would enslave laborers for its own purposes before murdering them. Yet nobody argues that the Nazis had no particular animus against their victims except cranks and the regime’s admirers. I don’t think even Fleming would do that.

If skilled slaves gave Fleming a point of fact, albeit one he can only have misunderstood by never cracking a book on the subject, then his count of black overseers raises further questions. Fleming seems almost perfectly innocent of any Civil War or slavery historiography produced later than the 1920s. He doesn’t know, doesn’t care, or chooses to mislead his readers. Yet suddenly we have a number: two-thirds. He doesn’t cite his source on it, but the comments over at HNN suggest that he got his count from Time on the Cross. That seems very likely. Here, at last, Fleming clearly read something written after he turned four. That he chose a book full of questionable methodology and generally discredited a mere forty-six years ago constitutes remarkable progress. I don’t have Time on the Cross on hand to check directly, but I acquired its book-length refutation, Herbert G. Gutman’s Slavery and the Numbers Game, last year for its own merits. A quick trip to the index brought me to Gutman’s section on the number of black overseers.

There I learned that Fogel and Engerman, ToC’s authors, did find a healthy majority of plantations where “the top nonownership management was black.” In slave labor camps where sixteen to fifty slaves labored, they found only one in six used a white overseer. In large camps, only a quarter of plantations used a white overseer. Very large camps, with over a hundred enslaved, white overseers came to just thirty percent. If they didn’t use white overseers, then they must have used black overseers and it certainly looks like a majority did so.

However, Gutman looked at the methodology and found a few problems:

this statistic is just an inference. No empirical data exist to support it. David and Temin properly point out: “[Q]uite obviously, there are two unstated premises underlying the inference that the authors draw form these census observations: (1) they assume a large plantation could not be properly run without an overseer in addition to the resident owner, and (2) they suppose the large plantations must have been well run – because they were so efficient. Once the latter presumption is withdrawn, however, this piece of inference unravels along with the rest of the fabric of Fogel and Engerman’s argument.”

In other words ToC sees the absence of a white overseer as proof of a black overseer. By this same method, my ignorance of the winner of the lottery last week proves I won it. Can I have my billion dollars now? I promise to do ridiculous amounts of history with it.

It gets worse. ToC complains that scholars have overestimated the number of white overseers because they treat everyone who put that job down on the census as an overseer of slaves when the term also applied to supervisors in other sectors of the economy. That might make linguistic sense, and it pays to stay mindful of the shifting meaning of words in historical sources, but the very census figures that ToC relies upon prove them wrong:

How many white overseers were listed in the 1860 federal census? No fewer than 37,883. If their residence patterns had not changed greatly since 1850, about 10 percent lived outside the South. That leaves about 34,000 free white southern overseers in 1860. If we assume (and this surely is greatly exaggerated) that one in three managed free southern farms, free southern factories, and slave southern factories, that still leaves about 22,000 white overseers available to supervise southern plantations. Is that a large or small number? Once more, it depends. Scarborough’s study helps answer this question. In the sugar, rice, and cotton regions, “most planters employed an overseer when the total number of working field hands approached thirty.”

Scarborough’s study goes on to distinguish between field hands, who the overseer would directly manage, and various household slaves who he probably did not. About fifty slaves would work out to thirty field hands, who would likely have an overseer.

How many slave-owners in 1860 owned fifty or more slaves? About ten thousand. After making the above generous allowances, about twenty-two thousand free white plantation overseers lived in the South in 1860, more than twice the number needed to manage these large plantations. So far, no allowance has been made for slave overseers. It is now assumed that F+E are correct, but that two thousand […] slaves labored as overseers. That would mean that eight thousand white overseers labored for the owners of fifty or more slaves. And what of the other fourteen thousand? Did they labor for owners of fewer than fifty slaves, and, therefore, fewer than thirty field hands? Were many unemployed in 1860? Or had large numbers of whites misrepresented their occupations to the census enumerators.  The inference that 0.5 percent of adult male slaves labored as overseers rests on F+E’s assumption that “most” planters did not employ white overseers and, therefore, had to employ slave overseers. If that was so, what did most white overseers in the South do for a living in 1860? Rather than answer that question, we also need to put the 0.5 percent aside. The antebellum South had slave overseers, but their number was insignificant. They deserve study, but their place in the southern slave occupational structure and plantation managerial system needs to be measured more carefully first. It is not possible that “within the agricultural sector, about 7.0 percent of the [slave] men held managerial posts.” That percentage is much closer to 3.0 percent, and nearly all were drivers.

