“Pseudodoxia Epidemica” Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 4

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3; full speech

Charles Sumner vented his indignation at the perversion of the true meaning of the Constitution. Men had twisted its presumption of national freedom into one of national slavery, making bondage into the default state and freedom a special enactment by state legislatures. He knew that the founders meant just the opposite. Once he had a sufficient head of steam, Sumner really unloaded:

Slavery national! Sir, this is all a mistake and an absurdity, fit to take place in some new collection of Vulgar Errors, by some other Sir Thomas Browne, with the  ancient but exploded stories, that the toad has a stone in its head, and that ostriches digest iron.

Browne wrote Pseudodoxia Epidemica -Sumner skipped the Latin, for once- to debunk a wide variety of folk wisdom common in the seventeenth century with then-modern scientific reasoning. In his place we might refer someone to Snopes or, should we remember the internet epoch of the carrier anomalocaris, Usenet FAQs. Declaring his position “unanswerable”, Sumner took his stand and started arguing.

Sumner’s throat-clearing exercise took him seven pages, Gentle Readers. His argument consumes more than sixty more, under the headings of “the true relations of the National Government to Slavery” and “the true nature of the provision for the rendition of fugitives from labor.” The first concerns us more.

Like most historians of American slavery today, Sumner began his account of antislavery jurisprudence in England. In the famous Somersett case of 1772, Lord Mansfield found along lines broadly congenial to Sumner that slavery could not exist absent a positive law to institute it. In other words, it did not exist in the common law and one needed to find a specific act of a legislature to authorize owning people. Colonies could do as they liked, but if anyone wanted to hold a slave in England they must have Parliament’s go-ahead. Sumner found cases where the courts of Mississippi and Kentucky endorsed that doctrine, so no one could claim that he cherry-picked from foreign or free state law to suit his purposes.

It followed, then, that a legal presumption against slavery existed. One could not read Constitutional or legal silences as endorsing human bondage. Nor could it arise from implications or incidentally. Legislators must pass a law that clearly said, in effect “you may own these people as slaves”. Sumner read his Constitution and found no such language. Instead it spoke of establishing justice and securing the blessings of liberty. Even the language that permitted states to continue importing slaves from Africa recognized them as people, not goods. Nor did Sumner find authorization for slavery in the Declaration of Independence. He found no more evidence of such a thing in the proceedings of the Philadelphia convention, nor in ratification debates. (On the last point, Sumner appears to have only concerned himself with Massachusetts; South Carolina could tell a different story.) Even the antebellum Supreme Court, before Dred Scott, recognized slaves as people and that their status as “merchandise” arose solely from state law.

Sumner then proceeded to a flowery, patriotic oration that conscripted George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry to his cause. To them he joined the voice of the Christian Church: Quakers, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists. If that didn’t do the job, then he had the universities too: Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, and William and Mary. To them, Sumner added literary men, which made room to include Benjamin Franklin, quoting from his antislavery memorial to the First Congress, and double count Jefferson and John Jay.

All this, and rather more, pointed to just how obvious Sumner considered his position. He mustered every authority he could think of, some with lengthy quotations, to manufacture a vast antislavery consensus embodied in American life from its greatest luminaries and most sacred institutions, laid down on parchment in the Constitution itself:

No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.

Those words, Sumner applied to everyone

whether Caucasian, Indian, or African, from the President to the slave. Show me a person, no matter what his condition, or race, or color, within the national jurisdiction, and I confidently claim for him this protection.


Elizabeth Warren and the Gag Rule #shepersisted

John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams

Gentle Readers, Kansas must wait a day. This past Tuesday night, as part of protesting against the appointment of Jeff Sessions to the post of Attorney General of the United States, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren tried to read into the record a letter that Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote in opposition to his nomination for the federal bench back in the 1980s. It details how Sessions, as United State Attorney, used his power to go after black Alabamans trying to vote. King operated under the theory that a white supremacist ought not have a judge’s lifetime tenure to use fighting against black Americans who dared think they could vote. The protest worked then and Sessions did not get black robes to wear over his white set. Such things happened in 1986; they do not in 2017.

Instead, Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Majority Leader, rose up and accused Warren of violating the Senate’s rules. He moved for her censure on the grounds that she had insulted a fellow Senator, which the Republicans then agreed to. As a result, Warren had to stop reading the letter and remain silent for the remainder of the debate on Sessions’ nomination. Now Jeff Sessions, who had the votes regardless, heads up the executive department charged with stopping people like Jeff Sessions.

