The Proslavery Politics of Robert E. Lee: The Testimony of Wesley Norris

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

Robert E. Lee

Gentle Readers, we previously talked about Robert E. Lee’s proslavery views some time back. In revisiting the subject, I want to emphasize that even if Lee preached abolitionism to his dying day he did not make Confederate policy. Nor did his views inform the choice to secede, whether for Virginia or anywhere else, or prove influential when the Confederacy wrote its constitution. Lee gained influence over the Confederacy during the war, serving as its ex officio head of state, but reducing the Confederacy to a creature of his mind and wishes profoundly misunderstands the Civil War.

As people do see the Marble Man as the essence of the Confederate States of America, his views on its cause will keep coming up. Tradition, which routinely trumps history, holds that Lee did not own any slaves himself. This may hold true for Lee at some point in the 1850s, but we know he owned people in his own right as late as 1852 and considered buying more in 1860. He also had control over the slaves he inherited from his father-in-law along with Arlington, whose will required their freedom within five years. Lee took almost all that time to get around to it. In the meantime, he functioned as a slaveholder. For most of it, he also lived at Arlington and managed slaves directly. Tradition paints Lee as a generous, lenient enslaver.

Tradition has not met the acquaintance of R.E. Lee. For the most part, Lee’s arrival at Arlington represented a significant decrease in the quality of life for those that he now enslaved. The future general abandoned the Custis and Washington tradition of respecting slave families, hiring slaves out to distant parts of Virginia. Lee chose to interpret Custis’ will so as to require funding the bequests his father-in-law proscribed in advance of releasing any slaves. He ignored the part where Custis said the bequests should come out of sales of land, rather than the labor or lives of slaves. Fairness demands we note that Custis also made a bit of a mess with his will, referring in it to land he might not have owned and not considering how its provisions might interact with Virginia law. But no force of nature made Lee act as he did, even within its confines. He had five years to keep the Custis slaves and what he did to them or, in the case of freedom, declined to do for them in those five years rightly falls on his shoulders.

Lee’s treatment of the slaves, many of whom seem to have believed with some reason that Custis intended them freed at once upon his death, drove some to steal their bodies from the estate. One of them left behind testimony of the affair. I quote it in full:

My name is Wesley Norris; I was born a slave on the plantation of George Parke Custis; after the death of Mr. Custis, Gen. Lee, who had been made executor of the estate, assumed control of the slaves, in number about seventy; it was the general impression among the slaves of Mr. Custis that on his death they should be forever free; in fact this statement had been made to them by Mr. C. years before; at his death we were informed by Gen. Lee that by the conditions of the will we must remain slaves for five years; I remained with Gen. Lee for about seventeen months, when my sister Mary, a cousin of ours, and I determined to run away, which we did in the year 1859; we had already reached Westminster, in Maryland, on our way to the North, when we were apprehended and thrown into prison, and Gen. Lee notified of our arrest; we remained in prison fifteen days, when we were sent back to Arlington; we were immediately taken before Gen. Lee, who demanded the reason why we ran away; we frankly told him that we considered ourselves free; he then told us he would teach us a lesson we never would forget; he then ordered us to the barn, where, in his presence, we were tied firmly to posts by a Mr. Gwin, our overseer, who was ordered by Gen. Lee to strip us to the waist and give us fifty lashes each, excepting my sister, who received but twenty; we were accordingly stripped to the skin by the overseer, who, however, had sufficient humanity to decline whipping us; accordingly Dick Williams, a county constable, was called in, who gave us the number of lashes ordered; Gen. Lee, in the meantime, stood by, and frequently enjoined Williams to lay it on well, an injunction which he did not fail to heed; not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done. After this my cousin and myself were sent to Hanover Court-House jail, my sister being sent to Richmond to an agent to be hired; we remained in jail about a week, when we were sent to Nelson county, where we were hired out by Gen. Lee’s agent to work on the Orange and Alexander railroad; we remained thus employed for about seven months, and were then sent to Alabama, and put to work on what is known as the Northeastern railroad; in January, 1863, we were sent to Richmond, from which place I finally made my escape through the rebel lines to freedom; I have nothing further to say; what I have stated is true in every particular, and I can at any time bring at least a dozen witnesses, both white and black, to substantiate my statements: I am at present employed by the Government; and am at work in the National Cemetary on Arlington Heights, where I can be found by those who desire further particulars; my sister referred to is at present employed by the French Minister at Washington, and will confirm my statement.

Lee partisans have insisted that Norris invented all of this. They call him an embittered ex-slave trying to libel the reputation of a great and good man, or else a simpleton used by the abolitionist press to do the same. Norris’ words do come to us through a white reporter and appear in an abolitionist newspaper. However, Elizabeth Brown Pryor looked into the case while researching Reading the Man. As she puts it, “all of its facts are verifiable.”

Let’s walk through that. No one contests Norris’ status as a Custis slave. Lee hired him out, away from friends and family. Shortly before Norris, his sister, and their cousin fled Arlington, Lee answered resistant slaves by “overpower[ing]” them. Lee could have a heavy hand with people he believed of similar worth to his own, as he demonstrated in his years as West Point’s martinet commander. With slaves, he quickly exhausted any tolerance he might have had for challenges to his authority.

While some papers ran exaggerated stories that had Lee seize the whip and lash a girl himself, Norris’ version lacks that detail. Nor does he depart from straight, matter of fact recounting of events. They left Arlington after seventeen months, just as Norris says. He has the right number of slaves at Arlington and correctly names his jailer and place of capture. He probably has the overseer right too, naming him Mr. Gwin when the man rendered it himself as McQuinn. The two names sound similar enough and Norris probably only ever heard it spoken. He similarly omits the Washington from George Washington Parke Custis’ name. we know that Arlington had a whipping post and an eyewitness confirms the use of brine to salt the sounds of Lee’s victims.

Norris even has the constable’s name right. A Dick Williams appears in Lee’s account book, where the general-to-be notes “to Richard Williams, arrest, &c of fugitive slaves-$321.14”. Pryor puts that number in context:

The sum, which did not include transport of the slaves to Hanover County-Lee paid another $50.53 for that-is exceptionally large. We know that Lee’s standard reward for returning runaways was ten dollars per slave. The previous year, Lee’s accounts show that he paid Williams only $57.25 to arrest and detain three other fugitives, and another $37.12 to transport them to Richmond. The costs for the earlier capture had also been inflated by the need to keep them in jail two months. The services rendered by Williams in relation to the Norris party must have been extraordinary to command a fee nearly six times as high as those paid the year before.

