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.

Debunking a White Power Meme: An Extension of the Black, Muslim Slave Trade? No.

Gentle Readers, I have come this far so I may as well finish with the white power meme I found a few weeks ago. To recap, neither Anthony Johnson nor any other black person holds the distinction of first slaveholder in the Americas, nor in North America, nor British North America, nor even in Virginia. Free blacks in the South did own slaves at a greater rate than whites, but they chiefly owned their loved ones who circumstance, funds, and law prohibited them from freeing. In neither case would these claims, even if true, change the fact that New World slaver overwhelmingly involved whites enslaving blacks. Thinking that might make people with a skin color like mine feel better about our past. We have the long habit of carving our self-esteem, along with our wealth, from the lives of those we make into others and declare inferior. Should we neglect that, as we often prefer, then we still have a past disinclined to changing itself to suit our whims.

The latest in white supremacy

The latest in white supremacy

This leaves us with one last choice morsel of hatred:

the New World slave trade was an expansion of the slave trade in Africa run by black Muslims

Like the other claims, this has so much wrong packed into a single line that it requires significant unpacking. For the sake of argument, let’s say our meme author got something right. Black Muslims ran a slave trade in Africa, from which white Europeans bought people to take to the New World. Sub-saharan Africans did sell people to European traders. As the New World trade ramped up, they provided to it more people to cross the Atlantic from Africa than would from Europe up into the nineteenth century. The New World demand for slaves proved so great that African polities developed around serving it. They extended their networks deep into the African interior to enslave more and more people. You can read about this in any decent history of American slavery; I recommend David Brion Davis’ Inhuman Bondage and Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone.

By the conventional typologies of race, we consider those Africans black. Some of them may have subscribed to Islam. In all of this, we have ignored who bought the slaves. White Europeans came to Africa and bought people. They carried those people across the ocean in foul-smelling, deadly ships to distant ports. There Europeans enslaved them and turned their toil and misery into profits for those same Europeans. Our meme’s author would have us believe that it took the great arts of black Muslims to convince Europeans to do all that. Otherwise, why would it matter who conducted the first sale or two? The involvement of a black person and a Muslim wipe any guilt away.

But we must pull back further. It transpires that a slave trade did operate in Africa prior to the Atlantic trade. Slavers did capture large numbers of sub-Saharan Africans and take them to distant fields for exploitation. The buyers in this case often professed Islam. The distant fields where their slaves toiled existed in North Africa and the Middle East. It did not expand into European hands, with wily Muslims hoodwinking innocent white Christians into buying slaves. Nor did those same racist stereotypes cross the Atlantic with the slaves and whisper in the ears of Caribbean, Chesapeake, or Carolina planters that they must -they simply must!- keep the people they bought as slaves for life and exploit them to the utmost. White people didn’t require any such instruction, but rather proved entirely capable of figuring it out on their own. That does not excuse those Africans who chose to sell to Europeans, but no one compelled Europeans to join in.

Leave that aside, if you wish. Grade school geography refutes the notion that the Atlantic slave trade constituted an expansion of the Muslim slave trade. Muslims wanted slaves to take to North Africa and the Middle East. Europeans wanted slaves to take to islands in the Atlantic Ocean, Iberia, and ultimately the Americas. We cannot reasonably call the Atlantic slave trade an expansion of the Muslim trade based on personnel; Europeans did most of the buying and transporting. We likewise cannot call it an expansion geographically, as Europeans want to take slaves in, literally, another direction entirely.

Slaving is slaving. Taking the slaves to a different distant land doesn’t make it better. Nor do the colors or religions of the practitioners mitigate it at all. To argue otherwise, we must presume that the misdeeds of adherents to unfamiliar faiths or with different skin colors have sins more weighty than our own. Unless we think that, we would not introduce them into evidence. White supremacists never think their imagined inferiors suitable role models, except when they become handy to pass off some blame. Then we must study those unfortunates with great vigor, as their doing something excuses our doing it. So we transmigrate sins to where they belong: a hated minority we wish to continue exploiting. We cannot be asked to feel even a few pangs of conscience, but they must bear the burden of any sins they committed on top of those we did. They must feel guilty for the things we did to them.


Debunking a White Power Meme: Was the first slaveholder in America a Black Man?

Gentle Readers, last week I dug into the question of whether African-Americans held more slaves, proportionately, than white Americans did. A white power meme I found circulating made that claim, which has the unusual benefit of factual accuracy. The percentage of slaveholders among free black Americans is greater than that of their white counterparts. The meme declines to inform the reader that the vast majority of these people held as slaves relatives whom they could not easily free. In other words, most occasions of black slaveholding in the antebellum United States happen in the context of resisting the slave system imposed upon them by whites, rather than direct continuance of it. They owned loved ones to protect them from ownership and exploitation by whites.

The latest in white supremacy

The latest in white supremacy

Which brings me to the second of the meme’s noxious claims, which lacks the warm factual coating for the first:

What about the fact the first slave owner in America was a black man?

Let’s take this from the top. Say, for the sake of argument, that no one owned a slave in the Americas until some black man came over and taught white people how to do it. Bending over backwards to the point of falsehood still leaves us with an irrelevant, if illustrative, point. However slavery originated in the New World, it became the system we remember. In that system, whites owned blacks. White skin meant freedom and black skin meant stolen labor, loved ones, and lives.

We have here a despicable case of white power projection. Whites must do nothing wrong. If white people did do something wrong, then it could only be because some black person corrupted them. This remarkable person, an alleged member of an alleged inferior race, had such power that his example seduced and corrupted thousands of whites for centuries on end. From him, and him alone, they learned the arts of slavery. If not for that example, they would have had no labor shortage, nor decided to meet it by buying the lives of “heathens” and “savages” from Africa who could turn sweat, blood, tears, and screams into money.

Maybe all of that makes sense if you believe white skin betokens moral virtue and black skin singular perfidy. Millions of white Americans still believe just that, but we don’t have to count ourselves among them. Like the fantasy of inferior races, the first slaveholder’s blackness doesn’t withstand a moment’s scrutiny. To begin with, American Indians practiced slavery on a small scale in the Americas long before any people from Europe arrived. Indian vs. Indian slavery didn’t set the pattern for whites any more than black vs. black slavery did. By the time whites came to the New World, our white ancestors already had long experience with slavery. In the later half of the fifteenth century, with the traditional supply of slaves from Eastern Europe cut off by the fall of Constantinople, the Mediterranean basin turned from using Slavs -we got our name from the practice- to grow their sugar and cotton to the use of sub-Saharan Africans.

You may remember from grade school that these explorers sought a way to the Spice Islands and China. If you learned it like I did, they left out what happened along the way. Iberian explorers bought and brought back people from their voyages. Initially, the Portuguese just landed and stole what and who they liked. The discovery of more organized and powerful states nearer the equator changed plans. Further out to sea, Iberians found Madeira, the Azores, and the Canary Islands. The last had native inhabitants, the Guanche. They had olive skin, if one wishes to keep score of such things. Lacking metallurgy and isolated for centuries, the Guanche had difficulty resisting conquest. That conquest did not go smoothly, all the same. It required decades of fighting for the Spanish to seize Grand Canary. A combination of violence and disease finished off the Guanche, to the point where only nine sentences of their tongue survive.

That left the Spanish in possession of a islands in subtropics better suited to sugar cultivation than their plantations back home. They went right to work, enslaving the Guanche and putting them to work. The Guanche didn’t last long, thanks to the violence and disease, but Europeans didn’t want to just give up making money off sugar. Soon the Portuguese brought the first black slaves to the first of the sugar islands. On these and other islands down the African coast, Europeans perfected the arts they would also practice on the other side of the ocean.

One might object here that islands in the Eastern Hemisphere don’t constitute any part of the Americas. Geography agrees, but the Spaniards took the lessons learned with the Guanche and others with them to the West Indies. They had established colonies and plantations worked by black slaves there well in advance of settlement on the mainland. A few Slavic slaves also appear in sixteenth century Havana, remnants of the old Mediterranean trade.

A person deeply wedded to white supremacy might object that Iberians hardly count as white, but even if we unwisely grant such a concession it helps them not at all. In fact, let’s take this one all the way and declare only Anglo-Saxon Protestants white. This means we must confine our inquiry to British colonies. Roanoke did not practice slavery that we know of which brings us to Virginia. (A similar process happens at about the same time in Barbados, but as both your author and you Gentle Readers know more about Virginia I shall focus on it.) The first slaves to arrive in Virginia came courtesy of the Dutch:

About the latter end of August, a Dutch man of Warr of the burden of a 160 tunnes arrived at Point-Comfort, the Comandors name Capt Jope, his Pilott for the West Indies one Mr Marmaduke an Englishman. They mett with the Treasurer in the West Indyes, and determined to hold consort shipp hetherward, but in their passage lost one the other. He brought not any thing but 20. and odd Negroes, which the Governor and Cape Marchant bought for victualls (whereof he was in greate need as he pretended) at the best and easyest rates they could.

We should take care, however, to bear in mind that the Englishmen of 1619 did not have an elaborate concept of racial hierarchy such as we have so often prosecuted. The Dutch probably intended to sell their cargo as slaves, or just didn’t care, but it seems that except for the circumstances of their arrival these twenty people faced no worse treatment than white indentured servants. One can count them as slaves, but doing so projects back a system still decades in the future.

