John Brown’s Conviction

John Brown

Gentle Readers, as you might have guessed the blog got a bit ahead of my reading. I didn’t notice in time so I ended up reading a book on black slaveholders in South Carolina rather than getting the necessary biographies to best understand John Brown. Redpath’s hagiography makes a fair start at that, but we must read it as essentially an antislavery campaign document. His protestations aside, he published at a time when white Southerners damned the Republican Party as a collection of John Browns. The Republicans denied this and condemned Brown’s ill-fated campaign against Harper’s Ferry.

Redpath’s book takes a different approach by vindicating Brown against his critics. Still, he had the clear cooperation of Brown’s family and friends as well as living in Kansas himself at the same time Brown did so we can’t just dismiss it entirely. I now have better sources to supplement him with: David S. Reynolds’ John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights and Stephen Oates’ To Purge This Land With Blood: A Biography of John Brown. Reynolds bills his book as a cultural biography, as much about John Brown’s world as Brown himself. Oates’ wrote a conventional life. Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. Both authors also have more distance from Brown and less commitment to making him into a saint or a madman than his contemporaries or past biographers.

Redpath gave us John Brown’s ideological reason to go to Kansas: to fight slavery. He also acknowledged in passing that Brown intended to help his sons and others who had preceded him out of both a general benevolence and from his genuine frontier expertise. These bear a closer look.

John Brown lived on the frontier of white settlement for much of his life. He grew up mostly in Ohio, in close company with Native Americans. His family had an unusually positive and close relationship with them. Reynolds points to this as evidence that Brown grew up free of any racial prejudice, raised by his father to treat all people just the same. Many incidents in Brown’s life argue for something like that. He raised his children to act as he did and he both aided fugitive slaves and appears to have socially mixed with non-whites in ways quite unusual for a nineteenth century American. I doubt he completely lacked prejudice, but in a pervasively and openly racist society that does count for something.

Reynolds also makes the point that Brown always considered himself a servant of the community. He had his famous hard, uncompromising side, but he also spent his time on the frontier building institutions and aiding his neighbors. In John Brown, they had the kind of man who would insist that the sheriff arrest and hold a man who committed a crime even when the sheriff wanted to grant leniency. They also had the kind of man who knew that the loss of labor and income would harm the accused’s family and provided for them out of his own quite modest means for the duration of his imprisonment. He built schools and hired teachers. He served as volunteer postmaster. The same uncompromising attitude toward his cause also applied to his duties.

We remember John Brown as a man who failed at everything he did. His business dealings bear that out. For example, Brown worked for as a time as a wool factor. He took in wool on consignment from farms back home, graded it, and put it for sale in the east. Brown had a good eye for wool and priced accordingly, with the worst stuff sold at below market rates and the best above. This resulted in buyers scooping up his low quality stock for less than it could go for and leaving his high end product in the warehouse. He would not budge from the prices he stated unless absolutely forced to, which meant he took a bath on most everything. His repeated errors seem to stem from a basic unwillingness to bend that served him well elsewhere. When Brown thought he had a duty to do something and do it right, he did not move.


Never tell John Brown the odds

John Brown

John Brown went to Kansas to fight and he didn’t like it one bit that the antislavery leadership denied him his chance. No fool, he understood the double talk in the Wakarusa peace settlement. Charles Robinson and James Lane could say they conceded nothing, but the same language permitted others to argue that they had. This made them fundamentally duplicitous in Brown’s mind and he regretted thereafter that he abandoned his plan to go draw some proslavery blood on his own. Redpath, writing with a few years’ hindsight, add that the treaty and the Free State party’s official line

only served to postpone the inevitable conflict then rapidly approaching, and to demoralize the spirit of the Free State party. It occasioned, he thought, the death of many Northern men, whom, encouraged by this compromising action, the marauders, on their return, murdered in cold blood or in desultory warfare.