Lee’s father-in-law spent his money freely. Lee did not and, given his intense interest in the estate’s finances, likely would not have made an exception here. Williams did something to get all that extra cash. The local constabulary did hire out its services for slave discipline, so the “&c” would reasonably include it. The sort of harsh punishment that a slave overseer refused to apply sounds like the kind of thing one would charge more for. Whether the number of lashes, the brine, or the trouble of having Lee watch as he worked might have inspired Williams to charge more, or Lee to give more in expectation of it. Any other explanation seems less probable and more out of character for Lee.

By the time Norris talked to the paper, he had little to fear from Lee or gain from unfairly tarring him. Slavery, for himself and four million other black Americans, had gone. As he has so many particulars right, I see no fair reason to doubt him except a prior commitment, facts be damned, to Lee’s virtue or the singular perfidy of black Americans.

Lee denied it anyway, albeit in vague and summary terms. He declined to over more than a blanket dismissal. Given Lee knew just what had happened, and what he wrote in his ledger, and what he had in fact done, we can’t credit his denial as we can Norris’ story. He might simply have lied. Pryor relates elsewhere that after the war he undertook an effort to rehabilitate the Confederacy, though it came to little, and encouraged others to do the same with more success. He also told a Congressional committee that he believed in gradual emancipation and always had. The Lee of the 1850s would hardly have agreed, unless we consider upon divine intervention as gradual as the twenty or so years typical of actual, enacted plans of emancipation.

Or Lee might have objected to some small part of the content. Pryor speculates that the version of the story where Lee loses control of himself, seizes the whip, and goes to town himself might have crossed a line. Lee prided himself on self-control. For the word to get out that he had lost his temper, true or not, would demean Lee in his own eyes. Gentlemen did not throw decorum to the winds and take bloody vengeance on inferiors. They employed people of a lower class for that work. Even if he had, and I stress that the part where Lee takes the whip for himself has the least credibility and it makes no sense for Norris to include all he had and omit that one element, Lee would likely have understood the claim as a singular, egregious attack upon himself. The rest might easily have fallen out of mind as an ordinary part of his day, as normal and unremarkable we find putting our shoes on or the daily commute.

Either way, by the ordinary standards of historical inquiry we can’t credit Lee’s denial more than Norris’ testimony. The evidence firmly supports the enslaved, not his enslaver. We do no injustice to Lee to believe it so. Rather, knowing all we do, we would wrong Wesley Norris to think otherwise.

Advertisements

Debunking Bunkum

Felix Walker historical marker

Felix Walker historical marker

On February 25, 1820, Felix Walker rose to address the House of Representatives on the Missouri question: Would the Show Me State come into the Union with slavery undisturbed, or with the institution on the road to extinction? By this point, the House had heard every aspect of the issue dissected at often rancorous and tedious length. Could one more speech hurt that much?

Apparently so. The Annals of Congress, predicessor to the Congressional Globe, report that

the question was called for so clamorously and so perserveringly that Mr. W. could proceed no farther than to move that the Committee rise.

The Committee refused to rise, by an almost unanimous vote.

The Annals of Congress do not preserve Walker’s remarks, only the motion and its rejection. Any good survey of the era or work on the Missouri Compromise will tell you a bit more. Pleading with the House, Walker allegedly said that he spoke not to that body but rather for his constituents back in Buncombe County, North Carolina. In other words, Walker made a speech for the political theater of it rather than out of sincere belief in anything save that he ought to put the right foot forward. Walker’s invocation of Buncombe entered the lexicon as bunkum, eventually shortened to bunk.

Walker gave us the word for it, but politicians the world over have long practiced bunkum in abundance. A particularly cynical person might take from that that we ought to ignore all they say, or even take their spoken word as the opposite of their genuine positions. That can make perfectly good sense, as people in general do lie often enough. We also shade our meanings, exaggerate, phrase ourselves ambiguously, and otherwise craft impressions of ourselves running more to the convenient and appealing than earnest. Nor do we have the good decency to make clear just when and to what degree we do so, as that would give the whole game away. As such, we must parse things closely, looking to deeds, circumstances, and personal consistency as much as to the letter of a text. This holds true as much for the nineteenth century as any other time.

Go around the internet long enough and you’ll discover that neo-Confederates come in different flavors. They all end up in the same place, but arrive there by many roads. The low rent sorts will content themselves with denials and expressions of ancestral resentment. Yankees have always had it out for the South, hating the section for its virtue and seeking ever to degrade and debase it. The Union Army came through and stole everything not nailed down. (Especially the people.) Sherman burned every stick of upright wood between Atlanta and Savannah. (And would you like to tour one of our lovely antebellum mansions?) Grant incinerated whole regiments by exhaling over his cigar. (No one else ever drank a drop.) The North (never the United States) fought the Civil War as part of some black magic ritual to destroy states’ rights. A rendition of one’s ancestors martial prowess, real or imagined, soon follows. Though repulsive, the remarkably ignorance one finds in these types can at least make for some unintentional humor.

The clown car takes on passengers from more sophisticated environs too. Here you hear more about tariffs and very abstract talk about ways of life. Some of these people have even read period documents, which puts them in a bit of a bind:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.

We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property

The controlling majority of the Federal Government, under various pretences and disguises, has so administered the same as to exclude the citizens of the Southern States, unless under odious and unconstitutional restrictions, from all the immense territory owned in common by all the States on the Pacific Ocean, for the avowed purpose of acquiring sufficient power in the common government to use it as a means of destroying the institutions of Texas and her sister slave-holding States.

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.

Alexander Stephens

Alexander Stephens

I could go on. White southerners agreed in remarkable volume and right up until the spring of 1865, that they fought a war to save slavery. They only changed their minds afterwards. Neo-confederates familiar with these texts, and others confronted with them, will often cry bunkum. Southern politicians, they tell us, indulged in fiery proslavery rhetoric entirely to please the rubes back home. They actually had other motives which arose from constitutional abstractions, as everybody knows that one adopts constitutionalisms out of perfect disinterest rather than as a means of achieving policy goals. Conversely, they will also invoke bunkum to explain away antislavery rhetoric on the part of Northern politicians. Those fiends had some kind of vision of an industrial, centralized United States which everyone clearly hated so they had to dress it up in more appealing terms. Put these two sets of bunkum together, as some historians have, and you find a pack of irresponsible, reckless, blundering politicians who drove the country into a needless war.

