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.

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Thomas Fleming’s Theory of Slavery

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

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

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

Anthony Johnson's mark (via Wikipedia)

Anthony Johnson’s mark
(via Wikipedia)

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

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

Thomas Fleming’s Second Dead End: Dispersion

James Madison

James Madison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

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

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

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

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

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

A deeper understanding of white supremacy

Anthony Johnson's mark (via Wikipedia)

Anthony Johnson’s mark
(via Wikipedia)

I suspect that if one asked most white Americans what the word “racism” meant, they would say that racism entails hatred. People fear and loathe a racial other. From this, it follows that they both personally mistreat the objects of their scorn and accept and support similar mistreatment practiced by others. From the hatred, all else flows. However deeply one understands the vacuity of racial categories, people clearly built up identities around fitting in one and hating people in the other. We learn in school, from the media, and well-meaning people in our lives that we should condemn such hatreds because, at least in part, no one has any control over what category they end up in. We have the parents we do who had the parents they did, all the way back. Hating someone for their choice of biological parents seems perverse and absurd, as no one has any such choice.

A few years ago, I would have told you the same. I think what I sketch out here describes the general, well-intentioned white moderate-to-liberal understanding of racism. It casts racism as an attitude and feeling, with attendant theories, about something called race. Consequently, a generous application of tolerance and empathy could cure it all. Bring a white racist into a black community. Talk to the people. Look at their kids. They have all the same hopes and dreams anybody else does. They have struggles, but so do the rest of us. The scales fall away from the racist’s eyes. The Grinch hears the Whos singing and his heart grows ten sizes, breaking the x-ray machine.

It works in fiction. Maybe sometimes it works in real life too, but I think that this narrative relies on the idea that the notion that people adopt the hatreds they do out of some irrational reason. They have real empathy for people different from themselves, but have found ways to redirect or suppress it. Fundamentally fragile, those rationalizations collapse at once on contact with the facts. Compassion prevails because ultimately we understand that people hate for bad reasons and good thoughts can chase out the bad.

What if they don’t? The enslaver could walk around the plantation every single day and see the enslaved at work. At a whipping, the enslaver could hear the screams of pain and pleas for mercy. An enslaver might hear the same screams in his bedroom, or see the terror in the eyes of his victim. It would take no effort at all to likewise see the meager joys that slaves struggled for at the margins of the system, that they loved and hated, dreamed and feared the same as any person. These mysteries require no initiation to learn, but rather would pour in through every sense the human body possesses. Enslavers could tell themselves lies; they might even believe them. But they could not miss the essential humanity of their prey.

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

On the contrary, understanding that humanity and exploiting it put slave “wenches” into white beds and more and more bales of cotton in the barn. Because slaves could think ahead and understand cause and effect as well as any free person, their fear and pain could be turned on them in ways that would never have worked for non-human livestock. You cannot threaten a horse with being sold down the river. It has no language to understand the threat. If you beat a cow it will not produce more milk. But you can terrorize people. You can wage a war against them. They can understand the threats and connect the pain to specific behaviors. They can read the cotton scale and know if they came in light and what beating would come if they did. An enslaver profits not despite his lack of empathy, but because of it. The mistreatment comes not from a lack of understanding, but arises out of a deep understanding of the slave’s humanity. One who could not effectively terrorize would not profit as one who did have such talents.

From the perspective of the enslaver, most everything done to the slave makes good sense. Every whipping serves a rational purpose. A whipped slave will learn to mind and not abscond, fearing whipping more than remaining. The more terrible the punishment, the more deeply one learns the lesson. Each drop of blood becomes a drop of profit. Mistreatment can arise out of hatred; hatred will sustain it. But the interest in profits and advantage, financial or otherwise, remains. As long as they exist, someone will seek them. We all feel our own pain rather more keenly than that of others, after all. Things we would never accept become the smallest levies upon others. Rationalizations will follow, but rationalization must always come after the decision. We do not seek to justify what we have rejected, but only things we have done and imagine ourselves doing.