I didn’t come here to write about Sessions; I’ve done that. Silencing elected representatives in the course of their deliberations has a history in the United States. We can find the most obvious precedent for Warren’s case in the Gag Rule of 1836-44. Practice going all the way back to the First Congress dictated that antislavery citizens could petition Congress, but any petition they sent would receive no action other than tabling or referral to a committee to die in obscurity. After coming to Washington and voting to do just the same as always with two antislavery petitions, South Carolina’s James Henry Hammond rose in the House of Representatives to condemn the petitions as an insult to the South which demanded a firmer response than effective silence. Instead, the House ought to not receive the petitions at all.

The drama that ensued rarely left the confines of the United States Congress, but that made it no less significant. Here, as in previous clashes, slavery rose up as an issue that could reconfigure national politics. No white man in the South could afford to appear less proslavery than anyone else and expect to prosper in politics. That same quest to always prove one’s soundness on slavery required concessions from a North which would understand each one as demanding that they yield not far away, but in their own homes, to slavery’s despotism.

John C. Calhoun, always ready to involve himself in anything proslavery, took up the same charge in the Senate. There he argued, as quoted in William Freehling’s Road to Disunion, Volume One, that the petitions represented

a war of religious and political fanaticism, … waged not against our lives, but our character. The object is to humble and debase us in our own estimation, and that of the world.”

According to the Senate Majority Leader, Senator Warren’s reading of Scott King’s letter imputed

to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

Calhoun maintained, as Freehling puts it, that

Free debate must leave us debased in our own estimations.

The Senator from South Carolina averred that the Senate must receive petitions, but only when they prayed for action that the body had a constitutional power to undertake. Since the Congress had no power to touch on slavery whatsoever, it must reject all antislavery petitions. To do otherwise would trespass against the property rights of the white South.

James Henry Hammond

James Henry Hammond

In all this, both Calhoun and Hammond insisted that the South’s censorship of the mail must now extend to the halls of Congress itself. The tolerance that the white North possessed for dirty hands and debased republicanism far away did not extend so near as all that. But outrage also went only so far. The House and Senate both passed gag rules that gave the Hammonds and Calhouns of those bodies nearly everything they wanted. James Buchanan, the man infamous for letting the Union fall apart, then sat in the Senate with Calhoun. The chamber adopted his almost absolute capitulation: the Senate would receive the petitions -sorry, Calhoun- but then would reject them at once rather than merely leave them on the table, from which someone might take them up, or refer them to a committee which may then take action on them.

The gag would last almost a decade, during which time it gave John Quincy Adams his finest hour. Now occupying a seat in the House, he proceeded to both name the rule by demanding to know if his opponents would have him “gagged” and explore every clever option he could think of for breaking it, including presenting a petition from people alleging themselves slaves -the objections rose up at once- who he then said had decided they liked slavery. When not embarrassing his overeager foes that way, he would offer up petition after petition and ask if they fell under the rule or not. Each time occasioned a slavery debate, just the thing the gag meant to stop forever. Stricter rules failed to silence the former president, who would finally introduce the resolution to end the gag in 1844. By then, the Northern Democrats that had accepted the gag before joined in opposing it.

Mitch McConnell did gag Warren Tuesday night. That he did it to silence her criticism of a man contemptuous of the rights of black Americans speaks volumes. So does his use of a rule against insulting senators reveal a further disturbing connection between his work and the nineteenth century. I need not explain the salience of the twentieth century connections. Instead, I will close with the epitaph that the Majority Leader wrote on Warren’s speech and which, gendered pronoun aside, fits John Quincy Adams just as well:

“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

The Northwest Ordinance: The Nation’s First Antislavery Law?

Dred Scott (Wikimedia Commons)

Dred Scott (Wikimedia Commons)

If you remember and/or have flashbacks to high school history, you may remember the Northwest Ordinance. My own rusty recollection tells me that I learned the Ordinance established the system of land survey and the framework for territorial organization that would see use for the remainder of the march of white Americans across a continent and all the people who already lived there. If you live in a part of the country governed by it or its many descendants, you can probably drive out of town and navigate by a fairly regular grid of roads that owe much to the law. But mainly, the Northwest Ordinance banned slavery everywhere it reached. Thus it established a precedent for future bans on slavery in the Louisiana Purchase and Pacific Northwest. When Dred Scott sued for his freedom, he did it based on his lengthy residence in two jurisdictions where that slavery ban operated: Illinois and Minnesota. A large part of Minnesota did not originally fall in the Northwest Territory, nor even the United States at the time of passage, but legally Minnesota Territory originates in Wisconsin Territory. Wisconsin sits entirely within the Old Northwest and inherited its slavery ban through a few previous territorial enactments that go back to the Ordinance.