That argument appeals to some people still. A few historians, mostly getting on in years, still defend at least limited versions of it. More will defend a version of bunkum projected back further into the Antebellum. Sean Wilentz has described Federalist antislavery rhetoric as simple partisan positioning, dismissing it in short order so he can write his epic story of the Democracy as freedom’s greatest champion. An old Whig turned Republican did the actual emancipating, but he somehow embodied the true Jacksonian faith. In making that claim, Wilentz largely follows Jefferson and others of his time who imagined the Missouri controversy as a cynical play by old time Federalists to regain power on the national stage. Quite how they would have done so while not contesting the presidential race, adopting a policy that would do them no good anywhere in the South and little good in the West, and by rallying around the proposal of one of Jefferson’s own Republicans, I have no idea.

Set that aside for a moment. For the sake of argument, grant that antislavery and proslavery politicians did make bunkum speeches on the subject. They must have at least some of the time. Occasionally they kindly left us private misgivings or words to the effect of how they didn’t much care about this issue or that but chose a side in the interest of Southern honor or solidarity. The Lower South largely did this when it came to the Fugitive Slave Law. Much of the South, aside Missouri, did the same on Kansas. On the antislavery side we might cast the belief in the slave power conspiracy as something on the same order. In fact, we could stipulate that the politicians on both sides endorsed the positions and uttered the rhetoric that they did entirely to deceive. That oversells the case very badly, more so than any serious blundering generation scholar would probably support, but we may as well go all the way. Even if all of that holds true and the United States achieved in the nineteenth century the Platonic ideal of bunkum, does it really change our understanding of the sectional conflict?

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

I don’t think so. Any discussion of bunkum that limits itself to politicians and their speeches has missed the most important thing about it. Felix Walker and others like him might have made speeches in bad faith. They may have lied to their constituents and posterity in the name of their personal gain. But Walker’s constituents in North Carolina, James Tallmadge’s in New York, and all the rest wouldn’t settle for just any bunkum. Few voters in Massachusetts would swoon and toss the proverbial panties on stage for Charles Sumner, had he told them about the wonders of slavery. Nor would their countrymen in Mississippi do the same if Jefferson Davis spoke about its evils.

For bunkum to work at all, it must speak to the general interests of the relevant voting public. It must reflect their fears and hopes. As such, any successful use of bunkum indicates that, whatever a cynical politician or latter-day historian might thing, the speaker has hit on a genuine sentiment. Maybe the elected official doesn’t believe every word, but the people back home believe enough for it to matter. Insincere bunkum and genuine belief feed into one another. A practitioner of bunk helps frame the debate and set expectations for the voters, but those voters have their own active role to play in shaping the content of bunkum and thus the policies it drives. Neither party passively accepts what the other offers, but rather voters and politicians inevitably work in conscious partnership.

Did politicians indulge in proslavery and antislavery bunkum? Sometimes they must have, as we all do about any subject. We should ask the question as part of our normal interrogation of sources. Who, when, and to what degree will always remain open to interpretation. But if we stop there we write the voters out of the story, reducing the beliefs and interests of millions to the status of generic minions for the class of men that get buildings named after them. Including the millions who supported the politicians makes for a less tidy narrative, but one which tells us far more about the past than the characters of famous men. That broader story naturally implicates us as much as any historical figure, who we might otherwise imagine ourselves detached from. We produce and consume bunkum ourselves, our preferences for it speaking to our natures as much as the habits of past actors speak to theirs.

The Army of Northern Virginia and Slavery: By the Numbers

The Confederacy’s latter-day partisans have no shortage of arguments, making up for the dearth of quality with a surfeit of quantity. One must use the tools one has. I’ve taken a swipe or two before at the idea that ordinary soldiers had no stake in slavery and therefore the Civil War and the Confederacy had nothing to do with it, as well as its slightly more plausible variant that we should not operate under a presumption of proslavery intent in understanding military service with the Confederacy. I think the case against the proposition that the average men and occasional woman in a gray or “gray” uniform doesn’t require much further development and planned to leave it be.

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

Robert E. Lee

Plans changed this week when I remembered Joseph Glatthaar’s statistical study, Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia. It concerns the Confederacy’s principal field army. For most of its existence, Robert E. Lee had command of the force. The ANV fought in all of the battles most laypeople have heard of, against the familiar rotating cast of United States generals that ended with Ulysses S. Grant. I took an interest in Glathaar’s study when it first came out, but flinched at the price tag and its distance from my usual interests. I don’t mind straight military history, but have a much stronger interest in the politics that produce it. Likewise my interests have skewed rather more than I anticipated when I started this blog toward the Antebellum. When it fell off my radar, I hadn’t read an ebook and didn’t own a Kindle. Now I do and the digital version comes with a very reasonable price.

Before I get into the findings themselves, Glatthaar’s method deserves some explanation. Using existing records, he developed a random sample of 600 soldiers. The sample took in infantry, cavalry, and artillery in proportion to their numbers in the army and represents officers and enlisted men similarly. It does not attempt to achieve the same balance with regard to the home states of the soldiers, though it does include men from all eleven Confederate states plus Kentucky and Maryland. The most in the sample hailed from Virginia (239), followed by North Carolina (96) and Georgia (86). Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, and Texas tied for last at four each.

According to Glatthaar,

Just under half (46.7%) of all soldiers in Lee’s army were born in Virginia or North Carolina. With South Carolina and Georgia added, 3 of every 4 (75.1%) troops came from those Southern coastal states. One in every 13 (7.8%) was born in the North (a state that remained in the Union) or in a foreign country. Those numbers included young Private Bishop, the son of a fisherman, who originally hailed from New York and moved with his family to South Carolina.

Glatthaar, Joseph T. (2011-06-15). Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: A Statistical Portrait of the Troops Who Served under Robert E. Lee (Civil War America) (p. 4). The University of North Carolina Press. Kindle Edition.

I cannot claim any special knowledge of statistics, but this sounds like about what one would expect for a fair, random sample from which we can confidently generalize about the ANV. Glatthaar also notes that 55.0% of the men resided in the Upper South, so one can’t claim he cherry picked a sample from the Cotton Kingdom’s black belts and then shockingly found them especially involved with slavery.

Right then, we’ve got a decent enough sample. What did Glatthaar find out about the men of the Confederacy’s preeminent army?

Soldiers were more likely to come from heavier slaveholding counties than the recruiting states as a whole. […] Their home counties on average had 16.6% more slaves to whites than the average of all the counties in those states.

Glatthaar, Joseph T. (2011-06-15). Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: A Statistical Portrait of the Troops Who Served under Robert E. Lee (Civil War America) (pp. 5-6). The University of North Carolina Press. Kindle Edition.

One would expect more enslaved counties to show up more prominently in the rolls of an army defending slavery in a nation created for that purpose. A persistent person might argue that residence in a highly-enslaved county doesn’t necessarily make you more likely to favor slavery. The argument doesn’t make much sense considering the centrality of slavery in the South as a whole, let alone in its more enslaved than average counties where human property would have a more prominent and pervasive role still.

