Two Books on Nullification

Gentle Readers, you may have guessed from the recent run of Modern Mondays that I’ve gone off on a bit of a nullification kick. Sectional strife did not just erupt full-formed over the annexation of Texas or the Wilmot Proviso, but rather had a pedigree extending considerably farther back. At a certain point, one arrives at crises resolved in ways that don’t seem to have pushed the nation closer to war, but which rather subsided into a more latent kind of sectionalism. For example, prior to 1854 southern radicals could complain about the Missouri Compromise but few expected it overturned. The serious controversy over Missouri’s admission to the Union with slavery intact had its lingering echoes. It did not help the white Americans of the two sections learn to love one another better. But neither did it inaugurate an era of continuing and intensifying tension over slavery. Somewhere between the last crisis where we see tensions largely subside and the first where we see them continue, we draw a line and declare the Civil War era commenced.

In doing so, we must remember that the past no more divided itself into discrete blocks than the present. Rather we see trends progress continuously, if not without some acceleration, some slowing down, and reverses. We use periodization to describe, not proscribe. The present trend in these things leans toward pushing the Civil War era further and further back, though not without controversy. Thus we can better tease out the deep roots of the conflict and trace the interdependent evolution of sectional identities that facilitated it. Since South Carolina began the secession movement, twice, the state’s defiance of two tariffs seems like a promising place to look for the war’s deeper roots.

Prelude to the Civil War

Prelude to the Civil War

I began with William W. Freehling’s 1966 book Prelude to the Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina 1816-1836. I knew Freehling’s work from The Road to Disunion, where he covers some of the same ground, and saw regular reference to him even in recent antebellum surveys. For an academic book to remain the standard text for a good fifty years speaks to its quality. I looked for other modern books, but found only Richard Ellis’ The Union At Risk: Jacksonian Democracy, States’ Rights, and the Nullification Crisis. Many other books discuss the controversy, but they generally do so in the course of studying something else. One finds footnotes referencing biographies of the principals, especially Jackson and Calhoun, but so far as relatively recent, dedicated works on the controversy itself Ellis and Freehling have the market cornered.

If you want to know more, which should you read? One generally does better to prefer the more recent publication, though not without exceptions. When it comes to Nullification, the exception proves the rule. If one wants to learn about the Nullification Controversy in detail and thoroughly, one should go first to Freehling. It wouldn’t hurt to read the important chapters once and then give them a thorough skim thereafter to help organize things in your mind. The Freehling of the 1960s has not yet discovered his love for especially convoluted turns of phrase and frequent nicknames, but he still writes careful, dense prose. None of that detracts from his probing inquiry, but it takes some getting used to. His biographical sketches probably tell fairly standard stories of South Carolina political careers often enough that he could have skipped several, but do a good job of fixing the diverse cast of characters in your mind. One comes away knowing who wanted what when, why they changed their minds, what tactics they chose, and informed of the critical whys and wherefores all along. To sum up Freehling’s argument in a sentence: South Carolina’s embrace of radical, novel nullification theories served a tactic to save slavery.

Ellis has almost none of that. He concerns himself almost exclusively with discussions of constitutional theory. He tells you right out that he takes theory seriously and views it as intensely important in its own right, whilst taking a few swipes at historians who inquire as to where the theories come from or why people would find them so compelling. Some of his criticism rings true, but I think overall he goes too far the other way. He deals in abstractions to the point that one wonders just why anybody cared so much. This runs a real risk of turning American history into a collection of white men politely discoursing on abstract matters with cultivated, disinterested manners. I don’t know that Ellis entirely avoided that pitfall.

Ellis’ book speaks far more about Jackson than South Carolina. He lists the Nullification Crisis third in his subtitle and in many ways it feels like an afterthought. He spills at least as much ink on the Bank of the United States and Indian Removal as the crisis. For my money, when Ellis writes about nullification he largely writes around it. He sees criticism of Jackson’s moves to suppress the nullifiers as the most interesting part of the story, rather than the thing itself. To the degree the book concerns nullification at all, Ellis argues that the nullifiers adopted a new and novel theory of states’ rights against older states’ rights theories, but their innovation had popularity elsewhere in the country. Jackson, as an exponent of old school states’ rights, overreached and overreacted in ways that generally undermined his position.

I hope the reader doesn’t take this as too damning of Ellis. His book really has a great deal going for it. He looks at the interplay between the Bank, Indian Removal, and Nullification in ways that Freehling does not. He plumbs distinctions between nullifier theories of states’ rights and more traditional varieties in a way that Freehling only references in passing. Ellis does a very good job of placing the crisis in the broader Jacksonian context. That he didn’t write quite the book I wanted, or that Freehling wrote, doesn’t constitute much of a criticism. Having multiple scholars attack a subject from different angles enriches the field. If you want to build a thoroughgoing understanding of the controversy, you should read his book after you read Freehling.

However, it now falls to me to damn Ellis. The Union at Risk has one critical shortcoming, already alluded to, that one needs to keep in mind. If you go to the index, you will find exactly one entry for slavery, referencing a single section of Ellis’ final chapter. The peculiar institution figures into several subheadings in other entries, but they almost invariably send you straight back to that short section. Most of this section downplays slavery’s significance. Ultimately, Ellis admits that slavery played the driving role in nullification. He quotes Calhoun’s admission of the fact to Virgil Maxcy. Buried in the endnotes, he confesses that he agrees with Freehling that slavery drove Nullification. He identifies the strong correlation between heavily enslaved areas and support for nullification, but then goes off the rails:

there seems to be no question but that the institution of slavery was becoming more widespread and that attitudes toward it began to harden after 1815. But the relationship of this to political developments between 1815 and 1854 is murky.

he Union At Risk

The Union At Risk

One might defend that statement for the early part of the time covered, or excuse it as the product of the 1980s lacuna in slavery historiography, but doing so would require us to neglect quite a bit of work on the later end of Ellis’ “murky” period available to him at the time of writing. I suspect that Ellis struggles here with the fact that through most of The Union at Risk, he remains critical of the nullifiers but broadly sympathetic to Jackson until Jackson declares firmly against them. This seems largely about rescuing Jackson’s traditionalist states’ rights ideas from association with nullification whilst simultaneously not delving into where those ideas also came from. The Old Republicans, especially the set around John Randolph in Virginia, had did not scruple to admit that they saw a too-powerful national government as wrong because it imperiled slavery. Daniel Howe Walker notes as much in What Hath God Wrought:

John Randolph pointed out that a protective tariff was in effect a tax on consumers. “On whom do your impost duties bear?” he demanded. The burden of these taxes on “the necessaries of life” would fall on two classes: “on poor men, and on slaveholders.” 66 Randolph had, as usual, cut to the heart of the matter. (page 83)

And

The strident John Randolph of Roanoke made this logic public: “If Congress possesses the power to do what is proposed in this bill,” he warned in 1824 while opposing the General Survey for internal improvements, “they may emancipate every slave in the United States.” (pages 221-222)

This points to an ideology rather less innocent of proslavery conviction than Ellis suggests and something much more in tune with John Ashcroft’s rendition of the Democracy as built, from Jefferson, on to at least implicitly shelter and preserve slavery.

Ellis’ distinction between traditionalist states’ rights and nullification theories deserves consideration apart from the connection to slavery, but even granting that we run into problems. He further denies Jackson’s and his supporters’ proslavery bona fides, casting them as latter-day Jeffersonians who viewed slavery as a necessary evil. Given both Jefferson’s own behavior and Jackson’s great enthusiasm for expanding slavery, this just doesn’t withstand scrutiny. More recent scholarship, as incisively explained by Howe, considers slavery and white supremacy a major priority of the Democracy:

One policy that the Democratic Party embraced consistently was white supremacy. The centrality of white supremacy in Democratic policymaking helps explain that party’s hostility toward Clay’s American System. Democratic suspicion of government aid to internal improvements reflected not a horror of the market revolution but a fear that such a program might threaten the institution of slavery. The danger, from the slaveholders’ point of view, was twofold. In the first place, national plans for internal improvements might be designed to wean areas in the Border States or Upper South away from slave-based agriculture toward a diversified economy in which slavery would become vulnerable to gradual emancipation. In the second place, national plans for internal improvements set a precedent for federal activity that might encourage interference with slavery— for example, by exercising the interstate commerce power over the interstate slave trade. Jacksonians welcomed transporting farm products to market, so long as it could be done without the centralized planning that raised the specter of emancipation. (pages 584-585)

 

This dovetails far better with that backlash against Jackson that Ellis describes than his account of constitutional abstractions isolated almost completely from the factors that drove people to adopt and defend them. More of Ellis’ work seems devoted to preserving “anything but slavery” as a motive than to the slavery he finally confesses to in his endnotes.

This all makes Ellis a contradictory, somewhat confounding read. What he does, he does well. He makes genuinely important points in the course of doing it. But when called upon the probe the reasons of historical actors, rather than just their reasoning, he leaves the history almost completely undone. You will gain from reading him, but reading him alone would leave one with a gravely incomplete understanding of the Nullification Controversy.

NB: My page numbers come from the Kindle edition of What Hath God Wrought, a book good enough to make an argument for ebooks even independent of the sufficient peril it threatens to wayward house pets, exposed toes, and small children. I’ll even forgive it the eyestrain headaches caused by reading hundreds of pages in at a time.

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South Carolina’s First Nullification

Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

One simply can’t run a country according to the plan that the nullifiers and states rights men advocated. If a state can overrule federal law on its own say-so, then federal law loses its force. With federal law impotent, the federal government becomes irrelevant and soon dissolves. Some vestiges might remain, but as a practical matter one reduces the Union to a collection of smaller, quarreling nations. Given many states had neither the population nor the economy to manage easily on their own, they would then likely consolidate into somewhat like-minded blocs. These groups would probably not repeat the same mistakes as the previous consolidation. Some nullification proposals foresaw essentially that, most notably the idea that the United States should try having two presidents with veto power over one another. One would come from the North, the other from the South. The Southern president would thus keep the Union forever safe for slavery.

Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

The criticism holds true for matters large and small, in principle. We could leave things there, but doing so would require us to ignore the realities of the past. Certainly one could not expect a nation to endure large-scale acts of nullification. If a state or seven rejected losing the presidency or the program of a victorious party in national elections, that more obviously strains the Union and puts nineteenth century democracy in doubt than if it nullifies on a smaller scale. As a practical matter, many Northern states nullified the Fugitive Slave Act. Wisconsin took the extra step of doing it outright, leading to the Taney Court ruling that states had no power to nullify federal laws in Abeleman vs. Booth. Therein, the Court made much the same argument in contemplating the assertion that a state court could interfere with and prevent the operation of federal law:

It would seem to be hardly necessary to do more than state the result to which these decisions of the State courts must inevitably lead. It is, of itself, a sufficient and conclusive answer, for no one will suppose that a Government which has now lasted nearly seventy years, enforcing its laws by its own tribunals and preserving the union of the States, could have lasted a single year, or fulfilled the high trusts committed to it, if offences against its laws could not have been punished without the consent of the State in which the culprit was found.

The rebelling states, of course, would without a trace of irony cite the practical nullification of the Fugitive Slave Act by the North as one of the injustices which drove them to rebellion. They correctly understood the tradition of states rights rhetoric: the issue, however contested, did not go our way and therefore we claim the right to declare ourselves winners. Obviously no nation could let such a thing stand and call itself democratic even by nineteenth century terms. Yet the United States did eventually let it stand. The nation did not spend vast sums and tie up the military to do as it had done to Anthony Burns a second time. Before that, it accepted nullification of a kind from South Carolina. I draw this account from Freehling’s Prelude to the Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina 1816-1836.