Thus we learn in school that the Founders, those great and good men, set slavery on a path to ultimate extinction. Antislavery Americans believed the same thing, from less ideological politicians like Abraham Lincoln to leading ideologists like Salmon P. Chase. An entire tradition of antislavery constitutionalism flows from the words

There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted

David Wilmot

David Wilmot

Restrictions on slavery’s expansion, all the way up to the Wilmot Proviso, use that language. It meant a great deal to people in the nineteenth century and as we, at least officially, declare our sympathy with those same people we carry on their position. It becomes for us, just as it did for them, a usable past. We can rest assured that our nation really did have its conception in liberty and something simply went awry sometime between 1787 and 1860.

Seeking comfort in history may make us human, but doesn’t necessarily make us good historians. What if we have it wrong? Antislavery Americans took the Northwest Ordinance as a precedent and it absolutely functioned as one down the road, but what did it look like in the 1780s? What might its slavery ban have meant to the men who voted for it? And how well did it function? Looking at these questions makes for a far more complicated picture.

We must begin with the ignoble birth of the slavery article. It came into the bill as an afterthought, at the last moment, and passed without debate. If you read the full law, you will find it replete with references to free inhabitants. For that distinction to have meaning, it must mean that the law contemplates the presence of unfree inhabitants: slaves. The law’s authors didn’t see fit to revise it to remove them, but rather voted the slavery ban through without debate that might have shed some light on their understanding of the issue. Thanks, guys.

We can say that the Northwest Ordinance protects the property and inheritance laws of the French inhabitants of the region. They owned slaves and would pass them on by inheritance. Does the property rights provision or the antislavery provision take precedence? The Confederation Congress may not have known that these people had slaves at the time, but when they and eventually the federal government confronted that issue the slavery ban collapsed into a weak ban on importing new slaves to the territory. It freed no one, but rather as a practical matter protected slavery to the degree it already existed in the territory. Nor, perhaps, should we expect otherwise of a law that could win the united votes of the southern states.

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

The point of precedent still matters, but already we have a very qualified precedent that exists more retrospectively and in form than function. We must indict the Northwest Ordinance further, also on the grounds of precedent. These words immediately follow the slavery ban:

Provided, always, That any person escaping into the same, from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the original States, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labor or service as aforesaid.

The Northwest Ordinance predates the Constitution. Thus here, for the very first time, we have a fugitive slave clause. This grants to the slave states a power they had previously lacked. Until the ratification of the Constitution, a slave who dared steal his or her body and made it across a state line might have just won permanent freedom. No provision existed under the Articles of Confederation for the recovery of fugitive slaves. When the Constitution introduced that power, it became a sticking point for anti-federalists in Massachusetts. If we grant at the Ordinance set an antislavery precedent in principle, we must also grant that it set a proslavery one in practice. Here, for the first time, slavery attains the kind of extra-territorial status which it will have down through the antebellum.

That may well have sweetened the pot enough to keep the South on board with the Ordinance, but the antislavery features of the law found frustration in another way still. The Ordinance did not grant any clear authority to any body to enforce its antislavery ban. You could sue in the courts, petition the government, or act through the legislature to protect property, but only the extremely dubious and generally inaccessible courts remained open for a person enslaved in defiance of the law. I don’t know that any enslaved person tried them when it mattered, but their prospects with a jury or courts established by a constituency that kept asking Congress to repeal the limited exclusion of slavery that did function in the territory can’t have looked good. The Indians had more avenues to defend their rights.

We must also look at what the Ordinance did not do. It did not cover the whole of the west, as a previously proposed version had. By excluding slavery from a marginal region, the South could have understood the ban as cutting off competition for slaves and in tobacco and hemp. No such ban existed in the Southwest Territory, which soon became Tennessee. Nor would any come in the lands to the south of it. Partitioning the west and surrendering the least appealing part of it might well have looked like a bargain to ensure slavery elsewhere, particularly as southerners proved more energetic in westward expansion during the very early republic. Kentucky and Tennessee both gain statehood in the eighteenth century, a distinction shared in the North only by Vermont.

This leaves us with a Northwest Ordinance that served as an important legal and rhetorical touchstone for the antislavery movement, fair enough. But the facts on the ground on either side of the Ohio or the Appalachians don’t really support an unqualified assertion that it set the nation on a path toward abolition. Rather, looked at in detail and in context, the Northwest Ordinance appears more like the other kind of precedent: an ambiguous law that does little to restrict slavery in practice while trying harder to reinforce and defend it. We might call it the first proslavery-tilting antebellum compromise as easily as the first antislavery law.