In Virginia, we now have black indentured servants owned for a term of years by whites. Up in New England we have something else. White Englishmen arrive there not long after those twenty Africans arrive unwillingly in the Chesapeake. Samuel Maverick arrived in Massachusetts in 1624, bringing with him black slaves. If you want a first slaveholder in British North America, he makes for a good candidate. After the Pequot War, the Puritans enslaved many Indians. They sold most of the men to the West Indies but kept the women and children for themselves. The Pequot, by no common racial theory, count as black but they got very similar treatment. The 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties includes possibly the first formal slave law in British North America:

91. There shall never be any bond slaverie, villinage or Captivitie amongst us unles it be lawfull Captives taken in just warres, and such strangers as willingly selle themselves or are sold to us. And these shall have all the liberties and Christian usages which the law of god established in Israell concerning such persons doeth morally require. This exempts none from servitude who shall be Judged thereto by Authoritie.

Incidentally, the seventeenth century’s spelling practices constitute one of the more prosaic reasons this blog doesn’t have a great deal of colonial America content.

One can argue that Yankees don’t count on the same grounds that we could object that even if the first enslaver in North America had black skin it doesn’t matter. The system whites imposed made black people slaves to whites. It also, from a fairly early period, saw prosecution far more aggressively in the Chesapeake and points south than it did in New England. The Middle Colonies offer an exception in the middle eighteenth century, where they appear well into a transition from societies with slaves to slave societies, but the American Revolution put paid to that and it takes us well beyond any consideration of firsts.

Anthony Johnson's mark (via Wikipedia)

Anthony Johnson’s mark
(via Wikipedia)

This brings us back to Virginia again, and the man that many people claim as the first slaveholder in the colony: Anthony Johnson. Johnson came to Virginia as a slave, found himself an indentured servant, and became free at the end of his term. He did well for himself, able to gain property and sponsor the transport of indentured servants from England. He sued a neighbor to secure the return of a black man he held as a slave, John Casor. The court sided with Johnson, indicating that by 1655 the idea of lifetime slavery had established some purchase in Virginian culture.

The court did not, however, make Casor the first slave as we would understand the term. Even within Virginia’s jurisdiction, and bearing in mind that Massachusetts has already crossed the finish line with a white enslaver, the first known case of lifetime slavery appears to come in the person of John Punch. Punch and some other indentured servants absconded with themselves. They got caught. All three received some lashes for their trouble. Punch’s companions, both white, received a year added to their time under indenture, then a further three serving the colony. Punch, a black man, got slavery for life on July 9, 1640.

Debunking a White Power Meme: Did free blacks really own more slaves than whites?

Gentle Readers, studying the things I do often brings one in contact with the part of the internet which has forgotten its real purpose as a source of gentlemen’s special interest media. The nineteenth century insulates me to some degree from modern expressions of white supremacy, though not so much as one would hope. White power devotes its tremendous creative energies to strategy more than ideology, even when not spreading lies about the Confederacy. What I do see of modern racist discourse consequently has tight connections to proslavery and anti-Reconstruction arguments, the latter of which I have begun to familiarize myself with.

I haven’t found any proslavery writing that justifies slavery on the grounds that more free blacks than whites owned people, though I found a meme that does:

The latest in white supremacy

The latest in white supremacy, coming soon to a Facebook feed near you.

The stock photo of a darker-skinned gentleman looking puzzled by whites should feel guilty about slavery, which the text insists lays at the feet of black people, deserves credit for taking the logic of white supremacy to a nauseating conclusion. It implicitly both excuses whites by the proxy of a black man and encourages us to see ourselves deserving of an apology from black Americans for our national ancestors enslaving theirs. Ordinarily, our narratives grant no agency at all to non-whites; we treat them as objects which we act upon so consistently that it takes conscious effort to do otherwise. We learn our whiteness in schools, from our media, and every other cultural channel available to us.

Yet the moment white agency involves white people behaving in ways we have decided that we must, at least in mixed company, condemn, white agency vanishes. Then we must speak of black agency. Black people in Africa sold slaves to us, which washes away any injustice we might have done. We find the real racists with black skin, just as we find the real miscreants in every other possible sin. In this crazy, upside-down world it doesn’t matter that whites bought black slaves, but only that blacks sold them.

A full debunking of this meme would run very long. I may make a series of it, but today I want to focus on the first the first factual claim:

A greater percentage of free blacks owned slaves than whites.

This kind of argument would have made no sense to someone in the middle nineteenth century. I don’t know that any antebellum white considered that a mitigation of slavery, as it turned their racial caste system on its side. Black skin meant enslaved, not enslaver. That the slaves still had the “right” color would not have charmed them much. They did not understand black slaveholders as entering a class with themselves, even if those same free people of color sometimes aspired to that role.

The author of the meme found a real fact, rare enough for white supremacists, but naturally used it in a profoundly misleading way. Just taking it on its face, you would think free blacks constituted the great slaveholding caste of American history. We may know otherwise, but the presentation encourages us to let that slide by. They accounted for a trifling fraction of the number of whites who owned slaves, not even close to a significant fraction of all free people of color in the Antebellum South. The author asks us to ignore almost every slaveholder, indeed the nature of American slavery as a race-based caste system itself. We may as well declare the Pacific Ocean one vast desert, neglecting all that water.

Our author also neglects the multitude of ways in which slavery still constrained the lives of free black Americans. In no way did being free, but black, make many black Americans even near-equals to white Americans. In slave states, where the great majority of them lived, free blacks led lives still governed by the slave codes. They and their children lived in real fear of being kidnapped and sold as slaves somewhere far away. Whites and white law frequently, though with notable exceptions, restricted to low status and/or economically marginal work. Their marginality extended, thanks to the system whites built, to treatment often similar to slavery. In many slave states, especially in the later antebellum, freeing a slave required deporting the slave from the state at the owner’s expense. The whites literally wanted them gone, rather than around to contradict how black skin inherently meant enslaved, and whiteness alone made one free. At the least, this meant separation from homes and loved ones, just as a slave sale did. The impulse to purge the land of free blacks recalls twentieth century forced population transfers.

One finds successful, even wealthy, free black Americans in the historical record but they appear few in number. Many of these tried to make distinctions based on their lighter skin color, inherited from rich white fathers. They don’t make fair representatives of free blacks in general, and still faced considerable disabilities on account of their ancestry. In rare conditions, enough free and freed black Americans lived in one place to form their own class, particularly in New Orleans and Charleston, but whites insisted they occupy a sort of middling position well short of whiteness. Most were dependent on maintaining close relations with white patrons, often their relatives, to remain in that status. Complicating this further is that in most of the Cotton States have far fewer free blacks than they the Upper South (the Chesapeake, Kentucky, etc.) where no such “brown” class develops.

This began with black enslavers, so it would do to come back to them. Free blacks owned slaves in every slave state, but it pays to mind the details. When most of us read that someone owned slaves, we probably picture a plantation, a whip-wielding master, and all the rest. We imagine the actual experience of the great majority of slaves in the United States, sensibly enough. But free blacks almost always held very modest amounts of human property. Though a few operated plantations, for the most part we find circa one or two people owned. Specifically, we find family members of the free person.

Whites insisted that freeing slaves constitute a difficult legally and socially challenge on top of any financial burden from lost investment or labor. It could literally required an act of the state legislature, something far beyond the means of a person hoping to buy a spouse or child to save them from the full horror of slavery. The more freed people appeared locally, the stronger the local whites would object and the harder they might fight to make the lives of freedpeople impossible. Purchasing a loved one could thus mean taking the least worst option.

All of this requires us to grapple with a slavery that actually existed in the real world: a system of violence, theft, torture, and rape spread across two continents by white Europeans and their descendants. The Atlantic world that whites built on constraining, controlling, and exploiting blacks does not go away because we pretended otherwise. We can imagine a strange world where cunning black enslavers coerced or corrupted virtuous whites into buying human beings. We can pretend that they sat on the shoulders of white enslavers on their plantations, whispering in their ears: whip them, rape them, steal their children. We can tell ourselves whatever stories we like, use whatever startling facts out of context might distract us. The reality remains, as we all know. Declaring ourselves innocent and demanding apologies from those we still studiously afflict for how they hurt our feelings doesn’t depart from the system we built long ago, but rather continues it. We know that too.

Being Good Americans

Colin Kaepernick (via Wikipedia)

Colin Kaepernick (via Wikipedia)

Gentle Readers, I can probably count the times I’ve given the Star-Spangled Banner serious thought on one hand. I also don’t get sports and have a strong hostility toward patriotism of any species. Most of the social rituals humans use to build community strike me as some mix of alien and horrifying. Other people disagree. So long as no one mistreats someone else, we can differ and get along just fine. This probably all disqualifies me from having much of use to say about Colin Kaepernick’s decision not to stand for the national anthem. He explained his decision better than I could:

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL Media in an exclusive interview after the game. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

All that actually happens, so in an honest country we might hope for some thoughtful consideration. Kaepernick’s and athletes’ similar decisions might, in a nation fairly obsessed with sports personalities, prompt a general movement to change or drop the whole tradition. I don’t know if such an honest country does now or ever has existed, but Americans don’t live in it either way.

Everybody who goes to school in America learns the story: Francis Scott Key is on a British ship in Cheasapeake Bay. The British have come to take Baltimore and bombard Fort McHenry. Key doesn’t know how it’s gone until he sees the flag still above the fort. He writes a poem soon set to music. There you go. Most of us probably know that it has more verses, but who reads that stuff? The song ends with the first stanza. That stripes it of almost the entirety of its meaning, rendering the national anthem a band, uninspired affair concerned entirely with the fate of a piece of cloth.

The rest of the poem says something interesting, which precluded its use as a nationalist totem. Key, like everyone else, wrote very much in his moment. The moment in question came, as we all learn in grade school, in the War of 1812. The Royal Navy raided up and down the American coast, sometimes penetrating quite deeply into the countryside. There perfidious Albion found allies. I recall the American Indians mentioned in passing, but not a word about the ones that got Key worked up. In the Chesapeake and points south, the preeminent British allies came in the form of the nation’s slaves. They believed that Britain would liberate them and volunteered as scouts and guides for British raids. Those raids soon ended up at their former homes, liberating loved ones. This required bravery, but the occasion involved no home of freedom. All in all, the United States lost thousands of slaves this way. Most later found homes, as free people, in Canada or the West Indies.