Looking at it this way, the conventional narrative has cause and effect reversed. We did not hate and thus forced black Americans to the bottom of the national totem pole. We hated because we set them there and forbade their advancement. All of this, I imagine, sounds like so much theory. It comports well with political preferences I have expressed before. One could easily sketch an alternative theory of racism. Against the alternative, I offer this account from Alan Taylor’s American Colonies. 

Taylor discusses the Chesapeake in the middle to late 1600s. The colony had no slave code until 1670 and consequently no established baseline as to how one must treat the few African slaves on the ground. Some enslavers saw them as indentured servants, due their freedom after so many years. “More commonly, masters permitted slaves to acquire and manage their own property.” Thus “dozens of early slaves purchased their freedom and obtained the tools, clothing, and land to become common planters.” The state did not forbid or confiscate black gains, so

black freedmen and women could move as they pleased, baptize their children, procure firearms, testify in court, buy and sell property, and even vote. Some black men married white women, which was especially remarkable given their scarcity and high demand as wives for white men. A few black women took white husbands.

These people had names and some of them have survived:

The most successful and conspicuous black freedman, Anthony Johnson, acquired a 250-acre tobacco plantation and at least one slave. With apparent impunity, Johnson boldly spoke his own mind to his white neighbors, telling one meddler: “I know myne owne ground and I will worke when I please and play when I please.” When white neighbors lured away his slave, Johnson went to court, winning damages and the return of his property. That the authorities supported an African against whites and upheld his right to own slaves reveals that slavery and racism had not yet become inseparably intertwined in the Chesapeake. That a black man would own a slave also indicates that getting ahead in planter society was more important to Johnson than any sense of racial solidarity with his fellow Africans in Virginia.

Anthony Johnson may have had more freedom in the Virginia of the 1650s than most black Americans did in the Virginia of the 1950s. He not only escaped slavery, but lived in a society that defended his freedom and rights against the aggression of whites. His grandchildren, living in a rather different cultural milieu with more and more distinctly African slaves, quit Virginia for safer lands.

Studying the history I do rarely fills one with hope. My research interests would not delight dinner parties. Friends have asked me to tell them less, not more. One can get the feeling that white supremacy not only persists, but will and must always prevail. The logic of the system demands it. White self-interest, well aware of the numerous advantages that our skin bestows upon us, will never materially surrender a single one. We have, after all, a proven road to racial equality: school integration. We celebrate its de jure end have rejected its de facto termination at all hazards. Confronted with the stolen property in our hands, we imagine ourselves as hard-working, self-made individuals. Someone else, as we saw in the news reports on post-Katrina New Orleans, does the looting.

When I read Johnson’s story a few years ago, it brought tears to my eyes. I mean that literally; I sat with book in hand and teared up. I don’t admire Johnson’s slaveholding any more than I would a white man’s, but I saw in him proof that we did not have to always do as we have done. We could have done otherwise. We could still do otherwise. Forty years of fighting integration need not continue. No law of nature requires them. The sky does not rain down injustice; we do. It follows that we can stop. If white America really wanted to end the fruitless “discussions on race” and fix whatever problems we imagine exist within “the black community” that we also imagine, we could do it.

But the plunder of lives enriches all those of the right color. We do not all benefit equally, but we all do benefit. Our ancestors arranged the system that we and we, their faithful stewards, maintain it. We accept it as the default, automatic as breathing and so natural we have made it simultaneously invisible enough to take for granted and visible enough for us all to feel it. I have felt it when pulled over, late at night, on suspicion of drunk driving. I actually knew I had a police car behind me and paid too much attention to it in my mirror rather than the white line at the road’s shoulder. It never crossed my mind that the officer would do me harm. He didn’t even ask to see my registration before he let me go. I feel it now and then when my father and I walk into a restaurant near the State Police post and see the uniformed men with guns in abundance. The presence of so many armed men doesn’t thrill me, I have the luxury of fearing a fatal misunderstanding only in the abstract. The police rarely do so much as look twice at us.