Brown may have seen it that way at the time. We can look ahead and agree with him that murders and strife came, though connecting them with the Free State party’s disinclination to hazard large-scale violence would take more doing. John Brown didn’t go around eating bugs and raving like the cartoon madman of popular memory, but he also lacked any formal military experience -in his earlier life he paid fines rather than take part in the militia- and seems largely uninterested in the practicalities of battle. He knew he needed weapons and where to use them. When to strike or how seem not to have troubled Brown too much.

Redpath tells that Brown didn’t care to hear the odds.

‘What are five to one?’ said he, ‘When our men would be fighting for their wives, their children, their homes, and their liberties against a party, one half of whom were mercenary vagabonds, who enlisted for a mere frolic, lured on by the whiskey and the bacon, and a large portion of the others had gone under the compulsion of opinion and proscription, because they feared being denounced as abolitionists if they refused?’

Maybe. People with something to fight for may fight harder, but that doesn’t ensure victory. It also neglects how many of those men Brown thought seduced by whiskey and bacon could claim just the same motives. If Kansas fell to freedom, then it may fatally undermine slavery in Missouri. In Southern thought, that would almost certainly lead to a genocidal race war. They, as white men, expected to win that fight in the end. They also knew that in such a war, their own homes and families might not survive to the end.


Silencing John Brown

John Brown

We left John Brown just after James Lane got him to come back from his planned assault on the proslavery forces still besieging Lawrence. Brown thought very little of the Free State political leadership. He condemned Lane as a man without self-respect and Charles Robinson as a man with no principles at all. Brown had come back to Lawrence in time to see Governor Shannon give a speech on the peace settlement, followed by calls for Lane and Robinson. Lane gave a big talk, Robinson demurred, and John Brown decided that he had things to say.

Some time has passed since we discussed the Wakarusa War at length, Gentle Readers. For right now, remember that the Free State leadership negotiated a peace essentially in secret with Governor Shannon and the proslavery militants. These same leaders constantly preached restraint even as bullets flew, asking their men to endure potshots without answering them for nerve-wracking days on end. Many must have thought that their superiors’ timidity cost Thomas Barber his life. They also suspected that this peace treaty, which no one had seen, might give up too much without a fight.

Redpath relies on William Phillips here:

Captain Brown got up to address the people, but a desire was manifested to prevent his speaking. Amidst some little disturbance, he demanded to know what the terms were.

Phillips’ strategic tact here speaks volumes. “A desire was manifested” and “some little disturbance.” People manifested their desires and made a disturbance. Phillips, himself usually taking a harder line than the free state leadership, declines to name names. He wrote his The Conquest of Kansas as much as a propaganda document as a history and it seems he wanted to acknowledge dissension in the ranks without making it too clear to outside readers. In discussing the murders at Potawattomie, Phillips blames the Indians and deems the whole affair cloaked in mystery, so it doesn’t look as though he meant to make Brown into a lone bad apple.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

If anything, Phillips casts Brown as a principled voice in just Redpath’s vein. He has Brown say that

If he understood Governor Shannon’s speech, something had been conceded, and he conveyed the idea that the territorial laws were to be observed. Those laws they denounced and spit upon, and would never obey -no! Here the speaker was interrupted by the almost universal cry, “No! No! Down with the bogus laws! lead us down to fight first!” Seeing young revolution on the tapis, the influential men assured the people that there had been no concession. They had yielded nothing. They had surrendered nothing to the usurping Legislature.

Redpath does one better and names “the politicians” who wanted Brown silent as Lane and Robinson. Though not an explicit call out, he bothers to give Brown’s precise opinions of only those two men when discussing the situation. He cites their decision to keep the text of the treaty secret as further evidence and only Robinson and Lane would have had the ability or interest in doing that.



Tact, Ingenuity, and Alcohol: The Browns go to Kansas, Part 6

John Brown

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

We left John Brown bound and determined to blow up the fragile peace ending the Wakarusa War and draw some blood from proslavery men. He got together about a dozen men and started on the way, but James Lane stepped in and got him to come back to Lawrence. Lane then tried to get Brown into “a council of war”. John Brown had better things to do than listen to Lane, Charles Robinson, and company explain the delicate situation. According to Redpath, Brown answered:

Tell the General,” he said, “that when he wants me to fight, to say so: but that is the only order I will ever obey.”