A slave driver did occupy a sort of managerial position, but had a different job from overseers. Rather they reported to the overseer or the enslaver himself and could hope for better treatment, but remained enslaved. They tried to appease the overseer by enforcing some discipline in the fields and so moderate his treatment of the enslaved. This makes them neither angels nor demons. A good driver could serve for years, in large part due to his own ability rather than the color of his skin. He might manage the labor camp better than a white overseer. But driver and overseer remained separate roles, the first by definition black and enslaved, the second almost always white and free.

By Fleming’s standards, I have no doubt that Time on the Cross constitutes cutting-edge scholarship. He doesn’t seem to have availed himself of much else written in the past century, if he bothered at all. He has the training to know better. (Please see the correction below.) His readers have every right to expect better of someone who presents himself as a historian. Yet he still wrote what he did. I can’t explain errors of this magnitude and consistency as a simple matter of differing interpretation or inattention to detail. Fleming did not make mistakes, but rather knew full well what he wrote. He either set out to deceive or doesn’t care. I don’t know which reflects worse upon him.

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

Fleming closes with a homily that tells rather more than he probably thinks:

If enough Americans – white and black – understand how we created this perfect storm of opposing good intentions, perhaps we can begin the struggle to achieve mutual forgiveness.

Everybody knows why white Americans should want forgiveness, even though few of us consider how we might earn it. Rather we usually seem most concerned with not earning it as studiously as possible. But what have black Americans done to white Americans that requires our forgiveness? What similar sin adheres to black skin, prosecuted with violence and cruelty down four centuries? Does Fleming mean that they dared darken the white man’s continent with their presence and so disturbed the peace of white minds? That they produced the true villain of his piece, the abolitionists? That those miscreants through their ceaseless, fanatical agitation turned the reaping of lives from a thing done by white Americans to black Americans into a thing done by white Americans to one another? Is that where the tragedy begins, not at Jamestown but Sumter? Nineteenth century white Americans might agree with all that. I don’t know why we should.

Update: I previously wrote here that Fleming had a historian’s training, but down in the comments Jimmy Dick told me otherwise. I rechecked Fleming’s biography and found that I misread his Fordham degree as a doctorate. Sorry that I messed up, Gentle Readers. While one doesn’t necessarily need a terminal degree, or even graduate work, to do good history it does provide training in the task. By presenting himself as a historian, as Fleming has done for decades, he asks his audience to assume that he either has the training or has worked out something equivalent on his own. With regard to slavery and the Civil War, Fleming has instead demonstrated what one can accomplish without the benefit of such training.

Thomas Fleming’s Theory of Slavery

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

Thomas Fleming offered two ways to avoid the Civil War and still end slavery: compensated emancipation and the dramatic expansion and consequent dilution of slavery across the continent. We tried both experiments and neither worked. As a matter of fact, probably neither could work. The South, whether in the 1820s or 1860s, would not accept the nation buying up and freeing it slaves even if such a tremendous sum of money fell from the sky. Nor would the proliferation of slave states have meaningfully attenuated slavery elsewhere within the South. The section, barring a few less enslaved regions of various states, had tied its fortunes to human bondage and the cruel alchemy that turned blood into profit. Though Fleming doesn’t go into detail with his solutions, he admits that Americans rejected both. Southerners rejected compensated emancipation and abolitionists rejected the absolute capitulation of their movement that the dream of diffusion required.