In a nation that really valued freedom and the fight against oppressors, we would celebrate those men as the best of Americans. They would have done the most American of things: fought white, their enslavers, and those enslavers’ government, for freedom for themselves and those dear to them. No one missed the point at the time, least of all a Marylander enslaver like Key. He took the inspiration for his third verse in part from their story:

No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Come the Civil War, Confederate soldiers rarely respected surrenders by United States Colored Troops. Those men had engaged in servile rebellion and deserved death, either handed out at once in a massacre or done later on by some state authority. Key clearly thought the same and wrote celebration of the deaths of black soldiers into his poem. They would have nowhere to hide; they must flee or die. It says that in as many words.

Some white Americans have gotten into an uproar because Colin Kaepernick doesn’t want to stand up for a flag that flies over more recent injustices. They insist that white people, usually men, have the absolute power to decide what anybody they don’t deem white can do, say, or feel about actual injustices they have suffered at the hands of whites. Maybe they didn’t read the rest of Key’s poem -who does?- but they have the idea. In contemplating a piece of fabric, they have correctly understood the history of their country and chosen to act in keeping with its traditions. They too could not be more American.

New England and the Slave Trade to 1808

Something different today, Gentle Readers. I undertook a light research project the past few weeks, at the suggestion of one of the mods over at Reddit’s AskHistorians. African slaves did not arrive in the New World on their own. It took Africans capturing and enslaving them, moving them to ports, and then Europeans buying and transporting them across the ocean. The lion’s share of that traffic in the later decades of the Atlantic trade took place on British-flagged vessels until 1808, and thence forward under Portuguese registry. Every seafaring power got a finger in the pie at some point, the United States included. Most of the American vessels that plied the trade did not, as one might imagine, come from South Carolina. Instead, slavers hailed primarily from New England. Yankee shipwrights built their vessels, owned them, crewed them, invested in them, and profited from their voyages. Did that investment have any influence on the eventual debates over banning slave importation on January 1, 1808? I set off to find out. I also used a more conversational, casual tone than I usually do here.


The Short Version

It’s complicated and the context matters. The short version is “probably a little, but some and some decisive stuff back earlier.” Ok then, everyone’s satisfied so we can all go home, consume the beverages of our choice, and call it good. Or we could go deeper.

The Long Version

Right then, let’s roll the clock back to Philadelphia, 1787. It’s summer, that time of year when rich white guys sit down to fix the Articles of Confederation, good and hard. The Committee on Detail gets to work based on general things settled by the convention. Its members are John Rutledge (SC), Edmund Randolph (VA), James Wilson (PA), Nathaniel Gorham (MA), and Oliver Ellsworth (CT). That’s two New Englanders, two Southerners, and a dude from Pennsylvania. The rest of the convention takes a break while they go to work, but not before Charles Pinckney (SC) tells everybody that

“that if the Committee should fail to insert some security to the Southern States ag[ain]st an emancipation of slaves, and taxes on exports, he sh[oul]d be bound by duty to his State to vote ag[ain]st their Report.”

Waldstreicher, David. Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification (p. 89). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

As if they could have forgotten.

The Committee on Detail’s report bans taxes on exports and slave imports, and by the way there’ll be no banning of those slave imports either. A few clauses down is a requirement for a two-thirds majority to pass any acts which would regulate trade, “navigation acts” in the parlance of the time. That first appears in Rutledge’s hand. Together this tilts wildly Southern: The South’s exports can’t be taxed. Its slave imports can’t be taxed. What can the South do that would get taxed? It’s either excise taxes, which had gone not so well previously, or a tax on imports that be a drain on shipping. Who did the shipping? New England, New York, and Philadelphia, mostly.

This was enough to get some pretty serious debate going. The arguments against involved much of the obvious: the Constitution they were drafting was proslavery. The 3/5 compromise would promote slave imports, since the South could literally buy votes in the House and Electoral College. If slavery weakened the South by requiring more military spending to keep it together, as the section sometimes argued, then the whole union would be on the hook. And really, we fought a revolution for freedom and now we’re going to protect slavery?

Rutledge, who chaired the Committee on Detail, gets up and argues otherwise: Hey, we’re not saying import slaves. We’re saying importing slaves shouldn’t be forbidden. Two, the South doesn’t need your dirty Yankee help protecting itself. The fact that we’re all paranoid about slave revolts and sore at how the British made off with so many of our slaves? Doesn’t count. But ultimately:

Religion & humanity had nothing to do with this question. Interest alone is the governing principle with nations. The true question at present is whether the South[er]n States shall or shall not be parties to the Union. If the Northern States consult their interest, they will not oppose the increase of Slaves which will increase the commodities of which they will become the carriers.

Waldstreicher, David. Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification (pp. 94-95). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

Rutledge said what everybody knew. There was a kind of alliance between New England and the Lower South operating. Ellsworth helped prove it by calling the antislavery element out for hypocrisy. If slavery was wrong, why were they just banning the import of slaves? This from a guy from Connecticut.

The convention soon found they were at a serious impasse, so they got together another committee to work out a compromise: Yes to a tax on slave imports but it couldn’t go higher than the average of existing duties. No ban on slave imports permitted until 1800. Cool? Not cool. South Carolina moved to kick the date back to 1808. The change passed with the votes of New England, the Lower South, and Maryland.

Since New England was being so nice about the slave trade, the Carolinians flipped on the navigation act clause, which was then deleted. We end up with this, the slave trade clause:

The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.

New England gets commerce-regulating power that it wants and the Lower South does not. The Lower South and New England team up to save the slave trade they’re both interested in.

As everything subsequent in this post flows in one way or another from those words, let’s unpack them a little. You have the usual constitutional circumlocution around slavery. The framers were sensitive to the notion that the Constitution would not explicitly sanction what they called “property in man”. This fooled no one, but the distinction would eventually become very important in antislavery constitutionalism largely thanks to the efforts of Salmon P. Chase and James G. Birney, but getting well outside the scope of the question. (Fair game for follow-ups or subsequent questions, of course.)

The key parts:

  1. Congress will have the power, come 1808, to impose a total ban on the importation of slaves to the United States.
  2. Congress does not have that power until 1808, though it may impose a tax of up to ten dollars a head on such imports. Congress could literally make that the first act of the first Congress, pass it on the first day, and have it be the first thing to cross George Washington’s desk.
  3. The clause applies to states, not to the United States in general. Congress can do whatever it likes with regard to territories. It can even ban taking slaves already in the US into territories. It will do so, banning the import of slaves to the Northwest, Mississippi, and Orleans Territories. Only the first of these bans is well known, and then as an absolute prohibition. That’s how it was written, but the choice of the first governor and indifference in Washington ensured it was never more than a questionably-secure ban on imports. The bans on imports to Mississippi territory (modern MS and Alabama, mostly) and Orleans (Louisiana, naturally) were more explicitly that, but only in effect briefly and are allowed to lapse. These precedents are relevant to later antebellum stuff, but again that takes us well past the bounds of the question.
  4. The clause allows Congress to exercise its power to ban the importation of slaves to the United States in general on, or at any point after, January 1, 1808. It’s not required to do so on that date or any other.
  5. None of this requires states to import slaves. All of them had enacted bans on it during the Revolution as part of the non-importation movement. But those bans were state law and could be reversed. They would be by Georgia (1787-98), North Carolina (1790-4), and of course South Carolina (1805-7).


Incidentally, all of these constitutional provisions are unamendable. They’re entrenched in the Constitution to exactly the same degree as the two senators per state rule.

Josiah Parker

Josiah Parker

That’s the lay of then land when the first Congress gets together. It took them literally thirteen days into the Washington presidency to get into a fight over slavery. Josiah Parker, of Virginia, got up in the House and suggested: hey, we have the authority in plain English to impose a ten dollar tax on slave imports right now. Why don’t we tax the crap out of them? In the ensuing debate representatives from Georgia and South Carolina made arguments that sounded downright 1850s, up to and including early attempts at a positive good defense of slavery. James Jackson (no relation that I’m aware of to Andrew or Thomas) of Georgia condemned it as “the most odious tax Congress could impose.”

That’s very far from New England, though. Roger Sherman, of Connecticut Compromise fame (and, you know, Connecticut) opposed Parker’s proposal on the grounds that it was an amendment to a general tariff bill. It really ought to come as its own bill, even though a tariff is exactly what Parker was proposing. The objection might sound a little suspicious, and maybe it was, but it was held so generally in the House that Parker agreed to withdraw his amendment and resubmit it as a freestanding bill.

Parker’s tax came back up and the House voted to postpone it to the next session, at which point it would get mixed up in a firestorm over antislavery petitions from some Quakers and Ben Franklin who also wanted the Congress to do something about the slave trade. Franklin’s petition asked that they “step to the very verge” of their power and…and maybe think about freeing any slaves illegally imported? The prospect of the United States government turning into an agent for active emancipation must have been wildly popular in the South, right? You’d expect the kind of slightly manic cheer that fills media aimed at very young children or certain hygiene products. History’s full of heartbreaking stuff, though. The Lower South went ballistic.

It didn’t get them much. A House committee took in the petitions and reported out a summary of Congress’ powers with regard to slavery. That report laid out much of what I summarized above, particularly that no ban would come before 1808. It also established accepted constitutional wisdom, even by Republicans, all the way to 1860:

  1. The Congress had no power to interfere with slavery in any way within the bounds of a state, either to emancipate the slaves or to regulate their treatment. However…
  2. Congress had the power to prohibit US citizens from carrying slaves to foreign ports and
  3. Could prohibit foreigners from setting up slavers for voyages in US ports, plus
  4. Congress could set standards for the treatment of slaves on ships bound for the US.

