The Fugitive Slave Stamp Act: Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 13

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12; full speech

Charles Sumner hammered on the right to trial by jury at length, which let him with just under twenty pages to go. Some hours into his oration now, he must have caught the mood of the room (“I am admonished to hasten on.”) as he demurred to say more on the jury question despite having “much more I might say”. He then excoriated the Stamp Act, which Sumner deemed offensive to the British Constitution on the grounds of parliamentary usurpation of powers and second…for denying trial by jury. Then Sumner held to his word and focused on popular resistance instead of harping further on the theme.

The public feeling was variously expressed. At Boston, on the arrival of the stamps, the shops were closed, the bells of the churches tolled, and the flags of the ships hung at half-mast. At Portsmouth, in New Hampshire, the bells were tolled, and notice given to the friends of Liberty to hold themselves in readiness to attend her funeral. […] Bodies of patriots were organized everywhere under the name of “Sons of Liberty.”

Sumner obviously had other patriot bodies in mind in referencing the Sons of Liberty. Much of the white portion of the underground railroad operated in semi-public, even publishing reports with the number of people they helped and money raised. No one would have missed the allusion. How far the mighty had fallen, from when Virginia led the fight for freedom:

The unconstitutional Stamp Act has been welcomed in the Colonies by the Tories of that day precisely as the unconstitutional Slave Act has been welcomed by large and imperious numbers.

Then Sumner chronicled the eminent men of the day who favored the Stamp Act. Yet the aroused ire of the community would not yield before those luminaries then any more than it would yield now. So long as a free community existed where white men could debate their views, Sumner believed injustice could not long endure. Massachusetts had such a community. The South did not, but rather drove anyone who preached antislavery from its bounds except in the most marginal slave states. By Southerners’ own admission, their slavery could not endure a free and forthright exchange of ideas. Dissent among whites may spread; dissent among slaves themselves surely would and an insurrection could only ensue when those unfortunates discovered, somehow, that they disliked the regime that stole their lives, destroyed their families, beat and raped them.

If public indignation could make the Stamp Act a dead letter, then it could do the same for the Fugitive Slave Act. The men of the North, the compromising Daniel Webster sort aside, would no more submit than Americans would bow to Parliament. Quoting Franklin’s testimony to that body on the earlier subject, Sumner spoke for the people of his North:

“We are told America is obstinate-America is almost in open rebellion. Sir, I rejoice that America has resisted. Three millions of people so dead to all the feelings of liberty, as voluntarily to submit to be slaves, would have been fit instruments to make slaves of all the rest. The Americans have been wronged; they have been driven to madness. I will beg leave to tell the House in a few words that is really my opinion. It is that the Stamp Act should be repealed, absolutely, totally, and immediately.” It was repealed.


The Fugitive Slave Clause Debated and Disregarded: Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 7

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6; full speech

Charles Sumner made his case to the Senate that the Fugitive Slave Clause did not constitute a vital compromise on which the framers hung the American Union. It came into the Constitution as an afterthought, toward the end of business in Philadelphia. No one had previously demanded the provision and South Carolina first advanced it as an annex to the provision for the return of fugitive criminals. Afterthought or not, the language did not go unmarked in Independence Hall. Sumner reminded the Senate that

the very boldness of the effort drew attention and opposition. Mr. Wilson, of Pennsylvania, at once objected: “This would oblige the Executive of the State to do it at the public expense.” Mr. Sherman, of Connecticut, “saw no more propriety in the public seizing and surrendering a slave or servant, than a horse.”

Sherman’s argument may not sound like one opposed to the Fugitive Slave Clause, but keep in mind that the common law right to recover strayed livestock fell on the owner. One didn’t, at least absent a dispute, involve the courts or constabulary to get back a horse. With Sherman’s and Wilson’s objections before them, the Fugitive Slave Clause’s advocates let it drop for a day. It came up again on the morrow as a measure against “fugitives from service or labor” rather than “fugitive slaves” and the addition passed with unanimously without debate.

