Archive for April, 2008

The birth of Red and Blue states

Posted on April 18, 2008. Filed under: American history, Civil War | Tags: , , , , |

This is part three of my series of posts discussing exactly how slavery led to the Civil War and banishing the myth that the war had nothing to do with slavery, and that no one in antebellum America cared about slavery.


There were two parties for most of the period of 1800-1860: the Whigs and the Democrats (there were some name changes along the way). Both parties were completely evenly spread throughout the nation. There were no “red” or “blue” states. Every state was a pretty equal mix of Whig and Democrat. Americans believed in their parties, and expected to solve political problems through them.


Neither Whigs nor Democrats identified themselves with a particular region, religion, or social issue. They identified with their party. This meant that individual states had to fit their wants and needs into a national party platform. No single state or issue could take over a party’s agenda. Consensus building was the norm because any state with a particular piece of legislation to push had to get the support of the entire party. There were no factions to rely on to swing a vote.


So pro- and anti-slavery politicians who focused all their energies on the single issue of slavery could not build the majorities they needed to make their party adopt that stance. There were pro- and anti-slavery Whigs, and pro- and anti-slavery Democrats. But they kept it local. The Georgia Whig party might condone slavery, but they wouldn’t push for national laws about it, because they knew that would hurt Massachusetts Whigs, and then the Whig party might lose the Massachusetts gubernatorial election. And vice-versa, and the same went for the Democrats. So while slavery was an agitating issue, neither party took a stand on slavery on the national level.


But when the U.S. seized its huge western territories from Mexico in 1848 (today’s California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Wyoming), the south’s desire to take slavery into those territories, especially California, and the north’s desire to keep slavery out of those territories, started a conflict that eventually broke party unity. Southerners openly pushed for federal laws to protect and extend slavery. From 1846 through the 1850s, party-shattering events came in swift succession:


1846: Wilmot Proviso

1849: Nashville Convention

1850: Compromise of 1850

1854: Kansas-Nebraska Act

1854-6: the violence of Bleeding Kansas

1854: birth of the Republican party

1856: caning of Senator Charles Sumner

1857: Dred Scott decision

1859: John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry

1860: split of the Democratic party


The Democrats split at their convention into one group completely focused on protecting slavery throughout the U.S., and one “moderate” group content to let the western territories vote on whether to form free or slave states. Each side backed its own presidential candidate in 1860.


So we see that from the end of the Mexican War and steadily through the 1850s, the national parties became regional parties. This is why, although slavery was hotly debated for years, it didn’t lead to war until 1861. The acquisition of those western territories in 1848 suddenly raised the stakes on the slavery question to dizzying heights, and individual actions in the federal government and amongst the American people provoked partisan reactions that grew stronger with each incident.


The Whig party dissolved, leaving the Republicans to represent the north, with no southern members to keep happy. They were free to pursue their platform, which was based on restricting slavery. The Democratic party split, giving it no chance to win a national election.


When people saw that their old parties were no longer a good tool for dealing with issues, people lost faith in working through the political system at all. Many became convinced that they  had to go outside politics and channels to get what they wanted. And war was the ultimate form of going outside politics and channels to effect change. When the south saw a Republican elected president, it withdrew from the United States altogether.


Next time: Secession

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What made the North and South different before the Civil War?

Posted on April 17, 2008. Filed under: American history, Civil War | Tags: , , |

In today’s post, part two of my series on how slavery led to the Civil War, I’ll be leaning on the historian James McPherson for quotes, from his fascinating book This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War.

First, all that data on tariff debates and farmer v. factory worker is, indeed, not the stuff of civil war. The main difference between north and south, the one that led the nation to war, was slavery. The north did not want it to spread to the new western states being created, and the south did. The south fought federal attempts to ban slavery in the west, using the states’ rights argument. Each state has the right to decide for itself whether it will be slave or free, the south said; any federal attempt to ban slavery outright is illegal.


So all the vague talk of the federal government interfering in “state government” or “state policy” sharpens up considerably when you face the fact that the only “policy” at stake was slavery. Slavery made north and south different—and enemies: “On the subject of slavery, the North and South… are not only two Peoples, but they are rival, hostile Peoples,” said the editor of the Charleston Mercury in 1858. [McPherson, 11]


But the southern states were quite willing to interfere with northern state policy, as southern Congress members passed fugitive slave laws that allowed the federal government to go into northern states that had passed anti-slavery laws and personal liberty laws and force those states to hand over people identified as escaped slaves. The fugitive slave laws also allowed southern slaveholders to bring enslaved people into free states without punishment, and forced northern citizens to help slave catchers.