Refugees, Fear, and the Art of Human Sacrifice

Not to be taken as a statement of American policy or values.

Not to be taken as a statement of American policy or values.

Few things have more power over us than fear. At its bidding, we disregard otherwise dear values, cast aside critical safeguards, and do horrible things otherwise inconceivable. Ordinary people will rise up spontaneously, or “spontaneously,” in great numbers to do its bidding. We need to meet the emergency, you understand, and in that state we just don’t have the time and the stakes are far too high for the ordinary way of things to handle. Not all that long ago, an American leader told us that even if he had 99% certainty that the perceived threat amounted to nothing, the 1% doubt justified anything to combat it. That anything included torture. Through the suffering of our chosen martyrs, always someone else, we become free.

Syria, a country wracked by a civil war between a vile dictator and a vile group of religious fanatics, the latter of whom the United States rolled out the red carpet for in its misbegotten war of pleasure against Iraq and bungled aftermath, naturally has a tremendous refugee problem. Its huddled masses, poor, tired, and desperate, would probably like freedom. They would certainly like freedom from the prospect of marauders with guns out to murder them and their families. Maybe they haven’t imbibed every jot and tittle of western, post-Enlightenment values, but the hope that oneself and one’s children might escape slaughter knows no borders.

I have my doubts as to the popularity of such values among Americans. Few fret at the trifling burden of preaching, but we rarely care for the weight of practice. Because an unrelated group killed a large number of innocent people in Paris a week ago, we learn that the United States cannot permit a single Syrian refugee into the country. Presidential candidates have said so. Congress has said so. The governors of many states, including my own, have said so and pledged that should refugees come within their jurisdiction, they shall do all in their power to deprive them of a chance to start anew.

A cartoon attacking the Catholic Church's perceived attempt to "take over" American life

A cartoon attacking the Catholic Church’s perceived attempt to “take over” American life

They said the same things about the Germans, a militaristic people unsuited to democratic government. They said it about the Irish, enthralled to medieval religious leaders and sworn to do their bidding. Massachusetts even deported thousands of them. Slavs and Italians infamously came from the armpit of Europe. Change the ocean crossed and one finds much the same rhetoric deployed against the Chinese and Japanese. Do a ninety degree turn and you’ll hear it about people from Latin America. Take a small step back and you’ll hear it about black American refugees fleeing the South for the dubious safety of northern cities. Give us your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to be free, but not those poor, tired, huddled masses. They exhibit far too much huddling, poverty, fatigue, and yearning.

Anyone we let in must withstand scrutiny, of course. The world has no shortage of dangerous fanatics who mean to do us harm. They hate us, as the saying goes, for our freedoms and seek tirelessly to destroy them. Speaking of those, some of our would-be leaders have decided to run for Ayatollah in lieu of President, declaring that we can only trust those Syrians who we can prove sufficiently Christian. Presumably if elected, he would establish an Inquisition to assess their credentials. It worked for Ferdinand and Isabella, though not so much for the Muslims and Jews of Iberia. The Catholic Monarchs doubtless considered that working as designed. Others have advocated databases to track them. A yellow crescent badge must come up eventually. Failing that, perhaps tattoos will do the job.

Lincoln 1860We can say that these people don’t speak for us, but we keep voting for them. So it has transpired before. So it probably will again. Abraham Lincoln corresponded with Joshua Speed on the subject of Kansas back in 1855:

You say if Kansas fairly votes herself a free state, as a christian you will rather rejoice at it. All decent slave-holders talk that way; and I do not doubt their candor. But they never vote that way. Although in a private letter, or conversation, you will express your preference that Kansas shall be free, you would vote for no man for Congress who would say the same thing publicly. No such man could be elected from any district in any slave-state. You think Stringfellow & Co ought to be hung; and yet, at the next presidential election you will vote for the exact type and representative of Stringfellow. The slave-breeders and slave-traders, are a small, odious and detested class, among you; and yet in politics, they dictate the course of all of you, and are as completely your masters, as you are the masters of your own negroes.

We can say that these leaders don’t speak for our values, but we keep electing them. I wouldn’t bet anything I wanted to keep on any governor losing an election over the Syrian refugees. Nor would many southern politicians likely lose an election for excessive enthusiasm for slavery. Of course many of us don’t bother with the conventional pieties. Only those who wish to pose as moderates need them. Speed’s rhetorical abhorrence of slavery might play well in his Kentucky, which remained as committed to slavery indefinitely in the 1850s as South Carolina did, but it wouldn’t do to sound too much like a Carolina radical.