In a footnote, Redpath explains Brown’s refusal by giving an account of his estimation of the Free State leadership, in Brown’s own words:

“I am sorry for friend Lane,” he remarked, as we were speaking of his blustering style of oratory; “I am afraid he does not respect himself.”

Lane did deliver the big talk and had shamelessly gone from preaching moderation to militancy when he saw which way Kansan opinion ran. He came to Kansas to restore his political fortunes and would probably have taken any course that served that purpose. Before all of this, he lost his House seat specifically because he voted for the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Robinson had better antislavery bona fides, but also hewed to a far more cautious style of resistance. The rank and file didn’t admire his sensibilities on that point and he seems to have lacked the oratorical power to make them compelling. Brown thought, in light of Robinson’s “subsequent conservatism”

“What a pity it is, that men when they begin life, should not get hold of some fixed principles-make up their minds that they are right, and then hold to them. he did not do that. That is his fault.”

Shameless and unprincipled or not, they met Governor Shannon when he came into Lawrence and got him to sign an authorization for free state militias. Redpath admits that what Lane and Robinson got out of Shannon, both in the authorization and sending the Missourians home, did the antislavery cause good. He praises their “diplomatic tact and Yankee ingenuity” the paragraph after he writes that they got Shannon thoroughly drunk beforehand.

Redpath paints Brown as unsympathetic to the politics of the situation, but not ignorant of them. He saw in the peace settlement a capitulation. By taking endorsement from the territorial government, the Free State party acknowledged that its militias needed Governor Shannon’s blessing. They departed from the hard line that Kansas had no governor, or had one in Charles Robinson, and so compromised the purity of their position.

“To draw a little blood” The Browns go to Kansas, Part 5

John Brown

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

We left John Brown at the close of the Wakarusa War. He showed up for the siege of Lawrence, armed to the teeth, and a militia company quickly formed around him. Brown then tried to convince the antislavery men to launch an attack on the proslavery headquarters at Franklin. He tried that a few times and each time it seems that the free state leadership intervened to put a stop to it. When they announced their negotiated peace, Brown had about had it with them.

Brown’s first biographer, James Redpath, told his readers all that to show how the Free State party lost their nerve. They could talk a good game, complete with a resolution to contest the slave code of Kansas “to a bloody issue.” When the bloody issue came,

the politicians quibbled; sought other grounds to stand on; “planted themselves on the law;” restrained the ardor of the people which sought to drive the ruffians homeward or to the grave; saw good Thomas Barber murdered in the open day for the crime of having visited their own; and yet, with hundreds of invaders of their soil within sight, who were sacking their cabins and robbing and imprisoning their citizens, they calmly “urged them not to allow the daily outrages to drive them to commence hostilities!”

Redpath either didn’t appreciate the political complexities, including that an outnumbered force might well lose a battle, or ignored them to paint a better picture of John Brown as the righteous man of Kansas. It would not do to admit that the bloody issue phrasing came from Andrew Reeder’s pen, in resolutions he demanded the free state party adopt as a condition of his remaining in the territory and joining with them. If anything, that might make the whole business look dubious. Careful politics don’t often make for the best public relations.

Still, Brown’s hagiographer speaks to the essential frustration of the rank and file antislavery men around Lawrence that day. They came all this way and endured considerable stress. They built earthworks while proslavery men took potshots at them. They waited for days on end. The enemy robbed their homes. We should not neglect the political grievances, but the siege had strains all its own capped off by the death of one of their fellows.