We could stop here and content ourselves with a data point in favor of an already well-supported position, but Glatthaar had more data still. Here we get into the real meat of things. It turns out that not only did men from unusually enslaved counties, by the standards of their own states, appear more frequently in Lee’s army. Men from slaveholding households did as well:

According to the 1860 census, 1 in every 20 (4.9%) adults owned slaves and 1 in every 4 (24.9%) households had slaves. In Lee’s army, more than 1 in every 8 (13.0%) soldiers owned slaves, and for those who lived with family members, approximately 3 in every 8 (37.2%) had slaves. Four of every 9 (44.4%) troops resided in a slaveholding household, some 78.0% greater than the South as a whole.

Glatthaar, Joseph T. (2011-06-15). Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: A Statistical Portrait of the Troops Who Served under Robert E. Lee (Civil War America) (p. 9). The University of North Carolina Press. Kindle Edition.

Near to half of all men in Lee’s army lived in a slaveholding household. They grew up intimately acquainted with and materially benefiting from the stolen labor of black Americans. Furthermore, that number far exceeds the typical proportion of slaveholding families in the South.

Glatthaar doesn’t provide breakdowns by state for context, but I have them from my past work with the 1860 census. If recast as a state, Lee’s army would have had a greater percentage of enslaver households than any state of the Border or Upper South by a large margin. North Carolina, the most slaveholding among those states, topped out with 27.71% of households owning at least one person. It would even beat the Lower South’s average (37.01%), coming in between South Carolina’s 45.53% and Georgia’s 37.38%. This would make the State of Lee the South’s fourth most enslaving.

The Deep South in the 1860 census. (Click to enlarge.)

The Deep South in the 1860 census. (Click to enlarge.)

I’ve seen the complaint that Glatthaar went through a tremendous geneology project, pinning the slaveholding of fifth cousins, twice removed and essentially a strangers on some poor solider out of pure malice. Those who want to believe such things can, but Glatthaar used the United States census. It lacks any such remote information. The census takers organized their data by household. The parlance of the time called everyone who lived under the same roof or on the same property a family, even inmates at insane asylums and boarding houses where everyone understood no blood relation need exist.

Nor did Glatthaar cherry pick the wealthiest soldiers about, counting on the fact that wealth meant slaves in the antebellum South to make his point. Slaveholders, including the wealthy ones, do appear somewhat more prominently, but in measures of personal and family wealth the plurality of soldiers still could claim no more than $400 (35.8%). Another 5.9% came in below $800. By period terms, this made them poor. The middle class, between there and $4,000 accounted for another 22.8% of the ANV. The wealthy made up the remaining 35.4%. This creates a substantial gap in the middle, but the very wealthy would include large slaveholders who one would expect to have a stronger enthusiasm for the cause:

Approximately 92% of all soldiers’ households with a minimum total wealth of $ 4,000 possessed slaves. More than 1 in every 15 soldiers or his family (6.9%) achieved planter status— owning 20 or more slaves— and 1 in 11 soldiers (9.3%) resided in planter households. By contrast, 1 in 32 (3.2%) households in the South qualified as a planter. This was not, therefore, a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. Slaveholders, who also happened to be rich, served in disproportionately high numbers in Lee’s army. It was a rich, moderate, and poor man’s fight.

Glatthaar, Joseph T. (2011-06-15). Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: A Statistical Portrait of the Troops Who Served under Robert E. Lee (Civil War America) (pp. 9-10). The University of North Carolina Press. Kindle Edition.

I know none of this can persuade those who have convinced themselves that the ordinary soldier had no interest in slavery. If the documentary record and bare census figures can’t do the job, then one more study never would. But for the rest of us, the numbers clearly show not just an increased interest in slavery for Lee’s army, in every way one would think to look, but one radically higher than coincidence or mere statistical noise could ever account for. They also, I must add, exceeded my own already generous expectations. I imagined thirty to forty percent more slaveholding households than the Southern norm, not nigh eighty.

 

Thomas Fleming’s Evidence, by the Numbers

Yesterday, I looked into Thomas Fleming’s theory that white Americans embraced slavery not out of white supremacy or greed, but rather fear of slave revolts and to spite abolitionists. He argues that therefore the nation might have avoided a civil war and the ensuing decades of racial hatred by a plan of compensated emancipation or by spreading slavery across the continent. If only those wicked abolitionists had not forced white southerners to keep pillaging the lives of black Americans to fill their own pockets, we might have avoided racism. To add to the already lengthy catalog of absurdities we must believe in order to take Fleming seriously, he asks us to believe white supremacy developed not in the 1600s, but rather circa 1865. The reasons to reject Fleming’s theory only constitute the entire history and historiography of American slavery, which one cannot ask him to sully his eyes with before opining on the subject. What reasonable person would expect him to behave like a historian?

But Fleming does present two pieces of evidence for his proposition:

Two thirds of the plantations in the South had black overseers – talented black men to whom the plantation owners gave the responsibility of raising and selling their crops. Numerous other plantation jobs that required skilled labor were also performed by black men.

Fleming still asks us to ignore how black skin made one a presumed slave who must prove otherwise, while white skin made one inherently free. This alone would make the system clearly one of white supremacy even if the rest holds true. One the point of slaves performing skilled labor, Fleming found a stopped clock moment. Enslavers did have many slaves trained in skilled trades, which reduced their slave labor camps’ reliance on the cash-driven commercial market in the perpetually cash-poor South. By doing so, they made their plantations more efficient and profitable than they would be if the enslavers had to instead pay for the skill and labor of white craftsmen. Furthermore, a slave so trained could fetch a significantly higher price in resale than an ordinary field hand. Thus we cannot understand the presence of skilled enslaved people, always a minority of enslaved labor regardless, as a challenge to slavery or a departure from racist norms. Rather the enslavers reinforced and improved their pillage of black lives by seeing some of their human property trained. Even in Nazi Germany, where the regime literally planned the extermination of people deemed subhuman, the typical concentration camp had attached factories where the state would enslave laborers for its own purposes before murdering them. Yet nobody argues that the Nazis had no particular animus against their victims except cranks and the regime’s admirers. I don’t think even Fleming would do that.