When northern states complained about their personal liberty laws being violated, the southern-majority Supreme Court reminded them that national law outranked state law, and national law had a mandate to protect slavery. Southerners in Congress also imposed a gag rule in the 1830s which disallowed antislavery petitions from northern states to be presented to Congress. [Ibid., 9]  So states’ rights were not so sacred for the south when it came to slavery, and the south hotly demanded that the federal government override northern states’ rights to outlaw slavery in their own states.


That’s why Lincoln’s election to the presidency caused secession and civil war. For 49 of the 72 years in the period 1789 to 1861, the American president had been a southern slaveholder. Now a northerner whose party was created expressly to stop the spread of slavery was president, and the deep south panicked. South Carolina went first, and its secession convention stated that with Lincoln as president, “the Slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.” [Ibid., 7-8, 11]


Note that it’s the slaveholding states losing their independence that is the last straw; when it was non-slaveholding states whose rights were violated, the south was okay with that.


Lincoln’s election not only meant the end of slavery, in the south’s opinion, but was the final nail in the coffin of the two-party system, and the party unity, that had dominated American politics in the 1800s. From 1787 to 1860, the nation was involved in a debate over slavery. That debate was contained by the party system. When that system fell apart, the debate could no longer be contained, or kept contained within the political system.


Few Americans today would recognize the death of the Whig party as a major contributor to civil war, but it was. In the next post, we’ll see why.

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Amazing Fact: The Civil War was fought over slavery

Posted on April 16, 2008. Filed under: American history, Civil War | Tags: , , , |

Myth: The Civil War was not fought over slavery.

Supporting myth: Lincoln was okay with slavery, and he declared war.

“Proof” of myth: Slavery wasn’t ended until after the war, because Lincoln couldn’t do it earlier because the North would have stopped fighting, and wouldn’t do it because he was pro-slavery.

The Civil War was fought over slavery. That’s just all there is to it.

I didn’t grow up hearing this. When I was in K-12, in the 1970s and early 1980s, I got the old saw that the Civil War was fought because the North and South were just so darn different. The South was agricultural and rural, while the North was industrialized and urban. The North wanted tarriffs on imports, while the South didn’t. Their stands on banking, railroad subsidies, and other economic matters were what made the North and South so dangerously different. Slavery was just a side issue, really a small part of southern life, and one to which northerners were completely indifferent.

It never occurred to me, as a youth, to wonder how differering positions on banking could drive a nation to Civil War. Could opposing ideas on where to place the intercontinental railroad really divide a nation? But the textbooks I was given (and this was in a northern state) rushed me right past that to the start of the war and the issue of states’ rights.

This argument says that southern states seceded not to protect slavery, but to stand up for their constitutionally given rights to chart their own internal course, without interference from Congress. The southern states resisted efforts by the federal government to limit state power, goes the argument, and they did so for the benefit of all states, north and south. The federal government was violating the Constitution and threatening democracy, and the liberty-loving southern states could not live with this. They seceded, thus preserving their states’ rights. And the Constitution says they could.

Well, as you know from my About page essay, this whole package was still being pushed very recently by the K-12 publishers. And in fact, someone I know who is 73 gave me the same story recently. Slavery didn’t cause that war, he said; northerners didn’t care, there was no difference between northern and southern boys fighting, and the whole war was a shame. This man’s grandfather fought for the Union. Yet this man is ashamed of the whole thing, because he was fed the same amazing pack of lies about the Civil War that I was; lies that damage America today.

This is the first in a series of posts, because the myth of the Civil War is so big and so insidious. Next time, I’ll begin to show how slavery drove the nation to war. And before I’m done, the unforgivable and obvious lie applied to Lincoln–that he was proslavery–will be demolished.

Next: what did make North and South so different?

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The First Founders: The Puritans

Posted on April 15, 2008. Filed under: Puritans | Tags: , , |

Has it taken this long to get a post up here about the Puritans?

These people are my special field in American history. I find them fascinating, and the more I study the more I realize they are particularly responsible for the founding of the United States as a representative democracy.

This point of view has had its ups and downs. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Puritans were mistakenly venerated as democratic people who inevitably created a democratic nation. Since midcentury, this view has been abandoned, and scholars have done a 180 to say the Puritans were freaks who had nothing to do with democracy in America, other than representing the polar opposite of freedom and democracy.