Anthony Burns

Anthony Burns

South Carolina’s cotton flowed out of the nation through Charleston and a few other lowcountry ports. Those ports thus naturally had ships in and out regularly, if nothing on the volume that New York, Baltimore, Boston, or New Orleans did. Like any functioning port, Charleston saw ships from diverse places. Many of its regular visitors hailed from the North and abroad. These ships had the usual complements, including some black seamen. Those seamen could roam freely about Charleston. To Charleston’s whites, that meant that northern blacks tainted by abolitionism could speak to their slaves. Worse still, Haitian seamen could walk free and tell anybody who asked about their country’s successful slave revolt. All of this in a region of the state where enslaved blacks vastly outnumbered whites. To further complicate matters, many enslavers from Haiti had passed through Charleston when fleeing the revolution. In the 1820s, they had had direct, personal knowledge of what a real slave uprising looked like. If they missed the significance, than the fact that Denmark Vesey used Haiti as an example of what his conspiracy could achieve would have highlighted it to even the dullest wits.

Charleston hung Denmark Vesey on July 2, 1822. Before he died, he brought the black seaman “problem” further into the limelight. With the lowcountry’s enslavers anxious about revolts, feeling embattled by the recent debates over the fate of slavery in Missouri, and a fresh uprising narrowly averted, they felt they had to do something. To answer the dire menace to their lives and their property in lives, South Carolina’s enslavers passed a law that required every black sailor locked away in the town jail for the duration of his ship’s sojourn in Charleston. Thus Charleston imprisoned the free to secure the enslaved at the end of the year.

All of that worked out just fine for Charleston’s fretting whites and just terribly for its free black visitors, precisely as intended. However, it put South Carolina on the wrong side of the United States and the United Kingdom. The two nations had a treaty granting their sailors free access to one another’s ports. This treaty, declared the Constitution

shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.

South Carolina passed a state law to the contrary. The UK protested to the Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams. Freehling says that Adams might have gotten Charleston to ignore the law for a time. By the middle of the next year, Haitian and other black seamen moved about Charleston freely once more. This did not suit Charleston’s still-anxious citizens. They arranged a mass meeting in late July, forming the South Carolina Association to supervise enforcement of all South Carolina’s laws controlling black lives. The association named standing committees to do that work, which they soon commenced.

That enforcement led in short order to a court case. Charleston’s sheriff seized a free Jamaican black named Harry Elkinson and locked him up. Elkinson protested and sought habeas corpus proceedings, which he got. Supreme Court Justice William Johnson found the seaman law in violation of treaty and therefore invalid. However, Johnson held that he couldn’t order Elkinson’s release as his power extended only to federal prisoners. The South Carolina Association, for its part, declared the state sovereign and insisted that it had not surrendered its power to suppress revolts. Any act designed toward that end rightfully fell within its power, not the capacity of the United States. The state had not yet articulated a full-blown theory of nullification as Calhoun would later invent, but in pleading its case Benjamin F. Hunt and Isaac E. Holmes laid out an important precursor. Johnson didn’t buy it and laid out a strong refutation in his opinion:

Where is this to land us? Is it not asserting the right in each state to throw off the federal Constitution at its will and pleasure?

John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams

Johnson’s opinion provoked a firestorm in South Carolina. If the state could not pass laws to govern its slaves and keep them in slavery, then how could it retain slavery at all? All Haiti’s alleged woes came back to a distant government meddling with slavery. Now they received the same at the imperious hands of a Supreme Court justice. The state ignored the decision and continued jailing sailors. John Quincy Adams kept getting protests from the United Kingdom. He reached out to the Attorney General, William Wirt, for an opinion on the law. Wirt came down firmly against it. In July of 1823, Adams forwarded Wirt’s argument and the protests to South Carolina, asking the legislature to fix the problem.

Though South Carolina’s legislature could not settle on what tone to take, they agreed on the substance. The Senate held that “self preservation”

will never by this state, be renounced, compromised, controlled, or participated with any power whatever.

The House affirmed

The measures directed towards colored persons brought within the territory of this state, are simply part of the general system of domestic police, defensible as such, and absolutely necessary to ensure the safety of the citizens.

In other words, John Quincy Adams could best repose Wirt’s opinion and the British protests in some area perhaps well-suited to the cultivation of mushrooms but otherwise ill-disposed to agriculture. The state acted accordingly, continuing to imprison sailors. Washington and London could protest all they like, but South Carolina did as it willed. London could not perhaps force the issue short of a war. Washington chose not to and let the nullification stand.

Here, for the first time, the state grappled with the issues of the later Nullification Crisis. South Carolina cited the same reserved power of the states to nullify a treaty in the name of internal security that it would later call upon to nullify a federal law. In both cases, its constitutional thinkers discovered this power to save slavery. Victory in the first instance spurred South Carolina onward. If nullification worked once, it could work again.

The Nullification Crisis and Slavery

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson

Once upon a time, South Carolina defied the national government. It declared her rights as a state and struck down a federal law, daring Andrew Jackson to come down and make something of it. The state even tried to raise an army to meet the one Jackson intended to send. Most of the Confederacy’s latter-day boosters don’t know about the affair. Now and then, however, one does find someone aware of history before April of 1861. They will trot out the story of the Nullification Crisis as proof positive that the South (even though only the dominant faction in South Carolina went all-in with nullification) had grievances with the North unrelated to slavery, usually with immediate reference to the tariff.

I don’t propose here to dissect the tariff issue in detail. Others, notably Craig Swain and Andy Hall, have done a good job of that and I don’t yet feel competent to add to it. But I have made my way through William W. Freehling’s Prelude to the Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina 1816-1836. I have not yet read the other modern treatment of the event, Richard Ellis’ The Union At Risk: Jacksonian Democracy, States’ Rights, and the Nullification Crisis. I have, however, learned that Ellis agrees with Freehling on the central point that even back in the 1830s, South Carolina launched a fleeting rebellion to save slavery. Both treatments thus depart from prior historians who insisted that in Nullification times, South Carolina had a cause pure and divorced from slavery. My own high school history class followed the older school, to the point where in younger and more ignorant times I once used the argument from Nullification myself.

The intricacies of constitutional theory invented in the late 1820s to justify nullification, a revolutionary step in itself, could probably make for a dozen or more posts. Freehling devotes his longest and most difficult chapter to them. It makes for demanding reading even if one has a strong interest in the subject. The chief primary source, John C. Calhoun’s then-anonymous South Carolina Exposition and Protest (PDF), doesn’t help matters much as the South Carolina legislature did some heavy revising of Calhoun’s text to incorporate multiple different theories of nullification. One ends up with a document somewhat at odds with itself. I may dig into all of that in the future, but today I have a more practical approach in mind.

The argument goes that South Carolina, which the arguer often conflates with the entire South, opposed a high tariff. Sure enough, the United States passed a very high tariff in 1828. Southerners did protest. South Carolina’s congressmen voted through those rates, so one might at once dismiss them as hypocritical. But on the contrary, South Carolina’s representatives voted as they did intending to destroy the bill. They ensured that it would include duties injurious to manufacturers, with Freehling listing high rates on raw wool and molasses in particular as aimed at northern industry. This would, they hoped, separate those manufacturers from the others and turn enough votes to defeat the whole bill. South Carolina bet wrong, finding that enough northerners voted for lower rates on the targeted goods to render the bill acceptable, if imperfect, to the manufacturers that they hoped to turn.

George McDuffie (D-SC)

George McDuffie (D-SC)

The argument continues, tactical blunders aside, that Southerners understood the tariff as picking their pockets to subsidize the development of the North. It didn’t clearly do so, as Crag and Andy show, but they certainly believed that. The popular argument of the time, articulated by George McDuffie on the floor of the House, held that the tariff demanded Southerners give away the proceeds of forty bales of cotton to the taxman out of every hundred they grew.

Here we hit on the central difficulty of taking anti-tariff politics independent from slavery: the enslavers didn’t grow that cotton. Their slaves did. South Carolina’s upcountry, more so than other states, felt the pinch of the depression after the War of 1812. A combination of poor access to credit, even by early nineteenth century American standards, and overextension that came back to haunt the upcountry cotton magnates. They had a great deal of debt taken on in an era of high cotton prices which they had to repay in a time of lower prices. But their objection boils down to the fact that the tariff would cut into the profits they stole from their enslaved labor force. How could anyone understand this as a cause independent from slavery, short of simply not reading or not thinking about it at any length, I don’t know. Rather we have here a clear, specific grievance that arises from and depends upon slavery. Maybe a farmer in Illinois or Maine could have a tariff complaint untainted by human bondage, but not the cotton planters in the South’s most enslaved state. A commercial grievance did not necessarily make for a slavery grievance, but in South Carolina one had precious little commerce that didn’t either arise from or directly serve slavery.

One could argue, if rather selectively, that South Carolinians did not understand the tariff issue as deeply connected to slavery, or at least to proslavery politics. They had a straightforward financial crunch they wanted out of and saw the tariff making it worse, even if their business involved stealing lives and labor. Here too we soon find ourselves confounded by facts. In this case, however, we need to understand a bit more about the South Carolina economy in the early nineteenth century.

Most everyone probably remembers that one could only profitably grow cotton, even with slave labor you could torture into higher yields, along the coast and on the Sea Islands. There enslavers grew long-staple cotton. There, in the swampy lowcountry, South Carolina got its start. In addition to cotton, Carolina enslavers collected the fruit of slave labor on massive rice plantations. Rice required swampy land to grow, something in short supply in most of the upcountry. then Eli Whitney changed the world with his cotton gin, making short-staple cotton a profitable crop in the upcountry and across the Lower South. This turned the inland South from a land of timber stands and wilderness into the richest section of the country. The expansion of short-staple cotton naturally began in South Carolina.

The two cotton fibers, however easily confused, supplied different markets. Long-staple cotton went into luxury goods like lace. Short-staple cotton went into most everything else. Advances in processing made it look briefly like upcountry cotton might force sea island strains out of the market, but improvements in production had mitigated against that and made the years immediately before Nullification relatively comfortable and prosperous for lowcountry enslavers whether they grew rice or luxury cotton. One would not expect them to lead an antitariff crusade in such an environment. In that role, we would expect the upcountry men feeling the squeeze. Yet within South Carolina most of the leading nullifiers hailed from the lowcountry. Clearly they had more than the bottom line on their minds.

The lowcountry’s great fear came in the horrifying specter of debating slavery. The nation’s tiny antislavery movement had sent its first petitions to Congress and the lowcountry enslavers, vastly outnumbered by their human property, believed that discussion of slavery had reached the slaves who took part in Denmark Vesey’s conspiracy. If they did nothing to stop discussion, then their slaves might rise up and murder them in their beds. They had already taken steps in that direction through various vigilance measures in and around Charleston, but a series of fires and rumors of other conspiracies kept them in a state of keen paranoia. Thus they felt they must silence slavery debate forever, for their own wealth and safety and decided they could best manage that by declaring Congress had no power over their domestic institution. Through social connections and shared investment in slave property, they spread their ideas into the upcountry.

Why not just say they set out to defend slavery? In the early 1830s, endorsement of slavery qua slavery lacked the cachet it would later have. A gentleman should hope that at some indeterminate date in the future, slavery would magically end. Until then, he just had to make do with the terrible burden of a fortune beaten, raped, and stolen from the bodies of black Americans. In this way, enslaving constituted a necessary evil. Arguments for the positive good of slavery, though in development, had yet to sweep even South Carolina.

Allow me to close with some words from the nullifiers themselves on the nature of their crusade. Freehling quotes the May 12, 1830, Winyaw Intelligencer:

It is not, it ought to be understood, that the Tariff is only one of the subjects of complaint at the South. the Internal Improvement, or general bribery system, and the interference with our domestic policy-most especially the latter-are things which … will, if necessary, be met with something more than words.