James Henry Lane

Feeling the indignity of it all, Brown tried an attack anyway. Redpath reports that

he did not hesitate to express his contempt for the “Committee of Safety”-most of them ox-intellects, vainly striving to fill an office fit for lionhearts only-and to denounce the political preachers of peace as recreant to their recent and loudly-vaunted resolutions. He went out at once with a dozen men to meet the Missouri invaders-“to draw a little blood,” as he styled it-but, at the earnest entreaties of General Lane, he returned to town without doing it.

“Retired in disgust” The Browns go to Kansas, Part 4

John Brown

Parts 1, 2, 3

Asked to come, with guns, John Brown set his mind on going to Kansas. He had no money to go and to arm himself or supply his sons who had already gone, but a quick appeal to an antislavery convention fixed that. Brown would set out on a holy mission to fight slavery, protect his children, and generally make himself and his frontier expertise available to white colonists.

His first biographer, James Redpath, stresses that Brown never meant to make his own future in Kansas. Proslavery men cast him as a fanatic for that, bent on trekking across the country to fight someone else’s battles. I doubt any said the same about Jefferson Buford. Redpath spends a page defending Brown from that onslaught. His defense amounts to the argument that Brown came to help his sons as well as to fight slavery. Furthermore, even if Brown had done just as his enemies thought and come all that way for one cause, so what?

John Brown did not dare to remain tending sheep at North Elba when the American Goliath and his hosts were in the field, defying the little armies of the living Lord, and sowing desolation and great sorrow on the soil set apart for his chosen people. Either Freedom has no rights, and the Bible is a lie, or John Brown, in thus acting, was a patriot and a consistent Christian.

At this point, Redpath has Brown finally make his trip. He catches his readers up with election fraud, the bogus legislature and its laws, which he witnessed himself. Then we go into the murder of Charles Dow and all that followed. Redpath has John Brown arrive as the proslavery army comes across from Missouri to invest Lawrence in retaliation for its citizens rescuing an antislavery militia leader who proslavery sheriff Samuel Jones arrested on dubious grounds. Redpath quotes an eyewitness to Brown’s arrival in the same town:

the old man, John Brown, and his four sons, arrived in Lawrence. The balance he reported sick. As they drove up in front of the Free State hotel, they were all standing in a small lumber wagon. To each of their persons was strapped a short, heavy broadsword. Each was supplied with a goodly number of fire-arms and navy revolvers, and poles were standing endwise around the wagon box, with fixed bayonets pointing upwards. They looked really formidable, and were received with great eclat.

In the parlance of a later era, we might call the Browns’ adornment tacticool. Gerritt Smith’s money went a long way, apparently. Some enthusiasts among Lawrence’s defenders happily formed a company around him. The Browns and their company didn’t sit idle, but under his command

commenced fomenting difficulties in camp, disregarding the command of superior officers, and trying to induce the men to go down to Franklin, and make an attack upon the pro-slavery forces encamped there.

The Free State leadership, desperately trying to avoid a battle, loved all that exactly as much as you’d expect. Brown’s attack plans would have destroyed their careful strategy to present themselves as law-abiding citizens who had nothing to do with any militancy and only bore arms in self-defense. When peace broke out, Brown “retired in disgust.”


“A call from the Almighty to gird up his loins and go forth to do battle” The Browns go to Kansas, Part 3

John Brown

Parts 1, 2

We left John Brown’s sons, including John Brown, Jr., setting up shop near the Pottawattomie. Proslavery men stole from them, threatened them, and generally made themselves a nuisance on account of the Browns’ antislavery politics. According to James Redpath, they soon came to regret going to Kansas unarmed. They came to win Kansas for freedom with their votes, not their bullets. The proslavery party insisted otherwise, so they wrote to their father asking him to come and bring guns with him.

Here Redpath’s admiration for Brown shines through. He has Brown receive the letter and unable to resist. The abolitionist

undoubtedly regarded it as a call from the Almighty to gird up his loins and go forth to do battle “as the warrior of the Lord,” as “the warrior of the Lord against the mighty,” in behalf of His despised poor and His downtrodden people. The moment long waited for had at length arrived; the sign he had patiently expected had been given; and the brave old soldier of the God of Battles prepared at once to obey the summons.