My own research on the Puritans began as I studied the history of the original church in my New England town. I am not a native New Englander, and I didn’t have much interest in the Puritans. But as I studied the history of this church (going back to the 1630s), I became engrossed. Since then, I have devoted my personal research to the Puritans as a whole.

I don’t want to give away my whole paper before I present it, but the kernel of my thesis is that the Puritan reliance on and promotion of lay authority within a context of progress toward salvation was crucial to the development of political culture in New England. The laity had power only within a clearly laid-out system, for specific purposes; it was managed by ministers and could be legitimately wielded only to achieve its specific aims. Sounds like the power of the people within a democracy.

This religious structure carried over to the Puritan legal structure, with elected magistrates and members of the General Court chosen to fulfill the aims of a Puritan polity. When this was hobbled by the revocation of the original charter, and New England became a royal colony under English control, the average New Englander developed a strong loyalty to her Puritan identity as a way of maintaining independence while under English control.

Puritanism was a vital if embattled force in New England through the 1760s, when men like John Adams turned their energies to politics and away from religion because of the infighting going on in the Puritan church.  But even though they chose law over the pulpit, the leaders of our Revolution applied the same logic and purpose of the Puritans to the formation of our democracy.

Well, that’s my thumbnail. Jump in!

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Why I don’t talk about black slaves in America

Posted on April 14, 2008. Filed under: American history | Tags: , |

When there was slavery in America, Americans were enslaved. Yes, at first it was Africans who were brought here from Africa and enslaved. But once those Africans had children here in America, who were then enslaved, Americans were enslaving other Americans. And after 1808, when the slave trade was ended here, all enslaved people were Americans.

 I just think that calling enslaved people “black slaves” or “African slaves” or even “African-American slaves” carries water for slavery. It’s human nature to be a little more accepting of harsh treatment for outsiders, for foreigners. We think, Well, if these people were Africans, it’s natural that whites should think enslaving them was acceptable, though of course it wasn’t.

But they weren’t Africans. They were Americans. Americans enslaved by their own people. We got very angry at Saddam Hussein for attacking his own people. Unlike attacking foreigners, attacking your own people is always seen as immediately wrong. That’s why we hesitate to admit we have enslaved our own people. But instead of easing the pain of looking at slavery in the United States by saying blacks or Africans were enslaved, let’s be honest and call it as we know we see it: enslavement of our own people. Did black people who had been enslaved suddenly become Americans in 1865? No.

 (Yes, of course I know that enslaved black Americans were not considered to be legal citizens during slavery. But should I go along with that? If you’re born here, if you move here, if you’re brought here, you are an American.)

So there were enslaved Americans. Not black slaves, or even slaves. I don’t like to use the word “slave”. To me, it validates the concept that people can be changed from people to slaves, things, property. Many people have been and still are enslaved around the world. But no human being is a slave.

These issues of nomenclature may seem small, but we see the huge difference between “pro-abortion” and “pro-choice”. Every little word matters. 

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The Second Amendment does NOT protect private gun ownership

Posted on April 13, 2008. Filed under: Second Amendment | Tags: , , , , |

Let’s go out on a limb here to state the obvious.

How does it read? “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

A well-regulated Militia. Not a well-armed citizen.

This Amendment is clearly meant to protect the right of the citizen to own a gun to use in military service. You keep your Arms so that you can serve in the Militia. This was written when the main form of defense was state and local militias, for which you needed your own gun.

Now, we’re not strict-interpretation-of-the-Constitution people here at the HP. We believe the Constitution is flexible and can be read in new ways. But this Amendment seems so clearly to be about protecting a volunteer military—to be about military service—that to extend it to people who want to be able to carry guns into a bar or a supermarket, or keep them in their glovebox, is clearly untenable.

The Second Amendment does NOT encourage or demand that average citizens keep guns in their homes for any reason. It does not mention hunting. It does not mention personal defense. It is strictly about maintaining a national army.

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John Adams has my vote!

Posted on April 11, 2008. Filed under: The Founders | Tags: , , |

I was reading Adam’s 1797 inaugural speech, where he has this to say about the American people, when faced by the obvious inability of the Articles of Confederation to form a “durable” government for the United States:

“In this dangerous crisis the people of America were not abandoned by their usual good sense, presence of mind, resolution, or integrity. Measures were pursued to concert a plan to form a more perfect union, establish justice… and secure the blessings of liberty. The public disquisitions, discussions, and deliberations issued in the present happy Constitution of Government.”