Looking at the justification for internal improvements in the Constitution’s General Welfare Clause, Robert Turnbull argued

these words “general welfare” are becoming every day more and more important to the folks, who are now so peaceably raising their cotton and rice, between the Little Pedee and the Savannah. The question, it must be recollected, is not simply, whether we are to have a foreign commerce. It is not whether we are to have splendid national works, in which we have no interest, executed chiefly at our cost. … It is not whether we are to be taxed without end. … But the still more interesting question is, whether the institutions of our forefathers … are to be preserved … free from the rude hands of innovators and enthusiasts, and from the molestation or interference of any legislative power on earth but our own? Or whether, like the weak, the dependent, and the unfortunate colonists of the West-Indies, we are to drag on a miserable state of political existence, constantly vibrating between our hopes and our fears, as to what a Congress may do towards us, without any accurate knowledge of our probable fate, and without a hope of successful resistance.

Thompson Player, an upcountry man, agreed that the tariff

is only preparatory to ulterior movements, destined by fanatics and abolitionists to subvert the institutions and established policy of the Southern country, to gratify their capricious and pretended charities.

Robert Barnwell held that

there are some changes in the very forms of our domestic policy, to which they could scarcely persuade us quietly to submit. And there are no changes, however vital and subversive of our most absolute rights, which fanaticism and misguided philanthropy would not attempt.

William Preston said it more bluntly still:

the slave question will be the real issue-All others will be absorbed into it. The hypocrisy of the north & the fears of the South will combine to bring us to the same result, and will Louisiana cling to her sugar and give up her negroes?

All quotes from Freehling.

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

I could go on. I may still in the future. But I can think of no better spokesman for the nullifiers than their leading ideologist, a fixture of Carolina politics and figure on the national stage for decades, none other than John C. Calhoun. In September of 1830, Calhoun wrote to Virgil Maxcy:

I consider the tariff act as the occasion, rather than the real cause of the present unhappy state of things. The truth can no longer be disguised, that the pecular domestick institution of the Southern States and the consequent direction which that and her soil and climate have given to her industry, has placed them in regard to taxation and appropriations in the opposite relation to the majority of the Union, against the danger of which, if there be no protective power in the reserved rights of the states they must in the end be forced to rebel, or, submit it to have their paramount interests sacrificed, their domestick institutions subordinated by Colonization and other schemes, and themselves and children reduced to wretchedness. Thus situated, the denial of the right of the State to interpose constitutionally in the last resort, more alarms the thinking, than all the other causes; and however strange it may appear, the more universally the state is condemned, and her right denied, the more resolute she is to assert her constitutional powers lest the neglect to assert should be considered a practical abandonment of them, under such circumstances.

One Day in July with White Supremacist Jack Kelly

Seven score and ten years ago, almost the entire white South fought a war to save slavery. Only four slave states declined the crusade in the end, for the most part with significant internal divisions and a number of their white residents taking up the cause anyway. For generations thereafter, many of those white southerners mourned their dead and bitterly resented their loss. They might admire the tragic sacrifices of their friends, family, and hallowed ancestors. They might celebrate the valor of those men. They did both with the full knowledge that those same men fought to win rather than courageously lose. Like people the world over, they could cast themselves in the same place as those hallowed ancestors. Surely if they could help, then things would have gone differently.

Shelby Foote almost says it in Ken Burns documentary, in the course of quoting Faulkner:

William Faulkner, in Intruder in the Dust, says that for every Southern boy, it’s always in his reach to imagine it being 1:00 on an early July day in 1863. The guns are laid. The troops are lined up. The flags are already out of their cases and ready to be unfurled. But it hasn’t happened yet. And he can go back to the time before the war was going to be lost. And he can always have that moment for himself.

One must understand that Foote means every white Southern boy. In that moment, with all things in the balance, all things seem possible. Maybe a single time traveling boy couldn’t change the outcome. Maybe legions of them would fare no better. To put oneself there makes one part of something grand, a participant in the noble struggle. He imagines a world that could have been. If his struggle fails, then he falls as a hero. He proves his manhood, his pride, and writes his own elegy in dreamed blood -his own, someone else’s, but never a slave’s- to the tragic passing of a noble age. At least by the twentieth century, and probably before, that white Southern boy would have had some white Yankee boys for company.

Foote doesn’t say all that goes into the dream. He knew, of course, but one no longer says such things openly. Now more of us imagine ourselves in blue. We have the luxury of pretending that if we lived then we would have the same values we do now and so of course we would fight to free the slaves. If we have traded one form of cheap virtue for another, then at least we traded up.

Or we hope we have. Some of us refuse to. Probably more of us lie about it, to others and to ourselves. Take, for example, Jack Kelly of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He declares himself, in the customary ritual of those about to prove otherwise, a proud Union partisan happy to hop in the time machine and go back to destroy slavery:

if I had to live in an earlier period, I’d want to be a soldier in the Union Army. I can think of no greater cause than to fight to eradicate America’s original sin.

Good for him. But as these things do, he goes downhill from here.

Slavery isn’t America’s original sin because it was unique, or uniquely horrible here. If prostitution is “the world’s oldest profession,” slave trading is second. Since the dawn of recorded history, slavery has been practiced in nearly every society known to man.

Kelly can only acknowledge the evil of slavery if he can share the blame around. On the heels of admission, he reaches for exculpation. We all know the horrors of slavery, or so we imagine. Few receive much education on the subject, fewer still inquire on our own. We know we will find nothing pleasing there, but decline to test the proposition. Jack Kelly certainly didn’t. He wants to acknowledge slavery, but immediately move past it as though Americans enslaved in a brief, transient, incidental way rather than building a continental order centered on the deprivation of people they declared black for the exaltation of those deemed white.

He has some superficial facts. Other cultures did practice slavery, though race-based slavery seems to have developed specifically in the context of the Early Modern Atlantic. This at least distinguishes New World slavery from ancient slavery or Arabian slavery. Slavery in the United States has other distinguishing traits. Less involved with the dangerous processing of sugar and operating largely north of the favored habitats of tropical diseases, the United States developed a self-sustaining slave population. We usually did not kill slaves faster than births could replace them. Does that make white Americans virtuous, or should recognize that this achievement only appears ostensibly benign as it renders bondage all the more durable? Enslavers would reap lives for profit either way. The source of the harvest does matter and we should acknowledge how it differently shaped the Caribbean and the United states, but I don’t know that we should pat ourselves on the backs for coming out one way or the other on it.

Even if we might make such a decision, we would praise not the determination of people but geography. If one could turn a profit growing sugarcane in Virginia, Americans would have done it just as much as the British did in the West Indies. We know from the example of the Carolina lowcountry that American enslavers had no qualms about forcing slaves to toil in areas they understood as replete with lethal diseases.

Kelly will have none of that. He spreads the blame to everyone, parceling it out so finely that not enough adheres to any particular group for us to really notice.

The words “slavery” and “benign” ought never to appear in the same sentence, but slaves in the American South and the British Caribbean (usually) were treated less harshly than in most other places where slavery has been practiced — especially in ancient times.

He says it in so many words: slaves in the United States and the United Kingdom’s Caribbean colonies had it comparably good. This might or might not withstand careful examination, but he clearly implies that we should take the mote of blame he has left we virtuous whites with and place it elsewhere. Kelly has suggestions:

Our word “slave” is derived from “Slav,” the peoples most frequently enslaved during Roman times. Throughout history, only a relatively few slaves have been black. And for every African brought to North America on (mostly British) slave ships, dozens and possibly hundreds more were taken east by Arab slave traders.

This makes for a nice distraction: those bastard Romans might have enslaved my own ancestors. I don’t know that they did. The Italians and Spaniards in particular who enslaved Slavs generally collected them from the north shore of the Black Sea, while my Polish antecedents run closer to the Baltic. I lose track of them in the 1820s, so some remote relative might have lived further south and ended up in the belly of a slave ship. Kelly thinks this deeply significant, even though his column addresses American slavery. He still has blame to spread around, so as a good American he places it on the British. They must have somehow, by dark arts known only in the perfidious heart of Albion, forced innocent white Americans to buy the slaves off the ships to grow the tobacco and cotton and thereby reap profits from reaping lives.

By the way, Arabs also traded slaves. Those slaves even often had white skin, just as the Slavs did, which renders them especially significant. They constitute, we decided, an us rather than a them. We should consequently feel their suffering most keenly in our natural solipsism. We should remember it in our discussion of slavery in the United States. We should not draw any inferences from an American abandoning our customary parochialism to discuss the misdeeds of others in a piece that concerns itself, allegedly, with our own.

Alexander Stephens

Alexander Stephens

Once Kelly declares for the Union and abolition and shines the spotlight on any slaves save those the United States military emancipated, he comes at last to a unique trait of American slavery which makes it especially egregious. Even he cannot deny that

What made slavery America’s original sin was its violent conflict with our founding principles. If “all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” what gives some men the right to own others?

Kelly can only acknowledge white America’s great sin to highlight white America’s great nobility. Our white skin and our American residence made us so virtuous as to transmute slavery from lives stolen and children bought and sold, into a kind of heroic flaw. He would do to read how eighteenth and nineteenth century Americans squared the circle between whites-only freedom and slavery, but then he would have to learn how the latter shaped the former. Some Americans acknowledged the conflict, including the slave-owning, slave raping author of that famous line. Others, like the slave-owning Vice-President of the Confederacy, saw it and rejected Jefferson. Still more understood what many of the founding generation actually practiced, when not speaking idle words about universal rights: freedom flowed from slavery. By making the black man (women rarely entered into it, unless the slaveholder felt like coerced company that night) permanently and nigh-infinitely inferior to the white, the very contrast made whites feel freer. White skin established a floor on which one could sit and never sink, at least in pride. It put whites, no matter how poor, in solidarity together against blacks. We see the conflict now, with slavery gone, but the two merge easily enough again when one starts talking about the continued plunder of black America.

Robert E. Lee, Virginia aristocrat, military officer, and future confederate general

Robert E. Lee

Jack Kelly gives us a perfect illustration of just that in himself. Lest one think that I unfairly dredge up the past to damn him, consider this:

Slavery was horrible, but no black American living today has suffered from it. Most are better off than if their ancestors had remained in Africa.

Kelly wrote these words just a few days ago, in a 2015 with the internet and Civil Rights legislation, Black History Month and obscure blogs. Robert E. Lee wrote these in 1856:

In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially, & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things.

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow, though hardly as famous as the then-obscure Virginian, made much the same argument two years prior. Where Lee adhered to a mix of Positive Good and Necessary Evil ideas to defend slavery, reaching the same end either way, Stringfellow had no time for such solipsistic fretting:

Slavery is no evil to the negro. If we look at the condition of the negro in Africa, the land of his nativity, we find the most pitiable victim of a cruel master, the most wretched slave in America, when contrasted with a prince of his tribe in the deserts of Africa, is as a man contrasted with a beast! The mightiest of the negro race, in his native land, not only sacrifices his human victims to his Gods of stone, but is so loathsome in his filth and nakedness, that Giddings, or Gerrit Smith, would fly from his presence

Kelly doesn’t say that slavery did no wrong to black Americans, but he made the argument that they came out better for it. Break a few lives, sell some children, rape some women, but it all works out in the end. After all, slavery brought Africans to America where they could bask in the glory of white virtue and have whatever scraps we in our magnanimity deigned to concede to them.

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

Don’t take my word for it. Have the argument straight from John C. Calhoun:

Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually. It came among us in a low, degraded, and savage condition, and in the course of a few generations it has grown up under the fostering care of our institutions, reviled as they have been, to its present compara­tively civilized condition. This, with the rapid increase of numbers, is conclusive proof of the general happiness of the race, in spite of all the exaggerated tales to the contrary.

We give and we give, our white nobility so staggering that it blinds even us to the fact:

It says something good about today’s white Americans that so many feel guilty for a sin neither they nor most of their ancestors ever committed. But white guilt has a pernicious effect on our politics.