If skilled slaves gave Fleming a point of fact, albeit one he can only have misunderstood by never cracking a book on the subject, then his count of black overseers raises further questions. Fleming seems almost perfectly innocent of any Civil War or slavery historiography produced later than the 1920s. He doesn’t know, doesn’t care, or chooses to mislead his readers. Yet suddenly we have a number: two-thirds. He doesn’t cite his source on it, but the comments over at HNN suggest that he got his count from Time on the Cross. That seems very likely. Here, at last, Fleming clearly read something written after he turned four. That he chose a book full of questionable methodology and generally discredited a mere forty-six years ago constitutes remarkable progress. I don’t have Time on the Cross on hand to check directly, but I acquired its book-length refutation, Herbert G. Gutman’s Slavery and the Numbers Game, last year for its own merits. A quick trip to the index brought me to Gutman’s section on the number of black overseers.

There I learned that Fogel and Engerman, ToC’s authors, did find a healthy majority of plantations where “the top nonownership management was black.” In slave labor camps where sixteen to fifty slaves labored, they found only one in six used a white overseer. In large camps, only a quarter of plantations used a white overseer. Very large camps, with over a hundred enslaved, white overseers came to just thirty percent. If they didn’t use white overseers, then they must have used black overseers and it certainly looks like a majority did so.

However, Gutman looked at the methodology and found a few problems:

this statistic is just an inference. No empirical data exist to support it. David and Temin properly point out: “[Q]uite obviously, there are two unstated premises underlying the inference that the authors draw form these census observations: (1) they assume a large plantation could not be properly run without an overseer in addition to the resident owner, and (2) they suppose the large plantations must have been well run – because they were so efficient. Once the latter presumption is withdrawn, however, this piece of inference unravels along with the rest of the fabric of Fogel and Engerman’s argument.”

In other words ToC sees the absence of a white overseer as proof of a black overseer. By this same method, my ignorance of the winner of the lottery last week proves I won it. Can I have my billion dollars now? I promise to do ridiculous amounts of history with it.

It gets worse. ToC complains that scholars have overestimated the number of white overseers because they treat everyone who put that job down on the census as an overseer of slaves when the term also applied to supervisors in other sectors of the economy. That might make linguistic sense, and it pays to stay mindful of the shifting meaning of words in historical sources, but the very census figures that ToC relies upon prove them wrong:

How many white overseers were listed in the 1860 federal census? No fewer than 37,883. If their residence patterns had not changed greatly since 1850, about 10 percent lived outside the South. That leaves about 34,000 free white southern overseers in 1860. If we assume (and this surely is greatly exaggerated) that one in three managed free southern farms, free southern factories, and slave southern factories, that still leaves about 22,000 white overseers available to supervise southern plantations. Is that a large or small number? Once more, it depends. Scarborough’s study helps answer this question. In the sugar, rice, and cotton regions, “most planters employed an overseer when the total number of working field hands approached thirty.”

Scarborough’s study goes on to distinguish between field hands, who the overseer would directly manage, and various household slaves who he probably did not. About fifty slaves would work out to thirty field hands, who would likely have an overseer.

How many slave-owners in 1860 owned fifty or more slaves? About ten thousand. After making the above generous allowances, about twenty-two thousand free white plantation overseers lived in the South in 1860, more than twice the number needed to manage these large plantations. So far, no allowance has been made for slave overseers. It is now assumed that F+E are correct, but that two thousand […] slaves labored as overseers. That would mean that eight thousand white overseers labored for the owners of fifty or more slaves. And what of the other fourteen thousand? Did they labor for owners of fewer than fifty slaves, and, therefore, fewer than thirty field hands? Were many unemployed in 1860? Or had large numbers of whites misrepresented their occupations to the census enumerators.  The inference that 0.5 percent of adult male slaves labored as overseers rests on F+E’s assumption that “most” planters did not employ white overseers and, therefore, had to employ slave overseers. If that was so, what did most white overseers in the South do for a living in 1860? Rather than answer that question, we also need to put the 0.5 percent aside. The antebellum South had slave overseers, but their number was insignificant. They deserve study, but their place in the southern slave occupational structure and plantation managerial system needs to be measured more carefully first. It is not possible that “within the agricultural sector, about 7.0 percent of the [slave] men held managerial posts.” That percentage is much closer to 3.0 percent, and nearly all were drivers.

A slave driver did occupy a sort of managerial position, but had a different job from overseers. Rather they reported to the overseer or the enslaver himself and could hope for better treatment, but remained enslaved. They tried to appease the overseer by enforcing some discipline in the fields and so moderate his treatment of the enslaved. This makes them neither angels nor demons. A good driver could serve for years, in large part due to his own ability rather than the color of his skin. He might manage the labor camp better than a white overseer. But driver and overseer remained separate roles, the first by definition black and enslaved, the second almost always white and free.

By Fleming’s standards, I have no doubt that Time on the Cross constitutes cutting-edge scholarship. He doesn’t seem to have availed himself of much else written in the past century, if he bothered at all. He has the training to know better. (Please see the correction below.) His readers have every right to expect better of someone who presents himself as a historian. Yet he still wrote what he did. I can’t explain errors of this magnitude and consistency as a simple matter of differing interpretation or inattention to detail. Fleming did not make mistakes, but rather knew full well what he wrote. He either set out to deceive or doesn’t care. I don’t know which reflects worse upon him.

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

Fleming closes with a homily that tells rather more than he probably thinks:

If enough Americans – white and black – understand how we created this perfect storm of opposing good intentions, perhaps we can begin the struggle to achieve mutual forgiveness.

Everybody knows why white Americans should want forgiveness, even though few of us consider how we might earn it. Rather we usually seem most concerned with not earning it as studiously as possible. But what have black Americans done to white Americans that requires our forgiveness? What similar sin adheres to black skin, prosecuted with violence and cruelty down four centuries? Does Fleming mean that they dared darken the white man’s continent with their presence and so disturbed the peace of white minds? That they produced the true villain of his piece, the abolitionists? That those miscreants through their ceaseless, fanatical agitation turned the reaping of lives from a thing done by white Americans to black Americans into a thing done by white Americans to one another? Is that where the tragedy begins, not at Jamestown but Sumter? Nineteenth century white Americans might agree with all that. I don’t know why we should.

Update: I previously wrote here that Fleming had a historian’s training, but down in the comments Jimmy Dick told me otherwise. I rechecked Fleming’s biography and found that I misread his Fordham degree as a doctorate. Sorry that I messed up, Gentle Readers. While one doesn’t necessarily need a terminal degree, or even graduate work, to do good history it does provide training in the task. By presenting himself as a historian, as Fleming has done for decades, he asks his audience to assume that he either has the training or has worked out something equivalent on his own. With regard to slavery and the Civil War, Fleming has instead demonstrated what one can accomplish without the benefit of such training.

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.

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.

