When the arc of our history bends toward injustice

Internal Enemy CoverThe popular account of American history begins with a collection of demigods in powdered wigs. They discourse eloquently on political theory, making timeless arguments that hateful reactionaries scorned. Therefore, they embarked upon a gentlemanly war that ended in triumph. The French might have had something to do with it, but only to show that even the ossified Ancien Regime could see the fundamental justice of the patriot cause. Then passes a brief era of which we speak little, then the Constitution. In George Washington’s blessed administration, some arcane matter involving who rooted for or against the French Revolution animates passions. Alexander Hamilton, the dastard, has something to do with that. The Federalists careen off the rails, setting themselves up as rightful masters and march happily toward authoritarianism. Then Thomas Jefferson saves the nation in 1800. The Federalist assault on civil liberties comes and goes so quickly that it largely serves to demonstrate the (Jeffersonian) Republican Party’s righteousness. The nation has imperfections, but it doesn’t do to think too much on them. Anyway, they all worked themselves out. The United States, born perfect, became more perfect still. We take the march of freedom as our central theme. The arc of our history bends toward justice.

Most people probably know that freedom didn’t rise the same for everybody, even if we don’t care to admit it. Federalist, Democrat, and Whig all did little enough to liberate slaves. It took a second, rather different, set of Republicans to do much in that direction and then only under uniquely dire circumstances. We could add women and Native Americans to the list of people left out in freedom’s march. The usual phrasing, “left out,” implies oversight. No one set out to deny large portions of the human family any deserved spot in the sun. It just happened, ok? We administer our injustices best when we imagine them as a kind of natural phenomena. Nobody sends the wind and rain; you can’t blame someone for them. Nor could you expect some kind of reparation for the damages they inflict.

Failing that, we can rationalize. If a certain group of Americans don’t succeed as well as another, we attribute it to inherent inferiority. We might call it culture these days, but employ essentialist language entirely in keeping with older racial and national theories. In doing so, we transform an accident into someone else’s just do. If we can’t have innocence, then we can claim a kind of just vengeance. We life in a righteous world, which rewards deserving and undeserving with what they have coming.

The language of racial inferiority, like that of injustice as a natural disaster, communicates a fixed state. Whether deliberately or not, white Americans left others out or behind. If our ancestors did wrong, then they didn’t actively make things worse. Students of Indian history would rightly quarrel with that. Most of us probably know that disease killed most Indians, even if recent scholarship demonstrates convincingly otherwise. But Black Americans came here as slaves. They had nowhere to go but up. Surely nothing white Americans could do could make their lives worse than the brute fact of slavery already had. However talented we imagine our national ancestors, even they had limits.

But what if they did? What if the advance of white freedom depended not merely on black deprivation, but on increasingly common and severe deprivations? In reading Alan Taylor’s The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia 1772-1832, I have come on a clear case of just that.

I remember reading in my textbook, lo those many years ago, how the revolution unleashed a wave of freedom across the land. Americans, free from the dead hand of wicked Britain, liberated themselves through revising their constitutions, broadening the franchise, and other innovations. They even manumitted large numbers of slaves. The post-independence emancipations, all the way up to New Jersey’s in 1804, fit neatly into the narrative. If you read my textbook or one like it, you might have seen reference to the abolition of primogeniture and entail as well. Taylor explains how these worked:

Entail and primogeniture mandated that a great landowner pass on a landed estate (including slaves) intact to one heir, usually the first-born son, rather than divide that estate equally among all of the children. Perpetual in the male line, an entail barred any heir of any future generation from subdividing and selling or otherwise devising the property in parts. The owner had to preserve the estate for his eldest son and could not even mortgage it to borrow funds. The lone exception came when a generation had no male heir to inherit; in such cases, the daughters inherited jointly and divided the estate: considered a tragedy by a legal system that cherished the continuity of wealth in the male line. Aristocratic in design, entail and primogeniture sought to preserve a great estate through the generations. During the colonial era, Virginia’s great planters emulated the English aristocracy by entailing three-fourths of the lands in the Tidewater. Very few entails could be broken by later generations without great expense to navigate through a complex legal thicket.