This report didn’t become law of any kind; the Senate never signed off on it. But the House as a whole endorsed it, over Southern objections, and antislavery societies took it as a how-to for their future slavery fighting.

Let’s look at items #2 and #3. This is a part of the slave trade that is almost invisible in the story of American antislavery, but it’s an important one. Remember above that the Constitutional restrictions apply to importation of slaves to the United States. They do not apply in any way to operations in the carrier trade, taking slaves from Africa to Cuba (mostly), the West Indies (number two), or ports in South America (fairly rare, but it happened).

That’s actually where most American slavers did their business. They were primarily New Englanders. We can narrow that down still further. The majority of American slave ships (~70%) were owned and built in Rhode Island. There were operations elsewhere in New England and in New York that registered on the contemporary radar, but the Rhode Islanders were conspicuously all over this. The trade was a major factor in their state’s economy in a way that it no longer was elsewhere, if it had ever been. (I honestly don’t know. Colonial-era slaving is well outside my expertise.) About two-thirds of their voyages brought slaves from Africa, mostly in exchange for rum distilled right back home in the smallest state, and took them to the Caribbean. The other third supplied the American South, but most slave imports to the United States arrived on foreign ships.

So here we have an explicit declaration of congressional power over a trade which isn’t actually that important to the South, since they get their slaves from foreigners, and which limiting would only really hurt Rhode Island. Thus, there’s some real action…eventually. Congress took until 1794, but then they passed the Slave Trade Act of 1794. George Washington put his John Hancock on it on March 22.

What’s the law do? American citizens, and anybody setting out from a US port, are prohibited

for himself or any other person whatsoever, either as master, factor or owner, build, fit, equip, load, or otherwise prepare any ship or vessel […] for the purpose of carrying on any trade or traffic in slaves, to any foreign country; or for the purpose of procuring, from any foreign kingdom, place or country, the inhabitants of such kingdom, place or country, to be transported to any foreign country, port, or place whatever, to be sold of or disposed of, as slaves

Do that particular dirty deed and your ship and all its accessories could be libeled, condemned, and forfeited to the United States in whatever district or circuit court happened to have jurisdiction. Furthermore, if you were involved with this sort of business, or aiding and abetting, you would take a $2,000 fine to be split between the United States and whoever prosecuted you. If you were a owner or master of a ship and even looked dodgy, and someone reported you to the customs officials, you could be required to swear an oath and give a bond that you would not embark any African or other natives to take elsewhere and sell as slaves for the following nine months. Congress wasn’t quite done yet. It also assessed a $200 per-head fine on any slaves you tried to traffic in, again split halfsies between the US and the prosecution.

You might anticipate a big controversy here and a law that just squeaked by, but it doesn’t seem so. I went looking for debates and the roll-call vote on the measure, but couldn’t find them. Don Fehrenbacher tells me that the law got “ready acceptance […] in both houses”. I’m inclined to believe him, but his footnote led me to a dead end. This is all in the Annals of Congress, which were compiled retrospectively from newspaper accounts decades later rather than recorded live, as it were. So it’s possible a debate happened and no one took much notice, but I’ve spent a couple of hours looking and I can’t even give you the vote totals. Beats me. (If anybody has found records of this stuff, please let me know; I’m desperately curious.) The law was, Fehrenbacher says, the result of some very carefully written antislavery petitions. In particular, they took great pains to avoid any request for abolition.

So the 1794 act becomes law. It’s not the most draconian thing, but the fines are quite high. It lacks for a good enforcement regime, though. Basically you’re looking at private prosecutions, which half the fine would buy the government. Those would mostly have to happen in the very places where the trade was most popular and its wealthy practitioners most influential. Long odds, right? Maybe, maybe not. It was enough to get Cyprian Sterry, one of Providence’s slaving bigwigs, to quit the business when the local antislavery groups promised to come after him.

And then there’s John Brown. No, not that John Brown with the wild beard and the badass mural in Kansas. (But seriously, look at that mural!) John Brown of the Brown University Browns. John Brown is having none of this crap about fines. The Congress can take its slave trade act and shove it. He’d been doing the same thing with Rhode Island’s state law against slave trading voyages since 1787. He sent a ship, the Hope, off a-slaving. Hope called at the Guinea coast, bought some people, and took them off to Cuba where the sale of the 229 survivors turned a handy profit.

Brown had clearly fitted out and set off a slaving voyage. His brother Moses, a Quaker convert, and the local Abolition Society came after him in a private prosecution. They made it their business to do this, but usually things got to the point where someone would sign an agreement to renounce the trade (as Sterry did) and they would drop the prosecution. Negotiations to that end did not budge Brown at all. Moses threatened him with more than the loss of an older ship if he kept at things, but Brown sucked up the loss of the Hope. Eventually it became clear that Brown was trying to push things to trial. If someone got nailed for illegally importing slaves they would have to face a jury, and a Rhode Island jury would probably not convict. Once that became an established fact, the law would be a dead letter.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Which it was, for the most part. The Washington administration did not bend over backwards to see the law enforced. Rhode Island’s commerce dipped for a year after passage, but then came right back. Between 1794 and 1804, Rhode Island saw twenty-two prosecutions but we know of at least two hundred voyages to Africa in the same time. It seems that the volume of the trade significantly increased after it became illegal. Good lawyering, friendly juries, and occasional intimidation kept it safe until Jefferson appointed one of the big name slavers to the customs post at Bristol in 1804. Shockingly, African clearances from there shot way up. Prosecutions did not.

I told you most of that to set this up. Come 1800, things are looking a little better for the 1794 law. The Adams administration is encouraging prosecutions and has a few ongoing. Congress decides to revisit things and improve on the old law with a supplementary bill. This one is going to jack the fines (double the value of vessels forfeited and price of the slaves), outlaw investment in slaving ventures (at the pain of losing twice your stake in them), and if you’re actually on the ship you could get two years’ jail. This applies to Americans doing their own trading destined for foreign ports, as well as Americans on board or investing in foreign vessels. If the Navy, or equivalent, does the capturing then its officers and crew are entitled to prize money. And if a private prosecution brings any of this about, the fines go halfsies to the US and the accuser again.

By this point, John Brown is 50% of Rhode Island’s House delegation. He has some things he needs to say. Quoting from the Annals of Congress here:

it [was] improper to prevent the citizens of the United States enjoying the benefits of a trade enjoyed by all the European nations. […] Many members of the House, he observed, knew how the former act was passed; they knew that Congress was drilled into it by certain persons who would not take *no* for an answer. It was well known that the Abolition Society, otherwise the Society of Friends, as they were called, were very troublesome until they got that act passed.

Cheeky of him to name the outfit his brother was a member of, and which had prosecuted him, by name. Brown went on to say that no American law forbade exporting Africans from Africa. So why not just let Americans take Africans where they pleased? Better to enjoy the proceeds than leave money laying on the table. They were slaves either way, ok? Cutting Americans out of such a lucrative business was just bad policy and, anyway:

it was wrong, when considered in a moral point of view, since, by the operation of the trade the very people themselves much bettered their condition.

He said it. Having crossed that Rubicon, which pitched him all the way down with the Lower South, Brown noted that Congress could fill up the Treasury with slave-produced revenues. Far better to do that then debt finance things, right? And it’s not like US law would prevent “one more slave” from being taken. It would just be some foreigner that did the taking. With distilleries idle, why not have the rum go off to buy people? Brown

had been well informed that on those coasts New England rum was much preferred to the best Jamaica spirits, and would fetch a better price.

This is, as I mentioned before, literally how Rhode Island bought slaves. Brown had been well informed by his own ledgers. I don’t know about Brown personally, but some of the traders owned their own distilleries.

I don’t know that any other New Englander spoke in opposition to the 1800 law. It passed on on May 10, 1800, clearing the house with all of five votes against. Who are those guys? Brown, of course, George Dent (MD), Joseph Dickson (NC), John Rutledge Jr. (SC), and Benjamin Huger (SC). It’s by no means a prefect indicator, but the fact that Brown alone votes against the bill paints him as a pretty marginal figure. The commerce is mostly a Rhode Island affair and the other Rhode Islander in the House didn’t vote against it. But one does have to consider that all previous acts turned out to be paper tigers. Even forfeited ships often got bought back by their previous owners for pittances. The 1800 revisions had as much effect as the 1794 original: a brief downturn followed by resumption and increase of voyages. Between the international situation and American non-enforcement, the US share of slave exports from Africa goes from an estimated 2% (1780s) to 9% in the following decade and then 16% for the first Jefferson administration.

Stephen Row Bradley

Stephen Row Bradley

Skipping a few minor episodes (making imports of slaves to a state that has closed the trade a federal offense that inspires SC, along with the money to be made importing slaves for further transit to Louisiana, to reopen the trade and a revival of the ten dollar tax that goes nowhere in retaliation against SC) we get to 1808…almost. We have to come up for a moment in December of 1805, when a New Englander gets conspicuous again. Stephen Row Bradley, of Vermont, gets up in the Senate and suggests they get cracking on a bill to prohibit slave imports, effective the first of 1808. The time might have seemed ripe, with states calling for a constitutional amendment to permit banning slave imports then and there not that long before, but Bradley’s proposal was taken as too soon all the same. There’s an undercurrent of doubt in all of this as to whether it’s proper for Congress to even consider an import ban before 1808, let alone years in advance.

