Guest post: We have a long way to go to raze the house that slavery built

Originally a comment by freedmenspatrol on Very much a part of many white Southerners’ identity.

For quite some time, white Southerners actually refused to observe the national Memorial Day. In various places they also didn’t celebrate the Fourth of July. Not so many wave the flag or the other totems as have done in past generations, but plenty of white Americans still do. It’s worked deep into how the culture operates, inside and outside the South. The Second Klan controlled Indiana and Oregon for a while. White Northerners could be absolutely vicious even when they had slavery around for contrast, passing laws excluding black Americans from even living in entire states and demanding those present leave.

It’s what we get for developing our ideas of freedom in the context of the evolving slave society in the Chesapeake. Freedom became white, slavery black, and black Americans thus permanent outsiders. It didn’t matter that they fought in the Revolution (for the last time until the Emancipation Proclamation, in fact) and black voters helped ratify the Constitution. A free black person was just a weird exception that roused considerable fears, never one of “us”. Whites had built an an “us” on their skin color, where all imagined themselves equal not by their material condition, not by their personal talents or potential, but rather by the peerless achievement of not choosing for themselves black skin.

This no longer informs us as much as it once did, but we have a long way to go to raze the house that slavery built. Some of us will fight that effort all the way to the bitter end, as they have before. That probably doesn’t mean armies again, but it didn’t take armies to reduce freedpeople back to near-slavery either. White terrorism suffices.


  1. Blanche Quizno says

    This is true. Even our history has been sanitized, with blacks rendered 2 dimensionallyinto the background, where they can hardly be seen at all. In reality, slavery was never easy nor calm in the South; the 2nd Amendment, the right of a well-trained militia to bear arms etc., was written as it was in order to protect the slave patrols that all white men were required to serve in, to chase runaways and put down the frequent insurrections. It was kept as a state issue, because the slaveholding states did not want the federal government coming in and ordering the militias off to fight foreign wars – they were desperately needed at home. For their part, the slaves were incredibly dangerous – when they were not dropping the master’s baby, they were poisoning the master and his family, or the livestock. Or buildings were mysteriously catching fire. The old newspapers were full of ads seeking runaway slaves, slaves seizing control of slave ships and sailing off to freedom, and stories of deaths and mayhem at the hands of rebellious slaves, savage punishments for those involved, and the fear that gnawed at the white people outnumbered by their property. Slaves escaped to Florida and Cuba, where the Spanish armed them and then sent them back home in groups to wreak their vengeance upon their erstwhile masters and any other white people they happened across. “The Counter Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America”, by Dr. Gerald Horne, is a wonderful source for learning about what REALLY was going on – and how things ended up as they are.

  2. quixote says

    It’s important to understand historical context to understand people’s thinking. Linnaeus, who established the system of biological classification in use to this day, worked in the mid-1700s. In his zoological classification, blacks are a separate species.

    (This kind of thing doesn’t all go one way. A biologist I know who worked in Papua New Guinea in the 1970s talked about visiting villages where whites were so infrequent, the younger children had never seen any. They’d race around laughing and pointing at him and trying to get the medicine man to treat him for whatever awful disease he had that had bleached him out.)

    Along the same lines, orangutan is the word for “forest person” in a dialect of Malay, and was applied to actual people who lived in the forest, and also to the great ape.

    So, anyway, the only point I want to make is that people’s sense of “like us” is very strongly based on how much variation is experienced among “us.” If very little, then it’s very hard for people to delimit human species correctly. Really. And the only reason we moderns are better at it is because we do have the advantage of seeing the full range of variation all the time.

    With that in mind, and with a genuine willingness to imagine a mind that honestly believes you’re not dealing with actual human beings at all, it becomes conceivable that ordinary responsible members of society could commit atrocities.

    There’s a point to all this, and that’s that modern bigotry, when we do know 100% that we’re dealing with fellow human beings, is a whole different animal to the mindset in 1775, or even 1860. In most ways it may be more vicious because it has to be, to deny the reality now known to be true. The effects aren’t as bad because of the social structures in place, but the mentality may actually be worse.

    And the other important point is to really take on board how easy it is to do awful things if our group defines it as good. The Left isn’t immune. You have to go back to Nihilists and Communists to get to real violent loonies, but even now the pious performance of tolerance as a flag of group belonging makes it possible for otherwise intelligent people to favor murderers over Hebdo freethinkers.

  3. themann1086 says

    The Fourth of July story is pretty fascinating. Vicksburg, Mississippi was held under seize by Union forces for months, with residents reduced to eating rats, before surrendering on July 4th, 1863. This effectively gave the Union total control of the river, cutting the confederacy in half and made eventual defeat a near certainty. The town refused to celebrate the holiday for 79 years, only doing so in 1942 after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

  4. Helen Singer says

    Blanche, I read the blurb on Amazon for the book you mention. There’s something I’m missing. If the American Rev was an attempt to maintain slavery (which is what Amazon claims the author claims), why did some slave owners fight on the British side?

  5. Jenora Feuer says

    If the American Rev was an attempt to maintain slavery (which is what Amazon claims the author claims), why did some slave owners fight on the British side?