Taylor concludes

A dark skin became synonymous with slavery, just as freedom became equated with whiteness. In the eighteenth-century Chesapeake colonies almost all blacks were slaves and almost every slave was black (with the exception of occasional captive Indians). A Virginian remarked, “These two words Negro and Slave had, by custom, grown Homogeneous and Convertible.”

[…]

Newly obsessed with racial difference, Chesapeake whites felt more equal despite the growing inequality of their economic circumstances. The new sense of racial solidarity rendered white Virginians indifferent to the continuing concentration of most property and real power in the hands of the planter elite. By increasing the capital requirements for tobacco cultivation, slavery gave competitive advantage to the already wealthy planters, discouraging the smaller planters, who had to rely on the labor of their own families. The more restless and ambitious young commoners moved westward or southward in search of the frontier opportunity to build farms out of the forest.

So went the South and, ultimately, the nation. As long as we imagine an identifiable group that has it much worse, distinctions between those we imagine within our own group seem far more trifling. White Americans rarely received whippings. No one sold our children or forced those children into separate and inferior schools. No one excluded them from the suburbs. On the contrary, the American state helped us and did all in its power to ensure we would have every advantage if not over one another, than over those we imagine not worthy of consideration. Their lack of freedom, then and now, liberates us. We have not had it any other way.

Should we have an Appomattox Holiday?

Wilmer McLean's house, where the surrender was negotiated

Wilmer McLean’s house, where Grant and Lee met

The war did not end in Wilmer MacLean’s parlor, one hundred fifty years and one day ago today, but the surrender of the Confederacy’s premier field army on top of the loss of its capital and flight of its government made for something close to a final victory. The Americans on the winning side noted it as such. Some today think we should have a holiday to celebrate the anniversary of Lee’s surrender. I regret that I can’t recommend Brian Beutler’s two pieces on the subject. He appears to think that the white South today remains largely unchanged from that of 1865 or 1954. Kevin Levin has justly taken him to task for it.

But let’s take the question on its own. The holidays we recognize, the names we put on buildings, and all the rest constitute statements about ourselves. In having such a holiday, we would declare that we find the Confederacy’s defeat worthy of celebrating. Americans, with some exceptions, don’t normally celebrate the ends of wars. Few of us mark VE Day or VJ Day, though they occasioned great celebration at the time. We even turned Armistice Day, which in Europe carries a strong element of mourning and relief at the end of a great and terrible war, into the Veteran’s Day celebration of all former members of the military.

An Appomattox Day could be an American Armistice Day. A great many Americans died in the war, as people die in all wars. But we already have Memorial Day for remembering them. I suspect further that we have quite enough holidays dedicated in one way or another to the appreciation of the military. Another would neither say much more nor much new about Americans. It would quickly fall into the background noise of the numerous other patriotic observances. This might do for some other war, but Americans have only had the one Civil War. For such a sui generis event to vanish into the flag-waving haze misses the point entirely.

Should we then have a holiday that amounts to taking a victory lap around Lee’s house? Maybe at the end we could have a couple of professional wrestlers dressed up as Grant and Lee. Skullcrusher Ulysses could put the hurt on Lousy Lee while the crowd cheered. I suppose that I wouldn’t mind that, absurdity aside, but while Lee’s surrender constitutes a military victory I don’t see it as important just in light of that. Lee’s surrender signaled that the principle struggle of the Civil War had ended, but unmoored from why Lee’s army fought and what Grant’s helped achieve in defeating him we just have another one of those infamous dates to memorize from the history books. Appomattox matters because it serves as possibly the best place to mark where the Confederacy lost. With it died the dream of a new nation, conceived in slavery, and dedicated to the proposition that black lives belonged on white ledgers and the fruit of black labor belonged in white pockets. Most white Union soldiers did not fight for the freedom of black Americans. Nor did they all welcome the presence of black Americans, either as contraband laborers or fellow soldiers. But the presence of Union armies in the South resulted in the de facto freedom of countless slaves from the day Benjamin Butler invented the classification.