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

We can say that we face a unique threat which justifies our fear, but accidental discharges of handguns kill more Americans every year than innocents who died in Paris. Even deliberate shootings don’t warrant this sustained, organized rush for a less humid pair of trousers, no matter how clearly terroristic. Our leaders, aspirant and otherwise, have invented nothing particularly new. We have our traditions of fear, involving both “degenerate” immigrants and the horrific prospect of a freely moving black person.

Though we imagine fear as general and a concern for security as universal, both turn highly selective in practice. We do not calibrate our responses to the gravity of the threat, or to the likelihood of something happening, but rather we choose which perils we deem emergencies and which we consider merely ordinary. An understandable panic might explain immediate responses, but we maintain the same behaviors for decades on end. We don’t do calculatedly, with malice aforethought. We decide which people deserve protection and which punishment. Their deeds, real or imagined, rarely enter into it. They, whoever we choose this time around, come to us as curiously pathetic titans. They will destroy us all, but somehow remain our inferiors in every way that matters. We imagine not flesh and blood, but evil that cloaks itself in the semblance of people.

If I told you that a murderous band of sadistic rapists roamed the country at will and occupied high positions in the government, from which they exerted effective control over it, you would think me mad. I only named the slaveholders, their habits, and correctly stated their influence throughout most of the antebellum period. If I told you about a police state that aggressively monitored the internal movements of its people and vigorously suppressed dissent, would you think of Stalin’s Russia or Calhoun’s South Carolina? Security, fear’s respectable alias, demanded similar human sacrifices. So long as we imagine perfect security possible, we will continue feeding lives to it. You don’t sacrifice people you find valuable, of course. You sacrifice the expendable. Foreigners, outsiders, dissidents, anybody who doesn’t fit your vision of the good society. My governor would like to feed Syrians to what Corey Robin calls the Moloch of national security.

Moloch, if you don’t know your Bible, meant either a hollow idol in which human sacrifices burned or the god the idol represented. He preferred his feast in the form of babies. Whether this ever happened with any regularity or not, I can’t say. Imagining one’s neighbors as literally baby-eating monsters seems far too popular the world over to take at face value. Moloch features heavily in one of my favorite poems, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl:

What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?
Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!
Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy judger of men!

Must we keep feeding our Molochs? If starved long enough, the heavy judger of men might at last consume itself instead.

Fear of phantoms will only satisfy Moloch for so long. Eventually it will want more and fear’s apostles will eagerly provide. They know that by aligning with the security state, they have immunized themselves. Every society has a surfeit people deemed undesirable. Often they work hard to produce as many as possible. The lives burned away in all the persecuting horrors perfume the air. The screams make for a symphony. Thus Moloch blesses his faithful, orthodox practitioners of that most demanding rule: Do unto others, good and hard. The ritual ablutions cannot entirely hide their joy. At last they can run free and do as they always wished. They partake of forbidden pleasures sanctified by exquisitely selective altruism. Back in the day, priests would burn or otherwise dispose of only a part of offerings. The rest they would enjoy for themselves, thus making their living. If we pass such vast distances and find ourselves in the same place, we should wonder if we ever left.

So, as Lincoln wrote:

As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.

We have come so far now that we count sufficiently white Catholics as equal, provided they join us in counting the rest as otherwise. The Russian Empire, Putin’s, Stalin’s, or the Tsar’s, awaits us, but why go? We can get it all at home. Had we come to a country born innocent, we might say that we accepted an intellectual immigration. Always broad-minded, we made room in America for a Russian police state. Our national ancestors did one better, though. They didn’t need to go study some other country to learn the arts of fear. They created it for themselves on the shores of the Chesapeake, whips in hand. They did the same in the New England forests with hot lead.

We choose not to remember that part. The nativists don’t occupy much of a position in the national memory, save as an ordeal faced by certain immigrant groups and now happily behind them. We certainly don’t recall how they got right with nativism for the next wave of immigrants, who somehow came by all the same sins that their parents never did. To join an us, they agreed to create a them. The wages of our sins thus find repose in the most popular of places: our victims.


