Slavery

Finding your roots: aka Ted Danson and more Anne Hutchinson myth-making

Posted on October 18, 2017. Filed under: 17th century America, Historians, Puritans, Slavery, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Way back in 2014 we turned our attention to the PBS series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The series in itself is interesting, but we had two issues with that particular episode: it presented myths as history; and some of its guests were remarkably—suspiciously, even–ignorant of extremely well-known stories of American history. (To be fair, TLC’s series “Who do you think you are?” had the same issues.)

The problems this time were with actor Ted Danson. Danson is descended from Anne Hutchinson. If there is one Puritan most Americans have heard of, it is Hutchinson, because we are taught in school that she was a heroic early feminist who was arrested for hosting meetings with other women in her home to pray, which was illegal in Puritan times, and that she was accused of treason and feminism. In court she ably defended herself against sexist Puritan leaders and stood up for liberty of conscience, but was cruelly banished.

If you are a constant reader of the HP you know that we have covered Hutchinson pretty thoroughly, particularly in our three-part Truth v. Myth series What did Anne Hutchinson believe? So we won’t go deeply into that here, but give you an excerpt (which is still pretty long, but not three whole posts’ worth). If you already know the truth about Hutchinson, skip this primer and move on to our episode recap below it:

Hutchinson believed that God would suddenly appear to you and let you know if you were saved. God would approach you directly. …This [made] sermons, ministers, study groups, and prayer obsolete. None of these things were necessary if God was simply going to tell you if you were saved.

Even more dangerously, Hutchinson believed that if you were saved, Christ dwelled within you—literally. You became Christ. This was her interpretation of the scripture “Jesus Christ is come in the flesh”. Therefore, those who were truly saved could not do wrong: if they lied, or stole, or even killed someone, it could not be counted as sin because all these were acts of Christ himself. Hutchinson, therefore, wanted to overthrow the law itself. Christ is not subject to human law, so no one who is truly saved can be subject to the law.

…The cult-like qualities of Hutchinson’s beliefs become clear. Anyone in her group, and of course she herself, was perfected by becoming Christ and could do no wrong, was not bound by any law, and had no social or legal obligations to anyone outside the group. She alone could tell who was really saved, and, crucially, anyone who criticized her or her followers was clearly the Antichrist…

So often Hutchinson is portrayed by historians as a generous and compassionate soul who wanted everyone to have a personal relationship with God, but was struck down by mean and sexist Puritans who told people they were dirt in God’s eyes. This comes from a failure to read the documents of her time, including her own court testimony and the petitions written by her followers, which make it very clear that there was no such thing as a personal relationship with God for Hutchinson: you either were God yourself or you were the antichrist, and she was ready to declare 90% of the Puritans to be antichrists and deal with them accordingly.

The meetings Hutchinson held in her home in which she expounded her beliefs quickly grew to include up to 80 of people at at time anxious to know their status. We are often told that the Puritan hierarchy cracked down on her because she was a woman, and women could not hold these kinds of meetings, but this is untrue. Women could and did hold meetings to discuss sermons they heard, and those meetings were allowed, even at the height of the Hutchinson controversy. The problem with Anne Hutchinson’s meetings was that she did not use them to parse sermons but to claim that all of the ministers in New England were sinners, unfit to preach, except for John Cotton, minister at Boston and her beloved mentor.

…Much is made of Hutchinson’s trial because she was a woman. But women appeared in Puritan courts constantly, as plaintiffs and defendants, and were given equal treatment. And if we read the court transcripts we see that Hutchinson was accused of exactly the same things as the men—slandering the ministers. Yes, her weekly meetings were also charged against her, but not because women couldn’t have meetings. The charges were that a) she attracted hundreds of people, which created civil unrest by fueling mobs; b) she did not use her meetings to parse sermons but to attack ministers and others; and c) that she took it upon herself to instruct men of higher rank than herself. The last point is the only one that we can describe as sexist.