Two answers to modern proslavery propaganda

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

The Confederacy’s modern partisans like to whitewash its history. You can’t blame them, since there’s scarcely a single thing about the Confederacy that anybody would admire otherwise unless far more profoundly invested in conscious white supremacy than most Americans can manage. It probably goes without saying that most people actually doing the whitewashing fit that description, but true believers don’t require the argument. They know what they know. Rather they mean their arguments for the ignorant. With ignorance a common condition for all of us, they suffer from no dearth of prey.

This past week a specimen of modern proslavery rhetoric came to my attention. I mean that literally:

“Slavery,” League of the South founder Steve Wilkins and Douglas Wilson tell us

produced in the South a genuine affection between the races that we believe we can say has never existed in any nation before the War or since. Whatever its failures, slavery produced in the South a degree of mutual affection between the races which will never be achieved through any federally-mandated efforts.

I don’t know how anybody could read that as short of a ringing endorsement. Wilkins and Wilson clearly understand it as such themselves:

Slavery as it existed in the South was not an adversarial relationship with pervasive racial animosity. Because of its dominantly patriarchal character, it was a relationship based upon mutual affection and confidence. There has never been a multi-racial society which has existed with such mutual intimacy and harmony in the history of the world.

Wilkins and Wilson make some gestures toward how slavery had its faults and propose to defend a pure, Biblical slavery, but they titled their work as they did and concerned themselves in practice exclusively with, in the words of the aforesaid title Southern Slavery As It Was. If they didn’t mean for readers to take from their work Steve and Doug’s account of the wonders of slavery, with a lament for its passing, then they wrote a pamphlet curiously designed for that purpose.

I didn’t raise this subject just so we could point and laugh or throw stones. Nor do I simply take it as a matter of dogma that one must consider slavery a great evil about which we must believe the worst possible things. I bring Wilkins and Wilson to your attention in order to demonstrate some of the innumerable ways in which their arguments don’t withstand scrutiny. I can’t claim a complete answer to them; I presently lack the time and tolerance to go through every detail and chase down each citation. My patience for such things increases with their age and W&W’s pamphlet barely has a decade under its belt. As such, please understand this as an answer to the points that immediately particularly jumped off the page rather than a comprehensive refutation. I further do not propose to vindicate the respective Christianities of enslaver, enslaved, or abolitionist, a subject of great concern for W&W. Historically speaking, I consider them all equally Christian.

This still leaves us with much to say about slavery. To defend their position that slaves and enslavers largely lived in circumstances of “mutual affection and confidence”, W&W rely upon the testimony of actual slaves. By that I don’t mean that they cracked open some Frederick Douglass or some other abolitionist. Indeed, if they cited a single black American writing in the nineteenth century, I have missed it. Their contemporary sources run as white as the local Klavern. W&W delved into the Works Progress Administration slave narratives. A pair of old school American conservatives like W&W probably relished the chance to turn the work of a New Deal program against American liberals. The WPA sent journalists out to find survivors of slavery and interview them. Those narratives deserve consideration. However, we cannot accept them uncritically as representative accounts of antebellum slavery.

Al Mackey has a very thorough post discussing the issues with the WPA material here, which I have deeply drawn upon for what follows. You should really read him for a full treatment. But take this as a very abridged version:

If for no other reason, the math makes the argument against uncritical acceptance of the WPA narratives. The last enslaved African-Americans got their freedom in 1865. The WPA began operation in 1935, some seventy years thereafter. A person born enslaved in America at the last possible second of slavery would have seen sixty-nine years and nine months come and go before a WPA interviewer appeared on his or her doorstep, assuming that interviewer arrived at the first possible second of the WPA’s operation. This implausible encounter would have involved precious little in the way of information about slavery, since the enslaved suffered the status for only fleeting moments long before his or her brain had any capacity to remember it and before the unfortunate could give an enslaver some “reason” to apply the whip.

A more realistic scenario would require someone born and come of age before the Civil War, thus able to see, experience, and remember slavery as at least a young adult. Given notions of adulthood ran differently in the nineteenth century, let’s estimate one would have to reach the age of ten to fifteen. It’s probably closer to the latter than the former, but the exact age would vary person to person. This put the birthday of a good, reliable witness between 1845 and 1850. Even if we take the war as not disruptive to slavery, quite a whopper, it only moves that range up to 1850-1855. A person born in 1855, a date so late that it still raises some doubts, would turn 80 in the first year of the WPA’s operation and would very likely not have experience the full suite of horrors that slavery had to offer. Someone born in 1850 might very well have, but would meet the interviewer only at age 85.

Some people at that age have very good memories, but most of us don’t have that good fortune. So many things have come and gone even on top of the aging of our neurons. The more remote an event becomes, the more easily we confuse it or recast it to our convenience. Let’s opt for charity and say that the WPA’s subjects all had peerless memories. Most of them, like most of us, probably did not. But even if they did, then we have the later problem. How badly do you want to remember your every humiliation? These memories don’t always go away, often to our sorrow, but likewise one doesn’t fondly reminisce about them decades later.

That said, we have a larger problem than not wanting to remember old pains. One can remember every indignity and not care to share them. A WPA interview involved a white journalist coming to your door in the Jim Crow South and asking extremely sensitive questions. The answers to these questions could implicate the ancestors of people still powerful in the community and capable of doing you great harm. Though the golden age of southern lynching had wound down a bit by 1935 it had not yet ended. Anyone old enough to remember slavery could also remember the more recent decades of white terror. Put yourself in that person’s shoes. Would you tell them that the sheriff’s grandfather, or the interviewer’s own, raped, whipped, and destroyed families for profit? Would you come forward and cooperate with a white journalist fully if you had many things to say that reflected poorly on whites in that environment? Not likely. Especially not if the interviewer comes up with leading questions. Nor would one expect an interviewer to seek out unfamiliar informants who might not play along.

Aside the narratives, W&W make two other arguments for the benign character of slavery that I want to address today:

If slavery had been as bad as the abolitionists maintained that it was, and as we have been reminded countless times on supposedly good authority, then why were there not thousands of rabid abolitionists demanding an end to the evil? Or, even more to the point, why were there not hundreds of slave rebellions? These questions have not been asked often or loudly enough.

David Wilmot

David Wilmot

Why didn’t the abolitionists appear in the thousands? Throughout most of the antebellum, even northerners viewed abolitionists as a nuisance. This included plenty of antislavery Americans. They understood abolitionism as a threat to the Union, in that it might provoke secession and so destroy the grand experiment in white republicanism. They didn’t care in the slightest about the welfare of black Americans, but rather understood slavery chiefly as a threat to white futures. If W&W knew half as much about the historiography as they pretend to, they could have answered that one themselves. They must lack that education, the honesty to disclose the fact, or the intelligence to see the contradiction between the argument they made and the education they have. Only they know which; but none reflect well upon them.