The SS. St. Louis in Havana

The faith in a united, narrow consensus America with few great rifts between its people demands we deny the controversy. A land can hardly claim perfection at birth and endless improvement thereafter, the ne plus ultra of American nationalism, and admit Americans as a fractious, divided people. Instead it must paper over the division by deciding who doesn’t count. The American consensus endures by writing its critics and its victims out of memory. There one must recognize not merely a normal, if regrettable, tendency toward self-flattery but rather another line in the liturgy of fear. It would not do to undermine the values of the nation, to corrupt its racial purity, and enfeeble the race by amalgamation or debase it by placing equal what nature, gods, or some other mouthpiece for our hatreds declared unequal. The eternal creed goes by many names, but works its bloody way through the world over and the voyages of the damned continue. Enough of us, Joshua Speed endlessly reborn, vote to ensure it. We know where the voyages end, whether with bullets or starvation or a crematoria. No evil, however notorious, lacks for eager accomplices.

Once we told slaves to endure for all eternity. Once we said No Irish Need Apply and sought to keep them from the country while they starved at home. Once we met black refugees from the South with a northern wing of the Klan. Once we sent a ship full of Jewish refugees back to Nazi Germany. Now we tell Syrians to stay home and wait for ISIS to come get them.

Every time the warmed up the old idol and got our human sacrifices in a row, we found dissenters in our number. Now and then, we toss them in the fire with the rest. However much we may admire them, we do so from a healthy remove.  Taking sides in disputes long ended costs us little. When the same dispute reappears, we suddenly find ourselves living in the moment. What can we do? Our hands are tied. This time, like all the other times, differs so much that we can’t draw on past lessons. We pretend we can do no other, save to do mercilessly unto others. Then we contemplate our especially energetic species of inaction and declare our hands clean.

It all seems perfectly reasonable, just like that bit toward the end of Huck Finn with the steamboat explosion. Did the explosion hurt anyone?

“No’m. Killed a nigger.”

“Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.

Slave “mistresses” and the Slaveholder’s Lexicon

Julian Bond (via Wikipedia)

Julian Bond (via Wikipedia)

My copy of Between the World and Me arrived Friday. I read it at once, as we all should. If you know Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writing, then you know to expect powerful, direct prose. A book allows him to deploy more of it than any magazine feature, but he does more than that in the slim space between the covers. Coates uses the epistolary format to address the reader directly. We all get to stand in for his son, more hearing him speak than reading words on a page. Even when I know what an author sounds like in person, I rarely read their writing in that voice. Coates had me doing it before the end of the first page. I hoped to share some insights of his here, but I think the work ill-served by easy excerpts. It has only three chapters and reads more like a single speech with brief pauses for breath than a conventional piece of non-fiction. The experience of reading it reminded me more of hearing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl performed, a beautiful eruption of thought and emotion rather than tamed sentences and paragraphs. I can’t do it justice. I considered just writing a review and moving on.

Then Julian Bond died. Via twitter, I learned how the New York Times chose to report on Bond’s ancestry in an otherwise decent obituary:

Julian Bond’s great-grandmother Jane Bond was the slave mistress of a Kentucky farmer.

This line, brought to mind several passages from Between the World and Me. “Slave mistress” sounds almost like a strange sort of job title. The law of white Kentucky, enacted and enforced by white Kentuckians, made Jane Bond a slave, but something else made her a mistress. Nobody forces anyone into an extramarital affair, but rather the principals engage willingly and as partners. The harm done falls on someone else, an absent spouse. But as a slave, Jane Bond did not have the luxury of any such consent. The law of Kentucky took that from her and placed it in the hands of the man who raped her. It did this not by some accident or oversight, but with the knowledge that he and others would do exactly that.

To call Bond a mistress requires one to read from the slaveholder’s lexicon. It literally whitewashes the whole affair, to the point that it can slip past an inattentive or uninformed reader. Much of our language does that, with conventional phrasing chosen to obscure rather than reveal. Coates began with a consideration of such things:

The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing-race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy-serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.

In obscuring these ugly facts we may slave our consciences, but we do so at the cost of making common cause with those who broke the bones, whipped the backs, and exercised the full power the law gave them over black bodies of both sexes. I say at the cost and not at our cost, as we have ensured that we do not pay the price for such things. As Coates says:

“White America” is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct (lynching), and sometimes it is insidious (redlining). But however it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, “white people” would cease to exist for want of reasons.