That deserves remembering and I think that it both differs sufficiently from Juneteenth or the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation to warrant its own day. If those days could serve to celebrate the end of slavery, we could have Appomattox Day to remember how the nation achieved that end, the prices paid for it, and the Americans who had to lose so the slaves could win. I think that the last of those, however vindictive it might sound, deserves more remembering than it gets.

In the happy ending often given to the war, Grant gives Lee generous terms and Lee in turn doesn’t encourage any kind of guerrilla resistance to the Union’s victory. Whether Lee encouraged it or not that resistance, guerrilla and otherwise, appeared in depressingly short order. The defeated states promptly reelected their old politicians to go to Washington, some of whom had worn Confederate military uniforms. They embarked on turning the clock back as thoroughly as they could. On the ground, terrorist bands did the violent work of suppressing black agency. For a brief few years, despite all that, the American South had an  interracial political movement. Then the rest of the nation turned its back on the freedpeople and left them to the mercies of white terror for another century before we had another brief moment of interracial politics in the South. We’ve made some gains since then, but white Americans and black Americans still live in very different worlds. We vote accordingly. Those coalitions, like the partnership of whites and blacks during Reconstruction, did not confine their operations to the former Confederacy.

Maybe that’s the best argument for an Appomattox Day. We too eagerly congratulate ourselves for winning battles and pretend that each one ended the conflict that brought the armies, real or rhetorical, to the field. That day in Virginia brings with it all the continued, frequently vicious, complexities of life in America: the work done, the work ahead, the work left unfinished, and those who lost their war but won the next century’s peace, those who let them, and those sacrificed along the way.

The Border South’s Great Test

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

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

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

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

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

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

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

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

The Bible on Slavery: The Hebrew Scriptures

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

After writing yesterday’s post, I realized that I referred to Biblical passages, as did Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow and many others, and like him neglected to quote or cite them. It would do to rectify that. It might take us far afield from this blog’s usual haunts, and I don’t propose to turn this into a blog about the Ancient Near East or religion, but proslavery propagandists of the nineteenth century had the chapter and verse on hand. They could quote it at will, though in a far more religious time they rarely needed to announce their texts. We don’t live in that world and for very obvious reasons these passages have turned decidedly obscure to many Americans since 1865.

Before I get into it, however, I want to say up front that I take no position at all on what a Christian, Jew, or any other person ought to believe about their religion, which version of it is true, or anything like that. In quoting these lines, I no more intend to lay expectations on the behavior of modern Christians than I lay similar expectations on modern southerners for their ancestors’ beliefs. I intend here only to highlight texts relevant to nineteenth century slavery defenders, not to promote any particular modern theology. I have chosen to refer to the two familiar divisions of the Bible by more neutral terms for the same reason.

For maximum familiarity, both for my audience and to American protestants nineteenth century, I’ve used the King James Version. I have also selected passages that appear most pertinent to a nineteenth century context rather than attempted an exhaustive catalog of all that Bible has to say about slavery.

In the name of his god, Noah curses Canaan in Genesis 9

22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without.

23 And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness.

24 And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.

25 And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.

26 And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.

27 God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.

The sin of Ham justified American slavery to a great many all by itself. They believed that Africans descended from Ham and that settled things.

One could object that Noah spoke out of turn. I take no position on this, considering it a matter of theology. One could also object in that a servant need not necessarily be a slave. The text offers some difficulty for this latter objection in Exodus 21:

21 Now these are the judgments which thou shalt set before them.

22 If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing.

23 If he came in by himself, he shall go out by himself: if he were married, then his wife shall go out with him.

24 If his master have given him a wife, and she have born him sons or daughters; the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out by himself.

You can buy a servant. You own that person for the duration. If that servant gets married, he can take his wife when he goes free. If, however, you buy the wife separately then you get to keep the wife and any children of the union. The colony of Virginia took a key step in changing its system of indentured servitude for black and white people alike into slavery for black people alone by legally adopting the rule that slavery came inherited through the mother. If we can call that slavery, then we can call these servants in the Bible slaves also.

The same chapter of Exodus goes into some detail about other ways one can treat a slave

20 And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished.

21 Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money.