The latter fact didn’t comport well with Sumner’s argument on the clause’s contentious, marginal nature so he moved quickly from it to a discussion of ratification. There he acknowledged that Southern federalists had used the clause as part of the sales pitch for the Constitution but pointed to debate on the point:

In the Virginia Convention, an eminent character, Mr. George Mason, with others, expressly declared that there was “no security of property coming with this section.”

Should that not settle things, he referred the Senate to the Federalist’s discussion of national powers geared toward “harmony and proper intercourse,” which omitted the clause as one of them. That indifference, began at Philadelphia, continued through the first Fugitive Slave Act in 1793. Sumner argued that the law considered fugitive slaves only an an adjunct to fugitive criminals, which doesn’t quite match the circumstances. Resistance to the rendition of fugitive slaves from Pennsylvania directly led to the passage of the act. For that matter, Southerners sought many of the draconian provisions then that they would finally achieve in 1850.

Returning to facts, Sumner argued that few fugitives ended up back in slavery under the 1793 law. He rightly noted that even then, northern opinion leaned toward the self-stolen slave to the point that in Boston

the crowd about the magistrate, at the examination, quietly and spontaneously opened a way for the fugitive, and thus the Act failed to be executed.

A Vermont judge did one better, looking at documents proving ownership and deciding to only sanction rendition if “the master could show a Bill of Sale from the Almighty.” In the face of such obstruction of so vital a right, Southerners twice before 1850 tried for a better law and both times failed to get one through Congress. Sumner brought them up entirely to note those debates as the first time that the South chose to view the Fugitive Slave Clause as a vital part of the Union.


E Pluribus Unum for White Supremacists

Americans teach our children to admire the country as a place where people of diverse origins can come together. By diverse, we have usually meant the right parts of Europe and believing in the right religion. Just how large a circle that draws varies over time. My surname ends in a vowel, which a few decades back put me into the wrong group. My grandfather grew up in an ethnic ghetto, which they had even in small towns. The Polish people lived on this side of the river, while everyone else lived on the other. They spoke Polish at home and learned English elsewhere. In school two generations later, we always knew the teachers not from the area by how they stumbled over our surnames. By then, everyone else could get at least close to however we chose to render the weird piles of consonants that made sense to our grandparents but we added to the difficulty with inconsistently modifying the pronunciations to fit English spelling conventions. Many Americans have similar stories. Make the number of generations removed from immigration into a variable and you can take in most of us. We become Americans, Americans become us, and the national myth rolls along.

We make exceptions, of course. Native Americans and African-Americans can live in the country for centuries longer than any of our ancestors and remain outsiders, at best contingently human. Part of becoming American, for the rest of us, usually means we join in afflicting them with special zeal. At some point, the unstated logic goes, one has to get on board with the national creed. Irish Americans learned it in the nineteenth century, understanding free black Americans in the North as an existential threat to their jobs. In those days, immigrants worried that the native-born would steal their work. But we muddle through, injustice by injustice, atrocity by atrocity, smiling and linking arms as we go about the national project of making North America a white person’s paradise. To do otherwise would mark us as foreign, like those adults who refuse, in their perfidy, to make the trifling effort to pick up English as a second language. E pluribus unum or else.

For decades now, Americans have understood Nazis as the antithesis of all things American. We have made them into our ultimate symbol of evil. Anything we dislike, we consider something the Nazis did or would have done. Any leader we loathe, we compare with Hitler. We may use other comparisons too, but when only the big guns will do we go with the Third Reich. Some malevolent fools might try it, but no real American could go Nazi. We have no place for such vile individuals.

E pluribus unum, America has worked its magic again.

