Thomas Fleming’s Theory of Slavery

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

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

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

Anthony Johnson's mark (via Wikipedia)

Anthony Johnson’s mark
(via Wikipedia)

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

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

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Thomas Fleming’s Second Dead End: Dispersion

James Madison

James Madison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas Fleming’s First Dead End: Compensated Emancipation

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

LincolnAccording to Fleming:

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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