Gentle Readers, Redpath’s theological take on brown appears elsewhere in his biography. It suits the style of the times and cloaking Brown’s violent actions in holy righteousness. It probably also suited Brown himself, an intensely religious man even by the standards of a far more pious age. For most figures in the era, I would take religious proclamations like this with a few grains of salt. They may mean them, but the standards of discourse essentially demand that they say such things. For Brown it rings more true than most.

That didn’t mean that Brown shot out of the house minutes after receiving the letter, of course. Getting weapons and going to Kansas cost money, something John Brown had trouble keeping in his pockets. He took himself to an abolitionist convention in Essex County, New York. I haven’t found a copy of the speech -sorry; I have biographies on order- but Redpath quotes what appears to be a report of the affair. He uses quotation marks, but doesn’t give us a source. Thanks.

When in session, John Brown appeared in that convention, and made a very fiery speech, during which he said he had four sons in Kansas, and had three others who were desirous of going there, to aid in fighting the battles of freedom. He could not consent to go unless he could go armed, and he would like to arm all his sons; but his poverty prevented him from doing so. Funds were contributed on the spot; principally by Gerritt Smith.

Smith would keep on funding Brown and we know that the old man had the poverty and charisma to arrange such a thing, particularly with a sympathetic audience and an especially sympathetic plea. Brown didn’t want to go just to fight for freedom, a noble goal in itself. He aimed to go to Kansas to rescue his sons from possibly mortal peril.

Brown added another reason, which Redpath quotes from the man himself:

with the exposure, privations, hardships, and wants of pioneer life, he was familiar, and thought he could benefit his children, and the new beginners from the older parts of the country, and help them to shift and contrive their new home.

In other words, John Brown knew his way around the frontier. His boys could use that experience. Here we have at least a hint of the softer side of a famously hard man. He would go to Kansas for the cause, but also with an eye toward making himself of use to the many people there.

“Harassed, plundered, threatened, and insulted” The Browns go to Kansas, Part 2

John Brown

We left some of the Brown boys in Southern Illinois, where they came from Ohio with their livestock for the winter. Between physical ailments, the rigors of a winter lived out of doors, and the theft of some stock they had a rough time of it. They planned to strike for Kansas in the spring and Solomon Brown, age eighteen, joined them for the trip. According to John Brown’s own testimonial in James Redpath’s biography, The Public Life of Captain John Brown, all across Missouri

they heard much from her people of the stores of wrath and vengeanace which were then and there gathering for the free state men and abolitionists gone or going to Kansas, and were themselves often admonished, in no very mild language, to stop ere it should be ‘too late.'”

The younger Browns crossed Missouri in the spring of 1855, roughly contemporaneous with Missourian intervention in the Kansas legislative elections of March. With so many men on the move, money and cannons flowing, and all Kansas news the talk of the Show Me State, they couldn’t have missed the news if they tried. Since they came all this way, at such great expense, specifically to oppose the proslavery men, the Browns ignored their warnings and pressed on. They found a spot near Pottawattomie, which Redpath locates “about eight miles distant” from where John Brown himself would go to live.

At this point, Redpath offers me frustration. As you’ve probably noticed, Gentle Readers, most of my Kansas sources come from in and around Lawrence or the territorial government. They give a sense of what goes on further abroad, but naturally focus on what happens near home. The Browns settled a considerable distance from there and might add some variety. They claimed various difficulties at the hands of proslavery locals which

their father, in the paper above quoted, gave a detailed account; but as to have published it would have damaged the democratic party in the elections then pending, we are told that “a portion of the manuscript was lose,” and that “the history was of considerable length, but did not further possess special interest.”

We have this from Brown, writing before Harper’s Ferry but some years after. Reading the lines closely, it seems that he referred to a document he wrote while still in Kansas. It wouldn’t make any sense to worry about damaging the Democracy in 1859, but during the Kansas days Brown’s antislavery party had a large Democratic contingent. He might have destroyed it in order to help the free state cause or, to read between the lines, Brown may have written about his sons taking vengeance upon their proslavery neighbors for those troubles in a way that could discredit the movement.