Fleming could follow past historians and declare a pox on both houses at this point. He his solutions excel in absurdity and impracticality, but he had found essentially one rejected by each section. The South would not sell its slaves to freedom. The North, or rather the antislavery North, would not permit the perpetual expansion of slavery. He needn’t even argue we should weigh these refusals identically in understanding the coming of the Civil War. Both sections can play a part without contributing equally. Fleming knows as much. Considering the relative positions of the South and the antislavery movement, he apportions the blame:

Alas, by the time Madison reached this conclusion [for diffusion], the abolitionists were in full cry, demanding immediate emancipation for every slave in the South, and smearing the reputations of slave owners and anyone who defended them. Immediate emancipation was never going to happen because the idea triggered the South’s primary fear – a race war. This fear became a full-blown dread when Napoleon Bonaparte attempted to reconquer the country we now call Haiti, to regain its enormous sugar profits for the French treasury. When the dictator’s army collapsed from yellow fever, a black army marched across Haiti and killed every white man, woman and child.

In other words, those damned abolitionists who demanded slavery end and cursed slaves who sought to end it themselves brought about “the holocaust we call the Civil War and its aftermath of hate-laden racism.” They damaged the self-esteem of the white South and kindled its fears, driving it into an ever-deepening embrace of slavery. One can’t argue with the fact that antislavery Americans employed the language of moral castigation. Nor can one deny that the white South, for all they declared the slaves content, lived in terror of a slave revolt. These points deserve consideration.

It doesn’t take a Southern upbringing, then or now, to understand that people called sinners, degenerates, perverts, despots, and criminals rarely appreciate the candor. Unless they already believe they have done wrong, such arguments rarely persuade. They may go further and alienate those who otherwise harbor doubts about the whole business, driving them into the arms of radicals. The more accurate the description, the more we might expect it to alienate. However, such a maneuver doesn’t necessarily reveal a moderate turned radical under attack. One who silences doubts and doubles down on an issue obviously can’t have had the strongest of doubts. We all have our share of pride and confidence in our supreme moral rectitude, but one who genuinely isn’t sure that one’s conduct comports with one’s self-image seems unlikely to choose pride over principle. Hostile language may drive some moderates into radicalism, but it can hardly drive one to an extreme with which one doesn’t already harbor some sympathy. As such, we might do better to understand it as revealing the radicalism that already, as a practical matter, exists.

The fear of a slave revolt certainly drove Southern politics, much as the fear of nuclear annihilation once drove American politics. They had edifying examples of what a slave revolt could do, both abroad in Haiti and at home with Nat Turner, Gabriel, and Denmark Vesey. Fear has convinced no shortage of people to adopt policies they otherwise understood as abhorrent. However, this only goes so far. As with pride, fear might drive people to extremes but it rarely motivates them to abandon all the ends they once had in favor of opposing ends. The most consistently and vocally anti-communist Americans did not decide they must adopt Marxism lest Soviet nuclear weapons fly. Quite the opposite, they proscribed a kind of far-right politics obsessed with purging the United States of suspected communist sympathizers and cheerfully mutilated civil liberties, legally and otherwise, to achieve it. In other words, they found their solution in pursuing the ends they had already adopted. The American experience in two consecutive centuries argues that fear, as a response to a real or perceived attack, behaves much like pride does in revealing rather than reversing convictions.

Even leaving this aside, Fleming’s argument assumes that the white South genuinely and generally wanted rid of slavery. In fact, he casts the section as almost desperate to emancipate and only driven into a corner by abolitionists and the slave revolts that they imagined abolitionists inciting. In so doing, he makes a claim of ignorance so staggering that he can only have adopted it by choice:

The South’s embrace of slavery was not rooted in greed or a repulsive assumption of racial superiority.

Fleming asks us to believe that southerners did not pursue slavery for the tremendous profits enslaved labor put in their hands. We must expect this, as he clearly didn’t have any interest in looking at those profits. But this immediately poses the question of why white southerners would embrace slavery if not for the greed? They could have contented themselves with slower development and smaller margins and used free white labor to grow tobacco, rice, cotton, and sugar. No abolitionist terrified southerners into doing otherwise. No government twisted their arms, wet blood, or begged on hands and knees that they employ slave labor. Rather the enslavers made a straightforward calculation that they could more rapidly develop the Chesapeake and exploit its soil for larger profits by instead relying upon the enslaved. They made a business decision to minimize costs and maximize profits. They might have made do with less, but greed dictated otherwise. Their choice and that of each subsequent generation made the South, by 1860, the nation’s richest section. To argue otherwise, Fleming must have relied upon the work of the first historian of the South, Ulrich Bonnel Phillips. He argued that enslavers didn’t much care for profit, but rather took on slaves as a kind of obscure charity project with lots of whipping. Few historians have agreed with him since the early 1950s. They happened to notice just where most of the nation’s millionaires lived.