December, 1806. Jefferson’s annual message (the equivalent to our State of the Union) recommends that Congress get an import ban together, effective January 1, 1808. Jefferson defended getting it done in advance on the grounds that it would mitigate against catching any vessels en route who may have started out legal but become illegal in passage. Bradley introduces his bill on December 3. There’s a broad consensus that now’s the time to do something and a ban should happen at the first available moment. Southerners even carp at the suggestion that they want anything else. The fights start over the details, with there being three big ones:

  1. What to do with people imported illegally? Should they be freed? If so, what does the nation do with them? Take them home? Settle them somewhere? Or do they remain slaves to be sold at auction? And if so, by whom? Was the federal government to become a slave trading operation? (Decided by the local jurisdiction, which meant kept as slaves and sold by state governments in the South.)
  2. What kind of penalty should violators face? (Original version: fines and forfeiture. Seen by most of the North as too little. Amended: death. Split the North, with many feeling it was too much. Final version: jail time.)
  3. Should Congress regulate the domestic maritime trade in slaves? Later on, this is often called the coastwise trade. Most of it runs from the Chesapeake to South Carolina, Georgia, and eventually Mobile and New Orleans. (Yes, but not much.)
John Randolph

John Randolph

These debates are not heavily studied, at least as of Matthew Mason’s Slavery Overshadowed: Congress Debates Prohibiting the Atlantic Slave Trade to the United States 1806-1807 (2000). Even contemporaries paid far more attention to other issues, despite often fiery rhetoric. The distinction is very much sectional, though Mason notes that the South prevailed as usual with the help of some northern cooperation. He doesn’t call out any New Englanders as conspicuous. This nuts and bolts wrangling took place in the House. The Senate recorded no debates or votes -thanks a lot, jerks-. Peter Early (Georgia) and John Randolph (Virginia) were conspicuous on the southern side, but if there was a particular locus of resistance in the New England delegations Mason doesn’t note it and I think he would have.

On the key vote as to what would happen with those people imported illegally, the House came to a 60-60 tie broken by the Speaker (Nathaniel Macon, NC). It got to that point with thirteen northerners voting against their section, eleven of them from mid-Atlantic states. They were Joseph Clay (PA), Henry Livingston (NY), Josiah Masters (NY), Gurdon Mumford (NY), John Russel (NY), Martin Schuneman (NY), Uri Tracy (NY), Phillip Van Cortlandt (NY), Killian K. Van Rensselaer (NY), Daniel C. Verplanck (NY), Eliphalet Wickes (NY)

What about those other two? I had to do a little hunting here, since it’s one of those things where you have to figure out which side is which and which is the relevant vote. It’s here. My method: I recognize the names of several southerners on sight, particularly the hard-liners, and know the section voted pretty solidly one way. So we want the nays. To be doubly-sure, and do the further sifting, I compared the nays with the roster here (PDF). I came out with, in addition to the previous list, Samuel Tenney (NH) and Peleg Wadsworth (MA).

Both are New Englanders, though neither is a Rhode Island man. I don’t know if Tenney and Wadsworth had any personal or constituency connections to the slave trade or not. This isn’t quite an up or down vote against slavery, though it’s close, so there may have been tactical considerations involved too. The strong New York connection to southern interests, political and economic, must be a factor for the others. New York’s remaining slave population might have served as another, but I’ve got my doubts considering they can’t have expected a whole lot of slavers to aim for their ports and so end up depositing human cargo locally where it would matter on a personal level that much. What slave ship is going to take a hold even partially full of people to a state that passed gradual emancipation in 1799 when there are so many more hospitable and profitable ports?

Which brings us to regulation of the coastwise trade, with the question being whether to limit the trade to vessels displacing forty tons or more. Twelve Upper South men voted for it, only ten northerners opposed. This was a significant limitation, as while an Atlantic-going slaver would run around 158 tons, the coastwise trade involved mostly vessels smaller than that.

So let’s fine those dissenting Yankees again. The vote is here. We want the Nays. There are seven repeat offenders from the last vote here: Josiah Masters (NY), Gurdon Mumford (NY), Martin Schuneman (NY), Samuel Tenney (NH), Uri Tracy (NY), and Killian K. Van Rensselaer (NY). That leaves us three to find. They are Silas Betton (NH), Martin Chittenden (VT), Samuel Dana (CT). One wonders just what Martin Chittenden and Stephen Bradley said to each other when they got home.

So there’s four New Englanders in the mix, counting Tenney with the three new arrivals. That’s not a lot (35 New England reps total, 20 of them Federalists) but it is something. The New England of the very early 1800s is not the New England of the 1840s and 1850s. It’s a place where antislavery is popular, but it’s not the region-defining thing it would be in future years. That begins to emerge when it becomes clear that the Federalists are done as a national party and they don’t need to be appealing to enslavers anymore as their partners in Virginia and South Carolina in particular are no longer interested. I don’t know what’s going on with the Chittenden in Vermont at all, and Rhode Island is conspicuous in its absence (both RI reps are Republicans at the time, so maybe party whip and certainly the impotence of previous laws would be a factor), but they must have had their reasons. The state didn’t lose interest in slave trading for a while yet hereafter.

I fired up my Biographical Directory of the United States Congress to see if there was a partisan angle. All four are federalists. Party lines aren’t as hard as they would become, but they could be looking to keep alive a national Federalism by resisting Jefferson’s program in hopes of wooing back southern coalition partners. But it’s only an inclination, against the general trend of their party’s vote, and it’s not too long after this that the party try to position themselves as a New England sectional party with an antislavery bent. On the balance, and absent any meaningful biographical data about them, I don’t think partisanship is the main factor. I can’t say for sure that there are personal or constituency interests driving them, but it seems likely.

I haven’t gone looking in the debate myself to see if any of the against-the-grain guys spoke up in an interesting way, but between my sources I think if they said anything useful and it survived, I’d have seen it quoted. It’s rare for them to even be mentioned by name. Mason notes that for all the fireworks in Congress, the slave trade prohibition doesn’t seem to have drawn many eyeballs. With the exception of Bradley, few of the antislavery party even seem to have felt it was the main event of the Ninth Congress. (Though it was the big event of their generation of antislavery activism.) The papers took little interest, and the Annals were collected largely from newspaper reports, so things probably have slipped away.

The bill passes on March 2, 1807, which brings us to our last vote. Only five men vote to keep the trade open. It is actually open at this point, because SC still has it going. They are Silas Betton (NH), Martin Chittenden (VT), James M. Garnett (VA), Abram Trigg (VA), and David R. Williams (SC). No Rhode Islanders but two New Englanders willing to take it to the bitter end and go on record, both Federalists. Chittenden remains the real mystery to me. New Hampshire at least has a coastline. He was born in northwestern Connecticut, but left there when he was thirteen. That’s old enough to have opinions, maybe. He was educated at Dartmouth and may have picked up his position there, but that would be a question for his biographer.


It’s very likely that I’m forgetting some.

The Slaveholding Republic by Don Fehrenbacher on the mechanics of the slave trade and law in particular, but also John Brown.

James, Sydney V. Of Slaves and Rum. Reviews in American History 10.2 (1982): 168-72. Web. A book review that gives some details from The Notorious Triangle, about Rhode Island and the slave trade which I desperately want to read, but is well outside my research budget.

Mason, Matthew E. Slavery Overshadowed: Congress Debates Prohibiting the Atlantic Slave Trade to the United States, 1806-1807. Journal of the Early Republic 20.1 (2000): 59-81. Web for fine-grain details of the votes and debates.

Slavery & Politics in the Early American Republic by Mason was helpful or situating the New England Federalists.

Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification by David Waldstreicher for the Constitutional Convention and Yankee-Carolina alliance.

And a finding aid for the John Brown Papers (PDF) at the Rhode Island Historical Society for more information about Brown and how the Abolition Society operated.

The Persistent Politics of Disenfranchisement

freedmen votesMost people in the country probably know that not all that long ago white Americans had a serious problem with black Americans voting. The laws they passed rarely came out and said that black Americans simply could not vote, but a byzantine system of residency requirements, registration, literacy tests, poll taxes, bans on felons voting (when combined with laws designed to criminalize the mere act of living while black) ensured that as a practical matter the polls remained whites only. The net might not catch every voter, every time, but its everyday work and the tremendous violence backing it did the job well enough. On paper, these laws just coincidentally kept black Americans from voting. In practice, everybody knew exactly what it all meant. We had a white country, thank you very much.

Denying citizens their right to vote, however one wants to rationalize it, hardly makes for an act of love. One doesn’t disenfranchise a people one considers every bit as deserving as one’s own. Restricting the polls to white Americans requires a hatred of black Americans. White supremacy requires, at least in the long run, a healthy share of that hatred. But, as I’ve written before, it takes more than simple malice. The white power crowd does hate, but they don’t hate because some strange distillation of evil trickled into their ears and poisoned their minds. They hate with purpose.

At the end of the Civil War, white Southerners had a problem. The men they had enslaved for centuries now considered themselves deserving of the vote. This offended them on many levels, but ultimately they understood that hardly any freedperson would even think to vote as his former enslavers preferred. What would happen if they all came to exercise the franchise? In South Carolina and Mississippi, the black vote would surely have decided every election. A distinct polity comprising half the population, united through centuries of horrific abuse would win any election they cared to vote in. White southerners, bar those rare sorts willing to adapt and make some kind of common cause with their former property, would turn from the dominant to the dominated. The math demanded it. In other states, black Americans didn’t quite form majorities but did exist in such numbers as to make them a very major constituency.

As a minority very long accustomed to using their unity to exercise decisive influence in national bodies, the enslavers didn’t have to wonder how that would work out for them. A latter-day Haiti might still come to destroy them all, but even should the genocide fail to arrive the exercise of black suffrage would turn their world upside-down. That black men (and in later decades, black women as well) would come to vote constituted a dire affront on just about every possible level. White men, in the South and elsewhere, built their identities around never submitting to the dictates of another. Women and slaves submitted, not the free white male.