…Over two days, Hutchinson was tried. She was a very intelligent person who handled her defense well, but after lengthy questioning she was accused in court by ministers who had met with her in the spring of slandering them to their faces. She denied this charge, and called on John Cotton, the one minister she had not slandered, to testify on her behalf.  He hesitated. Cotton declared that “he was much grieved that she should make such comparison between him and his brethren, but yet he took her meaning to be only of a gradual difference”. That is, perhaps what  Hutchinson had meant to say was that although the other ministers weren’t as good as him, they weren’t damned. But then Cotton said that since he did not remember everything that was said, he would take the word of the other ministers who remembered Hutchinson saying they were under a covenant of works. Perhaps Cotton trembled to commit perjury in court. Maybe he could not look at the faces of the ministers all around him and claim that they had lied. For whatever reason, Cotton validated the testimony of the other ministers, albeit as weakly as he possibly could, and did what he could to shield Hutchinson.

…Hutchinson began talking about how God had revealed herself to her, “and made her know what she had to do”. Governor John Winthrop, “perceiving whereabout she went, interrupted her, and would have kept her to the matter in hand, but seeing her very unwilling to be taken off, he permitted her to proceed.” The last thing Winthrop wanted was to give a soapbox to this charismatic woman. He saw that the Court was at last making headway on the charge of slandering the ministers, and wanted to keep that “matter in hand” now that there was sworn testimony that Hutchinson had committed sedition. We will never know what she did or said to make it clear to him that she was “very unwilling to be taken off”, but Hutchinson succeeded in being allowed to make her statement, and it is here that she condemned herself to banishment.

She began to preach her doctrine in the court, describing “the manner of God’s dealing with her, and how he revealed himself to her, and made her know what she had to do.” Hutchinson said she fought against the realization that all ministers were hypocrites for a full year until God

“…let me see how I did oppose Christ Jesus… [God] revealed to me… that [in New England] I should be persecuted and suffer much trouble… then the Lord did reveal himself to me, sitting upon a throne of justice, and all the world appearing before him, and though I must come to New England, yet I must not fear or be dismayed… The Lord spake this to me with a strong hand, and instructed me that I should not walk in the way of this people…”

Here Hutchinson is making two claims: first, that God revealed himself to her and therefore she is among the saved; second, that God showed her the whole world subjected to his justice, including New England, which God counted among the damned, and therefore she “should not walk in the way of [that] people.” Both claims are explosive. She went on to compare herself to Daniel in the lions’ den, and ended with a direct threat to the colony:

“…therefore take heed what ye go about to do unto me, for you have no power over my body, neither can you do me any harm, for I am in the hands of the eternal Jehovah my savior, I am at his appointment, the bounds of my habitation are cast in heaven, no further do I esteem of any mortal man, than creatures in his hand, I fear none but the great Jehovah, which hath foretold me of these things, and I do verily believe that he will deliver me out of your hands, therefore take heed how you proceed against me; for I know that for this you go about to do to me, God will ruin you and your posterity, and this whole state.”

Hutchinson’s speech damned her in several ways, civil and religious: it threatened violence against the state; it claimed direct revelation from God; it slandered the ministers; and it stated that Hutchinson was above human law. Any one of these claims would have justified banishment; put together, they shocked the magistrates and ministers who heard them deeply.

This easily merited the sentence of banishment. Her followers in Boston tried to save her, saying that she must have been tricked by the judges into making a statement she didn’t really believe. But when they met with her, Hutchinson reaffirmed her heresy, and made even bolder statements than before. Reluctantly, her church let her go.

Winthrop stayed the sentence of banishment that November because Hutchinson was pregnant. She did not leave Boston until March. Anne Hutchinson went to Rhode Island, where she managed to alienate even Roger Williams, and then to Long Island, where she died in an attack by Native Americans in 1643.

The judges in Hutchinson’s trial were tough, and they were hard on her. No quarter was given her for being a woman. They treated her as they would any heretic. But it’s hard to say she was treated unfairly. She got the same treatment as the men who came before her, and the same chance to lighten her sentence. She refused to recant, and expressed scorn for those who tried to reason with her both after her trial and months later, during her banishment, when a group was sent down to meet with her and see if she could be brought back into the fold.