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

In denying the influence of white supremacy in proslavery thought, Fleming goes well beyond missing the differences in slavery in the Upper and Lower South. For him to know about compensated emancipation and the diffusion theory, he needs to have read material which would have nearly bludgeoned him with evidence to the contrary. Even if he went all the way back t0 Phillips’ ancient and discredited work on slavery, he would find white supremacy at the heart of Southern identity (PDF). A more modern scholar would tell him that Phillips ought to have said “American” where he said “Southern”. To make this claim, Fleming has to ignore not just repeated statements from Confederate leaders and their antebellum antecedents, but also almost every fact of any significance relating to American slavery beginning with just whom Americans enslaved. He asks us to ignore the fact that Southern law made every person black person a presumed slave, but likewise presumed whites free. He has to ignore mountains of writing on the inferiority of black Americans, not just from obscure racial theorists like Josiah Nott and Samuel Cartwright, but even the words of people he himself names and which any American past the age of six or seven would recognize.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson admitted that black Americans had ample reason to revolt, and white Americans to fear that revolt:

Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.

That sounds like an angst-ridden Jefferson who fits smoothly into Fleming’s milieu of white Southerners desperate to rid themselves of slaves, though even here Jefferson makes it clear that the construction of race distinguishes black and white Virginians, the first necessarily enslaved lest racial Armageddon ensue and the last free by right of skin. The angst-ridden Jefferson then proceeds to tell us what he really thinks of black people as people, not as products of circumstance:

To these objections, which are political, may be added others, which are physical and moral. The first difference which strikes us is that of colour. Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarf-skin, or in the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us. And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race?

The man on the nickel, who past generations believed could equal in intellect an assemblage of Nobel laureates in the White House by dining alone, argues that black people cannot live together in an equal society with whites because black skin makes them hideous. One might pass this off as a regrettable fact of the aesthetic sense of the time, which did prefer pallor even among whites, but Jefferson goes rather beyond holding black people responsible for their choice of skin and insisting they ought never darken his Virginia:

Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species.

People at the time really did believe that chimpanzees (as orangutan meant in Jefferson’s time) copulated with black women. Through all the genteel phrasing the Sage of Monticello also repeats the vile calumny that black men have a special lust for white women. The special lust of the white author goes, as always, unacknowledged. Jefferson didn’t know, as we do, that all humans trace their descent to Africa and call the apes of the continent our cousins, but by his own terms he seems to have had more than the usual share of chimpanzee in him.

Then Jefferson proceeds to matters that he would like his readers to think dearer to his heart:

Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.


They astonish you with strokes of the most sublime oratory; such as prove their reason and sentiment strong, their imagination glowing and elevated. But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture.

Anthony Johnson's mark (via Wikipedia)

Anthony Johnson’s mark
(via Wikipedia)

If these together do not constitute a theory of racial inferiority, then I do not know what could. Jefferson clearly intended it as exactly that. He wrote all the aforementioned not just to observe the faculties of black Virginians, but rather to explain to his readers why they could only live in Virginia as slaves, never as equals. White southerners from Thomas Jefferson’s time to Jefferson Davis’ time, and well beyond, concurred. A list of them all would read like the census rolls, and run nearly as long. One would struggle to find many white advocates of racial equality anywhere in the nation, but only in the slave states did white supremacy so consistently necessitate slavery.

We might grant Fleming a fraction of a point, had he done better. It seems clear from the example of Anthony Johnson and others, that the white South did not adopt white supremacy as its organizing creed until it adopted slavery as its dominant labor system. As a strict point of chronology, slavery precedes and produces racism rather than the other way around. But Fleming doesn’t care to admit even that much, instead denying voluminous evidence compiled not just by recent scholars, or even a half century of scholarship, but indeed rejects the entire corpus of slavery historiography in order to claim that white supremacy and slavery had little to do with one another. At this point one must wonder more seriously not what books Fleming read, but rather if he read any.