Those concerns bear a serious look, but they don’t tell the whole story. Running through it all, we must acknowledge slavery, Jim Crow, and white supremacy as a political system in themselves. Whites might have their parties and contend fiercely every election, but all whites together shared a party organized for the express purpose of depriving all blacks. They might not have understood it in precisely those terms, but it didn’t take twenty-first century historiography to get that by making black Americans into the de facto opposition party, they ensured that if permitted to vote at all black Americans wold rarely vote as the local whites preferred.

This held true in the South after the war. It also held in early nineteenth century New York, which chose to retain property qualifications for black voters even as it removed them for the state’s whites. Their gradual emancipation plan would soon mean a great more many black voters without such restrictions. The Republicans, Jefferson’s party, understood that their functionally proslavery politics and avowed southern orientation held little appeal for such voters. The black New Yorkers who already could vote preferred the Federalists. As such, they must presume any new black voters members of the opposition twice over. Thus white men in general could have suffrage, but no more black men than already did.

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

The same holds true in Wisconsin, where early this month a Republican congressman admitted that the state’s voter identification law aimed not to fix the phantom problem of voter fraud, a practice singularly rare outside of antebellum Kansas, but rather to minimize the number of black Americans voting. They would vote for Democrats, you understand. That just will not do. My own state, just across the lake from Wisconsin, has a similar voter ID law enacted for the same purpose. So do many others.

Looking at this, among many other examples, I don’t know how one can take white supremacy as simply the central theme of Southern history. Much in American history has no more to do with the South than it does any other area of the nation, but I don’t know anything of significance in the national past or present that doesn’t have a great deal to do with white supremacy. When Ulrich Bonnell Phillips argued otherwise (PDF) decades ago, he didn’t cast his net wide enough.

When the arc of our history bends toward injustice

Internal Enemy CoverThe popular account of American history begins with a collection of demigods in powdered wigs. They discourse eloquently on political theory, making timeless arguments that hateful reactionaries scorned. Therefore, they embarked upon a gentlemanly war that ended in triumph. The French might have had something to do with it, but only to show that even the ossified Ancien Regime could see the fundamental justice of the patriot cause. Then passes a brief era of which we speak little, then the Constitution. In George Washington’s blessed administration, some arcane matter involving who rooted for or against the French Revolution animates passions. Alexander Hamilton, the dastard, has something to do with that. The Federalists careen off the rails, setting themselves up as rightful masters and march happily toward authoritarianism. Then Thomas Jefferson saves the nation in 1800. The Federalist assault on civil liberties comes and goes so quickly that it largely serves to demonstrate the (Jeffersonian) Republican Party’s righteousness. The nation has imperfections, but it doesn’t do to think too much on them. Anyway, they all worked themselves out. The United States, born perfect, became more perfect still. We take the march of freedom as our central theme. The arc of our history bends toward justice.

Most people probably know that freedom didn’t rise the same for everybody, even if we don’t care to admit it. Federalist, Democrat, and Whig all did little enough to liberate slaves. It took a second, rather different, set of Republicans to do much in that direction and then only under uniquely dire circumstances. We could add women and Native Americans to the list of people left out in freedom’s march. The usual phrasing, “left out,” implies oversight. No one set out to deny large portions of the human family any deserved spot in the sun. It just happened, ok? We administer our injustices best when we imagine them as a kind of natural phenomena. Nobody sends the wind and rain; you can’t blame someone for them. Nor could you expect some kind of reparation for the damages they inflict.

Failing that, we can rationalize. If a certain group of Americans don’t succeed as well as another, we attribute it to inherent inferiority. We might call it culture these days, but employ essentialist language entirely in keeping with older racial and national theories. In doing so, we transform an accident into someone else’s just do. If we can’t have innocence, then we can claim a kind of just vengeance. We life in a righteous world, which rewards deserving and undeserving with what they have coming.

The language of racial inferiority, like that of injustice as a natural disaster, communicates a fixed state. Whether deliberately or not, white Americans left others out or behind. If our ancestors did wrong, then they didn’t actively make things worse. Students of Indian history would rightly quarrel with that. Most of us probably know that disease killed most Indians, even if recent scholarship demonstrates convincingly otherwise. But Black Americans came here as slaves. They had nowhere to go but up. Surely nothing white Americans could do could make their lives worse than the brute fact of slavery already had. However talented we imagine our national ancestors, even they had limits.

But what if they did? What if the advance of white freedom depended not merely on black deprivation, but on increasingly common and severe deprivations? In reading Alan Taylor’s The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia 1772-1832, I have come on a clear case of just that.

I remember reading in my textbook, lo those many years ago, how the revolution unleashed a wave of freedom across the land. Americans, free from the dead hand of wicked Britain, liberated themselves through revising their constitutions, broadening the franchise, and other innovations. They even manumitted large numbers of slaves. The post-independence emancipations, all the way up to New Jersey’s in 1804, fit neatly into the narrative. If you read my textbook or one like it, you might have seen reference to the abolition of primogeniture and entail as well. Taylor explains how these worked:

Entail and primogeniture mandated that a great landowner pass on a landed estate (including slaves) intact to one heir, usually the first-born son, rather than divide that estate equally among all of the children. Perpetual in the male line, an entail barred any heir of any future generation from subdividing and selling or otherwise devising the property in parts. The owner had to preserve the estate for his eldest son and could not even mortgage it to borrow funds. The lone exception came when a generation had no male heir to inherit; in such cases, the daughters inherited jointly and divided the estate: considered a tragedy by a legal system that cherished the continuity of wealth in the male line. Aristocratic in design, entail and primogeniture sought to preserve a great estate through the generations. During the colonial era, Virginia’s great planters emulated the English aristocracy by entailing three-fourths of the lands in the Tidewater. Very few entails could be broken by later generations without great expense to navigate through a complex legal thicket.

Taylor, Alan (2013-09-09). The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832 (Kindle Location 704). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

If this sounds like a recipe for permanently consolidated wealth and large numbers of well-born, but discontented white men, you have heard correctly. How could a gentleman of expectations get ahead when denied a reasonable share of the patrimony? This meant little to farmers of modest means, but it burned at the well-off. During the revolutionary era, those Virginians campaigned hard for the abolition of such laws as vestiges of the aristocratic past unwelcome in the new, democratic and republican age. White men deserved equality in rights. Entail and primogeniture required inequality. They should set their own course in life, but the laws fixed them to the states determined by their ancestors. They couldn’t sell their estates, or any part, or even take loans against them. How much more backward could one get?

Well off, white Virginians could scarcely expect a worse problem short of a slave revolt or abolition. Of the three fates, they had scarce experience with revolts and none with abolition, but quite a lot with restrictive inheritance laws. In abolishing the two (entail in 1776, primogeniture in 1785) they expected that the division of large estates between many heirs would bring about greater equality for white men and that the freedom to manage estates as one wished would serve as a good in itself. To the disgust of the crustier Virginians, the reformers had it right. Estates did divide. Enslavers had the freedom to manage their property as they saw fit. Freedom marched on.

Those estates, however, included people. So long as entail held, an enslaver could not sell off any slaves he came to by inheritance. Instead he had to keep them together with the rest of his property. This meant that enslaved people, though still subject to most of slavery’s horrors, could expect to remain together with their families and children. The architects of the old system of inheritance didn’t intend that outcome, but it happened all the same. The new market-oriented, white egalitarian freedom meant an end to that:

The reformed inheritance laws promoted a surge in the sale of slaves by owners seeking cash. During the 1780s, 40 percent of slaves advertised in the Virginia press had been sold at least once before in their lives: up from 24 percent during the 1760s. Virginia planters increasingly valued slave children for future sale. Richard Blow assured his son, “I think it useless to raise up families of them for any other purpose but to sell.” Jefferson deemed “a woman who brings a child every two years as more valuable than the best man on the farm. What she produces is an addition to capital, while his labor disappears in mere consumption.”

Taylor, Alan (2013-09-09). The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832 (Kindle Locations 741-746). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

The division of estates broke slave families and rendered those which remained more tenuous. You don’t have to read many slave narratives to recognize that enslaved people felt the loss of loved ones as keenly as anybody else. They often listed it alongside whipping as one of the key horrors of their lives. The end of entails freed enslavers to commence the great forced migration from the Upper South into the Cotton Kingdom which so thoroughly dismembered families in the decades to come.

In addition to that, the new laws simultaneously expand the number of enslaving Virginians. While the number of slaves held in vast estates shrank, giving more white Virginians a direct financial stake in slavery only increased their already strong practical attachment to it. The practice of renting out slaves to others grew as well, further entrenching bondage within the Old Dominion:

After the revolution, the renting of slaves increased as a means for masters to profit from surplus slaves, in contrast to manumitting them, which brought no financial reward. Many widows hired out their inherited slaves to derive an income while avoiding the rigors of supervising and punishing them. Executors of estates also rented out slaves to support orphans until they came of legal age. During the 1790s a farmer could rent a prime male field hand for $ 31 per year, about a tenth of the cost of buying such a slave. And an adult woman cost only about $ 11 per year, compared to $ 200 for a purchase. As renters, common men could acquire slave labor more readily than by purchase. The surge in postwar hiring further spread slaves among the white households of Virginia.

Taylor, Alan (2013-09-09). The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832 (Kindle Locations 757-762). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

The dislocation and disruption of someone else’s life proves a far easier burden to bear than sudden changes to one’s own. When fewer people owned slaves or directly oversaw them, abolition must seem much more possible. The more people own slaves, the more they will object to challenging the system. They had a cultural stake as free white men regardless, and we should not downplay its significance, but adding a material stake to slavery could hardly do other than encourage them to defend bondage more devotedly.