Charlottesville, Virginia, has a statue of Robert E. Lee. For some time now, many have thought it past time to get rid of the thing because honoring a traitor who fought a nation built on white supremacy and slavery in order to make a new nation still more thoroughly built upon them should not continue. The proposed removal drew protests and, quelle suprise, the Nazis showed up. They came bearing torches, in the hallowed tradition of their German and American heroes. It seems they took a pass on wearing their sheets or brown shirts, but other than that they marched straight out of central casting. They had things to say too, which showed that they had done their homework:

The protesters chanted, “You will not replace us” and “Blood and soil.”

Richard Spencer, the Trump-heiling unwitting star of this reenactment of Captain America’s first appearance, couldn’t stay away from the fun. All his friends turned out., after all.

Back in the day, American white supremacists thought little of Nazis. The United States had its own ways to hate and for the most part didn’t need tips from foreigners who copied off our paper when it came to racial laws. No one likes a cheater. So we should put this one down on our calendars. Americans who hate like the Klan and the Confederacy come together with Americans who hate like the Nazis, all basking in their magnificent whiteness. When the Klan, our homegrown fascist movement, rode around with torches everyone knew the purpose. Men in sheets didn’t scare anyone much past the age of ten, but men in sheets who would murder you for the color of your skin made an impression. Here too the protesters did their homework.

Other Americans condemned them, as we do. The men who want to serve as Virginia’s next governor joined in, even from the more eagerly white supremacist of the two parties. Spencer and the others probably expected as much. They understand Donald Trump as one of their own even if he makes feeble gestures otherwise now and then to maintain plausible deniability. One candidate, Democrat Tom Perriello asked them to get their hate out of his hometown. Spencer answered back on that they won and he lost. Perriello responded:

I’ll not argue otherwise, though the Richard Spencers of the world have won often enough since 1865. They know their history well enough to know that. I bet Perriello does too, but it doesn’t do for a candidate to admit such things. They also both know that most of the Virginia governor hopefuls condemned Spencer, but one did not. Corey Stewart, former head of Donald Trump’s Virginia campaign, seeks the Republican nomination and has made the Lee statue a large part of his campaign. He wants it to stay. Yesterday, he managed to tweet out a Mother’s Day message but not to comment on Spencer or the protest. I have no doubt Spencer and company will cherish the memory of that fact. The rest of us must simply live with the fact that a man who expects to run for statewide office in the America of 2017 doesn’t see a need to distance himself from a Nazi torch mob. Some of us will probably die from it too.

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.

The First Congress and the First Slavery Debate

Josiah Parker

Josiah Parker

The Atlantic slave trade usually comes up in American history as a footnote. The slaves came from Africa in miserable conditions. The trade fell into such disrepute that the Founding Fathers prohibited it in the nation’s infancy. The story ends there, though you may hear occasional references to either smugglers continuing the trade or the late antebellum movement to reopen it. As with just about everything, a sea of complications churns just beneath the surface. We neglect them as surplus detail in larger narratives. The action takes places largely away from the United States and before we conventionally begin the story of sectional strife, in an era where we imagine a national consensus against slavery. The story, while not entirely a litany of American sins, frequently demonstrates more national resolution to protect slavery than restrain it.

The Constitution provides that

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.

On the face of it this allows Congress to ban the Atlantic slave trade, and any other international trade in people, beginning in 1808. Already we have a problem for a perfectly celebratory history of the United States, as the law does not require such action. The Congress could decline to act and so leave the trade open in perpetuity. It also must permit the importation of slaves until 1808. In that function, the slave trade clause serves as one of the most proslavery passages in the document. Here we have slavery not tolerated or helped indirectly, such as by the apportionment of the Senate or the 3/5 Clause, nor explicitly preserved where it exists and obligating free states to aid in the institution’s preservation as in the Fugitive Slave Clause. Here the Constitution essentially declares an absolute right to import slaves into the United States for a term of no less than twenty years. South Carolina insisted.