Without Brown’s own words, Redpath relies on “a friend of the family.” Said friend tells that the Browns did not come to Kansas armed. The unarmed men

were harassed, plundered, threatened, and insulted by gangs of marauding border ruffians, with whom the prime object was plunder; and noisy pro-slavery partizanship was equivalent to a free charter to do so with impunity.

The Browns go to Kansas, Part 1

John Brown

The last time a proslavery army departed from the environs of Lawrence, they left disappointed. Having come all that way to destroy the town and kill abolitionists, they went home with all the buildings still standing and only one of their enemy dead. The free state leadership pronounced themselves delighted in the outcome, but many of the men who flooded into Lawrence to defend the town also came for a fight and didn’t appreciate the negotiated settlement. Given James Lane’s questionable past and Wilson Shannon’s involvement, they had some cause to suspect their own leadership. Had they made concessions, rather than fight it out?

Free state sources speak to the widespread discontent at the end of the Wakarusa War. That affair at least ended with something like the status quo, which no one could claim of the sack of Lawrence. Among the most discontented the first time, one must count a new arrival to Kansas. According to James Redpath’s hagiographic 1860 biography, John Brown came to Kansas after some of his sons did. Redpath quotes at length from a manuscript that Brown wrote sometime before he went off to his destiny at Harper’s Ferry on how the abolitionist came to Kansas.

In 1854, the four eldest sons of John Brown, named John, Jr., Jason, Owen, and Frederick, all children by a first wife, then living in Ohio, determined to remove to Kansas. John, Jr., sold his place, a v ery desirable little property near Akron, in Summit County. The other two sons held no landed property, but both were possessed of some valuable stock, (as were also the first two named,) derived from that of their father, which had been often noticed by liberal premiums, both in the State of New York and also of Ohio.

Brown wanted posterity to know that his sons gave up a considerable amount of wealth in the name of Kansas’ freedom. Jason also had “a very valuable collection of grape vines, and also of choice fruit trees” which he opted to box and ship out. John and Jason both had families to move with them. The summer of 1854 did not cooperate with their resolve to strike for Kansas and crop failures prompted a plan for the the two younger brothers to take the livestock to southern Illinois for the winter at “very considerable expense” and with some of the animals stolen along the way. From Illinois, they could reach Kansas easily come spring of 1855.

Nor did the two Brown boys without families fit the image of a hardy frontiersman. Owen had a disabled right arm courtesy of childhood injury. Frederick, “though a very stout man” suffered from chronic illness “attended with insanity.” Brown sharply defended his some from accusations of mental disability and instead referred Frederick braving some sort of near-fatal surgery shortly before his departure. One disabled Brown and one debilitated and recovering Brown thus spent the winter husking corn, outside, to feed their animals. Sometime thereafter, Solomon Brown followed along to help them reach Kansas.

Where did white supremacy come from?

Gentle Readers, for some time I’ve neglected my Deep Dives category. Herein, I mean to look further back than the late antebellum and examine broader questions. Today I mean to change that with an absurdly large question. White supremacy permeates everything I study and write about, as well as our daily lives. We have the misfortune of living in a world, and for most of us likely a nation too, where few concepts matter more. With such vast power and ubiquity, it often becomes invisible. Unchallenged, white supremacy seems like the natural order of things. Our silence, our acceptance, and all the ways we consciously or passively imbibe our culture turn it into a kind of physics: white rises to the top, black -and everyone else- sinks to the bottom. Physical laws don’t answer to legislative enactments, but rather predate them and reach back to the beginning of time. Because white supremacy does not, it behooves us to understand how people came to believe in it and make it integral to their worldview and civilizations.