Virginia probably wouldn’t have abolished slavery in the Revolutionary era anyway; it had far more slaves and enslavers than any of the states that did. But by liberalizing its inheritance laws, the Old Dominion both enhanced slavery’s durability and made the lives of a great many of its slaves more insecure and generally worse than they had hitherto endured. The advance of freedom for its fortunate sons came not just on the backs of already mistreated human property, but also through greater abuse still. To grow their freedom required shrinking the already tiny freedom of their slaves.

How Virginia Became Southern

American Slavery, American Freedom

American Slavery, American Freedom

The textbook narrative goes something like this: Roanoke disappeared. Weird, right? But then John Smith comes along and sets up Virginia. The first white Virginians, as good Englishmen, construct a tavern before they get around to a church. Then they commence dying in the swamps. The Indians come in as a footnote, usually just to name them and mention Pocahontas. They don’t really appear as rational actors who might have chosen to permit English settlement as a hedge against Spanish expansion, as such calculations implicitly belong to white people alone, and one doesn’t hear much about how the Englishmen depended on them nigh absolutely for food. That part of the story belongs up in Massachusetts. You might hear how the Englishmen spent much of their time hunting for gold rather than growing corn. Then tobacco came around and everyone skipped happily into the future. A Dutch ship brought some slaves, but let’s not dwell on that. The Middle Passage comes under a separate heading and usually deals with slavery in a matter of fact manner, with the standard picture of a slave ship’s hold and some vague gestures toward all the death.

This narrative tells us where the slaves came from. It might not go into the detail one wants, but you can only ask so much of a textbook. A good teacher can add more. Many do. But this still leaves us with an important lacuna in the account. A list of colonies that practiced slavery at the time of the revolution would include all of them. Yet those colonies, and later states, did not all practice slavery to the same degree. If all had slaves, not all organized their entire economy and society around it. In the standard demarcation, some colonies and then states had slaves. Others had slave societies. Slavery as a specific economic practice came in with the slaves. To develop a slave society one must necessarily have slaves, but enslavement alone doesn’t suffice.

When the Dutch landed their slaves in Virginia, they consequently did not bring with them a social system that took Jamestown by storm. The Englishmen came from a land that had not practice slavery for centuries. While no innocents, they lacked the built-in cultural machinery to at once turn from Englishmen of the early seventeenth century into Virginians of the middle nineteenth. That transformation deserves more attention. My curiosity about it, and the connection between slavery and American ideas of freedom, led me to Edmund Morgan’s classic American Slavery, American Freedom.

John Smith

John Smith

Morgan makes a compelling argument. He paints colonial Virginia as a place with land in abundance and a perpetual shortage of labor. Without labor, one could not grow the tobacco that made some Virginians rich. Contemporary England had the opposite labor situation: too many laborers who ended up wandering the country looking for ways to get ahead. The obvious solution to Virginia’s labor woes came thus from closer to home than Africa’s shores. Many Englishmen, and rather fewer Englishwomen, willingly signed indentures pledging their service for a term of years in exchange for their transport to the new world. Others signed less willingly. All doubtless felt the press of circumstance. They came as unfree labor, but not quite as slaves.

This did not stop the better off Virginians from exploiting them ruthlessly. They could and did beat their indentured servants. While people did vary, an indentured servant could expect a hard life. Their owners could beat them, bilk them out of their dues, and add time to their contracts for real or specious reasons, but eventually an indentured servant who didn’t feed Virginia’s ravenous appetite for European lives would turn free. Thus Virginia, from the perspective of well-off English Virginians, had partially solved England’s labor surplus problem by importing the same problem for themselves.

Contrary to the impression one might have from reading about early Virginia, its English inhabitants proved themselves a particularly industrious people. They needed only find the right work to turn themselves conspicuously productive. When confronted with the risk of competition from their white freedmen, they didn’t shrink, make excuses, or find the toil beneath them. Quite the opposite, the colony’s elites kept the lower orders from turning into peers


by creating an artificial scarcity of land, which drove freemen back into servitude; by extending terms of service; by inflicting severe penalties for killing the hogs that offered easy food without work. They had also through rents and taxes and fees skimmed off as much as they dared of the small man’s small profits for the benefit of burgesses, councillors, and collectors.

Morgan, Edmund S. (2003-10-17). American Slavery, American Freedom (Kindle Locations 6228-6231). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

The lower classes, not appreciating the great exertions undertaken for their sake, seethed with resentment that threatened rebellion. The elites in turn developed a morbid fear of servile insurrection, this time against white servants, which sounds a great deal like that of their descendants. This legitimated systems of control already present, pushing laboring in the Virginia tobacco fields

Men served longer, were subjected to more rigorous punishments, were traded about as commodities already in the 1620s.

Morgan, Edmund S. (2003-10-17). American Slavery, American Freedom (Kindle Location 6243). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

The rebellion would eventually come in a very big way, plunging Virginia into a civil war a century before the Revolution. But that remained ahead of Virginia for the time. We might ask why the Virginians, already possessed of a pipeline of white labor to meet their needs, did not simply solve the problems with indentured servitude by converting it into proper slavery. Though not the products of a slave society, they knew about slavery well enough. They knew it as the means Spain used to mine New World gold and silver. They knew it as a thing inflicted upon them, and other Europeans, by Barbary pirates. As late as the 1850s, proslavery theorists considered the merits of enslaving poor whites alongside blacks. Surely with racial categories not nearly so firm in the seventeenth century, and to the degree they had firmed up more concerned with the exclusion of Indians from the moral community, that solution would have occurred to someone.

Morgan suggests that the Virginians already had too many unhappy indentured servants and marginalized freedmen for such an experiment. What they did do fueled the largest rebellion in North America prior to the 1770s, Bacon’s Rebellion. The labor force on hand rose up against a regime that, while undeniably harsh, fell still short of enslavement. They might have done worse, and sooner, if the Virginia planters dared try. Furthermore, any such plan would have to proceed slowly so as to avoid an immediate revolt and would likely end the flow of labor from Europe. You could plausibly lie and tell a person signing an indenture that he or she would do well in the end, but few sign up for slavery under any circumstances. Even if one could manage all of that, instituting slavery would surely invite the government in London to intervene in the interests of preserving its tobacco-taxing enterprise against a feared exodus from the colony.

All of this raises another question. Why, if indentures presented so much difficulty, did the colony persist with them for so long? The colony could dodge any issue with transition to slavery by simply buying the already enslaved. Some already lived among them. Why not more and sooner?

The answer lies in the fact that slave labor, in spite of its seeming superiority, was actually not as advantageous as indentured labor during the first half of the century. Because of the high mortality among immigrants to Virginia, there could be no great advantage in owning a man for a lifetime rather than a period of years, especially since a slave cost roughly twice as much as an indentured servant.

Morgan, Edmund S. (2003-10-17). American Slavery, American Freedom (Kindle Locations 6263-6266). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

A slave cost more upfront, and might die anyway. An indentured laborer cost less and if he or she died, then the planter might well come out ahead as the dead collect no freedom dues and rarely see fit to compete with the living. With the odds in favor of death likely better than even, a slave seems the poorer investment. Certainly a dearth of available slaves didn’t keep the system from taking root. The Dutch delivered their first in 1619. They continued to provide enslaved people to the British West Indies and they came to Virginia to buy tobacco anyway. A supply and a route to bring the demanded lives to their buyers already existed. Indeed, if any essential Englishness conspired against the wholesale adoption of slavery, then we must conclude that the Barbadians tobacco and later sugar magnates of the same era misplaced their nationality somewhere in the Atlantic.

Morgan suggests that Virginia began its transition in part thanks to the supply of indentured servants drying up. Bacon’s Rebellion, on top of Virginia’s already deadly reputation, can’t have helped. A colony amid people imagined as savage, across the sea, already appealed largely to the desperate. A colony with all of that, where Englishmen warred with one another must have seemed still less promising. More pressingly, things seem to have improved back home. However, Morgan doesn’t think this the decisive issue. Rather he points to Virginia finally consuming enough English lives to go on a diet. With servants living longer and dying before the end of their term less frequently, the economics changed.

The point at which it became more advantageous for Virginians to buy slaves was probably reached by 1660. In that year the assembly offered exemption from local duties to Dutch ships bringing Negroes.

Morgan, Edmund S. (2003-10-17). American Slavery, American Freedom (Kindle Locations 6294-6295). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

That suggests that the colony’s government understood slavery as the future. One exempts from taxation those practices one wishes to encourage, not those one abjures or greets with indifference. But then Parliament stuck its nose in and forbade trading with the Dutch. A century later, aggrieved Americans would list such Navigation Acts as among the reasons that justified their rebellion. In the short term, Morgan reasons that the law slowed the change to slavery. Certainly the planters, both in the West Indies and Virginia, complained that it kept from them the slaves they needed.

The Indies and Virginia soon found themselves in stiff competition for the slaves that did come. Barbados, Jamaica, and the other British possessions could promise greater profits and have its slaves for less, thanks to its proximity to Africa, than Virginia. Most of the slaves consequently went their way. However, the profits from sugar declined and the tobacco planters realized a different advantage: their slaves lived longer.  Morgan has the numbers:

The slaves on Barbados plantations had to be replaced at the rate of about 6 percent a year. 18 It is estimated that between 1640 and 1700 264,000 slaves were imported into the British West Indies. The total black population in 1700 was about 100,000.19 In the next century, between 1712 and 1762 the importation of 150,000 slaves increased the Barbados black population by only 28,000.20 By contrast, while Virginia imported roughly 45,000 slaves between 1700 and 1750 (figures from the seventeenth century are sporadic), the black population increased from perhaps 8,000 or 10,000 to over 100,000.21 In Virginia not only had the rate of mortality from disease gone down, but the less strenuous work of cultivating tobacco, as opposed to sugar, enabled slaves to retain their health and multiply. To make a profit, sugar planters worked their slaves to death; tobacco planters did not have to.