There is the true story of Anne Hutchinson in a nutshell. We firmly believe that she would be bitterly disappointed, even outraged, to find out that she is remembered as a feminist fighting for women’s rights, or as a crusader for freedom of religion. Hutchinson was promoting something much, much larger—the godship of believers, and her own being as Christ on earth. She would not have considered herself a woman, but Christ made flesh, above the human body and human law. And she did not believe in any kind of religious freedom.

Ted Danson, however, was fed a pack of myths about his ancestor Anne Hutchinson. To watch the episode, from which we quote below, go to the Finding Your Roots website.

Gates begins with a truthful retelling of the story of Hutchinson’s beloved minister John Cotton and his flight from persecution in England to New England. But then, as Gates focuses on Hutchinson, it goes downhill:

GATES: Anne wasn’t your ordinary Puritan. Soon after her arrival in Massachusetts, she began organizing meetings in her home to pray with other women. She was taking a huge risk. This was not done. She was organizing women to think, to read. To interpret.

DANSON: Well done. Well done. I like that.

GATES: And not everyone, Ted, was amused.

DANSON: No, I imagine not. How’d her husband do?

GATES: Let’s find out how the whole town did.

DANSON: Oh really? Oh no, don’t burn her. Please don’t burn her.

—We realize, at this point, that Ted Danson has no idea who Anne Hutchinson is. This is so surprising. She is, as we’ve said, the one Puritan you can be sure everyone has heard of. But Danson has no idea that Hutchinson even got into trouble for her “illegal” meetings, let alone that she became famous for them.

We should stop to say that we liked Ted Danson a lot in this episode, notably when he refused to soften his rejection of a slaveholding ancestor even as Gates tried twice to get him to do so since that ancestor let the person he enslaved work for wages and buy his freedom. “No, I get it,” Danson said, cutting Gates off. It just didn’t change things, and we appreciated seeing Danson stand by that understanding.

Gates continues with a bit of truth: that Hutchinson began using her meetings to criticize the ministers. If he was told this by his researchers, why did he pretend that her meetings caused trouble because she encouraged women to “think and read”? Clearly the Finding Your Roots team knows zero about the Puritans, or else they would know that all Puritans, man and woman, boy and girl, were not only urged but required to learn to read, so they could read their Bibles, and that “thinking” and interpreting were the bread and butter of all Puritan society and religion–for everyone.

“It was heresy, man, it was so radical,” Gates continues, but he doesn’t know why. He thinks it was heresy and radical because she was a woman. But as we see from the many men who also stood trial, anyone who slandered the ministers was in trouble in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Slander was, and is, a crime. The heresy wasn’t about feminism, it was about theology.

“This woman is famous,” Gates remarks; “Big-time famous.” But Danson does not get any light bulbs. “I love this,” he says, clearly referring to the fact that he is learning about this woman for the first time. It’s just baffling. Zooey Deschanel on TLC had never heard of the Fugitive Slave Act, and Mary Steenburgen, in the same PBS episode as her husband Danson, had never heard of the infamous and horrific Andersonville prisoner of war camp of the Civil War, and that’s pretty bad. But Anne Hutchinson? We thought everyone had heard of her by now.

Gates says that Hutchinson created a crisis by claiming that God spoke to her directly and by saying that she could interpret Scripture on her own. Again, the first is true, and the second was beyond commonplace for women in Puritan New England. It was something you were required to do—it’s fair to say that a Puritan woman who failed to interpret Scripture was more likely to be hassled by her society.

Gates has Danson read a bit of the trial transcript, including Winthrop’s statement that Hutchinson was on trial for her meetings which were “not comely in the sight of God, nor fitting for your sex.” Those are two separate things: meeting to slander the ministers was not acceptable in the sight of God. Teaching men in the meetings, as she did, was not fitting for a woman. But Gates repeats the last statement to “prove” that the trial was all about women not being allowed to meet, read, or even think, which leads Danson to say “Shame, shame on them.”