A blog post cannot do this subject justice. You should take what I write here as more an overview and more tentative than usual. Densely-written books go on for hundreds of pages about the question, to the point where a historian of slavery I too briefly knew always recommended the popular abridgment of Winthrop Jordan’s seminal White Over Black rather than the real thing when speaking with laypeople. Jordan’s book, the seminal work, specifically addresses the development of white supremacy among Englishmen, first on the coast of Africa, then in the Caribbean, and for most of its length within British North America. American historians usually start there, with slaves arriving in Virginia in 1619 and having an ambiguous and unclear status until later in the century and a fully-grown racial hierarchy coming about in the seventeenth century’s closing decades. That may tell us about the origins of white supremacy in the future United States, but Jordan himself acknowledges inchoate, conflicting ideas about fundamental differences between Africans and Englishmen essentially from their first encounters in West Africa and some scholars do believe that the transplanted Englishmen at Jamestown already understood those unfortunate twenty taken from the hold of that Dutch slaver as racially different, inferior, and enslaved from the moment they arrived. Others do not and on the balance I inclined somewhat more with the latter group. Whether we come down on Jordan’s side or not, we still have that white supremacy as understood by Englishmen doesn’t constitute its whole.

I aim to explore the question more broadly. To begin with, we know that slavery predates white supremacy and the very concept of whiteness. The Ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and Sumerians all practiced slavery. They did so both upon people who they might reasonably consider other to themselves, but also upon people who they must reasonably have considered culturally similar or the same. We see in what survives of their work occasional depictions of sub-Saharan Africans with features we consider racially stereotypical, but the classicists of my acquaintance caution against reading modern racial categories back in time so far. As most, we should consider these distant precursors. Slavery meant degradation and suffering, but it mostly appears to have been understood more as a personal misfortune rather than a defining, hereditary trait of a group of visibly different outsiders.

Into the Early Modern Period, Europeans had experience with slavery as both victims and perpetrators. Merchants bought people from the northern shores of the Black Sea and carried them by ship to grow crops in the Levant and Iberia, and to perform domestic service in Italy. In Renaissance Florence, one could buy a “black” Slav; the name literally means slave. Slavic slaves grew cotton and sugar on fields around the edge of the Mediterranean and a sensibility of some kind grew up that one could enslave, or at least more easily enslave, them than one’s own neighbors. The reference to blackness here refers not to actual skin color but rather acquiring a fair layer of grime from hard agricultural labor. Western European peasants could get called the same by their white -that is, clean- social betters. Of course, medieval art also depicted demons and devils with black skin. An association with dark color and moral inferiority existed, but premodern people could understand artistic metaphors.

Western and Southern Europeans also experienced slavery as the victims, captured by Muslim raiders and carried off to North Africa by the thousands. We now call one ethnicity from North Africa Berbers. You might remember them from your history books as the Barbary pirates whom Thomas Jefferson sent Stephen Decatur after. They took European Christians into slavery, which European Christians decided they did not like. They could enslave people who differed from them in certain ways, but increasingly came to see it as wrong for any Christian to suffer slavery at the hands of a non-Christian. Christendom, at least to some degree, defined itself as opposed to the practitioners of Islam. This distinction had salience especially at either end of the Mediterranean, where the Byzantine Empire slowly gave way to Muslim polities and Christian kingdoms in Iberia slowly gained ground against their Muslim neighbors.

The fall of Constantinople in 1453 greatly reduced the flow of Slavic slaves into the Christian parts of the Mediterranean basin. Some had made it all the way to the east coast of modern Spain, but the supply diminished. As that happened, the advance of Christian powers in seizing the peninsula increasingly put them in direct contact with the West African coast. The mariners who preceded Columbus sought their fortunes to the South, where they found powerful but visually and culturally distinct people. The Portuguese and Spanish lacked the strength to dominate the Atlantic littoral of Africa, but they could and did come with an interest in the local merchandise. That included people and by the 1450s, enslaved people of African descent appear on the streets of Lisbon.