That didn’t mean, however, that states could not prohibit the trade. All of them had during the Revolution and most continued to do so. South Carolina opted to reopen its trade in 1803, to considerable national controversy. Before them, Georgia (until 1798) and North Carolina (1790-4) did the same to less outcry. This human cargo might have reached ten thousand per year and dramatically facilitated the spread of plantation agriculture in Georgia and upcountry South Carolina, and reached further into the emerging Cotton Kingdom. Many enslaved people first taken in Charleston ended up in New Orleans.

This all still tells only part of the story. States could, if they so wished, import slaves for a minimum of twenty years. But the federal government had the explicit power to tax those imports at up to ten dollars a person. On Marcy 13, 1789, thirteen days after George Washington took his oath of office, a another Virginian war veteran, Josiah Parker, started the first argument over slavery in the new Congress. Parker presented his plan in an amendment to a tariff. It went simply enough: if Congress had the power to tax slave imports, it ought to do so to the maximum amount allowed. He explained, according to the Annals of Congress:

He was sorry that the constitution prevented Congress from prohibiting the importation altogether; he thought it a defect in that instrument that it allowed of such a practice; it was contrary to the Revolution principles, and ought not to be permitted; but as he could not do all the good he desired, he was willing to do what lay in his power. He hoped such a duty as he moved for would prevent, in some degree, this irrational and inhuman traffic

Parker gathered opposition from both sections. Connecticut’s Roger Sherman, one of the principals behind the Connecticut Compromise that gave us the familiar bicameral congress, declared his support in principle but

could not reconcile himself to the insertion of human beings as an article of duty, among goods, wares, and merchandise.

Others followed Sherman, either for his reasons or otherwise convinced that Parker proposed making a tariff bill into a slavery bill and so ought to instead introduce the matter on its own. James Jackson of Georgia, went further. Of course a Virginian wanted to curb the slave trade. As “an old settled State,” they had slaves to spare. Indeed, the Old Dominion proved

so careless of recruiting her numbers by this means; the natural increase of her imported blacks was sufficient for their purpose

James Jackson

James Jackson

But Georgia, established in the eighteenth century and still very much a frontier, lacked such advantages. Thus, Jackson

thought the gentleman ought to let their neighbors get supplied, before they imposed such a burthen upon the importation.

Jackson also went positively late antebellum in arguing that enslaving Africans improved their condition and free blacks, lazy by nature, because not solid members of the community so much as “common pickpockets, petty larceny villains”. If emancipation really worked so well, why hadn’t Parker’s Virginia tried it? After having thoroughly done so, Jackson insisted

He would say nothing of the partiality of such a tax; it was admitted by the avowed friends of the measure; Georgia, in particular, would be oppressed. On this account, it would be the most odious tax Congress could impose.

Most odious or not, inserting Parker’s tax into the general tariff bill proved a deal breaker. He withdrew the amendment and, as requested, put forward a separate bill. Four months later, the House opted to postpone consideration of it until the next session. Parker’s idea would come back in the future, but never became law.

The State of the Union in 1855: A History of Aggressions

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

We left Franklin Pierce declaring that everything in the United States had gone perfectly well until those dirty abolitionists stirred up sectional discord by breaking faith with the constitutional compact. They had responsibilities to return slaves who dared steal themselves. They organized to disrupt slavery in the South. They replaced sectional comity with meddling impositions. Had such a thing happened between two nations, they would have already come to blows. By contrast, the South behaved in an exemplary fashion, its traditional constitutional scruples intact.

In putting the entire burden of sectional strife on the North, Pierce knew he went against many of his fellow Yankees. They could point to sectional aggression from the slave states going back down the entire history of the Republic. Having chosen antislavery Americans as his debating partners, Pierce took them on all down the line:

the States which either promote or tolerate attacks on the rights of persons and of property in other States, to disguise their own injustice, pretend or imagine, and constantly aver, that they, whose constitutional rights are thus systematically assailed, are themselves the aggressors. At the present time this imputed aggression, resting, as it does, only in the vague declamatory charges of political agitators, resolves itself into misapprehension, or misinterpretation, of the principles and facts of the political organization of the new Territories of the United States.