Thomas Fleming’s Second Dead End: Dispersion

James Madison

James Madison

Thomas Fleming gave the waiting world two roads clear of the American Civil War. The first, compensated emancipation, probably makes sense to most people who hear of it. The state buys all the slaves and sets them free, thus directly eliminating slavery. The second road, dispersion or diffusion, lacks the intuitive virtue of the first. Fleming explains:

James Madison’s remarkable intellect had created most of our Constitution. Watching the New England states, then New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania pass laws gradually abolishing slavery with no backlash from the white population or outbreak of violence from the freed slaves, Madison noted that in all these states slaves and slaveowners were a distinct minority of the population. No one paid the owners anything to free their supposed property. The slaves were emancipated by a majority vote of a state’s population or its legislature.

Madison concluded that a national solution to the problem of slavery could be found in one word – dispersion. By allowing slavery in all the new states beyond the original thirteen, the federal government would gradually make it a minority issue, which could be eliminated state-by-state, as it had been in the first round of emancipation in the original northern states.

Fleming sets Madison’s “remarkable intellect” against Thomas Jefferson’s famously poor political judgment, which included banning slavery in the Northwest Territory. In doing so, he strikes at the root of the difficulty with the dispersion argument. Proponents ask their audiences, then and now, to believe that the production of slave states without limit will weaken slavery and ease it toward abolition. In other words, the nation should have thrown the commonwealth, every particle of dirt from the Appalachians to the Pacific, wide open to slavery. By the production of at least a score of new slave states, slavery would somehow melt away despite the obviously dramatic boost this would give to the always powerful proslavery interest within the United States government.

Maybe James Madison could believe that. He had, as Fleming rightly notes, the example of the New England and Mid-Atlantic emancipations. In each case, marginal slave systems unable to reorient all of white society around themselves ended without great turmoil. Any new state would by definition lack a large population, yet have plenty of cheap land freshly stolen from the Indians and ripe for white exploitation. The labor shortage would promote the establishment and growth of slavery, inducing enslavers to import the enslaved from older states just as labor shortages in the Chesapeake and Caribbean had once prompted the same transport across the Atlantic. That northern enslavers frequently sold their human property South in advance of the scheduled date of emancipation, often in defiance of the law, further proved the point.

But the facts soon leave the diffusionists behind. They identified a dynamic that would pull slaves to new territories and away from old, but all the way back to the first census we know that the whole of the North then had only 40,000 slaves to move. This came to just over two percent of the total population. While an impressive number, more than the entire population of the county in which I live, it pales next to the South’s 657,000. That came to a third of the Southern population and about the same as my Congressional district, or significantly more than the state of Wyoming. It ought to go without saying that removing the greater portion of third of the population that the South enslaved would take more doing, if one could do it at all.

Furthermore, diffusion assumes a sort of antislavery asymmetry between the sources of slave supply and the slave demand generated by newly opened frontiers. The new states must have enough enslavers ready to move in with or import slaves to significantly exceed the capacity of the states supplying the slaves to produce new slaves. Given American optimism about the frontier, that assumption must have come easily. While the comparatively massive slave population of the South might make us a bit skeptical, at the time Americans imagined the whole continent available for their future use. Surely that could drain away the slaves.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Or could it? The Northwest Ordinance did bar slavery from part of the continent, but south of the Ohio no such ban existed. Here virgin frontiers full of whites hungry for slaves and the money they could wring from enslaved lives beckoned. Furthermore, that frontier held land well-suited to the most lucrative crop available to Americans: cotton. Indeed, it held most of the land well-suited to that crop. If the Old Southwest came in short of all North America for making dispersion dreams come true, then it still provided a nigh-ideal test case. All the land of Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and then Florida, Louisiana, and Arkansas ought to suffice in draining away at least enough slaves to make a dent.