We must, in fact, admit that we have become too noble for our own good. We must harden our hearts and take a good, long look at black America. There we see not the results of our plunder, but only the inherent vice of black skin:

The black community is uniquely troubled, in large part because white racism is blamed for social dysfunction that has other causes. To address those causes, white Americans must abandon an undeserved guilt, and black racists who blame all their problems on white racism must stop preying upon it.

We ended slavery and that instant everything magically became equal. It’s all done now and has been done for so long we might as well forget it, just as we forget our possibly-enslaved Slavic ancestors. No amount of difference can come down to white malice, as white skin makes you innocent. Only our great nobility leads us to think otherwise. Kelly asks us to believe that white and black Americans live on different planets, entirely devoid of interaction, so therefore any pathology exhibited by the latter cannot have come from the depredations of the former, or reasonable reaction to the same.

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

Kelly would have us direct our attention not at white racism, which he seems to understand as nothing more than a kind of personal dislike rather than a vast system of theft, rape, and murder, but to the fact that black Americans in their perfidy hate white Americans. They prey upon us, like the cunning slaves of old preyed on the consciences of their enslavers to escape whippings. I don’t know a word of Kelly’s piece that could not have easily come from the pen of a nineteenth century proslavery theorist, save only those that an enslaver would not know and the endorsement of the United States war effort alone. By implication, Kelly at least opposes new efforts to reduce the effects of structural racism upon black America. In referring to this predation upon the white conscience in continuous terms, Kelly further indicts not just new efforts or recent efforts at redress, but also those which white Americans have after agonizing struggle accepted with hesitance, halfheartedly and full of what he must construe as noble resentment.

I can only think of Samuel Cartwright:

When sulky and dissatisfied without cause, the experience of those on the line and elsewhere, was decidedly in favor of whipping them out of it, as a preventative measure against absconding, or other bad conduct. It was called whipping the devil out of them.

Freedmen's Bureau cartoonKelly paints black Americans as sulky and dissatisfied. If they have a cause, it cannot come from white America. Therefore we must embark upon a new plan of discipline. They have taken advantage and we apparently show them what for. Black Americans have only themselves to blame, enriched in idleness by our too-keen consciences. If black American cannot feel the natural gratitude it owes to white America for the tremendous services rendered unto it, good and hard, then we can give them reminders. We can imagine they will learn no other way. Flesh, blood, and screams torn away by the lash only prove they never stop trying to turn our consciences in their favor.

I don’t know any way to say this except to say it outright: Jack Kelly is a white supremacist. If he doesn’t agree entirely with their methods of securing the power of the white race over then black, then he agrees wholeheartedly with their goals and endorses the chief thrust of their arguments. He sees African-Americans as fundamentally shiftless and conniving. Such faults somehow do not afflict white Americans, even though we speak the same language and have shared the same nation for centuries. What immunizes us, if not the same thing that afflicts them? We find virtue in whiteness by finding vice in blackness. White skin frees us because black skin enslaves them.

Jack Kelly has an editor at the Post-Gazette. He writes for them regularly, so I imagine he received pay for this column. His editor read the piece and signed off on its contents, deeming it fit to print and worthy of his readers’ attention. So have multitudes of other white Americans down the centuries. Their number has declined only through great struggle accompanied by numerous reverses as one means of plunder gives way to another, slightly more sophisticated means. We should take no pride in the fact that some people born with the same hue of skin as our own helped achieve the gains, unless we place great moral stock in our whiteness. We should remember that more took part in fighting, sabotaging, and ultimately rolling them back.

Whatever parts they cast themselves in, whatever uniforms they imagine wearing, Jack Kelly and the multitude like him put themselves into something far different from the armies of abolition. By word and deed they cloaked themselves in what passes for gray and imagine still that hot July day, a bit before one in the afternoon, when it all held in the balance. They know if they can get there, as they keep trying to do, they can make it all turn out differently this time. We make excuses, avoid the uncomfortable arguments, and let the old proslavery line go unchallenged. I’ve done it myself. But the path of least resistance does not lead to a blue uniform on top of Cemetery Ridge with Jeff Daniels for company. We have carefully arranged it so that white Americans find it easier to march across the field under fire. If our past deeds say something about us, then that one speaks most eloquently.

Examining the new AP US History standards

Last year, the standards published for the AP US History program aroused ire from people who believe they did not sufficiently flatter students, inculcate patriotism, and introduced them to notions that American history involved at least as much conflict between groups as it did consensus. These standards threatened to teach history, a discipline that does not propose to make one feel good. Proposals to review or ban the program in turn drew protests from students in Denver. States considered dropping the program entirely. The Republican National Committee declared the standards

a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects

The RNC went on to complain that the standards left out various named individuals and did include

a biased and inaccurate view of many important events in American history, including the motivations and actions of 17th -19th -century settlers, American involvement in World War II, and the development of and victory in the Cold War

With states threatening the College Board’s profits, the non-profit made the business decision one would expect and produced standards (PDF) more in line with the whitewashing that the RNC, et al, demanded. I could write another post about how we should not look to history with the expectation that it will make us feel good or the costs of doing so to our understanding of the past. Those who demand feel-good national myths rarely concern themselves with such trifles as all that, especially when the costs fall on those they dislike.

I’ve written that post already, so instead I dug up the standards to compare the two. I can’t say that I’ve undertaken a thorough examination of the hundred-plus pages of each, but I dug into the specific content material as that appears to have caused the most controversy and I feel most competent to comment upon it.

In discussing the three-sided contact between European explorers and imperialists, African slaves, and Native Americans, the 2014 standards require students to learn that

Many Europeans developed a belief in white superiority to justify their subjugation of Africans and American Indians, using several different rationales 

From a strictly historical perspective, I don’t see anything at all objectionable about this statement. Europeans developed a belief in white superiority. They subjugated, however imperfectly and often with far more difficulty than traditional accounts admit, Africans and Indians. The College Board gave a direct, clear, precise standard for AP teachers to use.

The equivalent section of the 2015 standards runs in this vein:

Extended contact with Native Americans and Africans fostered a debate among European religious and political leaders about how non-Europeans should be treated, as well as evolving religious, cultural, and racial justifications for the subjugation of Africans and Native Americans.

One comes away with the impression that this debate never reached any clear conclusion. From this a student could take gather that white supremacy, while present, did not form a decisive influence. A competent, well-informed teacher would, of course, expand on standards. A standard can only express a generality, not replace the person at the front of the room. But the expansion demanded by the new standard would involve essentially restating the 2014 standard. How would this constitute an improvement?

By hiding white supremacy under the vagueness of “racial justifications” the College Board only makes it easier to miss and at least implies to teachers that their students do not really need to know it. “Racial justifications” could mean anything, up to and including the exact things that proslavery. The new standards replace precision and clarity with a generality apparently designed to conceal what it should instead reveal. Call me eccentric, but I think students would benefit immensely from hearing the words “white supremacy” in a history class instead of “racial justifications”.

From 2014:

The abundance of land, a shortage of indentured servants, the lack of an effective means to enslave native peoples, and the growing European demand for colonial goods led to the emergence of the Atlantic slave trade.

Reinforced by a strong belief in British racial and cultural superiority, the British system enslaved black people in perpetuity, altered African gender and kinship relationships in the colonies, and was one factor that led the British colonists into violent confrontations with native peoples.

And 2015:

As chattel slavery became the dominant labor system in many southern colonies, new laws created a strict racial system that prohibited interracial relationships and defined the descendants of African American mothers as black and enslaved in perpetuity.

The 2015 standard has one thing to recommend for it: it tells exactly how slavery operated. But this hardly redeems the rest of the sentence. Neither standard would win prizes for directness. The “British system” did not enslave anybody; British people did that. The new standard, however, hides the actors and obscure their reasons. Slavery “became the dominant labor system” and “new laws created a strict racial system”. These things apparently just happen. New laws come to us like the wind and rain. Labor systems thrive or fail like the tides. Far be it for us to imagine that people chose to enact and enforce new laws or preferred one system of labor over another.

Here we have 2014 again:

 

By supplying American Indian allies with deadlier weapons and alcohol and by rewarding Indian military actions, Europeans helped increase the intensity and destructiveness of American Indian warfare.

2015:

Interactions between European rivals and American Indian populations fostered both accommodation and conflict. French, Dutch, British, and Spanish colonies allied with and armed American Indian groups, who frequently sought alliances with Europeans against other Indian groups.

Looking closely, one can see the same content. However, the new standard makes it sound much more like the Indians brought conflict upon themselves. Reference to increasing conflict, to say nothing of its intensity and destructiveness, ends up buried under reference to accommodation. One doesn’t write like this when one can help it; the College Board could do so as recently as last year.

The presence of slavery and the impact of colonial wars stimulated the growth of ideas on race in this Atlantic system, leading to the emergence of racial stereotyping and the development of strict racial categories among British colonists, which contrasted with Spanish and French acceptance of racial gradations.

Perhaps I missed it, but I find no equivalent of this statement in the 2015 standards.

In 2014, the College Board said:

Many white Americans in the South asserted their regional identity through pride in the institution of slavery, insisting that the federal government should defend that institution

In 2015?

Regional interests often trumped national concerns as the basis for many political leaders’ positions on slavery and economic policy.

They must have hired a fair number of Futurama fans at the College Board in the past year, as they clearly see technical correctness as the best sort. We lost reference to regional identity, substituting instead “interests”. One could take a position on slavery as an expression of regional interest, but it seems we must think it one of many rather than the defining regional interest of the white South. By writing the South out of the standard, the Board obscures both the most powerful regionalism in the land and sweeps the cause for it under the carpet. Furthermore, the new standard reads like an implicit indictment of anybody who got excited about slavery, for or against.

In 2014, students should have learned

Resistance to initiatives for democracy and inclusion included proslavery arguments, rising xenophobia, antiblack sentiments in political and popular culture, and restrictive anti-Indian policies

In 2015, they should instead learn nothing of this. I found no reference to rising xenophobia, anti-Indian policy, or racism appears in the section on how the nation struggled to practice the ideals it preached.

Moving on to economics, the 2014 standards require students learn that

Southern cotton furnished the raw material for manufacturing in the Northeast, while the growth in cotton production and trade promoted the development of national economic ties, shaped the international economy, and fueled the internal slave trade

But this year:

Increasing Southern cotton production and the related growth of Northern manufacturing, banking, and shipping industries promoted the development of national and international commercial ties.

It would not do to mention the workers in a discussion of economic development. The new section on regional economic development, despite emphasizing distinctiveness of the regions, writes the slaves out. Mighty white of them.

I could probably go in this vein at still more tedious length. The new standards technically include much of the relevant and supposedly “divisive” material in the old. I found a few isolated places where the 2015 standards did a better job, most conspicuously where they improved on 2014 in characterizing Southern resistance to Reconstruction as violence, but overall the College Board did a much better job last year.

In the new standards, the authors obscure the much of the content. This serves teachers and students alike very poorly. If the exams will still expect the same degree of mastery, then teachers don’t know it from the new standards and so can’t prepare students as well as they with the old. If the exams expect less, or themselves talk in bowdlerizing circumlocutions, then students remain poorly served. Universities will, and ought to, expect much more of them. Given that the AP program justifies itself and the College Board’s status as a non-profit as a preparatory endeavor, this should have settled things decisively in favor of 2014-style standards.

A good teacher can and will do better than this. Every standard must include some degree of generality and none can replace the person in front of the kids. In theory, the more general standards could open up flexibility for the best-equipped teachers. We don’t have quite the dearth of excellent instructors that some would have you believe. However, not every class or every district ends up with the best teachers in the best places doing the best they can. Exceptional individuals get that way by exceeding norms, not conforming to them. Thus we have standards to begin with, rather than simply trust the judgment of every teacher absolutely. They establish, at the very least, a common baseline below which instruction should not sink. In putting dollars before students, the College Board has measurably lowered that floor this year.