The president wouldn’t quite say that antislavery Americans lied their way through politics, any more than he would call out William Walker by name, but he made his meaning clear. To prove the point, he turned to “the voice of history.” All the way back to the Northwest Ordinance, Pierce averred, the South had yielded to the North. Virginia gave up “that vast territory,” now five of the larger states, to freedom. That a large territory south of the Ohio river remained enslaved did not enter into it. Nor did the conflicting claims of various other Connecticut and Massachusetts, decidedly not southern states, deserve consideration. This would have come as a surprise to the people of Connecticut, who maintained their ownership of a section of modern Ohio until 1800. Neither of the two northern states claimed the whole of the future Northwest Territory, but together their claims covered a large portion of it. If Virginia yielded up her territory, then they did no less.

Pierce then moved to Louisiana, insisting that the entire nation gained from it. The abolitionists needed only look at a map to see that the Louisiana Purchase narrowed down to almost nothing on its southern end, but widened dramatically as one steamed up the Mississippi. Furthermore, securing New Orleans ensured the commercial health of the Northwest. Thomas Jefferson bought the land for that express purpose. Pierce has a point here, but even he acknowledges that in terms of development, the Purchase skewed heavily southern.

No map could save the acquisition of Florida; you can’t get much more southern than the Sunshine State. Pierce justified it as a land swap. The United States surrendered claims to territory west of the Mississippi in exchange for it. In doing so, the Union secured its coastal commerce and security. Both sections won, even if Florida clearly would do no other than join the South.

This brought events up to the Missouri Controversy, which Pierce cast as more antislavery imperialism. The Northwest Ordinance had prohibited slavery, but it did not apply to the Louisiana Purchase. According to Pierce, the letter of the law permitted slavery west of the Mississippi all the way up to Canada. The North would not accept that and “the zeal of social propagandism” demanded concessions from the poor South. As such, the slave states nobly accepted a new slavery ban extending to states that did not then yet exist in exchange for retaining slavery in Missouri and Arkansas. The free states received that sacrifice on their behalf

with angry and resentful condemnation and complaint, because it did not concede all which they had exactingly demanded.

On paper, the North might look like a sore winner back in the 1820s. While the section lost Missouri, it gained almost the whole remainder of the Louisiana Purchase. But that additional territory failed to rush into the Union. Lands so empty,and so long remaining empty, of white settlement amounted to a meager victory indeed. Pierce rightly noted that antislavery Americans took the Missouri Compromise as a defeat. This all made for some deep irony when free soilers a generation so cherished the settlement, but they had that same generation to live with it and faced more radical proslavery advances than their fathers had. In 1819-20, the slave power demanded slavery remain where it already existed. In the 1850s, it spread slavery to places where the law had banned the institution.

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.

Donald Trump has a past

Klan for AmericansGentle Readers, by now you must all know about Donald Trump and the Ku Klux Klan. Trump, frontrunner for the Republican party’s presidential nomination, has the endorsement of the nation’s most famous Klansman, David Duke. Duke infamously ran for Governor of Louisiana back in the early Nineties. Had only whites voted, he would have won. The Grand Wizard joins a veritable klavern of white supremacists on Team Trump. Many politicians court that kind of endorsement, if not necessarily as many words, but few appreciate having the fact noticed. The United States magically ended racism in 2008, 1965, 1865, or some other past date. Failing that, racism didn’t really hurt anyone, or racists’ victims had it coming. White innocence runs from cradle to someone else’s grave. Sunday last, CNN confronted Trump about the endorsement.