Even South Carolina forbade, at least on paper, outright murder of a slave. However, the slave codes have no shortage of allowances for slaves who die as a result of violent “correction”.

If a thief could not make restitution for his crime, then Exodus proscribed selling him into slavery:

If a thief be found breaking up, and be smitten that he die, there shall no blood be shed for him.

If the sun be risen upon him, there shall be blood shed for him; for he should make full restitution; if he have nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft.

New Jersey preserved a penalty of that kind for black residents convicted of crimes all the way up to the war. If the jury found you guilty, rather than imprison you New Jersey would sell you South.

One might object to this code on the grounds that you can get out of it a few years down the road. That must make it a bit more like indentured servitude, right? In a way, yes. Not much daylight separates indentured servants from chattel slaves during the term of the indenture. But let me quote the first bit again, from Exodus 21:22:

22 If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing.

If a passage extends the seven-year term of slavery to gentile slaves, I haven’t found it. I have read arguments to that effect, but never one that could quote a chapter and verse. If anybody reading this has such a passage, I would be happy to see it.

At any rate, I have no doubt that had Virginia adopted a slavery system for its white residents, they would in most eras have received better treatment in the law than its black residents enjoyed. One need not speculate, as Virginian whites would be the ones writing the law. In fact, they did just that, establishing a harsher regime that lasted lifetimes and went generation to generation for blacks while retaining the older system for whites.

This has run long, so I will return with the Christian Scriptures in another post.

Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Two

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

(Introduction, Part 1.)

Having declared himself a compromise, Union, Henry Clay-style old-time Whig, and before that given everyone a break to get supper, Lincoln moved on to the meat of the issue. In the KansasNebraska Act, Stephen Douglas repealed the Missouri Compromise’s ban on slavery north of the southern border of the state, except for within Missouri itself. The North promptly caught fire and rose up against the law. Lincoln spoke on behalf of those northerners who saw themselves betrayed and their future sold away by a dangerous cabal of slaveholders and their northern lackeys.

Nineteenth century politicians had to know their stuff. People expected them to display their education and erudition regularly. As the leading men of society, they needed to act the part. That inclined them to a rambling, digressing style with exhaustive references to history and to legal theorists. One might expect the famously unschooled Lincoln to come in at a disadvantage here, but he made up for his lack of formal schooling with voracious reading. He might have spent only one term in the House, but he could play with the big boys. So Lincoln began at the very beginning:

In order to [get?] a clear understanding of what the Missouri Compromise is, a short history of the preceding kindred subjects will perhaps be proper. When we established our independence, we did not own, or claim, the country to which this compromise applies. […]

 

These territories, together with the States themselves, constituted all the country over which the confederacy then claimed any sort of jurisdiction. We were then living under the Articles of Confederation, which were superceded by the Constitution several years afterwards. The question of ceding these territories to the general government was set on foot. Mr. Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and otherwise a chief actor in the revolution; then a delegate in Congress; afterwards twice President; who was, is, and perhaps will continue to be, the most distinguished politician of our history; a Virginian by birth and continued residence, and withal, a slave-holder; conceived the idea of taking that occasion, to prevent slavery ever going into the north-western territory. He prevailed on the Virginia Legislature to adopt his views, and to cede the territory, making the prohibition of slavery therein, a condition of the deed. Congress accepted the cession, with the condition; and in the first Ordinance (which the acts of Congress were then called) for the government of the territory, provided that slavery should never be permitted therein. This is the famed ordinance of ’87 so often spoken of. Thenceforward, for sixty-one years, and until in 1848, the last scrap of this territory came into the Union as the State of Wisconsin, all parties acted in quiet obedience to this ordinance. It is now what Jefferson foresaw and intended—the happy home of teeming millions of free, white, prosperous people, and no slave amongst them.