Just so! As I point out in Truth v. Myth: The Declaration of Independence, the usual course of action when a newborn revolutionary government begins to stumble is to descend into total, bloody civil war, out of which a harsh and reactionary government usually emerges.

Not so in the United States.

Adams goes on to say something that was true of him, and should be true of every president and presidential candidate: “I had the honor to be elected to a station under the new order of things, and I have repeatedly laid myself under the most serious obligations to support the Constitution.”

If we were to vote for presidential candidates based on how much and how well they uphold our laws, our Constitution, our system of government, we would be a much-improved nation. If our lawmakers and politicians were willing to experience serious challenges in their support of our Constitution, we would be a much-improved nation.

For, as Adams asks, “What other form of government, indeed, can so well deserve our esteem and love?”

A candidate who loves and esteems our form of government. Think of it! Not someone who has a particular agenda, but someone whose particular agenda is motivated by determination to fulfill our mandate as a democratic nation based on promoting natural rights.

That’s who to vote for. Too bad it’s not 1797.

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Truth v. Myth: Immigration

Posted on April 10, 2008. Filed under: Immigration, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , |

Myth: Immigration used to be good, but now it is bad.

Supporting myth:  Today immigrants are shiftless, lazy, and/or criminal, whereas they used to be hardworking people trying to make a better life for their children.

“Proof” of myth: Immigrants today don’t bother to learn English, want Spanish to be the official language of the U.S., and refuse to become legal U.S. citizens, working here illegally instead.


You know what I so often hear when Americans talk about immigration now?


1. They support anti-immigration laws.

2. Sure, their ancestors were immigrants, and they’re proud of that.

3. But their ancestors “followed the rules,” and therefore deserved to be here, while

4. Immigrants today have not followed the rules, and therefore do not deserve to be here.


This is a powerful myth. It seems to ring true. But do you know what the “rules” were for immigrants coming through Ellis Island for so many years? Look healthy and have your name listed on the register of the ship that brought you. That was it. “If the immigrant’s papers were in order and they were in reasonably good health, the Ellis Island inspection process would last approximately three to five hours. The inspections took place in the Registry Room (or Great Hall), where doctors would briefly scan every immigrant for obvious physical ailments. Doctors at Ellis Island soon became very adept at conducting these ‘six second physicals.’


When I visited the Ellis Island museum in 1991, I saw a film that said you also had to provide the address of a friend, sponsor, or family member who would take you in. And off you went.


So I don’t think we’re handing out prizes to past immigrants who followed those rules. They were pretty easy to follow. If that’s all we asked of Mexican immigrants today, we wouldn’t have illegal immigrants.


Immigrants today are faced with much more difficult rules. In other words, they actually face rules.


Go to Google and type in “requirements for U.S. citizenship.” I don’t know how many million pages come up. You petition for a Green Card—or rather, you have a family member already in the U.S. or a U.S. employer become your petitioner, and fill out the visa petition. Your employer-petitioner has to prove a labor certificate has been granted, that you have the education you need to do the job, that he can pay you, etc.


Then you’re on the waiting list—not to get a Green Card, but to apply for a Green Card.


I could go on and on. Basically, it’s much harder to get into the U.S. today than it was when most white Americans’ ancestors came through.


The problem with immigration today is the same as it was in 1840: each generation of Americans hates and fears the new immigrants coming in. In the 1850s, the Irish were the scary foreigners destroying the nation. In the 1880s it was the Italians. Then the Chinese, then the Eastern Europeans, then the Jews, now the Mexicans.


Each generation looks back to earlier immigrants as “good,” and views current immigrants as bad. In the 1880s, the Irish were angry at the incoming Italians. In the 1900s, the Italians were banning the Chinese from coming in. As each immigrant group settles in, it tries to keep the next group out.


It’s really time we ended this cycle. Here are some quick pointers:


1. Latin American immigrants are not qualitatively different than previous European immigrants.


2. Spanish-speaking immigrants do NOT refuse to learn English; in fact, the children of Spanish-speaking immigrants are less likely to speak the old language than the children of other groups (that is, more children of Chinese immigrants speak Chinese than children of Mexican immigrants speak Spanish).


3. Latin American immigrants do not all “break the rules” to get into the U.S. They are not all criminals living off the wealth of citizens’ tax dollars.


4. Your European immigrant ancestors (and mine!) honored nothing when they came to the U.S. but their desire to be here. They didn’t anxiously adhere to “the rules.” They did the bare, bare minimum that was asked of them, which was easy to do.