Yet we don’t observe any significant reduction in proslavery fervor or in the slave populations along the Atlantic. Quite the opposite, even the dispersionists’ Virginia home seems more committed to slavery in perpetuity in the late Antebellum than in earlier decades. And why should the Upper South get rid of slavery? Tobacco had seen better days, true enough, but the chillier reaches north of the Cotton Kingdom had discovered a new cash crop which proved adequately profitable: slaves. While many of those slaves went to satisfy demand on the frontier, just as dispersionists hoped, the demographics don’t lie. Virginia had more slaves in 1860 than ever before, not less. It transpired that, whatever wistful dreams enslavers had about their states growing whiter, they still found profit the more congenial of their principles. Increasing the demand for slaves beyond what their local labor market dictated could both induce them to keep an enslaved population around for breeding purposes and encourage others to get into the business. Thus we see dispersion not shifting slavery, but simply expanding it. The same holds true in South Carolina, where losing out in the demographic race to younger states meant not a reduced commitment to slavery but rather an intensification of an already deep preference for the institution.

For that matter, even if dispersion had shifted slavery that didn’t necessarily point to an end of slavery. North American only goes so far. By the dispersionists own logic, concentration of slavery breeds commitment to slavery and renders emancipation impossible. Eventually the United States would have run out of land to steal, or found the rest taken up by empires that could win a war against it. Those empires might not permit slavery, and indeed both of the country’s continental neighbors came around to that position. With the frontier run out, slavery must concentrate and produce a polity committed to its perpetuation. The only road open to diffuse slavery away then would involve expanding it back into marginal areas and, ultimately, places that had freed themselves of bondage.

James Madison might not have lived long enough to settle in his mind that diffusion would not work, but Thomas Fleming has no excuse for pushing such an old, clearly discredited argument. Americans tried the experiment and got more slavery more enthusiastically embraced, not less. Nobody kept the demographics secret. They, and the Upper South’s embrace of slave cultivation as well as cultivation by the enslaved, feature prominently in more than a half century of scholarship. Fleming can’t have missed that, unless he chose not to burden himself with the laborious task of cracking a book on the subject. He may, if he so wishes, unburden himself. Novelists can write what they like with the understanding, shared between author and audience, that they produce fiction.

Fleming did not present himself as a making things up in the service of an entertaining story or offering up contemporary arguments as intellectual curiosities. All through his essay he seems entirely in earnest, understanding himself and expecting readers to understand him as a competent historian commenting on a subject of his study. His arguments concern history and use historical reasoning; they deserve that charity to the best of my admittedly amateur’s ability to provide it. Perhaps in his work on the Revolutionary era, which seems the main focus of his study, fares rather better under such scrutiny. I lack the familiarity both with his work and with the subject in general to comment upon them. I fear, however, that Fleming’s two roads represent the high point of his essay. It gets worse.

Thomas Fleming’s First Dead End: Compensated Emancipation

Thomas Fleming, a historian and novelist, has produced a remarkable essay. Therein, he presents two ways to rid the nation of slavery without a war: compensated emancipation and diffusion of slaveholding. We can’t rerun history and do things differently to know that for sure, but Fleming points to real historical circumstances where both solutions put an end to slavery. The essay covers several topics that each deserve their own post for full consideration, as they reference common pro-Confederate tropes and for reasons of length and clarity. Kansas coverage will resume in a few days.

LincolnAccording to Fleming:

The first solution came from Abraham Lincoln. It was the solution that the British used to free a million slaves in the West Indies in the 1830s – compensated emancipation. Not once but twice Lincoln offered the South millions of dollars if they would agree to gradually free their slaves over the next 40 or 50 years.


Why not just buy all the slaves? It worked for the British. Surely it could work for the United States. On the face of it, this seems like a perfectly reasonable argument. When examined in more detail, it proves far less plausible. The millions of slaves living in the United states amounted to not millions of dollars invested in human property, but billions:

In 1805 there were just over one million slaves worth about $300 million; fifty-five years later there were four million slaves worth close to $3 billion.

The British had eight hundred thousand slaves to free and did so, ultimately, at the cost of twenty million pounds sterling. The United states had nearly four million who, together, beat the combined value of all the nation’s railroads and factories. Only the land itself, all the American portion of the continent, might have held greater cash value. The money to pay for the nation’s slaves at anything like fair market value would have taken appropriations on par with the cost of waging the war itself, something that no Congress confronted with anything less than an insurrection on the scale of the Civil War would have contemplated. Furthermore, the cooperation of the South would be essential to any compensation scheme. The Southern caucus would have to both allow its loyalists in the North to defect on the issue and then come over themselves, at least in significant numbers, to pass any bill that would buy up the nation’s slaves. This would almost surely mean forcing enslavers to sell their human property at a loss, as well as foreclosing the major avenue for economic and social advancement for the section’s poorer whites.