Ellen Craft, dressed as she did when fleeing to freedom

Ellen Craft, dressed as she did when fleeing to freedom

We can imagine Bond’s owner as a farmer. In a strictly literal sense, he might have owned a farm. But Thomas Jefferson owned a farm too. When he praised those who worked the earth, he imagined a very different set of people than those who worked the earth outside his window. He may as well have lived on a different planet from them, except when he called them in to cook his meals, do his laundry, clean his house, and satiate his lusts. Those people, in Coates words, “born out of mass rape, whose ancestors were carried off and divided up into policies and stocks” did not share in Jefferson’s sometimes fleeting prosperity. He experienced slavery as a wellspring of pleasures: status, wealth, and power. With a few hundred on hand, all of Jefferson’s slaves must have run together. How many of us could keep so many people straight? But

Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, as a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dressmaking and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone. “Slavery” is this same woman born in a world that loudly proclaims its love of freedom and inscribes this love in its essential texts, a world in which these same professors hold this woman a slave, hold her mother a slave, her father a slave, her daughter a slave, and when this woman peers back into the generations all she sees is the enslaved. She can hope for more. She can imagine some future for her grandchildren. But when she dies, the world-which is really the only world she can ever know-ends. For this woman, enslavement is not a parable. It is damnation. It is the never-ending night. And the length of that night is most of our history. Never forget that we were enslaved in this country longer than we have been free. Never forget that for 250 years black people were born into chains-whole generations followed by more generations who knew nothing but chains.

Maybe some slave mistresses felt genuine attraction to the men who owned them, but even if they did they could not go entirely willingly to those men. Their owners held the power of life and death over them as surely with whip or gun in hand as they did with pen poised over a contract to sell away their loved ones or with a mere crooked finger. To refuse meant not vicious words or a dirty look, but death and destruction. The slave, made from the ruin of a person, could still have all the normal thoughts and feelings of a person, but rarely dared express them in full. Even if she did, they meant nothing to the man the law said owned her body. The enslaved fled from that reality when they could and dared, William and Ellen Craft specifically to spare their children such a fate. Knowing this, antislavery northerners declared the entire South a giant brothel. Mary Chesnut reports that the high society women of Charleston gossiped about it. One need not plunge deep into the history to know this, but only think about the most basic, brutal facts of slavery.

These hard facts all vanish in the Times’ obituary. It concerns Bond and not his great-grandmother, so we should not expect it to plumb the depths quite as Coates did. But if Jane Bond mattered enough to deserve a mention, than she mattered enough to deserve an honest one. It would have taken no more than an extra word or two to write instead that she served as the sex slave of a Kentucky enslaver. No one would misunderstand that or miss its significance. It would only have broken the rules of the white American syndicate.

Bountiful Whips

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

The insecurity of slavery in the Border South stimulated many extreme measures to defend it, including the Fugitive Slave Act and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The presence of so many whites, so few blacks, and so many outsiders made the hard-nosed, violent ways that the Lower South constructed white solidarity harder to exercise and more likely to backfire. Thus Kansas became a test case for whether or not Border South slavery could endure.

I intended to follow immediately along on that thread today, but have lately taken up Frederick Douglass’ autobiography. I picked up a very cheap Barnes & Noble edition some time ago and it finally reached the top of my pile. Born in Maryland, Douglass lived under the Border State slavery regime. In the course of telling his own story, he tells many others about how his fellow slaves suffered. I read one of those just today and it struck me as a good way to turn things back, at least for a moment, from a story about the future of white settlement in Kansas and the implications it had for the white man’s Union to a story of how white Americans suppressed the agency and stole the lives of black Americans.

Douglass wrote about an overseer, the aptly named Austin Gore, who excelled at his job. He could turn anything a slave did into a sign of insubordination and would readily answer that with the lash.

Mr. Gore was a grave man, and, though a young man, he indulged in no jokes, said no funny words, seldom smiled. His words were in perfect keeping with his looks, and his looks were in perfect keeping with his words. Overseers will sometimes indulge in a witty word, even with slaves; not so with Mr. Gore. He spoke but to command, and commanded but to be obeyed; he dealt sparingly with his words, and bountifully with his whip, never using the former where the latter would answer as well. When he whipped, he seemed to do so from a sense of duty, and feared no consequences. he did nothing reluctantly, no matter how disagreeable; always at his post, never inconsistent. He never promised but to fulfil.

Leaving aside Gore’s exact job, he sounds like a model employee. People at the time didn’t have to set aside the job to make that call, since they knew full well that they wanted someone to manage slaves. Manage them, Gore did:

His savage barbarity was equalled only by the consummate coolness with which he committed the grossest and most savage deeds upon the slaves under his charge. Mr. Gore once undertook to whip one of Colonel Lloyd’s slaves, by the name of Demby. He had given Demby but a few stripes, when, to get rid of the scourging, he ran and plunged himself into a creek, and stood there at the depth of his shoulders, refusing to come out. Mr Gore told him that he would give him three calls, and that, if he did not come out at the third call, he would shoot him. The first call was given. Demby made no response, but stood his ground. the second and third calls were given with the same result. Mr. Gore then, without consultation or deliberation with any one, not even giving Demby an additional call, raised his musket to his face, taking deadly aim at his standing victim, and in an instant poor Demby was no more. His mangled body sank out of sight, and blood and brains marked the water where he had stood.