Lincoln skipped a few facts there and made one error, which he later admitted. Virginia’s cession of the Northwest Territory did not come with the condition that Congress allow no slavery there. Rather that provision comes from Jefferson’s Northwest Ordinance. Lincoln then neglects that Jefferson originally wanted to apply the law to the whole of the territory west of the Appalachians, making it all forever free. Jefferson came close to doing it, but the vote he needed to put him over the top rested with a man home sick when the time came.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Instead Jefferson settled for half a loaf. He got his slavery ban over the territory northwest of the Ohio, but not the other quarter of the country. His system for organizing territories in preparation for statehood, however, did set a precedent widely followed in the subsequent decades. Congress generally copy and pasted the Northwest Ordinance, swapping geography as necessary, to each new stretch of land. That said, Congress also frequently neglected to copy and paste the slavery ban when doing so.

But, Jefferson’s failings aside, Lincoln already has one over on doctrinaire southerners, and their supposed tool Stephen Douglas:

Thus, with the author of the declaration of Independence, the policy of prohibiting slavery in new territory originated. Thus, away back of the constitution, in the pure fresh, free breath of the revolution, the State of Virginia, and the National congress put that policy in practice. Thus through sixty odd of the best years of the republic did that policy steadily work to its great and beneficent end. And thus, in those five states, and five millions of free, enterprising people, we have before us the rich fruits of this policy. But now new light breaks upon us. Now congress declares this ought never to have been; and the like of it, must never be again. The sacred right of self government is grossly violated by it! We even find some men, who drew their first breath, and every other breath of their lives, under this very restriction, now live in dread of absolute suffocation, if they should be restricted in the “sacred right” of taking slaves to Nebraska. That perfect liberty they sigh for—the liberty of making slaves of other people—Jefferson never thought of; their own father never thought of; they never thought of themselves, a year ago. How fortunate for them, they did not sooner become sensible of their great misery! Oh, how difficult it is to treat with respect, such assaults upon all we have ever really held sacred.

The South accepted slavery bans and territorial partitions. It had from virtually time immemorial. Now, at this late hour, suddenly it discovered that Congress had no power over slavery in the territories and that its rights demanded nothing less than the abolition of all such bans? And no slaveholder could countenance a policy established by … another slaveholder? Preposterous!

Know-Nothings vs. Know-Nothings 2.0

Henry Wise

Henry Wise

The original version of this post should have gone live Friday. It did not and I lost it. You can imagine my discontent. So here I have reconstructed it from memory, my sources, chiefly Allen Nevins’ Ordeal of the Union and Potter’s The Impending Crisis, and a copy of the old post forwarded to me after I wrote most of this. You get the best of both worlds, Gentle Readers.

The Know-Nothings lost in Virginia. Henry Wise extracted his narrow victory with accusations that the party, with all its private meetings and secret society trappings, provided a haven for abolitionism. Some antislavery men lived up to Wise’s accusation, even if others did not and still others men disdained nativism the same way they disdained slavery. But parties have come together from less coherent bodies. The Whigs started off as the official party of people who hated Andrew Jackson, though they eventually developed a more coherent ideology built around a national bank, internal improvements, and a more prime ministerial vision of the presidency. Ex-Whigs and rebel Democrats could do the same, and that new ideology might mitigate the American Party’s demographic challenges in the South. If they could get people fired up about other things in addition to immigrants, they had a road to electoral success even where immigrants had barely penetrated.

The election of 1856 would give nativism another chance. They would have a national convention and vote on a party platform. That national platform would serve as their ideological manifesto for the next four years. They had already staked out a position on the Union, introducing a Union degree in their rituals and getting maybe 1.5 million Know-Nothings to swear out an oath to stand against sectionalism from the North or South.

But state conventions fed into the national convention and each one saw in the convention a chance to swing the national platform their way. These state conventions, of course, lived in one section or the other and acted accordingly. Massachusetts and New Hampshire got the ball rolling by approving antislavery resolutions. New Jersey’s delegates arrived instead with a resolution that the party ought to seek the friendship of the South. Illinois found too much division to agree on a resolution either way. But those resolutions did not necessarily bind the delegates down the road. A few nonconforming states could be dragged to orthodoxy easily enough, right?