The white South proved unwilling to do any such thing both in the 1860s and every other time the subject came under serious consideration, whether the nation could raise the cash or not. When Ohio proposed compensation and colonization in 1824 with the eventual concurrence of eight other states, including Delaware in a rare departure from slaveholder solidarity, six of the slave states rejected the proposal emphatically. South Carolina’s legislature declared

the people of this state will adhere to a system, descended to them from their ancestors, and now inseparably connected with their social and political existence.

Georgia, Missouri, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama concurred, so this amounts to more than an episode of South Carolina extremism. States so committed would hardly dispatch senators or elect representatives who would happily comply with any emancipation scheme, even the most gradual and mild. Nor could one expect their constituents to cooperate happily with it if they did. That commitment proved no less weaker in 1862. In Delaware’s case, it had actually deepened. Only the tremendous strains put on marginal slavery regimes by the war itself induced Missouri and Maryland to accept emancipation, and without compensation, prior to the Thirteenth Amendment.

The British managed compensated emancipation, but the United States did not manage a slavery regime under the same circumstances as the British Empire did. People of both nations enjoyed reaping the profits of slavery, but Britain kept slavery at arm’s length. One could not legally hold slaves within the United Kingdom, only in its colonies. A slave who set foot in Britain became that moment free, a fact long understood by the English courts. Those colonies, as Americans ought to know very well, did not enjoy full, equal rights, representation, or sovereignty with the mother country. Parliament had the full power to legislate on a colony’s behalf, regardless of the objections of any local assembly that might exist. Whites in Jamaica or Barbados might oppose emancipation, even with compensation, but their presence didn’t come with built-in senators and representatives to fight on their behalf. A proslavery lobby did exist, and delayed the progress of freedom significantly, but it had to operate in a free Britain and compete against industrial interests significantly more developed than those in the United States.

Politically, emancipation thus came more easily to Britain. It did so socially and intellectually as well. Proslavery writing stresses the intimacy of the American way of bondage. They called slavery a domestic institution and meant it not just in a general sense that they practiced it locally, but also much more intimately. Enslaved women received cruel tutelage on that point. The enslaved lived with the enslaver. Well-off southern whites grew up with enslaved companions. The enslaved cooked their meals. They slept in the enslavers’ rooms to remain available to the their every whim, no matter the hour and without delay. An enslaver might harbor fears for the institution’s future, but it permeated every moment of his or her life. By contrast, most British enslavers came to the colonies to establish a slave labor camp and get rich enough to hand management over permanently to an overseer. He would then go home, never intending to remain in perpetuity among the enslaved.

Parliamentary debates over emancipation conspicuously lack the kind of arguments about black inferiority which pervaded American discussion of slavery. Though Britain certainly had its share of white supremacists, their ideas did not lay the bedrock upon which one could launch a defense of slavery like proslavery writers did to a unique extent in the United States. Living among the enslaved, seeing them tortured, torturing them yourself, and yet also pretending that you governed them in a kind and fatherly manner required both a level of ideological commitment and personal delusion probably only sustainable to a large scale in the exceptional milieu of eighteenth and nineteenth century America.

This leaves us at the end of a road not taken. For compensated emancipation to have worked in the United States would have required a very different United States. To arrive at such a polity would have required transformations that one must expect the white South to fight bitterly, just as it fought bitterly against the different transformations that finally did end American slavery. Even should those cultural changes have taken place, the nation would then have confronted the still formidable practical obstacles to emancipation.

I departed from Fleming’s text to consider a common claim in neo-Confederate circles, but fairness demands that I also acknowledge he knows full well that the South refused compensation. The usual suspects don’t even get that far, instead preferring the notion that Lincoln and the Republicans really didn’t care about slavery. The few who do just barely better will insist that the antislavery movement instead refused to even consider compensation. That the South rejected it doesn’t enter into things, as that would admit that the South understood slavery as its paramount concern and waged a war on its behalf. Once one admits that, one must either don the white hood proudly or find a different cause.