That leaves us with the question of slave revolts. It makes intuitive sense that if people suffer great mistreatment, they will rise up in revolution. Americans imbibe a national myth of heroic resistance that insists upon such things. Slaves did revolt, most famously Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey, but one can’t argue that hundreds of revolts took place that we somehow missed. I think this best answered by telling the story of a less famous revolt.

I take this all from Melton A. McLaurin’s Celia, A Slave. Robert Newsom operated a farm in Callaway County, Missouri.

By the time the census taker arrived at his farm in 1850, Newsom had acquired five slaves: four adult males and a five-year-old boy. Sometime soon afterward, probably within the same year, Newsom would decide to purchase his sixth slave.

Newsom didn’t buy another field hand, or even a boy that would grow into one. He bought an enslaved woman, Celia. Newsom had lost his wife a year prior and he had needs. He did well enough that he could have remarried. Callaway County, while not exactly crawling with women, had plenty of decent prospects for a well-off and well-regarded farmer. Other men of his age and class had remarried. Newsom chose to to buy a fourteen-year-old enslaved woman instead. He had daughters who could and did attend to the customary domestic duties. For that matter, a wife would have done so as well. To Newsom, Celia offered something that no white woman could: a woman he could rape at will and without guilt or consequence. He bought her so he could do as he liked. While the community might not approve exactly, nor did they stand likely to intervene. Some probably would have approved.

Celia did not. As a slave, she really could not approve in any meaningful sense. Even had she and Robert gotten along personally, the threat of punishment always hung over the prospect of refusing. For five years Robert raped her. Twice in her captivity at the Newsom farm, Celia bore children. Newsom contributed his DNA to at least one of those children, probably both. He also built her a brick cabin, luxurious for slave quarters but also serving as a handy site for his further acts of rape. In time, Celia began a relationship with an enslaved man on the Newsom farm, George. George demanded that Celia, pregnant for the third time, end her relationship with sexual Newsom.

George could not demand that of Newsom; it might cost him his life. Newsom would surely understand the behavior as insubordinate and worthy of punishment. Celia, though probably deeply resentful of being held responsible for her own rape, tried to comply. She too had few options. If she simply refused, or appealed to other members of the Newsom family, she exposed herself to punishment. She might implicate George too. She risked the future of her children, who Newsom might take from her as part of her punishment. Risking it all the same, Celia appealed to the women of the household to no avail.

Celia appealed to Newsom himself on or about June 23, 1855. Newsom rejected her pleas and insisted that he had every right to take what he wanted from her. He intended to do so that very night. Celia made threats but Newsom dismissed them. About ten that night, he walked out to her cabin. Her children, his grandchildren, slept within. Celia had a fire going. Newsom cornered her. She seized a hefty stick and hit him on the head with it. Newsom went down, dazed. Celia, understandably worried about what would happen when he got up, finished him with a second blow. Realizing that if she left everything as it now stood she would soon hang, or worse, Celia burned Newsom’s body in her fireplace and disposed of it. After a trial, from which we have most of our information about her life, Celia’s life ended in a hangman’s noose.

When I told a friend this story a few weeks ago, he told me that he considered Celia his new favorite person. I concurred. Placed in a horrific situation, she defended herself and disposed of a serial rapist. It fits well into our narrative of heroic, violent resistance. But most slaves did not do as Celia did. Does it follow from that that they contentedly accepted their lot in life?

I doubt Celia considered herself content in the five years Robert Newsom preyed upon her. Rather she had few options for escape. She could have killed Newsom, as she ultimately did, but that course would deprive her of her life and her children of a mother. She could have run, but to where? With help from whom? Doing so would have required her to take her children and compromise her effort or abandon them. Revolt sounds great on paper, but seems much less promising when you have something to lose and a healthy appreciation of your own mortality. Enslaved Americans still had friends and family they cared for. Would you rebel if it meant your death? Maybe, but we all easily cast ourselves as the heroes of the story. Would you rebel if it meant the death of your friends too? Your family? Your children? We speak easily about dying for our freedom and exalt the act of dying for someone else’s, but is your freedom worth the lives of your loved ones? We can all think of things we might die for or kill for, but we imagine ourselves dying alone or killing enemies. We don’t think so much of those we leave behind or those who dear to us who might die with us or as a consequence of our actions. When we do, does it seem so easy?

"Am I Not a Man and a Brother?"

“Am I Not a Man and a Brother?”

This talk of violent revolt, moreover, ignores all the more subtle ways that enslaved people could resist their enslavement. Enslavers complained endlessly about their stupid, duplicitous human property. Slaves misunderstood, or “misunderstood” instructions. They worked slowly. They broke tools. They met in secret together. They stole. They formed families in defiance of the system that bound them. They sang songs about freedom. They built up a separate religious tradition. None of this freed them; none of it brought the system down. All of it together put occasional strains upon white control and provoked white panic and terrorism. The story of slave resistance only rarely ends in liberation. It doesn’t fill one with hope or conclude with a triumphant fanfare. It lives and dies on the scale of individual lives, most of them forever trapped in an earthly hell.

Slaves had great enthusiasm for the story of Moses. He led his people out from slavery and into the promised land, a prospect of obvious appeal. I need not recount it here, but want to draw attention to four million who heard that story and recognized better than we might how it ended for Moses. The prophet climbed Mt. Nebo and looked down on the promised land, but got no closer. He could never set foot within. Generations ground on for two centuries looking down from the mountain in their dreams, imagining freedom in little pieces torn from the margins of slavery. Their struggle ended in thousands of ways, but most lived and died enslaved. Does that mean it all came to nothing? The enslaved didn’t think so, or they surely would have given it up. In asserting themselves however they could, they rejected the edicts of white law that made them property instead of people. In a thousand quiet ways, they declared themselves not things owned by others, but men and women just as good as those who declared them chattel. That struggle had value in itself, a fact well appreciated by the whites who tried to destroy it.

King, Stone Mountain, and the Pablum Past

Stone Mountain

Stone Mountain

If you go down to Georgia you can see the kind of landmark that traditionally gets Americans excited. We have the biggest bas-relief in the world carved into the north face of Stone Mountain. I haven’t seen it myself, but I have seen some of the artist’s other work. From the park viewing platform, Mt. Rushmore makes an impression. I imagine that the carving on Stone Mountain does as well, what with Stonewall Jackson, Robert Lee, and Jefferson Davis all on horseback with hats over their hearts. Both carvings depict small pantheons, great men worthy of having their memory literally etched in stone. A reasonable person looking at both would understand that the monuments communicate just that: the creators found them so important that they went people for centuries hence to know and admire them. To look upon their works, take them as your example, and live according to their values, would ennoble and elevate you and your society. To forget them would lesson us immeasurably. One does not, after all, carve people one considers unimportant or unpleasant into the side of a mountain.