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

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

The Know-Nothing bigwigs got together in a National Council in Philadelphia in June, 1855, with an eye toward using the upcoming presidential race as their next stepping-stone to becoming the one true national Unionist party. The delegates agreed easily on excluding the foreign-born and foreign-schooled from office. They signed on for a twenty-one year wait before naturalization. They condemned Catholicism. (A Louisiana convention later condemned the condemnation on behalf of the righteous, native-born Catholics unfairly lumped in with the newly arrived sorts.) A majority of the platform committee damned Whig and Democrat alike for slavery agitation and pledged the party to preservation of the Union in its existing state. In other words, they pledged themselves to Kansas-Nebraska. The document went on to say that Congress ought not legislate on slavery in the territories again. All the slave state delegates, plus California and New York signed on.

That asked far more than the rest of the Know-Nothing North would give. Their minority report demanded either restoration of the Missouri Compromise or, failing that, refusal to admit any slave states to the Union from its former territory. That would make any future Kansas and Nebraska both free soil. When the majority would not accept those demands, the delegates from all the free states save New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and California seceded from the convention.

This from the party of sectional comity and national Union?

A Partial Refutation of Henry Wise

Henry Wise

Henry Wise

When running for governor of Virginia in 1855, Henry Wise tarred his Know-Nothing opponent and the party behind him as covert abolitionists. He had a point when it came to Know-Nothings in the North, if not those Virginians he actually accused. To some degree, the natural impulses of ex-Whigs, anti-Nebraska men, and nativists ran together. All feared subversive conspiracies to seize control of the nation and dispossess them of what they saw as their birthright. All had a kind of moral panic over scandals, real and imagined, at home and abroad. Rome and slavery both turned the places where they prevailed into giant brothels, as lurid pamphlets and novels told an audience eager for scandal. If that writing also provided a socially acceptable outlet for more prurient interests, few publishers and readers would complain. To many nineteenth century Americans, nativism and antislavery thus seemed logical, congenial bedfellows.

But other northerners very much disagreed. They looked on less than 700,000 of the nation’s 14,235,000 church members and asked why the Catholics prompted such fears. So small a number hardly represented a serious threat of turning the majority-Protestant United States into a majority-Catholic papal fiefdom. They counted 2,234,602 foreign-born against 19,429,185 native-born and wondered at the panic. Nativist demographic challenges did not hold just in the South. If the Catholics intended to work ruin on the nation, they had Chief Justice Roger Taney on their side. He went to their churches, listened to their sermons, and supposedly took his orders from their Pope. Yet what calamity, they asked before Dred Scott, befell from his influence? Or from Lafayette’s decades before?

Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

Viewed the right way, anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic paranoia could look very much like anti-aboltionist paranoia. Mobs attacked convents, but mobs had also attacked abolitionist meetings. One had murdered Elijah P. Lovejoy for the crime of abolitionism. Smart antislavery men took care where they traveled to avoid following his example. Respectable venues once refused antislavery patronage, just as the nativists would have the country refuse immigrants and Catholics. For that matter, the goals of the nativists sounded suspiciously similar to a slave system: one race, and nineteenth century Americans very much saw the Irish and, often, Catholics also, as a racial group subordinated permanently to the other via a form of despotism that would require extension over free, white Protestants to sustain itself. If that happened, the nation would have the anti-democratic impulses of slavery replicated and suffer still more for it. They had more of that than they ever wanted just from sustaining slavery.

Possibly the man who put it best had essentially quit politics some years before, after an uninspiring single term in the House of Representatives. The Kansas-Nebraska Act drew him back in. Looking on the ruins of his chosen party, Lincoln wrote to his slaveholding friend, Joshua Speed:

I am a whig; but others say there are no whigs, and that I am an abolitionist. When I was at Washington I voted for the Wilmot Proviso as good as forty times, and I never heard of any one attempting to unwhig me for that. I now do no more than oppose the extension of slavery.

Lincoln

Lincoln

Still an antislavery Whig in 1855, he knew the Know-Nothings wanted the votes of men like him. He would not have it:

I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.

Virginia’s new governor would have trouble finding a man eager to throw in with the Know-Nothings in all of that, even if he could find others who would.