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

The end of the world has not come. People all around the world believe comforting lies instead of hard truths about their national pasts. No set of standards will change that. But good historical education should play its part in fighting against that tendency. It should challenge and engage with all the energy that the past has to offer. It should draw attention to nuance and complexity, the animating passions past and present. It should help children become adults who can imagine themselves in different stations, understand the perspectives of others, and recognize both welcome change and horrifying persistence in life. If they, and the adults intervening on their theoretical behalf, want instead to just feel good about themselves then they might find that in any number of endeavors. Should loved ones, hobbies, and the myriad species of entertainment available to us do not themselves satisfy on that front, then I don’t know how history could even if we accepted that it should.

But having gone this far, we should ask what the insistence that history should make us feel good suggests. We all know that history comes oversupplied with things we’d rather not have around. I’d rather live in a world that never heard of slavery, genocide, all the injustices and all the Hitlers and Calhouns who happily practiced, endorsed, and defended the lot. I suspect that some of the College Board’s critics would like the same. The inevitable collision between empathy and atrocity takes its toll, even for those of us spared by long decades, skin color, and other unearned advantages from the pain of dismembered families, broken bodies, and stolen lives. Our ancestors did not leave us a world where these things just didn’t happen. Pretending to such a past, or that all the things we’d rather not have to know about constitute odd quirks safely consigned to the past serves none of us who condemn them. Rather facilitating ignorance abets those who look at past horrors and see in them something to resurrect.

For more than we’d probably like to think, I suspect the “only the good parts” version of history has that as an intended feature rather than an unfortunate consequence. How else could they call discussion slavery and white supremacy “divisive”? What about them divides people today? To have division, we must have at least two parties deeply committed to irreconcilable positions. If these issues do divide, they only separate people who support, defend, and excuse all the beatings, rape, mutilations, and theft from those who do not. We all have our crosses to bear, but we have the great luxury at this remove to easily choose division from proslavery Americans. Even with that light a burden, some of us can’t go so far.

Like so many things, that speaks volumes about us all, the culture we inherited, and the one we continue to make.

 

 

Placing myself in the historiography

W.E.B. Du Bois

W.E.B. Du Bois

Gentle Readers, I planned for today’s post to include some insights from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book. I ordered it last week and expected to be through by now. When the book hadn’t arrived by late last week, I went to inquire. Then I learned that their supplier has only 1,400 copies to spread across the state, or a good portion of it, and so my order had turned into a back order with no estimated date of arrival. The good news a high demand means to Ta-Nehisi’s bank account comes joined with my small misfortune. Few have suffered so keenly as I have, of course. Future generations will remember my inconvenience in tastelessly baroque arrangements of concrete. Generations further removed still will wonder at the overweight, balding fellow on horseback with a laptop and too many books precariously balanced on his knees. I rode a horse once, if one counts a plow horse in its traces. By this same standard, I have ridden an elephant. We history bloggers lead glamorous lives, you know.

My tragedy for the ages aside, that leaves me with a Modern Monday to write. I cast about for a while before realizing that I read Coates to understand. He writes well and powerfully from a perspective that I think most white Americans have little to no experience with. We have, for the most part, very segregated lives and the culture which produced us works very hard, by design, to keep things that way. By reading him I get a bracing corrective to that which then informs my further reading of history. He helps me understand not just black Americans, but all Americans.

To the same end, I sometimes read historiography. I must distinguish this from history as one usually knows it. Historiography often, and ought, to come in history books but the two do differ. I understand historiography as the history of historical interpretation, which lately I have approached through Kenneth Stampp’s The Causes of the Civil WarThere he collects signature writings in the historiography of the war, from period documents to postwar polemics and historians all the way up to the last printing in 1991. This matters because, whatever appearances to the contrary, every historian comes from somewhere. The historian’s personal values and the culture of his or her time inform every step of the historical endeavor from what questions one cares to ask to where one looks for material to how one weighs particular evidence. In this, historians do not differ so much from everyone else.

Much of what I have read in Stampp covers ground I’ve crossed before, occasionally to the point of frustration. But reading his collection gave me cause to reflect upon my own historiographical positions. Readers may disagree, but I would place myself as a member of what I’ve lately seen called the Fundamentalist school of Civil War causation. This term, I think, postdates Stampp’s work. In his work, and past decades, people of a similar position claimed to subscribe to the Irrepressible Conflict school, after a speech of William Seward’s. Elizabeth Varon describes Fundamentalists in her Disunion! The Coming of the Civil War as following W.E.B. Du Bois:

For Du Bois, the Civil War was not only a clash of economic systems but also a war of ideas and ideologies (systems of thought). With careful attention to both the economies and the ideologies of North and South, modern “fundamentalists” such as James M. McPherson, Eric Foner, Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Bruce Levine, John Ashworth, Brian Holden Reid, and Sean Wilentz have described the two sections as different and deeply antagonistic societies; all agree that slavery was the root cause of that antagonism. The North’s commitment to capitalism and modernization, these scholars explain, was the context for abolitionism and for the free labor ideology of Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party. The South’s commitment to staple production and slave labor was reflected in the region’s distinctive cult of honor, its preoccupation with localism and states’ rights, and its defense of social inequality.

Henry Clay, founder of the Whigs

Henry Clay, founder of the Whigs

Full disclosure: I have read McPherson, some (and not nearly enough) Foner, and Ashworth, but not the others. They remain on my ever-growing list of scholars to read.

It follows from these premises that at the very least, one would expect intense and regular conflict between the North and South. This conflict could very probably have come to the point of war at some point, regardless of the outcomes of individual crises. We can’t rerun time and see how things might have gone in other circumstances, but viewed in light of this each crisis comes to us less as a unique thing in itself and more as part of an ongoing and never entirely subdued dispute. Contingency might have shaped how each conflict arose and what resolution came, but a resolution that brought satisfaction to one section would naturally have come at the perceived expense of the other. This would in turn lead to less tolerance for future compromises on behalf of the aggrieved, which would further alienate and undermine the position of moderates in the other section. Cycles of polarization feed upon themselves and ratchet up the tension, making alternatives once the province of a few seem increasingly like sensible options. Perhaps those drastic steps would become then the only options, leading to a rupture which no mystic chords of memory could bind back together again.

Against this school, one could array the neo-revisionists. The original revisionists, much-beloved of latter-day Confederates, blamed the war not on profound sectional differences but instead on manufactured controversy. To their eyes, irresponsible agitators of a blundering generation (for this one should generally read “abolitionists,” the fire-eaters usually got a free pass or only pro forma denunciation) invented the dispute over slavery for some other reason. It could come down to one’s personal ambitions, desire to build a political party, or esoteric and often unrelated issues like the tariff. To them, slavery played a role more as the incident of the sectional breach rather than its main cause. The neo-revisionists do not go nearly so far as this. Reviews I have read cast some doubt on Varon’s assigning David Potter and Stampp himself to this school. Having read Potter’s The Impending Crisis, I really don’t myself know where got that one from. But William Freehling, author of my much-loved Road to Disunion volumes accepts the label. In any event, this newer wave of scholars all emphasize the centrality of slavery in their own ways. They put more weight in contingency more and give more credit to individual actors, blundering and otherwise, but little dispute remains over the subject of the controversy.

This leaves us not with a question of what caused the war, but rather whether or not the people of the time could have avoided it. I don’t think so. At the very least, doing so would have taken an especially monumental change of heart on behalf of multiple deeply committed and influential actors who all stood to lose a great deal for reversing themselves. People don’t normally turn on a dime like that even without the future of the nation, as they understand it, at stake.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

I don’t know when exactly the ship sailed and the increasing forces of antagonism became an irreversible trend; none of us can know that with any certainty. One can point to the election itself. If Stephen Douglas won, would the Southern Democrats really bolt the Union? They had refused him, but by cooperating they could win concessions as they so often had. Then again, Douglas ultimately came out against them over the future of Kansas and Kansas matters kept the sectional fires burning for most of the decade before the war.

Could John Brown have saved the Union by staying home? Maybe so, as his raid on Harper’s Ferry prompted fresh panic across the South. But white southerners saw in John Brown nothing more than the culmination of all they had already observed among the Republicans.

Taking things further back, if we could remove Kansas from the equation things become less clear. Many historians, including Freehling, have taken the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act with its repeal of the Missouri Compromise as the point of no return. It broke the Whigs, ravaged the Northern Democracy, and ultimately created the Republicans. If the northern Whigs had little reason to curry favor with their southern wing, then they had at least some. The Republicans had no southern wing to appease and the thought of them creating one in the Border South helped drive the Lower South out of the Union.

But then the Whigs did not look so well before 1854. The Compromise of 1850 demonstrated that the Democracy could deliver for slavery where Whiggery could not and at least somewhat harmed the Whigs in doing so. Dispute over the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act had not gone away and proved a source of tension fruitful enough that South Carolina damned northerners as nullifiers over it in 1860. If this did not amount to a Kansas-sized breach, then the fact that it did not work as advertised agitated the South as much as its existence and operation did the North.

John Brown

John Brown

I don’t know that calling anything inevitable makes for best historical practice, as it seems to both deny agency to people in the past and to render the historian’s task moot, but at the very least I think an eventual war over slavery’s future became far more likely when David Wilmot rose and proposed that slavery should not extend to any land taken from Mexico. One can, however, step back from that and say that Wilmot had no reason to do any such thing had no Mexican War ensued. The Mexican War arose inherently, even as understood by the men who voted for it, from the annexation of Texas. That takes us back to the middle of the 1840s for the act of annexation itself, or the decade prior for when it first became a national issue.

It would not do to draw a straight line from each of these points to Sumter. Nor should we neglect the serious friction over the Missouri Compromise itself back in 1820. But I take each of these points as increasing the probability of civil war. I think that we often overstate the fractured nature of the early Republic, reading too much of the 1850s and 1860s backward and too much of colonial disunion forward. Much of this comes from reading invocations of states rights as arising from disposition and principle rather than partisanship and circumstance. I also think that a degree of paradoxical nationalism plays into things. By emphasizing the frailty of the Union, we can make the fabled experiment in self-government seem all the more remarkable for its endurance.

David Wilmot

David Wilmot

Considering all of this, I take the Missouri Compromise as a prototype for sectional crises, if not one immediately followed. Sectional tension over slavery then, I would argue, increasingly characterized national politics. This trend did not come without partial reverses and progressed somewhat modestly in its early years, but each controversy thereafter sharpened the lines further and so made the next both more likely and more perilous to the peace of white Americans.

The neo-revisionists might ask why compromise and pacification failed in 1860, when the Union had endured decades before then. Latter day blundering generation historians could point to turnover of politicians in both sections. Men who came of age in the Era of Good Feelings remembered something like an America without parties, dominated by statesmen they imagined disinterested. Those men retired, often to the grave, during the early 1850s. They could have done better. But then Calhoun himself, as much a product of that time as Henry Clay, rejected compromise. Nor did those men, some of whom got the idea going in their retirement, have to deal with the tensions that at least a decade of fairly steady conflict had brought to a head. Clay’s final compromise got only qualified approval, so even had his generation lived longer I don’t know that they truly could have found space to satisfy everyone on the increasingly small middle ground. Nor do I know that they should have.

The questions of the war’s inevitability and the nature of the sectional conflict do not come to us detached from other concerns but rather deeply connected. The original revisionists disclaimed slavery as a cause because they considered the institution doomed anyway or because they understood black Americans as natural slaves who required it. Both interpretations made the war fundamentally needless, hundreds of thousands dead and billions of dollars of property wasted. Neo-revisionists don’t usually go that far, though they are right to note that we make the judgment more easily in hindsight, and our modern values about racial egalitarianism, than anybody could have at the time. With respect, I argue that this holds equally true for every historical judgment. We all came from somewhere. I suspect that graduate schools now, after a decade and a half of dubious wars, have more than a few neo-revisionists attending classes just as past generations imbibing the Civil Rights Movement and fresh off victory in the “good” war filled those same classes with neo-abolitionists.