Stone Mountain has not avoided the criticism that other such monuments have faced in the months since the Charleston shooting. Nor should it, given both its prominence and the fact that the second Ku Klux Klan first met there. Its massive size, however, renders some of the reasonable remedies impractical. We cannot relocate the carving to a museum. Nor does it seem likely that we shall manage some kind of contextualizing display of similar prominence. Sandblasting it away sounds reasonable, but unlikely to happen. What could the state of Georgia do, blast out the other side of the mountain and carve a giant bust of Frederick Douglass? Not exactly. Douglass had very little to do with Georgia, just like the three Confederates, but the state does have a worthy equivalent in Martin Luther King, Jr. The state thus proposes

On the summit of Stone Mountain, yards away from where Ku Klux Klansmen once burned giant crosses, just above and beyond the behemoth carving of three Confederate heroes, state authorities have agreed to erect a monument to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Specifically, an elevated tower — featuring a replica of the Liberty Bell — would celebrate the single line in the civil rights martyr’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech that makes reference to the 825-foot-tall hunk of granite: “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.”

When I first heard this, I thought it a step in the right direction. The Sons of Confederate Veterans, of license plate fame, came out with an unintentional endorsement:

This decision by the Stone Mountain Memorial Association is wholly inappropriate in that it is an intentional act of disrespect toward the stated purpose of the Stone Mountain memorial from its inception as well as a possible violation of the law which established the Stone Mountain Memorial Association and charged it with promoting the mountain as a Confederate memorial.

An intentional act of disrespect towards celebration of the Confederacy sounds pretty good to me. The SCV continues:

The erection of monuments to anyone other than Confederate heroes in Stone Mountain Park is in contradistinction to the purpose for which the park exists and would make it a memorial to something different.  The park was never intended to be a memorial to multiple causes but solely to the Confederacy.  Therefore, monuments to either Michael King or soldiers of any color who fought against the Confederacy would be a violation of the purpose for which the park was created and exists. The opinions of the park’s current neighbors and opponents are of no bearing in the discussion.

This requires a small bit of unpacking. I understand that the environs of the park have undergone a demographic shift since the carving. Maybe once upon a time they could boast of the kind of whiteness you would expect of the local Klavern. Given regular Klan rallies took place on the mountain into the 1950s, that could make for less a metaphor than literal truth. Now the neighborhoods that Jackson, Lee, and Davis oversee have a black majority. If that makes pilgrimages to the site by the SCV a bit uncomfortable, they could console themselves with the fact that the mountain preserved in its own way a vision of white control that they appear to value greatly. Black opinions don’t count.

The reference to Michael King comes from an old smear. The story goes that King answered to Michael from birth. Somewhere along the way he decided that he needed a more impressive name and cynically chose Martin Luther. He never changed his name legally, just one way in which everyone “knew” him for a fraud. King’s father, Martin Luther King, Sr., held that both he and his son got Michael put on their birth certificates out of confusion. They always went by Martin. If this sounds a bit wild to us, we should keep in mind that there remains no obligation to use one’s legal name in all things so long as one doesn’t intend fraud by it. Consistent use of Martin hardly sounds like the act of a mountebank. Next the SCV will tell us that King had an obsession with white prostitutes and worked as a trained operative for the Communist Party to incite servile insurrection.

The SCV goes on:

Furthermore, the erection of a monument to anything other than the Confederate Cause being placed on top of Stone Mountain because of the objections of opponents of Georgia’s Confederate heritage would be akin to the state flying a Confederate battle flag atop the King Center in Atlanta against the wishes of King supporters.  Both would be altogether inappropriate and disrespectful acts, repugnant to Christian people.

No one would want to put an unwelcome flag atop the King Center, as everyone would understand it as an expression of dominance over the memory of King by those who oppose all he stood for. Likewise, those who want to put a King monument atop Stone Mountain want to repudiate its Confederate legacies and replace them with something better. If the SCV sees these positions as equivalent, then it has told us more than it probably intended about itself.

The local NAACP and Southern Christian Leadership Conference weighed in on the King monument as well. Doubtless some in the SCV will take their opposition as proof that no racial animus plays into the SCV’s own. They would only need to neglect the reason for the opposition and the SCV has told us that black opinions don’t matter to it, so the maneuver must come naturally. Just as we would not follow Jefferson Davis’ example, so we do not need to take our cues from the SCV. Therefore, I present the reasons:

“The proposal to include Dr. King [on Stone Mountain] is simply to confuse black folk about the issues,” said John Evans, president of the DeKalb County branch of the NAACP. “It’s an attempt to gain support from blacks to keep these racist and demeaning symbols.

And:

“Why are governments spending tax dollars to preserve monuments of hate?” asked [SCLC president Charles] Steele. “And more so, why put any reference of Dr. King, one of Georgia’s most favorite sons, anywhere near these three traitors?”

They have a very strong point, which has moved me from considering the King monument at least promising to a poor idea indeed. Having King celebrated in close company with the Confederate pantheon would prove very good for their resumes, but not so much for King’s. To put King in their company implies that they deserve it and that King would welcome them. The SCV perceives the same dynamic, but the other way around. To them, associating King with the Confederates would sully the brave white supremacists in gray and elevate him.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

I see no way out of that dilemma. Putting the two symbols together in the same context asserts a sympathetic connection between them. We should admire both similarly. It looks and feels fair on first examination, but doesn’t actually work that way. Fairness toward symbols necessitates fairness toward what they represent, which one cannot adopt without accepting the cruel, violent, rapacious works of white supremacy done under their banner or reduction of one or both symbols to utter meaninglessness. We have enough secular saints that we refuse to learn from even as we pretend to celebrate them. We have already done too much to wipe away King’s cause and the resistance to it in favor of a pablum past.

Deprived of its controversies, that “history” has nothing to teach us. It asks us to confront nothing and question ourselves not at all. If we lived in a perfectly just society, and always had, then that might not make for much of a problem. But no civilization has managed that yet. Without such an unparalleled achievement, clinging to the pablum past makes us not neutral but rather partisans for both past evils and their present day continuations. We should remember Martin Luther King, Jr., faults and all, but we should also remember him as a man white Americans feared and hated just as much as they celebrated him. White Americans jailed him and his supporters. They beat and killed civil rights activists. The Federal Bureau of Investigation tried to drive King to suicide. These facts do not go away because we pretend otherwise.

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.