They had better luck on the Canary Islands, where they eradicated the local, African-descended population and then needed someone else to man the plantations. They didn’t have to go searching long for replacements. Centuries of on-again, off-again wars against religious enemies created something often recognized as either European nationalism or an important precursor in Iberia. It included Catholic Christianity, but also notions about the natural aristocracy of people of pure blood who had not mixed their lineage with Muslims. It did not include Iberia’s Jewish population. Even those who converted could not qualify as entirely trustworthy, unless they had converted rather far in the past. Here we see something approaching the notion of race as a fixed, unchanging identity in that one of the great markers of belonging, Christian faith, no longer suffices to make one a part of the perceived community. Africans, even those who might adhere to some form of Christianity, didn’t qualify either.

The era we call the Age of Discovery, but might better consider an era of slavery and genocide, began in and helped create this broader ferment. Europeans found it acceptable to dispossess and destroy Native Americans. They had a supply of enslaved labor on the African coast, if not as much free access to it or ability to dictate terms as they would like. One might assume that they just used what seemed most convenient. At first, maybe they did. The plantation agricultural complex that defines so much of the Early Atlantic World didn’t get its start in the West Indies. Before Columbus sailed, and for some time afterwards, Europeans grew sugar and other cash crops on islands off Africa’s coast from the Canaries down to the Bight of Benin. As long as the plantations operated there, African slaves make simple logistical sense and need not indicate racial hierarchies in general rather than the horrific, ordinary slavery that might correspond to ancient precedents.

Plantations in the Caribbean don’t have that excuse. If Europeans could not or would not use enslaved Native American labor -they tried, but the genocide got in the way- then they must get their labor from elsewhere. Given the highly hierarchical nature of European civilization, it wouldn’t take a great reach to enslave people right at home and carry them off from Lisbon, Paris, or London. It might transgress existing norms about how one treated fellow countrymen and fellow Christians, but that would save the expense and difficulty of an additional voyage down to Africa to pick up slaves. If only pecuniary motives existed, then the European poor would have served just fine.

They obviously did not, because no European power sought to build a colony in the New World out of the bodies of enslaved whites. Instead they chose Africans. It took some form of previous thought about difference and inferiority to render Africans available to enslave in European minds, which we might fairly argue constitutes white supremacy. We might also argue that it constitutes a precursor and that white supremacy as a conscious thought system developed as a justification for what Europeans had already decided based on less comprehensive, more tentative notions. Probably the best explanation splits the difference and casts Early Atlantic plantation slavery and white supremacy as phenomena that co-created one another in a fiendishly complex interplay of premises, justifications, profit, and horror.

I can’t give you a firm date for when this all took place. Like most social and intellectual changes, white supremacy came about as a process. It had many parents who worked together, across generations, national lines, a great ocean, and four continents. I have elided many nuances and complexities here. To acknowledge again the most important, the Iberian seafaring powers led the way here. Everything I have written may hold firm for them and still leave the origin of white supremacy among Englishmen as a later development more continent on the West Indian and North American experiences. That said, Europeans read and spoke one another’s languages. More still might read others in translation. The pioneers of English colonialism knew their Iberian authorities and eagerly sought information about Africa and the Americans from them. The general story of Western European white supremacy’s origins includes the English, French, and Dutch just as much as the Spanish and Portuguese, even if it doesn’t perfectly reduce to them.

Either way, we live with the story unknowing and make others live with it still today. Just as they chose white supremacy, so we often do the same. It may not cure us to know that, but it should shake our confidence in all those horrors that seem to just happen or be the way things are. These things are the way we all, as societies, as citizens, as voters make them. We could do otherwise.

Further Reading

The literature on the origins of white supremacy is vast and I have only begun to take it in. If all of this interests you, Gentle Readers, you can get a chapter-length overview on which I have heavily relied from David Brion Davis’ Inhuman Bondage. The encounters of Europeans and Africans in West Africa constitute a large focus of David Eltis’ The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas. For a more theory-driven work on the intellectual origins of white supremacy among Englishmen, the starting point must be Winthrop Jordan’s White Over Black.