I don’t want to go into the connected questions at the same length; perhaps I will some other day. But it would do to touch on them. I do not believe, as the original revisionists did, that slavery had reached its natural limits. Nor do I think that in the long term its natural limits would have held. Without the Civil War, and without a war that lasted at least a few years, I suspect slavery would have thrived at least until the First World War. It may, in fact, have managed quite well into the second. Then the demand for labor might have strained it to the breaking point, but I don’t know that it necessarily would have. A slave can do factory labor as well as farm labor, as the Nazis well knew and as the operators of Virginia’s Tredegar Iron Works discovered. Slaves could have mined in the American West. Caribbean and Mexican conquests could have come to further expand the horizons of traditional plantation agriculture. Absent the Civil War, we might still be trading slaves today. It would take only twelve states committed to its perpetuation to quash any constitutional amendment to abolish and absent the Reconstruction Amendments and a century of jurisprudence that leans heavily upon them, I don’t see a clear road to its end in the United States.

Further, while as power-hungry as anybody else and as racist as their time dictated, I don’t understand white antislavery Americans and abolitionists as little more than hypocrites who found a convenient cause and rode it to power. The more I read of their writing and study their deeds, the more convinced I become of their sincerity. They had cynical opportunists among them, but so does every movement. I am equally persuaded that white proslavery Americans wrote, said, and did as they would in earnest. I don’t think as highly of them for it, but I don’t consider their movement any less genuine than that of their opponents.

Why does all of this matter? Perhaps it sounds like a great deal of naval-gazing. We shall go back to Kansas on the morrow, but I don’t think that one needs to pursue a doctorate in history to get something out of these considerations or pretend that we do well enough to appease advisers. These convictions do arise from studying the material. They also come informed by present circumstances. But the connections run both ways. Recognizing where a historian sits on the questions gives context to the work and so helps me process it. Knowing where I sit both guides me to subjects and sources of interest and, if probably to a far lesser degree, alerts me to places where my biases may blind me. Knowing the premises of past arguments, especially where the facts did not agree with them, helps me develop a more informed understanding than past generations could enjoy. I don’t know if it converges on truth. I don’t know if we should even consider truth the correct metric in the absence of time machines. But I feel improved for doing it.

We are still burning churches

Confederate flags came down, or will soon come down, from above state buildings. The Supreme Court upheld human rights thrice over. Saturday, Bree Newsome climbed up a flagpole on the South Carolina capitol grounds and so beat those working within to the chase.

We have some cause to celebrate, even if some of our late victories came at dreadful cost. But every silver lining comes equipped with clouds. In the past week, at least six primarily-black churches have burned at the hands of persons unknown.

In Charlotte, N.C., authorities say a June 24 fire at Briar Creek Baptist Church was the result of arson and is being investigated as a possible hate crime. NBC News reported that more than 75 firefighters were needed to extinguish the three-alarm fire, and an hour passed before the blaze was under control. Two firefighters received medical treatment for heat-related injuries. The church sustained $250,000 in damage, including a collapsed ceiling and significant damage to a space used for a children’s summer camp. The sanctuary was spared, sustaining smoke damage along with the gymnasium.

A June 23 fire at God’s Power Church of Christ, a predominantly Black church in Macon, Ga., has been ruled as arson, although there is no indication it was a hate crime. As was reported in theMacon Telegraph, the front doors of the church were locked and wired shut when authorities arrived, but a side door was unlocked. The Federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives was called, as is the case with church fires, and authorities also noted that electronics and other air conditioning equipment had been stolen from the church in two burglaries. A $10,000 reward is available through the Georgia Arson Hotline for information leading to the arrest of an arsonist.

We don’t have all the information yet to count each of the six as an act of white terrorism against one of the few institutions that white Americans have permitted to black Americans. With numbers so small, almost anything could come down to a coincidental combination of fires. The investigations have not yet ruled every burning an arson. People do burn buildings out of simple youthful stupidity. I would like for it to work out that way and for none of these arsons to come as responses to the late move against celebration of the Confederacy. I hope we all would.

The world rarely bends to our hopes. The arc of history only bends toward justice if we bend it. However much I would love to have it all wrong, I expect we will soon learn that at least some set these fires as acts of terror. If we do, I have no doubt that the usual suspects will ascribe each to mental illness and lone wolves. That we just had a calamitous attack launched in defense of white supremacy will fall out of memory as such things usually do. We might even have a rendition of one of the classics of that genre.

The victims of the Birmingham Church Bombing

Victims of the Birmingham Church Bombing

On September 15, 1963, four members of the Ku Klux Klan left at least fifteen sticks of dynamite, and a timer, under the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama . They did this on a Sunday and put the dynamite beneath the front steps. Four girls died. Twenty-two others came away wounded. We can only guess their motives, just as we can only guess what drove Dylann Roof to his own isolated incident indicative of mental illness. William F. Buckley, Jr.’s National Review, which fancied itself a journal of respectable conservative opinion as much then as now, had this to say:

The fiend who set off the bomb does not have the sympathy of the white population in the South; in fact, he set back the cause of the white people there so dramatically as to raise the question whether in fact the explosion was the act of a provocateur – of a Communist, or of a crazed Negro. Some circumstantial evidence lends a hint of plausibility to that notion, especially the ten-minute fuse (surely a white man walking away from the church basement ten minutes earlier would have been noticed?). And let it be said that the convulsions that go on, and are bound to continue, have resulted from revolutionary assaults on the status quo, and a contempt for the law, which are traceable to the Supreme Court’s manifest contempt for the settled traditions of Constitutional practice.

Damn the bombers; they harmed the cause of white power. But since no decent, conservative white person would do something so horrifying as that, the guilty parties must come in the color of skin we most associate with criminality. By linking the bombing with communism, the Review further implied that its “crazed Negro” worked on behalf of the Civil Rights Movement. The American Right had long understood it as a communist outfit, after all. But failing all of those, Buckley fell back on the tried and true insistence that the victims had it coming. Whether they themselves stood against the white-imposed, white-dominated status quo or took their cues as past generations imagined rebellious slaves had from the perfidious white reformers, they had brought the violence down on their own heads. Everything worked just fine until Earl Warren integrated the schools.

Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

Five years earlier, Buckley penned this editorial, parts of which could have come from Calhoun’s own pen:

In some parts of the South, the White community merely intends to prevail-that is all. It means to prevail on any issue on which there is corporate disagreement between Negro and White. The White community will take whatever measures are necessary to make certain that it has its way.

[…]

The central question that emerges-and it is not a parliamentary question or a question that is answered by merely consulting a catalogue of the rights of American citizens, born Equal-is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes -the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race . It is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidencing the median cultural superiority of White over Negro : but it is a fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists . The question, as far as the White community is concerned, is whether the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage.

Confronted on the subject in 1989, Buckley affirmed that he believed it as much right then as in the 1950s. His publication continues on in that proud tradition even without him:

Countless people were heartbroken by the news of Wednesday’s massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, but conservative writer Mona Charen seems to have been doubly upset. Writing in National Review, she complained that the prospect that the tragedy could be politically exploited by Democrats was “even more depressing” than the actions of the killer. “The heinousness of a person who can sit for an hour studying the Bible and then open fire is unfathomable,” Charen wrote. “Even more depressing, if that’s possible, is my suspicion—and I truly hope I’m wrong—that this event will play a role in the 2016 presidential campaign.”

Later, when the crassness of the phrase “even more depressing” in this context was pointed out to her, Charen amended the sentence. But her article’s flaws run much deeper. Charen takes a curiously blinkered view of how atrocities are politically exploited, citing examples of political haymaking that pale in comparison to those who respond to racist murders by downplaying the role of bigotry.

Mona Charen had it in her to write this in 2015. In 2015, a white man can walk into a black church and murder the people gathered there. In 2015, we still burn churches. None of these deeds requires a white hood to complete, though men in hoods have done their share of burning, shooting, and lynching. All speak to the persistence of the ancient faith of the men who once wore them or who come to work in expensive suits, as well as the men with whips and chains before them. It remains one of the chief issues in our politics. Pretending otherwise will not make it go away.

A Murderous Tradition of White America

The victims, via the BBC

The victims, via the BBC

Denmark Vesey, an enslaved man who had bought his freedom with lottery winnings, planned an uprising in Charleston, South Carolina. He and a small band of co-conspirators would quickly seize arms and then distribute them to Charleston’s slave majority. Together they would kill the whites who owned Vesey’s wife and children, who had owned him, and who did own others. Freedom would come on Bastille Day, July 14, 1822, later rescheduled to midnight of June 16 thus setting the fight for June 17. A preacher as well as a carpenter, Vesey had used his ministry as well as family and other social ties to recruit for his insurrection. Someone talked and Charleston’s whites called out their militia. Vesey and thirty-four others met their ends not in the heat of battle, except in the way that all black Americans endured it day to day. Nor did they sail off to Haiti as they might have hoped. Instead they expired hanging from Charleston’s gallows. Charleston’s once panicked, but now somewhat reassured, white citizens trampled another enslaved person in their enthusiasm. By seeing the failed revolutionaries, who probably included a fair number of people who knew nothing about any plots, hang from the neck until dead they could begin to satisfy themselves that the just order of the universe still endured.

Vesey helped found the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. In white churches, masters could force the enslaved to hear parables about how they must faithfully serve and submit and steer them clear of anything that might give them ideas about freedom. A white church entailed white control. A black church did not. There enslaved and free black Americans alike could worship as they pleased, educate themselves, organize their communities, and carve out at least small spaces for self-determination in lives so often circumscribed by the maledictions of white supremacy. To have a black church, to go there and worship, served as an act of resistance. The whites of Charleston knew that all too well. They closed its doors in 1818, 1819, and 1820. With Vesey on their minds, they burned the building down.

The parishioners did not disperse. They rebuilt and continued until South Carolina outlawed black churches entirely in 1834. That drove them underground until after the Civil War. Vesey’s son designed the new church building. It served as a place for organization, activism, and self-improvement through Reconstruction and the dark years of Jim Crow. That earned many churches attacks and burning at the hands of white terrorists. They knew where black Americans most fully expressed their freedom and sought to better their lives and acted accordingly. Some white Americans still do.

On the evening of June 17, 2015, the AME church had Bible study. Thirteen people attended. After about an hour, one of them drew a gun. He left behind eight dead: Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Sharonda Coleman Singleton, and Myra Thompson. Another, Daniel Simmons, died from his wounds later.

Before the night ended, I read the first denials. The assassin, a white man, did not “really” look white. The racial experts, so far as I can tell, determined this by the proven method of silently assuming white skin made one righteous. The assassin did what they must, in public at least, call unrighteous. They must also declare it an isolated incident. They must cast the assassin as a lone wolf, presumably with mental health problems. Thus quarantined and then pathologized, they can shrug off nine lives. It has nothing to do with them or with our politics. Racism, they tell us, mysteriously died somewhere in the 1960s. We drew the curtain on that.

I don’t know if the assassin struggled with mental illness or not. Most mentally ill people don’t indulge in violence any more than anybody else. More likely they will receive it than deal it out. Nor, if it transpires that the assassin does have a history of mental illness, does it mean that he chose his deeds because of that and to the exclusion of all other concerns. I do know that if he simply cracked and went on a rampage, then he picked a staggeringly unlikely target. He could have shot up a Walmart or a gas station. He could have beat a dog. Instead he picked the AME church and situated himself in one of white America’s most ancient and hallowed traditions: destroying the lives of black Americans. If he had that motive, and I don’t know how one denies it, then he chose his targets and his methods as sensibly as anybody else.