The Donald claimed the birthright of every white American and declared that he knew nothing about David Duke or the Ku Klux Klan. The CNN anchor pressed him first on white supremacist groups in general. Trump pleaded ignorance. Even when narrowed down to the Klan, who Trump mentions by name, he dodged the question. I mention this because Trump later complained that he couldn’t hear the anchor. He did very well at naming names for a guy who couldn’t make out the other half of the conversation. In the course of all that, he claimed he needed to research the groups.

Let’s play the sucker for a moment and pretend that Donald Trump needs an education about the Ku Klux Klan. Back in 1872, the Congress published a thirteen-volume report on the work of the Klan and its allies. I must confess that I have not read all, nor even a fair portion of it. I didn’t know it existed until Joshua Rothman tweeted about it. In the course of writing this post, I’ll read more of the report than anybody in the Trump campaign ever will. Should you like to join me in this distinction, you’ve made it if you can get through the title.

After the usual preliminaries, the committee got down to business:

The proceedings and debates in Congress show that, whatever other causes were assigned for disorders in the late insurrectionary States, the execution of the laws and the security of life and property were alleged to be most seriously threatened by the existence and acts of organized bands of armed and disguised men, known as Ku-Klux.

CNN meant the descendants of these people, Donald. One might ask from whence such bands came. The committee found, based on testimony from officers of the United States military

that secret organizations were formed in the insurrectionary States soon after the close of the war, hostile to, and intended to embarrass the Government of the United States and of the States in proper administration of the affairs of the country.

George H. Thomas, son of Virginian planters disowned for his Unionism.

George H. Thomas

The witnesses here included George Gordon Meade and George Thomas, generals both. Thomas, if we believe the traditional story about Robert Lee, had the superpower of political alignment independent of his native state. Some white Virginians could think for themselves after all. Who knew?

Having lost their war to save slavery, the secret organizations latched on to other grievances. According to Nathan Bedford Forrest,

There was a great deal of insecurity felt by the southern people. […] The negroes were holding night meetings; were going about; were becoming very insolent; and the southern people all over the State were very much alarmed. […] Ladies were ravished by some of these negroes

The wanton, roving rapist of minority extraction ought to sound familiar. If he has ever left the American mind fully, I don’t know it. He had a starring turn just last summer:

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

Dylann Roof said those words just before he opened fire at the African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Roof committed his murders, assassinations really, on June 17. On June 16, the day before Roof walked into that church, Donald Trump announced his presidential campaign. He had to run, you understand, because America had problems he could fix. Among those problems:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.

Trump can, and belatedly did, disavow the Klan. You don’t do these things right in the moment, or the Klan might think you mean them.  Should Trump really want to disavow the Klan and its allied white supremacists, he must begin with something far harder than statements to the media. He must commence with looking in the mirror and denouncing himself. I doubt that Trump would have a formal affiliation to a white power group, or that he would admit to one if he did. He probably doesn’t pay them dues. -He doesn’t even pay into his own charity these days.- But it scarcely takes a sartorial fondness for bedsheets and conical headgear to make you the Klan candidate. Trump, for all his pretense to the contrary, has what it really takes.

The Klan knows it. I don’t know how many Americans have voted for Donald Trump yet, but I doubt they’re all fools. They know the score. We ought to consider that before congratulating ourselves on the waning of white supremacy. Neither law of nature nor moral arc of history, however long, ensures that it will continue to wane. It may have a comeback in mind, as it has before. Trump might not win the nomination, though that seems unlikely now. He might lose in November. Win or lose, his supporters will not courteously evaporate. If any had forgotten, Donald Trump reminded a generation of politicians and aspirant politicians that you could ride brutish white supremacy to fame and considerable success. They will not soon forget. Expect them for as long as people who imagine themselves white understand that they can steal blood and treasure from people they deem black. They’ve won elections on that platform before, and not just in the nineteenth century.

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.

Thomas Fleming’s Theory of Slavery

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

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

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Anthony Johnson's mark (via Wikipedia)

Anthony Johnson’s mark
(via Wikipedia)

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

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