Morgan, Edmund S. (2003-10-17). American Slavery, American Freedom (Kindle Locations 6317-6325). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

With the price of sugar going down and that of tobacco largely stable in the last half of the seventeenth century, economics pointed not only to Virginians investing in slavery on their own, but also more slaves coming their way. Aside from tobacco, Virginians could also by this point feed themselves. It made more economic sense in Barbados to import food than to surrender valuable sugar land to its cultivation, much of which would come from Virginia. For a brief period, the ships turning up in Barbados to feed the island even returned to Virginia with Barbadian slaves in their holds. White Barbadians, hedged out by the island’s development, found their way to Virginia and, later, founded South Carolina.

Historians might argue forever over just when Virginia turned from a society with slaves into a slave society. As with any process, one can make reasonable arguments for any point as the decisive one. I know that subsequent scholars have added nuances and qualifications to Morgan’s thesis. But as a whole it seems to hold together quite well for an argument forty years old. Once the process of conversion began, nothing could do much more than delay it.

It doesn’t follow, of course, that this means we should just shrug it all off as something that no one could help. People responding to economic incentives make choices just as much as those responding to political incentives. If we understand them as making conscious choices in who they vote for, then we should do the same and give them the credit, and kind of credit, they deserve for arranging their labor system. People, not blind pitiless laws of physics, chose slavery. That they did it in response to economics does not diminish that choice. They looked at their world with the same faculties, if not all the same knowledge, as we do. They used their minds and reasoned their ways to a solution just as we might. If they had some enlightened feelings that they set aside in the face of “necessity” or a businessman’s practicality, then I don’t think it necessary point to the many of the ways we do the same. These things don’t just happen; people make them happen, even if they pretend otherwise now and again.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

These calculations bore fruit, decades after the colony transformed itself from the home of incidental, if still suffering, slaves into a slaveholding civilization, in a Virginia where

George Washington […] grieved that “the once happy and peaceful plains of America are either to be drenched with Blood, or inhabited by Slaves.” It was, he thought, a sad alternative. But, he asked, “Can a virtuous Man hesitate in his choice?” Washington led his countrymen in arms, while another Virginian led them in a Declaration of Independence that founded the American republic. The starting point of that document, the premise on which it rested, was that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. At the time when Thomas Jefferson wrote those words, he was personally depriving nearly two hundred men, women, and children of their liberty. When he died, on the fiftieth anniversary of his great Declaration, he still owned slaves, probably more than two hundred. When Washington faced his sad alternative, the happy and peaceful plains of Virginia had been inhabited by slaves for more than a century, and 135 of them belonged to him. When he died, he was master of 277.

Morgan, Edmund S. (2003-10-17). American Slavery, American Freedom (Kindle Locations 120-128). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

Horseshoes, History, and Violence

Gentle Readers, if you spend any length of time arguing about politics you will soon encounter the horseshoe theory. This notion holds that ideological extremes, despite their ostensible opposition, tend to blur together. Thus a left-right spectrum actually bends along another dimension and we should understand all of those horrid radicals as essentially equivalent: violent, dogmatic, and authoritarian. This has the appeal of making the speaker, always situated at the horseshoe’s peak, into a font of sensible moderation. Neither political scientists nor political philosophers take the horseshoe very seriously, as they have committed the grievous sin from which the it grants salvation: Actually reading and thinking about politics.

Horseshoe theory came to mind this week when I thought, briefly, about Thomas Fleming’s catalog of errors. Fleming holds that abolitionists and proslavery Americans had one another caught in a vicious cycle of mutual alienation and states-raising that eventually led to the Civil War. In doing so, he largely follows the outlines of blundering generation and needless war historiography in vogue at about the time of his birth. These scholars, like Fleming, put on a show of blaming both sides for what they consider a tragic and hysteria-fueled war of choice. In practice, however, they reliably cast the abolitionists as the true villains of the piece. Fleming would have us believe that white Southerners practically begged for abolition, but stumbled into a war due to vicious abolitionist onslaughts.

Setting aside for a moment the outright falsity of Fleming’s suggestion, purely for the sake of argument, the thesis of mutually reinforcing radicalisms has a lot of horseshoe in it. It assumes that a virtuous, non-violent, tolerant center exists. This might sound like a simple, common sense proposition. In the real world things work out rather differently. Extremists, for whatever limited value that category has, do sometimes engage in violence and authoritarianism. But so do moderates. Not all moderates do so, but then not all extremists do either.

That all sounds very abstract, so let’s get some nineteenth century on the case. A moderate, in Fleming’s view and the view of an assortment of early twentieth century historians, does not have a strong opinion one way or the other on slavery. He, or rarely she, lives in a country where slavery exists. Enslavers might not ply their trade just outside the door, but the moderate knows and accepts that they do it somewhere within a polity of which the moderate considers himself or herself a part. The moderate lacks decades of forgetting to obscure the reality of enslavement:

As Frederick Law Olmstead described “the severest corporeal punishment I witnessed at the South, “a slave girl named Sall was ordered to pull up her clothes and lie on her back, private parts exposed. The overseer flogged her “with the rawhide, across her naked loins and thighs.” Sall “shrunk away from him, not rising, but writhing, groveling, and screaming, “‘Oh don’t sir! Oh plerase stop, master! please sir! oh, that’s enough master! oh Lord! oh master, master, of God, master, do stop! oh God, master, oh God, master!”

After “strokes had ceased” and “choking, sobbing, spasmodic groans only were heard, “Olmstead asked if it was “necessary to punish her so severely.’ … ‘O yes sir,” answered the lasher, laughing at the Yankee’s innocence. Northerners ‘have no idea how lazy these niggers are …” They’d never do any work at all if they were not afraid of being whipped.”

The moderate might dismiss the writings of abolitionists on the point. The moderate might even do so while engaged as a member of a mob attacking an abolitionist troublemaker of some sort. But the moderate could look at the writings of the enslavers and see much the same sort of thing. They made no bones about all the whipping they did as a “necessary” part of managing their human property. Nor could they, as it constituted such a normal, everyday part of life in the slave states. If you didn’t care to whip your slaves yourself, you could pay someone else to do the job. You could contract with the local constabulary for the task, or employ an overseer.

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

Robert E. Lee

One especially famous enslaver did the both in turn, a fact remembered very well by one of his chattels, Wesley Norris. Norris, his sister, and their cousin had run away, believing the famous man who inherited them had no right to their lives. Their prior owner, they thought, promised them freedom on his death. With the new boss proved less than forthcoming with it, they stole themselves. They got into Maryland before recapture

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

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

The General Lee who owned Norris went on just a few years later to his fame, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia in the Slaveholder’s Insurrection. A moderate of the time wouldn’t have read Norris either, not in the least because his account didn’t reach publication until 1866, but one would have to work very hard to miss that things like this went on in the South every day. Nor, when pressed, did enslavers even deny sexual exploitation. Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow considered the rape of enslaved women a praiseworthy feature of the system:

Negro slavery has a further effect on the character of the white woman, which should commend the institution to all who love the white race more than they do the negro. It is a shield to the virtue of the white woman.

So long as man is lewd, woman will be his victim. Those who are forced to occupy a menial position have ever been, will ever be most tempted, least protected: this is one of the evils of slavery; it attends all who are in that abject condition from the beautiful Circassian to the sable daughter of Africa. While we admit the selfishness of the sentiment, we are free to declare, we love the white woman so much, we would save her even at the sacrifice of the negro: would throw around her every shield, keep her out of the way of temptation.

While moderates might not think much of these things, they happened all the same. Whatever its cause, violence leaves broken bodies and lives just the same. The strokes of the lash do not turn into a lover’s kiss any more than bullets become a warm caress because their issuers deem the cause noble. Even misunderstandings and accidents, where human agency plays a confused role or none at all, grant no such considerations.

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

Yet the moderate, who protests the violence of the extremes to the point of imagining them as identical and treats violence as the characteristic in particular for which extremists deserve condemnation, has at best nothing to say about the precise violence that happens every day. More often, the moderate exerted, and in many cases still exerts, great effort to legitimate just that violence. The moderate argument against violent extremism comes down not to a principled stand against violence, nor even to a conviction that it ought to be minimized. Rather the moderate wants violence to continue along exactly as it has, afflicting those it has, likely in perpetuity.

I raise this issue in part because one hears horseshoe arguments so frequently, but also to make this point: The war only began at Sumter if only believes that army-scale intersectional violence between whites counts as violence. If we omit consideration of scale, then white Americans attacked one another in clashes either over slavery or deeply involved with it on at least a steady basis back through 1855. If we omit the intersectional qualification, then we find that Southern whites violently policed dissent against slavery going back decades before. If we remove the word “white” and admit lives are lives, bodies bodies, and violence violence, then we have a longer war yet. It might not have proceeded in every era at a fever pitch, but the war of those Americans and English colonists before them upon those they deemed black stretches back through the whole history of slavery in Anglophone North America. From that perspective, we must accept the Civil War as a true revolution. For four years, the violent energies of white Americans so eagerly directed, often with pride, at black Americans found themselves wrenched from their customary frame and applied elsewhere.

I can’t know the hearts of Thomas Fleming or the historians that preceded them, but in looking at a fuller picture than they offer I find it hard to resist the conclusion that their objection to the war lies chiefly in that temporary departure from our most ancient customs. With the possible exception of Avery Craven, who I understand held generally to pacifism, they don’t mind the violence. They mind that white people suffered it.