Gore did not own Demby. He belonged to Gore’s boss. Thus he had to answer for destruction of property. That didn’t bother Gore in the slightest. He told his employer

that Demby had become unmanageable. He was setting a dangerous example to the other slaves,-one which, if suffered to pass without some demonstration on his part, would finally lead to the total subversion of all rule and order upon the plantation. He argued that if one slave refused to be corrected, and escaped with his life, the other slave would soon copy the example; the result of which would be, the freedom of the slaves, and the enslavement of the whites.

Gore kept his job and his reputation spread. He knew his business. So did the 545 other Maryland men who listed their profession as overseer on the 1850 census. More would do the job for themselves and thus might tell the census that they farmed or planted. Over in Missouri, the same census found only 64 overseers. Maryland had a few counties that looked like bits of the Lower South, more than half enslaved. Missouri’s most enslaved county, Howard, could only manage 5,886 slaves out of 15,946 people, 36.91%.

Small wonder that Stringfellow, Atchison, and the rest felt so vulnerable. Even Maryland, with half its black population free, could produced better slavery numbers than Missouri could. They might have already lost their home state, so best secure the one next door. Otherwise they might find black Americans voting, with their feet or otherwise.

The Border South’s Great Test

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Initially, Southerners from farther afield than Kansas did not have great hopes for planting slavery there. They felt bound by honor to support the Missouri slaveholders in their quest for security, but few believed that Kansas would turn into the next Kentucky, let alone the next Arkansas or Mississippi. It sat so far north, exposed even more than Missouri, and on the edge of the great American desert. What man in his right mind thought that plantation agriculture could take hold there?

The Missouri slaveholders thought so, but they had firsthand experience. As other southerners came into Kansas, they learned that the Missouri men had the right of it. If plantations could profit in the Missouri valley just over the line, they could profit just as well in Kansas. Even where the Missouri did not reach, Kansas had other rivers of similar promise. More appealing still, over in Missouri they had worked the land for a generation. Most of the Kansas land that drew the eye remained untouched forest. Desert nothing, Kansas offered up lands with as much potential as those in any border state.

That revelation had mixed effects on the wider South. It meant that more southerners might come, both wealthy men on their second or third plantation and small farmers hoping to strike it big. That could only please the slaveholders of the Missouri frontier, as those settlers would vote accordingly. It would shore up southern support for their cause on the national stage, pushing it from a periphery issue only of concern to Missourians closer to the central interest of the white South in preserving slavery in an increasingly hostile Union.

But seeing more genuine potential in Kansas also linked its fate much more closely to that of the border states. Already too chilly for cotton or sugar, those states made do with the smaller profits of hemp and tobacco. Their slaves drained away to more southerly climes and Yankee free labor came in. They all stood exposed, easy prey for slave stealing abolitionists and all too easy for slaves to steal themselves from. If southerners could not make a go of Kansas, that did not just augur poorly for Missouri’s slavery. What would it say about Kentucky’s slavery? Maryland’s? Delaware’s? What about Virginia? All of them seemed to be moving in a generally northward direction. The doom of Kansas would foretell the doom of the entire Border South. The more southerners saw of Kansas, the more reasonable B.F. Stringfellow’s dire warnings about a wave of abolition overthrowing the south sounded and the more tolerable his and Atchison’s antics seemed.

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Slaveholders could endure as a minority, but it took some doing. They could appeal to white racial solidarity. By making black people slaves, they made all white men equals. They could appeal to racial survival, for surely enslaved blacks would rise up if freed and destroy civilization. But both appeals weakened as the number of black people around to frighten the whites shrank, and the border states had the whitest populations in the South. The hard sell could work better, intimidating antislavery whites into silence. State constitutions rigged to subvert democracy by granting extra influence to slaveholding minorities helped too. If all else failed, violence could play its role.

Even the most starry-eyed Missouri slaveholder probably did not expect to build and maintain a slaveholding majority in Kansas, but if they could get in at the ground floor and rig the system for slavery then they might hold on indefinitely. It had worked in Missouri so far. It had even worked in tiny Delaware, where free blacks greatly outnumbered their enslaved brethren. A little subversion of the white man’s democracy worked at home. Why not next door? If it continued working elsewhere, it could in Kansas. If it failed in Kansas, then it must eventually fail elsewhere.