Immigration will always be with us—thank goodness! The only informed position on the challenges it poses is a historically informed position.

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Howard Zinn and Empire

Posted on April 9, 2008. Filed under: American history | Tags: , , , |

I’ve just read Howard Zinn’s latest article, “Empire or Humanity? What the Classroom Didn’t Teach Me About the American Empire.” I admire Howard Zinn, but I feel his critiques of America’s sins go only  halfway.

Zinn seems to have had the same experience learning about American history in school that I did: either you didn’t read anything negative, negative things were blandly presented as neutral, or negatives were horribly presented as positives.

For example, either you didn’t read about the Trail of Tears at all, or you just read something like “The Cherokees were removed from the southeast.” Or, you might even get a small celebration of it, like “Once the Cherokees were removed from the American southeast, settlers could take advantage of the rich land.”

Then, like me and most other people who come to love American history, Zinn started reading on his own, and finding out about the atrocities American governments and people have committed.

But Zinn seems to have accepted these atrocities as evidence that the idea that the United States was founded in an effort to promote justice and freedom is a lie. If you check back to my About page, you can read a fuller explanation of why I think this is a mistake.

Yes, Americans have done terrible things to each other and to other peoples. But those failures to live up to the principles we were founded on are just that–failures to live up to real principles that really were set up to guide our nation and make it a successful experiment in real democracy.

If, like Zinn, you see these failures as proof that America has always been a lie, that we have no real principles to live up to, then I believe you simply give yourself cynical permission to be morally lazy. If America was never really different from any other nation, if it has no uniquely good principles to live up to, then why care if we commit atrocities? Why care if we build an empire? If America has always been bad, how can you change it?

Zinn hopes that we have “reached a point in history where we are ready to embrace a new way of living in the world, expanding not our military power, but our humanity”. I get the feeling that he sees this place as a new beginning, to build up from. But we already have a blueprint and platform for living justly in the world–our founding documents, particulary the Constitution and Bill of Rights. We don’t have to make something new and unknown from scratch. We just have to live up to what we already have.

To quote myself, when it comes to our democracy, “we have to keep founding it, over and over, with every generation. Because it is unique. Liberty, equality, and justice for all goes against human nature. A nation founded on those ideals is always in danger of tripping, falling, and giving up. We must always do justice to those difficult ideals and principles for which we stand.”

So to read Zinn is just step one. Read Zinn! Learn the entire history of your nation. Face up to the problems of being an American today. But don’t stop there, depressed and demoralized, feeling like this country is the worst country in the history of the world. Hearken back to the principles we are supposed to uphold, and start upholding them. Then we will indeed reach a point where we can abandon our empire-building and bring good to the world. Like we’re supposed to.

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Truth v. Myth: Slavery in our democracy

Posted on April 8, 2008. Filed under: Truth v. Myth, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , |

Myth: Americans didn’t care about slavery, turning an indifferent eye to the sufferings of enslaved people.

Supporting myth:  We enslaved people.

“Proof” of myth: How could slavery go on for so long if people didn’t accept it?


How in the world did slavery exist in our representative democracy?


The minority of whites in America who enslaved people had a long tradition of looking out for their Lockeian possessions of property and labor. Virginia’s elected colonial legislature, the House of Burgesses, fought the colony’s royal governors constantly, rejecting taxes and other encroachments by the crown on Virginia’s independence—and wealth.


So these slaveholders really cared about liberty. No wonder Virginia spawned so many revolutionaries. But how could these men care so much about liberty and still hold slaves? The answer, as Edmund Morgan makes clear in his invaluable book American Slavery, American Freedom, is in a letter from Englishman Sir Augustus John Foster, who visited antebellum Virginia and said, “The Virginians can profess an unbounded love of liberty and of democracy in consequence of the mass of the people, who in other countries might become mobs, being there nearly altogether composed of their own Negro slaves…” (p. 380)


Why is this quote the answer to the riddle? Because it mentions mobs.


The men and women who ascribed to Locke’s ideas about natural rights applied those rights only to themselves and “their kind”: the wealthy and well-educated. Just as most people do today, Enlightenment thinkers believed that poor people were so crass and animalistic, so driven by the survival instinct, that they were completely unable to appreciate ideals. There was no educating a really poor person. The poor were really barely human.