Gates then says Hutchinson was arrested for disturbing the peace, slandering the ministers, holding unauthorized home meetings, “and finally, just being a woman with too much sass.” The truth is that she was tried for slandering the ministers only, and the sass comment really denigrates not only the true story of Hutchinson, but her intelligence and integrity: even if her views were fairly repellent, she was honest about them and believed in them. She believed she was on a godly mission. None of this has anything to do with being a “sassy lady,” and calling her that erases Hutchinson as a person and replaces her with a stereotype that is, ironically, sexist.

“The men who judged her come to America for religious freedom,” Gates goes on. “Talk about hypocrites!” The first claim is not true—the Puritans came to America to practice their own religion freely, which is very different–and the second is ridiculous. Slander has nothing to do with religious freedom. She did slander the ministers, but it was the act of slander, not the target of the slander, that mattered.

Sadly, this pack of lies does a terrible number on Danson, who says “It’s funny; I’m more emotional now and angry about this than pretty much anything I’ve read so far.” That includes the story of his ancestor being a slaveholder. Shockingly, Gates replies, “Yeah, you should be.” If anyone should walk away from this show angry about something, it’s breeding human beings for sale, not some cooked-up story about puritan sexism.

Gates then has Danson read a section of the trial transcript we have above in our excerpt:

DANSON: “You have no power over my body, neither can you do me any harm…” [emotional sound] Wow. “…for I am in the hands of the eternal Jehovah my savior, I am at his appointment therefore take heed how you proceed against me; for I know that for this you go about to do to me, God will ruin you and your posterity, and this whole state.”

Well, she fought back! “You may kill me, but you and the whole state are going to do down.”

GATES: Yeah.

DANSON: I love the first part: “You have no power over my body, neither can you do me any harm, for I am in the hands of the eternal Jehovah my savior.”

GATES: It’s extraordinary.

DANSON: It almost felt like Joan of Arc–you have no power over my body.

GATES: Very much a Joan of Arc kind of figure.

DANSON: Very happy, very happy about that.

—The full quote from Hutchinson, of course, is more damning and less “Joan of Arc”. The part Danson skipped is in bold:

…therefore take heed what ye go about to do unto me, for you have no power over my body, neither can you do me any harm, for I am in the hands of the eternal Jehovah my savior, I am at his appointment, the bounds of my habitation are cast in heaven, no further do I esteem of any mortal man, than creatures in his hand, I fear none but the great Jehovah, which hath foretold me of these things, and I do verily believe that he will deliver me out of your hands, therefore take heed how you proceed against me; for I know that for this you go about to do to me, God will ruin you and your posterity, and this whole state.

It’s pretty clear why this part was carefully trimmed by the researchers for Danson. It shows Hutchinson speaking as Christ in the flesh. She has no esteem for “any mortal man” because she is no longer mortal. She says, once again, the God has spoken directly to her, having “foretold me of these things.” And, as Danson ironically very clearly perceives, she is threatening the state (“the whole state is going to do down”). It is treason to threaten the civil state, and in the puritan civil state it was heresy to say God spoke to you directly and to call down his judgment on the state.

Gates concludes his fanciful retelling of the story by saying that Hutchinson spent the rest of her life “moving around the eastern seaboard”—a euphemism for being thrown out of Roger William’s colony in today’s Rhode Island for causing the same kind of civil and religious strife she had in Massachusetts. And he goes on to do two things at once: compound the error of his myth-making, and once again fail to awaken Ted Danson to the fact that Hutchinson is very famous. “This is a real heroine,” he says; “I mean, I learned about her in elementary school.” But Danson just replies by saying that while he admires men, he would always rather be with and talk to women. “It’s really interesting to know about Anne,” he concludes, still seeming to think she is a figure plucked from the darkness of history.

