Stop saying “slaves”, “Union”, and “Compromise of 1850”—they’re all inaccurate
We were delighted to find this article on the History News Network: “There are words scholars should no longer use to describe slavery and the Civil War”, by Michael Todd Landis, an Assistant Professor of History at Tarleton State University. You need to go read it yourself, and not just because it affirms our decision here at the HP to refuse to use the word “slave” (see Why I don’t talk about black slaves in America). It’s important because we all know that terminology is the best weapon in any fight. Are people who oppose abortion anti-choice or pro-life? The first is negative, the second positive. Establishing the labels “right to life” and “pro-life” was the smartest thing anti-abortion advocates ever did, because those subjective labels skewed the public perception of what was being debated and what was at stake.
Labels created today go down in history and do the same thing: they shape how we think about past events. Let’s let Dr. Landis take over from here:
…We no longer call the Civil War “The War Between the States,” nor do we refer to women’s rights activists as “suffragettes,” nor do we call African-Americans “Negroes.” Language has changed before, and I propose that it should change again.
Legal historian Paul Finkelman (Albany Law) has made a compelling case against the label “compromise” to describe the legislative packages that avoided disunion in the antebellum era. …Instead of the “Compromise of 1850,” which implies that both North and South gave and received equally in the bargains over slavery, the legislation should be called the “Appeasement of 1850.” Appeasement more accurately describes the uneven nature of the agreement. In 1849 and 1850, white Southerners in Congress made demands and issued threats concerning the spread and protection of slavery, and, as in 1820 and 1833, Northerners acquiesced: the slave states obtained almost everything they demanded, including an obnoxious Fugitive Slave Law, enlarged Texas border, payment of Texas debts, potential spread of slavery into new western territories, the protection of the slave trade in Washington, DC, and the renunciation of congressional authority over slavery. The free states, in turn, received almost nothing (California was permitted to enter as a free state, but residents had already voted against slavery). Hardly a compromise!
Likewise, scholar Edward Baptist (Cornell) has provided new terms with which to speak about slavery. In his 2014 book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books), he rejects “plantations” (a term pregnant with false memory and romantic myths) in favor of “labor camps”; instead of “slave-owners” (which seems to legitimate and rationalize the ownership of human beings), he uses “enslavers.” Small changes with big implications. These far more accurate and appropriate terms serve his argument well, as he re-examines the role of unfree labor in the rise of the United States as an economic powerhouse and its place in the global economy. In order to tear down old myths, he eschews the old language.
This excerpt reveals how powerful language that has been handed down for hundreds of years can be. Landis also advocates dropping “the Union” because this upholds the Confederate claim that the United States ceased to exist during the Civil War.
There are many words and phrases that were carefully crafted to shape perception that we use unthinkingly today: reservation, the opening of the West, Japanese internment camps, inner city, Gilded Age, carpetbagger, housing projects, robber baron, etc. Some are euphemisms (reservation, opening), some have become joke terms that imply that the people or issue in question a) weren’t that bad and b) don’t matter anymore because they have forever disappeared from our society when they haven’t (Gilded Age, robber baron). Some are vicious insults created by racists frantic at the notion that someone might help black people (carpetbagger). Others originally meant “poor, dangerous black people” and now are utterly meaningless (inner city, housing project). And don’t get us started on the meaningless parasite that “community” has become.
If you read the HP, you know we’re all about truth defeating myth, so we welcome the movement to speak accurately and honestly and fearlessly about our history, and we urge you to make your own changes and take back your history and your present-day reality.