Taylor, Alan (2013-09-09). The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832 (Kindle Location 704). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

If this sounds like a recipe for permanently consolidated wealth and large numbers of well-born, but discontented white men, you have heard correctly. How could a gentleman of expectations get ahead when denied a reasonable share of the patrimony? This meant little to farmers of modest means, but it burned at the well-off. During the revolutionary era, those Virginians campaigned hard for the abolition of such laws as vestiges of the aristocratic past unwelcome in the new, democratic and republican age. White men deserved equality in rights. Entail and primogeniture required inequality. They should set their own course in life, but the laws fixed them to the states determined by their ancestors. They couldn’t sell their estates, or any part, or even take loans against them. How much more backward could one get?

Well off, white Virginians could scarcely expect a worse problem short of a slave revolt or abolition. Of the three fates, they had scarce experience with revolts and none with abolition, but quite a lot with restrictive inheritance laws. In abolishing the two (entail in 1776, primogeniture in 1785) they expected that the division of large estates between many heirs would bring about greater equality for white men and that the freedom to manage estates as one wished would serve as a good in itself. To the disgust of the crustier Virginians, the reformers had it right. Estates did divide. Enslavers had the freedom to manage their property as they saw fit. Freedom marched on.

Those estates, however, included people. So long as entail held, an enslaver could not sell off any slaves he came to by inheritance. Instead he had to keep them together with the rest of his property. This meant that enslaved people, though still subject to most of slavery’s horrors, could expect to remain together with their families and children. The architects of the old system of inheritance didn’t intend that outcome, but it happened all the same. The new market-oriented, white egalitarian freedom meant an end to that:

The reformed inheritance laws promoted a surge in the sale of slaves by owners seeking cash. During the 1780s, 40 percent of slaves advertised in the Virginia press had been sold at least once before in their lives: up from 24 percent during the 1760s. Virginia planters increasingly valued slave children for future sale. Richard Blow assured his son, “I think it useless to raise up families of them for any other purpose but to sell.” Jefferson deemed “a woman who brings a child every two years as more valuable than the best man on the farm. What she produces is an addition to capital, while his labor disappears in mere consumption.”

Taylor, Alan (2013-09-09). The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832 (Kindle Locations 741-746). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

The division of estates broke slave families and rendered those which remained more tenuous. You don’t have to read many slave narratives to recognize that enslaved people felt the loss of loved ones as keenly as anybody else. They often listed it alongside whipping as one of the key horrors of their lives. The end of entails freed enslavers to commence the great forced migration from the Upper South into the Cotton Kingdom which so thoroughly dismembered families in the decades to come.

In addition to that, the new laws simultaneously expand the number of enslaving Virginians. While the number of slaves held in vast estates shrank, giving more white Virginians a direct financial stake in slavery only increased their already strong practical attachment to it. The practice of renting out slaves to others grew as well, further entrenching bondage within the Old Dominion:

After the revolution, the renting of slaves increased as a means for masters to profit from surplus slaves, in contrast to manumitting them, which brought no financial reward. Many widows hired out their inherited slaves to derive an income while avoiding the rigors of supervising and punishing them. Executors of estates also rented out slaves to support orphans until they came of legal age. During the 1790s a farmer could rent a prime male field hand for $ 31 per year, about a tenth of the cost of buying such a slave. And an adult woman cost only about $ 11 per year, compared to $ 200 for a purchase. As renters, common men could acquire slave labor more readily than by purchase. The surge in postwar hiring further spread slaves among the white households of Virginia.

Taylor, Alan (2013-09-09). The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832 (Kindle Locations 757-762). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

The dislocation and disruption of someone else’s life proves a far easier burden to bear than sudden changes to one’s own. When fewer people owned slaves or directly oversaw them, abolition must seem much more possible. The more people own slaves, the more they will object to challenging the system. They had a cultural stake as free white men regardless, and we should not downplay its significance, but adding a material stake to slavery could hardly do other than encourage them to defend bondage more devotedly.

Virginia probably wouldn’t have abolished slavery in the Revolutionary era anyway; it had far more slaves and enslavers than any of the states that did. But by liberalizing its inheritance laws, the Old Dominion both enhanced slavery’s durability and made the lives of a great many of its slaves more insecure and generally worse than they had hitherto endured. The advance of freedom for its fortunate sons came not just on the backs of already mistreated human property, but also through greater abuse still. To grow their freedom required shrinking the already tiny freedom of their slaves.

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