How we wish that Danson would learn the truth about his ancestor. He would learn about the first serious challenge to the puritan state in America, how it rose to that challenge and used it to craft the first separation of church and state in English America, and how one intelligent and charismatic person can turn a society on its head. He doesn’t have to be ashamed of Hutchinson. But knowing the real story would tell him so much more about who she really was, and why she really matters, within his family tree and beyond.

 

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How the cotton gin advanced slavery

Posted on September 19, 2017. Filed under: Civil Rights, Civil War, Slavery | Tags: , , , , , |

We’re going to get from Eli Whitney to your smart phone in one post here, so look sharp.

We all learn about Eli Whitney’s cotton gin in high school. It was a cotton-cleaning machine that could pull the seeds from the cotton itself, a job that used to be done by hand and took a very long time. Whitney introduced his machine in 1794, it caught on in isolated tests, and by the 1820s it was being mass-produced.

This image is the one we usually see, even though it is a proto-gin that came before Whitney’s invention:

The artist clearly had a positive view of slavery as well as the gin. The enslaved man on the left gazes in happy wonder as the gin cleans the cotton, and the enslaved woman on the right is similarly content. The enslaved child looks on with curiosity, perhaps hoping his day to run the gin will come soon.

What we really want to focus on, though, is the scale: one enslaved woman is hauling one bale of cotton to one machine run by two men. The enslaved Americans work in a small area and have a small basket to catch the cleaned cotton (the woman on the right is carrying it away). Okay, we have to interrupt for one small note on sex: why are the women doing the heavy work of hauling while two men get to do the easy work of running the machine? Clearly sex and gender stereotypes are preserved, even for enslaved black Americans, as men do the “technical” work that women are not smart enough to do.

That said, we move back to scale, and the real impact of the cotton gin. It made cleaning cotton faster. Cotton is a perishable crop. It rots. It was urgent to get cotton out of the fields, cleaned, and baled for sale and a long overland or sea voyage to the northern  factories that would spin it into cloth before rain and heat and insects ruined it. Cotton growers had to set aside weeks for cotton cleaning, which meant they had to reverse engineer the crop: grow only as much cotton as their enslaved laborers could quickly harvest, then clean and bale.

The cotton gin changed all that. Growers did not have to set aside weeks for cotton cleaning, and so they took that saved time and put it into planting and harvesting. Seeds of Conflict says that the cotton gin expanded cotton production from 750,000 bales in 1830 to 2.85 million bales in 1850.

If cotton growers are planting, harvesting, and cleaning more cotton, and they rely on slave labor, then clearly they need to enslave more people to do that work. Jeremy Smith says that “the number of slaves [sic] rose in concert with the increase in cotton production, increasing from around 700,000 in 1790 to around 3.2 million in 1850.”

So if any enslaved Americans were happy to be relieved of the tedious and high-pressure job of cleaning cotton by hand, that happiness was short-lived, as enslavers increased their efforts to generate more enslaved workers. The U.S. had ended its participation in the African slave trade on January 1, 1808, which meant there were no longer ships carrying Africans to be enslaved in the U.S. arriving multiple times a year. New enslaved people had to be created through “natural increase”–enslaved people having children. The true engine of slavery, breeding human beings for sale, went into high gear, as enslaved Americans were forced to reproduce, and even those who had children outside of forced breeding were forced to give them up for sale. There could not be anything less “natural” than the methods by which enslavers increased the enslaved population.

Too often that real and horrible impact of the cotton gin is ignored or underplayed in history books. The story of human history since the dawn of the Industrial Age is one of living in a manichean world wherein the undeniable benefits of industrialization come inextricably entwined with the undeniable crimes of industrialization. No one wants to live in a world without industrialization, and there’s no reason to, because the benefits don’t really have to be accompanied by injustice and slavery. Refusing to turn a blind eye to all of the impacts and implications of technology is the key.