But we don’t have to speculate about this. The assassin proudly posed bearing not just the conventional flag of American white supremacy, the Confederate Battle Flag, but also the kind of emblem for which one has to go looking. He wore the flag of Apartheid South Africa. I’ve seen enough displays to know that just about anywhere with Civil War history and a gift shop sells Confederate flags. Given this all happened in Charleston, I’m sure the assassin did not have to look long to find his. But a South African flag more than twenty years out of use? That took some hunting; he had to go out of his way. To it he added the flag of white Rhodesia, which had a regime similar to South Africa’s. That takes us far into the weeds of white supremacy.

According to witnesses, the assassin declared his purpose while inside the church:

You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go

Words like those blessed every lynching. Between his choice of targets, his choice of symbols, and his own declaration at the event no reasonable, honest person can deny that the assassin acted inspired by and for the furtherance of white supremacy. The same people asking us to pretend otherwise now had no difficulty indicting a billion Muslims not that long ago. They flinch not an instant from indicting millions of black Americans whenever the police shoot one. They ask us again and again to take long, hard looks at the communities that produce such people. Something has gone wrong, culturally, that explains all of this. These pleas would elicit only laughter at their absurdity if not for the hatred behind them.

Someone took the assassin’s pictures. Someone else sold him the flags. Still other people named the street the church stands on after John C. Calhoun, knowing full well his most famous work:

I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good-a positive good.

Calhoun didn’t get the street named after him despite that; he earned his street because of it. Still others named the streets of South Carolina, dozens of Confederate roads to a mere handful of black Americans.

And, of course, South Carolina put the Confederate flag up over its capital to protest integration. The compromise that moved it elsewhere on the grounds also ensured it would prove almost impossible to move again by requiring a 2/3 majority vote of both houses of the legislature for any changes. The South Carolina of 1820 only required a majority of both houses to approve the manumission of a slave.

This attack does not present us with a mystery. The assassin told us with words and action precisely what he intended to do. The people who tell us otherwise could not have chosen a more obvious lie. He acted alone and isolated only in the narrowest, most literal sense that he did not gather together a conspiracy to help him. He had accomplices, morally at least, all around him. The people who named the streets, who raised the flag, who smiled off camera and took his picture, all played their part. They told the assassin that people who prosecuted the case for white supremacy, to the very point of war, deserved recognition and celebration. We don’t name streets after people we consider villains. We don’t fly flags we view as odious.

The assassin has other accomplices who now pretend that the shooting had nothing to do with the persistence of white supremacy in the United States. They might deplore his methods, but by obscuring his ideology they enable it. Whether they cloak their cries of white power in the language of anti-anti-racism, as if one prefix did not negate the other, or say nothing because they dare not alienate what they correctly understand as a key voting constituency, they attend the shooting with more than indifference and less than the abhorrence it deserves. They know full well that if the assassin had different skin color or a different presumed religion, they would have no such scruples. How does one explain any of that, unless the excusers and obscurers are themselves white supremacists? If that doesn’t amount to racism, then nothing does.

This denial affords the sophisticated white supremacist many advantages. By concealing race, even narrowly, his or her ideals can appeal to people who have unacknowledged prejudices. A South Carolinian, not all that long ago, articulated just that strategy:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

It worked for Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush. They oversaw the great political realignment of living memory, transforming the white South from a Democratic stronghold into one just as committed to what was once the Party of Lincoln. I don’t mean to say here that every white conservative, or even every white Republican considers a sheet with eye holes cut out the most fashionable species of haberdashery. Nor do I mean to excuse white liberals all in favor of integration until it comes to their suburbs or demands their children sit next to black children. Likewise I indict our white suburbs and white neighborhoods of the North and West as much as anywhere in the old slave states.

This sickness comes not just from one group of political partisans, but from the air we breathe. American law defines domestic terrorism this way:

(5) the term “domestic terrorism” means activities that—

(A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State;

(B) appear to be intended—

(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
(ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
(iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and
(C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.
Yet the director of Barack Obama’s Federal Bureau of Investigation can’t find it in himself to call the attack terrorism. So far as I know, he does not dispute the location. Does he not count black Americans as citizens? As civilians? Does shooting them dead not constitute a danger to human life or a violation of the law? Must we believe, after hearing what the assassin said, that he did not intend to intimidate or coerce others? At least his boss disagrees. Digging further back, Bill Clinton had Confederate flag campaign materials when he ran for president in 1992. We do not depart from the norm or default state of affairs to indulge in white supremacy. We uphold it as the default condition.

White America has this problem. White America made it in making white America and could unmake it the same way. We could react the same way to white terrorists like Dylann Roof and Timothy McVeigh as we do to bearded men with unfamiliar names or, one hopes, react to both in a way far less destructive. Their domestic terrorism has claimed far more of the latter than any people with foreign-sounding names could have dreamed. We grant ourselves the luxuries of our denial, paid for in the lives of others. White people get to claim perfect innocence. We let ourselves not know the long history of our own misdeeds. We let ourselves ignore how we made the ghetto. We pat ourselves on the back for ending slavery and pretend that we didn’t reinstate much of it and, indeed, continue some of it today through mass incarceration. We take our numerous privileges for granted and deem anybody who questions them a troublemaker. We have done this since the seventeenth century. But we could stop it. It wouldn’t come easy. It would make us uncomfortable.

We have it in us to do better if we want to. We have organized the entire system to ensure we may do as we please. Having done so, we must take the outcomes we observe as those we actually accept, whatever we may preach when convenient. We could do better tomorrow. We could have done better last Wednesday night. If we really wanted to make the assassination into an isolated incident, tragic but not speaking to broader realities, we could have started then. We didn’t. This is the world that white America made and that most white Americans at least tolerate, if not embrace. Probably more of us go that extra mile, at least if we put the assassin in the right uniform or give him slightly more sophisticated slogans, than we would care to admit.

Will this finally be the turning point? I know no more of the future than anybody else, but our sorry performance to date points at best to more of the same. That means that the nine lives claimed last week constitute less the last and deadliest individual attack on black Americans since Reconstruction, but simply the latest and deadliest for now. The arc of history only bends invariably toward justice in our aspirations. Reversion to horrifying past norms happens just as often as permanently foreclosing them. Making those into reality requires action that I feel fairly confident white America will not so much as contemplate. We don’t want it to be over. We have a tradition to maintain for as long as the right people pay the price for us.

Don’t take my word or John Stewart’s word for it. Consider what the most prominent of the Sunday morning talk shows opted to air on its first episode after the shooting.

What did the founders think of secession?

James Madison

James Madison

The conventional story goes something like this: The founders donned their powdered wigs, put their knee breeches on, and cheered as George Washington applied the requisite amount of boot leather to the necessary number of British posteriors. Thirteen colonies turned into thirteen free and independent states. They did not constitute, in any meaningful sense, a nation. The founders shared with the people of the several nations an abiding suspicion of central authority. Only the Revolution had united them and with it done they could all go back to those nations and have nothing more to do with one another. They never intended to create a consolidated republic and always imagined association between their states as strictly voluntary and subject to unilateral termination, secession in a word, at any time. To the degree the former colonies associated, they associated like you might associate with someone you met once at a party. Having a good time together did not make them married. This vision persisted through the Antebellum until the Tyrant Abraham I, the Hammer of Dixie, enslaved us all. Thus they said “the United States are” before the war and “the United States is” after, or even if they didn’t then they held sentiments largely along those lines. Shelby Foote said so.

I cannot improve on Andy Hall’s demolition of the argument from phrasing. Americans did not primarily or exclusively say “the United States are” until the Civil War and take up the singular verb after. The transition happened decades earlier. But that still leaves the meat of the story. Did antebellum Americans, most especially the founders whom the secessionists claimed as their own, consistently understand the Union as inherently voluntary, with states free to depart at will or, failing that, when they felt things sufficiently dire to justify an extreme step? In short: no.

By that I don’t mean to say that secession never crossed the minds of anybody prior to the late antebellum, nor that talk of disunion only arose late in the age. Threats of it go back to the Constitutional Convention. But those threats did not necessarily indicate general approval of the concept. Rather the convention, twelve of thirteen states strong, came together to curb state sovereignty. The Articles of Confederation had proved insufficient to the task of governing the nation because the states had much greater power than the national government, even if that government constituted a permanent union. One needn’t interpret the text to drive that conclusion, incidentally, the Articles call themselves perpetual:

Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union between the states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts-bay Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.

A perpetual union hardly incorporates in itself any right to secession. Finding the power of the central state insufficient, must we think that the founders got together in Philadelphia to remedy that and then undermined their own work so comprehensively as to nullify it at the whim of any given state? The requirement that all states agree on legislation proved a critical weakness in the Articles, so would they really write it back into the Constitution? People in the past can do things that seem to us perverse and understand themselves instead as consistent with sound principles, but that suggestion would not have made any sense at the time.

The Philadelphia debates bear this out. Just a few days ago I noticed that Robert Middlekauf’s The Glorious Cause the Oxford History of the United States volume on the revolutionary era, sold by Amazon as an ebook for all of three dollars. I have not taken much interest in revolutionary history due to all the patriotic myth making. I know that historians do good work there, but the flag waving enthusiasm put me off long ago. All the same, I wanted to check something I’d heard in Mike Duncan’s wonderful Revolutions podcast. So I winced at the title and got my file. I have only read the chapters on the Constitutional Convention and ratification, but they proved a gold mine of information about what the founders thought on the issue. As much of the Philadelphia deliberations concerned representation in the Congress, they naturally dwell upon what states deserve in the way of power. It also made for a really good read. I intend to go back and finish the rest at some point.

I already knew that James Madison came to Philadelphia with a plan to grant the national government a sweeping veto over any state legislation, but the account I got back in high school painted the advocates for equality of the states in the Congress and those who argued for apportionment by population as roughly equal. In fact, only New Jersey and New York favored the former’s equal representation plan when it came down to voting. If a broad consensus existed in Independence Hall, it did not view the states in themselves as the principal components of the new nation. Otherwise one would expect much stronger votes in favor of state equality. What does this have to do with secession? A weak government could hardly prevent it. A strong one could coerce recalcitrant states and wake them from any dreams they had of disunion and nullification alike.

The advocates for state equality touched on the connection themselves. As Middlekauf has it:

Ellsworth, Sherman, and Johnson, all from Connecticut, made the heart of the case for equality of representation with minor, though longwinded, aid from Luther Martin. The essential weakness in the argument for proportional representation, they insisted, was that it rested on a misunderstanding of the Confederacy. The states in reality were joined together by an agreement much like a treaty; they were free and sovereign. Now they were asked to give up their equal voices in the Union, in effect to be consolidated out of existence

James Wilson

James Wilson

Ellsworth further insisted that every confederacy in history had equality among its members, a point of history more convenient than correct. Madison and his fellow Virginian James Wilson would have none of this. Middlekauf continues:

Both rejected the small-state contention that a treaty bound the Confederation together. Far from a union of equals, the Confederation possessed some-but not enough-authority over the states. […] Wilson agreed and rejected the Connecticut proposal for a compromise -the lower house to be apportioned according to population, the upper according to state equality-and cited statistics which purported to show that such an arrangement would permit the minority to control the majority. Seven states, Wilson noted, might control six; seven with one-third of the country’s population would control six with two-thirds of the population. “Can we forget,” he asked, “for whom we are forming a Government? Is it for men, or for the imaginary beings called States?”

That argument sounds downright twentieth century. Earl Warren’s Supreme Court rejected malapportionment of state legislatures in the 1960s on the grounds that “Legislators represent people, not trees or acres. Legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests.” I have heard that decision, which articulated the “one person, one vote” standard, damned as a grievous offense against state sovereignty. This sovereignty forms a necessary prerequisite for unilateral secession as practiced by the Confederates and admired by their various descendant movements today. Madison, back when the states had a far better claim to sovereignty in matters save for secession,

denied flatly the states were sovereign-“in fact they are only political societies. There is a graduation of power in all societies, from the lowest corporation to the highest sovereign. The states never possessed the essential rights of sovereignty. These were always vested in Congress.” The states, Madison argued, “are only great corporations, having the power of making by-laws, and these are effectual only if they are not contradictory to the general consideration. The states ought to be placed under the control of the general government-at least as much as they formerly were under the King and British Parliament.” And from these propositions about the character of the states-devoid of sovereignty, mere corporations, properly under the thumb of the national government-it followed that since America was a republic, representation must be based on the people.