    I haven’t read the book in question, and I don’t accept the premise that the revolution was an attempt to maintain slavery. (At least not in full; like any action involving that many people, there were a lot of reasons. And in 1772 the case of Somerset v Stewart did throw question on legal support for slavery in England, so some slave owners may have wanted to break away from English law before slavery was actually outlawed.)

    I will note, however, that a number of slave owners and plantation owners fancied themselves the new barons and nobility. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of them felt a keen distrust at the populist Enlightenment rhetoric coming from people like Jefferson, and fought on the English side for that reason.

  6. says

    Thanks for the promotion, Ophelia. 🙂

    I haven’t read the book, but I’m with Jenora in not taking the Revolution as entirely about protecting slavery, though it certainly had elements of that. (We could have read too much into Blanche’s post, of course.) Most famously, Lord Dunmore of Virginia promised freedom to the slaves of disloyal subjects, provided they absconded and joined up with loyalist forces. Some of them actually got it and ended up in Canada, but others were abandoned or sold in the West Indies. But then Dunmore didn’t proclaim anything of the sort until the Revolution had already gotten going. This splitting of hairs can sound a bit pedantic, and sometimes it is, but it often carries important consequences for how we understand the past. Nuance and complexity make for better interpretation, though it’s easy to go overboard and miss the forest for all the obscuring trees as well. We’re all capable of erring both ways, sometimes simultaneously.

    With that in mind:

    One shouldn’t read too much into the Somerset decision, as it applied only to slaves brought to England. In 19th century American parlance, it made freedom national…but only for the English nation and not the empire as a whole. Colonies were not generally understood, except when they started complaining about representation, as integral parts of the British state. Its application to the United States was seen as radical even in antislavery circles of the late Antebellum. The British antislavery movement did see it as a victory for right principles, but few at the time saw a major contradiction between having a law in England presuming freedom and one in Barbados, the Bahamas, or elsewhere ordaining slavery. Things briefly looked promising for some kind of abolition in the British empire in the late 1700s, but that egalitarianism sounded too much like the French Revolution and that dealt a major blow to antislavery efforts. Ultimately the empire didn’t end slavery until the 1830s, and even when with an “apprenticeship” period that stretched on into the early 1840s and exceptions for India, where at very least unfree labor was producing cotton for British looms when the American supply dried up in 1861. Incidentally, during the emancipation debates in the UK in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, nobody opposed abolition on the grounds that black people could not govern themselves. That particular racism had not infected the halls of power in London. Concern was more about maintaining profitability of the plantation colonies and respecting the property rights of enslavers. The British paid them off, but did not realize the profits from emancipation that they had hoped because the slaves would rather grow food for themselves than sugar and freed from the kind of torture that an overseer could dispense, did not feel compelled to literally slave away as they had before.

    That last point, as seen in the United States, was a significant argument of Ed Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told, which the Economist damned back in the fall.

    Many of the anti-democratic elements of the Constitution are very much about slavery, though. One needn’t be an enslaver to worry about numerical majorities voting away the rights of numerical minorities, but preserving slavery helped convince some majoritarians to make concessions. To know what a minority might face in a government constituted otherwise, they needed only do a head count of their plantations. I’ve since lost the reference (sorry) but there’s somewhere in his writing that Madison refers to it. Down in South Carolina, which had a majority slave population before the Revolution, no white person could miss the significance. Railing against King Numbers featured heavily into antebellum Carolina discourse, if only when it appeared that the Union would not ultimately sustain slavery in perpetuity as then-currently constituted.

    Then again, of course, the Enlightenment was not in general an egalitarian project. Many of its leading figures admired authoritarian governments, like that of Prussia. The image of an absolute monarch freed from the lesser interests of politics and so able to do what reason demanded really got them excited. The French revolutionaries happily, for a while, made a firm distinction between “active” (read: rich) citizens and “passive” (everyone else). In South Carolina and the hoarier parts of the Virginia Tidewater, those ideas still had resonance in the 1850s. John C. Calhoun’s posthumous political treatise is very nearly a hymn to the idea. To save politics and the good of the nation, you had to have disinterested men (so they wouldn’t be open to bribery or seeking office just for the cash) who had experience strongly governing others (so they wouldn’t go power-mad.) In antebellum America, that meant slaveholders. The rhetorical conversion of the rights of free English subjects into universal rights of mankind did genuinely inspire people to rethink their relationship to the state, but didn’t really make the world anew. Hence property restrictions on voting and qualifications for holding office, the widespread sentiment that no one who took a wage from another ought to be a voter as his will was presumed owned by his master, etc.

    Those restrictions had a strong racial element to them, but they very much bound poor whites as well. The idea that all white men were brothers, and none was the little brother who needed guidance, came to more familiar fruition during the romantic reactions against the Enlightenment in the late 18th and early 19th century. That egalitarianism ultimately filtered down, if very incompletely, to black Americans. Of course that doesn’t come without countercurrents. The black Americans who voted to ratify the Constitution in New York lost the franchise as part of the same reforms that let poorer whites into polling places. So did the few women who had earned the right to vote by being widows of male voters. Anti-corruption and good government campaigns often have similar fallout. That doesn’t make them bad things, but probably is something to which we could pay better attention.

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