Now when you have this dangerous, large group of uneducated, uneducatable poor people, who outnumber the educated 100,000 to 1, you have to make sure those dangerous poor uneducated people don’t rise up and ruin the status quo. Think about it: if the poor are unable to understand ideas and concepts, then the poor will never understand democracy or natural rights. They can never self-govern like they’re supposed to in a democracy. A democracy requires all of its citizens to be active, informed, self-disciplining (that is, willing to obey the law), and educated (you have to be able to read and write). Since there was “no way” to bring the poor to that level, the poor were nothing but dangerous to democracy. They will instead remain violent, anarchic, and destructive. And they will continue to constitute 98% of the population. 



So you can’t include those people in democracy; all you can do is contain them. Neutralize their threat. What better way than to enslave them? And indeed, plans for enslaving poor whites were proposed in England in the 1700s.


In America, that slavery was not hypothetical. Black Americans were actually enslaved. Slaveholders saw this as a break for democracy. If enslaved, black Americans could not threaten the new republic with their ignorance, violence, and blackness. They were contained.


So we go back to Foster’s statement and it makes sense: “The Virginians can profess an unbounded love of liberty and of democracy in consequence of the mass of the people, who in other countries might become mobs, being there nearly altogether composed of their own Negro slaves…” That is, because the masses, which are Negro in this case, are enslaved, they cannot become mobs destroying society and government. The free whites of Virginia are free to embrace democracy and liberty for themselves and their nation because those dangerous poor people are safely contained.


Thus we get some Founders who did not see that enslaving black Americans was inconsistent with liberty and justice for all. In fact, in their minds it was crucial to it. Picture a vast machine toiling underground, and a small wagon moving above ground. All that underground toil was required to move the wagon.


This is the horrible idea that people were at last starting to doubt in the revolutionary period. The British, after all, had said Americans were a rabble, not really citizens, and clearly unable to govern themselves. The British had been wrong. Now Americans were saying black people were a rabble, not really citizens, unable to govern themselves. Might not the Americans be wrong?


Those who felt the Americans were wrong ended their enslavement of black Americans. Those who felt the Americans were not wrong pointed out that they, white Americans, were charged with a beyond-precious responsibility: introducing democracy to the human race. They should be very cautious about offering citizenship in that democracy to people who were “incapable of defending it and might become a means of destroying it. If the poor were already enslaved, would it not be wise to keep them so?” (p. 385) What was worse: enslaving 200,000 people in Virginia, or setting them loose on the nation, to beg in the streets and join mobs and become henchmen for or dupes of unscrupulous politicians who would use their mob power to seize control of the government and revert it to dictatorship?


Think about it, said the pro-slavery skeptics. Most black Americans are uneducated, desperate, and friendless. The first white person who gives them a buck and a drink will win their undying loyalty. And if that white person asks them to loot a store or raze the postmaster’s office or kill the governor, what black person wouldn’t want to wreak some revenge on the whites who enslaved him? Black people have a chip on their shoulder, said the skeptics. Set them loose with no skills and hearts full of anger, and you’re not going to like what you see.


We’d love to end slavery, they said. We see that it’s not consistent with democracy’s principles. But it’s just too late to undo slavery’s ill effects, so you have to choose: the problems slavery causes (a sometimes guilty conscience), or the problems ending slavery will cause (rioting, rape, murder, fire, dictatorship). Which will you choose?


These were repellent yet powerful arguments during the revolutionary and founding period. Like democracy itself, ending slavery was for many whites a radical experiment whose outcome no one knew for sure.


So how could slavery exist in our democracy? With difficulty. Even as many Americans (increasingly located in the southern states) argued that it was crucial to democracy, more and more Americans were coming to realize, often uncomfortably, that slavery was a slap in the face to democracy. The argument would not end, the nation would not rest easy about slavery—ever. It would not be long—the span of one long life—before the compromises with slavery in the 1787 constitution tore the union’s political system apart, and culminated in civil war.



Myth: Americans didn’t care about slavery, turning an indifferent eye to the sufferings of enslaved people.

Truth:  There was never a time in the life of the United States when slavery was not a tough issue.

Damage done when we believe in a myth: Believing this myth makes us think we will never end racism and prejudice, because America has always callously embraced both; that Americans just don’t care about equality, and it’s impossible to get justice in America. But if we believe this, we’re just giving ourselves permission to be prejudiced and racist. It’s permission to be inactively angry, to say that criticizing the U.S. as hopelessly hypocritical is actually an action. But it’s not. Cynicism is lazy, and if you see racism and prejudice, you have to fight it, not say “Oh, that’s just how America is.” Because it isn’t now, and it wasn’t then. That’s not the American way.

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