A state which does not have final sovereignty, which constitutes a mere corporation and with laws that hold only as by-laws of its particular interests rather than paramount legislation, could hardly secede on its own initiative alone.

Madison further opined, implicitly, on the nature of state governments in The Federalist, Number 10:

The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other. Besides other impediments, it may be remarked that, where there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.

A state government must, by definition, constitute a smaller society than the general government. A local government would constitute one still smaller. Madison considered the smaller a far greater risk to the rights of others, a position often born out in twentieth century Supreme Court cases. One could also reach further back and look at the sort of oppression and outright persecution that the slave states indulged in to protect slavery. If one counts up state-level emancipations and exempts states built out of territories which had nationally imposed bans on slavery in their bounds prior to statehood, we have to stop counting states that ended slavery on their own and without war forcing matters at the Mason-Dixon Line and Pennsylvania-Ohio border. This gives us only Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

From these nine we could subtract Maine as it had a Massachusetts-imposed slavery ban before it became a state, and Vermont, where slavery had never been practiced and so eliminating it took little exertion. This leaves us with seven states to live up to the laboratory of democracy reputation. Against them, we could count both the fifteen slave states of 1860 and the two slave territories of Utah and New Mexico. I would not say that states necessarily and always take the low road, and some have gotten out in front of the national government often enough, but the overall example does not give much encouragement when concerns go beyond simple things like traffic laws and into questions of minority rights.

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton

We know how the dispute worked out in Madison’s day, just as we know how it did in the case of Lee v. Grant. Adherents to other theories of national composition certainly existed. They had enough strength, when the advocates of state equality made it into a make-or-break issue, to force compromises. But the notion that the founders acted with one mind, however always borderline absurd, and that this mind fixed on the sovereignty of states simply doesn’t have a leg to stand on. National supremacy flowed not from Lincoln in Washington, but from the convention Washington chaired in Philadelphia.

But, the conventional story then goes, whatever happened at Philadelphia ratification came contingent upon various undertakings. Most famously, the states only ratified with the promise that the Congress would pass a Bill of Rights and with some kind of tacit understanding that if this did not work out, the states could quit the union and resume their independent sovereignties.

This point came lately to my attention via a video Al Mackey posted over at Student of the Civil War. It begins with Akhil Reed Amar, a constitutional law scholar who teaches at Yale, discussing the legality of secession. The secession discussion only consumes the first portion of the run time, but in it Amar makes some important points.

Madison did not get his global veto of state enactments for the Congress, but he did get the Supremacy Clause:

This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.

Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

Roger Taney

By definition, sovereignty rests with whoever has the final say. The Constitution did not grant that power to the states, nor hazily delegate it to them by not granting it to the nation. It instead strips them of any such power to make laws, even state constitutions, contrary to the laws of the United States. Note that the provision does not limit itself to the national Constitution or treaties, but reaches to any federal legislation whatsoever. Even if the states had sovereignty before ratification, they ceded it then. This leaves no room for nullification either of one law or, in its ultimate form, the nullification of all federal laws by secession. A state could pass a law nullifying the tariff or the Fugitive Slave Act, as respectively South Carolina and Wisconsin did, but such laws existed only on paper and until a federal court declared them void at the latest. Roger Taney’s Supreme Court agreed on the second point when it tossed Wisconsin’s act of nullification, to the thunderous silence of most of the usual states rights enthusiasts. What part of this did South Carolina miss? Presumably the part where its nullification must meet with general approval as such a nullification would strengthen and preserve slavery whereas Wisconsin’s would not.

Amar further argues that if the founders intended the Constitution to come with a free trial period and sovereignty-back guarantee, then they did not act it. During the ratification debates in New York, with the vote very close and Alexander Hamilton not sure he had the votes, the anti-federalists suggested that they would give way for the promise of a Bill of Rights. Failing delivery on that front, New York would secede. Hamilton asked Madison for his opinion of such a deal. Even at this critical juncture when New York’s refusal would bisect the Union, possibly fatally, Madison declined to endorse compromise:

I am sorry that your situation obliges you to listen to propositions of the nature you describe. My opinion is that a reservation of a right to withdraw if amendments be not decided on under the form of the Constitution within a certain time, is a conditional ratification, that it does not make N. York a member of the New Union, and consequently that she could not be received on that plan. Compacts must be reciprocal, this principle would not in such a case be preserved. The Constitution requires an adoption in toto, and for ever. It has been so adopted by the other States. An adoption for a limited time would be as defective as an adoption of some of the articles only. In short any condition whatever must viciate the ratification.

[…]

This idea of reserving right to withdraw was started at Richmd. & considered as a conditional ratification which was itself considered as worse than a rejection

If Madison would have broken principle in the name of pragmatism, one must imagine he would have done it then. The Constitution already had the nine states it needed to go into effect, plus an extra, but the loss of New York would have meant a great blow. Unlike Delaware, South Carolina, or other states which desperately needed a union to sustain themselves, New York with its great port and generous hinterland might have been able to go it alone. Its bad example would weaken the new union from the start, hence his, Hamilton’s, and Jay’s writing of The Federalist to begin with.

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

Lest one think Madison and Wilson alone, or necessarily extreme, in looking into the future and cursing the names of John C. Calhoun and his unruly brood of nullifiers and disunionists, despite the votes at the convention and final Constitution arguing very much otherwise, Hamilton himself got into the act in The Federalist, Number 11:

Let the thirteen States, bound together in a strict and indissoluble Union, concur in erecting one great American system, superior to the control of all transatlantic force or influence, and able to dictate the terms of the connection between the old and the new world!

Strict and indissoluble, not loose and easily broken.

The framers did not envision anything like what Lincoln called the dreams of the Confederates:

In their view, the Union, as a family relation, would not be anything like a regular marriage at all, but only as a sort of free-love arrangement,—[laughter,]—to be maintained on what that sect calls passionate attraction. [Continued laughter.]

I don’t know how the founders chose to organize their private time save for the evidence given by their progeny, acknowledged and otherwise. In their political acts they present a clear record favoring not states, with the national government as a kind of necessary evil, but rather saw it as a necessary and positive good and, moreover, as a clear way to suppress contrary movements in the states. That doesn’t mean we would necessarily find all their motives for doing so appealing or in line with those who favor a stronger national state today, but they did what they did and wrote what they wrote.

This myth, like the myth of the antislavery Lee, will endure this and many other blog posts. It will survive the scorn of historians. The supposed advocates of original intent will read it, as they do all other inconvenient facts, as irrelevant rather than persuasive. They and their more radical compatriots, latter-day secessionists who ask us to believe that just this once the rhetoric they employ lacks the white supremacy which has so consistently informed it in the past, must wrap themselves in a pretend history of original intent. The real one doesn’t have much to offer them.

The framers envisioned the possibility of unilateral secession, as attempted in 1860-1, and nullification as attempted by South Carolina and Wisconsin alike, and foreclosed each in Philadelphia and at ratification. Antebellum Americans knew as much and needn’t live in the cold heart of Yankeedom or on the Illinois prairie to notice it. The Confederates at the time understood their movement as revolutionary, only deciding that they really did have a clear legal right after losing the war. Why should we pretend otherwise, unless we aspire to rehabilitate the some of the same politics that they did? Secession for what? States rights for what? If one can get a straight answer from the Confederacy’s latter-day partisans, in itself a major achievement, and they have cleverness enough to not simply say “slavery” with one of the usual codes, then I usually hear preserving the founders’ vision of the Union. It didn’t take a deep look into the founding era to find out what that vision entailed. One can and should note that it included slavery for at least the foreseeable future. But it did not include secession or nullification at all.

George Brown Breaks the Law, Part Two

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

Gentle Readers, I must disappoint you. I still intend to write a post, probably more than one, on literacy in the middle of the nineteenth century. However, the statistics are not so conveniently available as I remembered and so will require some adjustment and arrangement. Putting that on top of the data entry (easy enough, but tedious and time-consuming) and subsequent analysis, as well as several connected topics that arose and probably deserve posts, and I’ve created for myself a project that I don’t think I can do justice to with the time available to me before this post would go live. What I could offer you now would make for, at best, a first approximation that I would have to come back and revise in later posts.

I can, however, give you some more about George W. Brown’s civil disobedience.

George Washington Brown tossed the proverbial tea into the Missouri River on September 15, 1855. That day, the Assembly of Kansas’ laws to protect slave property through the generous suppression of white freedoms came into effect. That laws forbade the utterance, writing, publishing, or circulating of essentially any antislavery opinion within Kansas. Unlike eighteenth century Bostonians, he did not bother dressing up as someone else. Instead he published news of his lawbreaking in his own newspaper, under his own name, and helpfully cited the exact provisions of the law that he broke. Brown did not settle with implicating himself once, but instead confessed to multiple counts. He broke the law with his newspaper, but also with the Bibles and copies of the Declaration of Independence that he sold from the Herald of Freedom offices.

After sounding off on how the Bible and Declaration ran afoul of Kansas’ new laws, and how Brown expected to end up in a Missouri prison until his sentence to hard labor put him to work back in Kansas on a Pacific railroad, the editor came to another text of some interest:

By the way, there is an obsolete document which formerly was quoted largely by statesmen of small caliber, known as the Constitution of the United States, which declares that “Congress shall make no law ** abridging the freedom of speech or the press,” and as a corollary it was urged that no body deriving their authority from Congress could pass any such law; but modern statesmen care nothing about that document. The “Barons of Kansas” are superior to the Constitution; and as to the Declaration of Independence, or the Bible, it is of no account whatever.

John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, Secretary of State, Senator, and the generation's leading secession and slavery booster.

John C. Calhoun

Most nineteenth century Americans, including the federal bench, did not regard the guarantees of the Constitution as applying to the laws of states. The Fourteenth Amendment briefly changed all of that, but the Supreme Court saved the nation from the scourge of the Bill of Rights by ruling otherwise not long thereafter. Later courts have, in the past century, thankfully gone the other way. But some Americans did insist that the Constitution’s guarantees ought to apply to the states. No less an authority than John C. Calhoun held that the constitutional right to property protected slavery and should take precedence over any contrary state law.

Antislavery Americans argued over whether or not the Constitution itself protected slavery, with those like William Lloyd Garrison arguing that it did and so deserved abolition and a good burning but others of a less radical stripe preferred a reading of the document which cast it as a work that set slavery on and looked forward to its eventual extinction. Trying to read the document in context, I don’t myself find a clear answer either way. That ambiguity cleared out ample space for both understandings and probably greased some wheels during ratification. Parts of the Constitution clearly affirm slavery, such as the prohibition on outlawing the Atlantic slave trade for a quarter of a century, but they run together with equivocal compromises like permission to do so thereafter. The infamous Three-Fifths Clause did recognize slavery, but did not give the slave states all the recognition they wanted for it. Furthermore, by counting slaves as “all other persons” rather than as property, the framers left open the question of whether or not the property protections in the Bill of Rights applied. The separate listing implied that slaves did not exist as property under federal law, even if they did under state law, but implication went only so far. 

This question overlaps with, but differs from, the question or whether the framers as a group, or as individuals, or the conventions that ratified the Constitution, understood it as a proslavery or antislavery document. Likewise it does not subsume the question of whether the government created by the Constitution served more consistently the interests of slavery’s extension or extinction. None of those inquiries has a succinct, short, and complete answer save for “it depends.”