So to jump to the 21st century, the next time you’re tempted to upgrade your smart phone every year for no reason, think about the electronic waste you’re creating, and the (mostly) child labor force in Asia that melts down that waste in the “recycling” process, exposing themselves to heavy metal poisoning, and do something to help break up the unholy marriage of technology and injustice.

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The 2017 Fugitive Slave Act

Posted on September 8, 2017. Filed under: Civil Rights, Immigration, Slavery, What History is For | Tags: , , |

We’re re-running this post because, sadly, it is more relevant than ever after the blow to DACA this past week. People who participate in DACA give all of their information (country of birth, birth date, any IDs like a driver’s license, home address, relatives’ names and addresses, etc.) to the federal government in return for its aid. Now that information might be used against them, to locate and deport them and their families. It’s one more way in which a federal act filters down to local law enforcement, which filters down to all of us, just as the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act did:

 

We’re interrupting our series on Barack Obama’s Farewell Address once again, but this time not because it was removed from whitehouse.gov, along with pages on civil rights, healthcare, and climate science, by the Trump Administration. Instead, we are struck by how much the war on Latin American immigrants (and this one group is the real focus of  anti-immigrant activism in this country) reminds us of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act (also known as the Fugitive Slave Law).

We learn about the FSA when we learn about the Compromise of 1850, of which it was a part. To pacify proslavery forces who were angry that California was allowed to enter the Union as a free state, the Compromise allowed slaveholding and trading to continue in Washington, DC, and upheld the “rights” of slaveholders to their “property”—enslaved people—throughout the Union.

This meant that if you lived in, say, Wisconsin, and had voted to pass personal liberty laws in your state outlawing slavery, those laws were overturned. Slavery would be upheld in “free” states, because slaveholders were allowed to enter free states and reclaim escaped people, and even pick up black citizens who had never been enslaved—the word of the slaveholder was accepted over the word of the black citizen and even the white citizens of the state. Whites were forced by the law to help slave-catchers, they were fined and jailed for failing to do so, or for helping an escapee, and whites were forced to live with the rescinding of the personal liberty laws they had voted for on a state level. Thus, slavery was basically enforced in every state of the Union, and outrage over this was expressed by many Northerners who had previously been publicly neutral about slavery.

If the Fugitive Slave Act was all about enslaved blacks, asked Northerners, why was it fining, jailing, and threatening free whites? Why did it seem to focus just as much on attacking the liberties of northern white citizens as it did on preventing black Americans from gaining their liberty? It was just another example of the slave power perverting democracy and threatening free government.

When we hear people today, in 2017, talking about the laws and acts they are going to put in place to stop the alleged democracy-killing overflow of Spanish-speaking immigration to the United States, they sound a lot like people who would have liked the Fugitive Slave Act. Here is an NPR interview with Brandon Judd, president of the union that represents U.S. Border Patrol agents, the National Border Patrol Council, which endorsed Trump during the campaign, from yesterday:

INSKEEP: What do you think about the president’s effort to compel, if he can, local and state authorities to be more helpful to the Border Patrol and immigration authorities in doing their jobs and rounding up people who are here illegally?

JUDD: Well – so my understanding is that he’s not compelling them to help us round them up. But what he is saying is if they come in contact, if a police officer, say, from Phoenix Police Department – if a police officer from the Phoenix, Ariz., police department comes in contact with somebody that he knows is here or suspects that is here illegally, then his responsibility is to contact an immigration enforcement officer to come in and find out. It’s the same with me. As a Border Patrol agent, if I make a vehicle stop and I find that illegal activity is taking place outside of the laws that I enforce…

INSKEEP: Drunk driver for example.

JUDD: Exactly – it’s my responsibility to call the local law – the local law enforcement so that they can come out and take care of the problem.

INSKEEP: Are we not actually arguing about that much then? Because there are local authorities who are saying, yeah, yeah, if we find somebody who’s obviously in violation, we have to turn them over, but we do not want to make that our job. We don’t want it to be our job to seek them out or to hold people when otherwise there would not be reason to hold them.

JUDD: And it’s not going to be their job. It’s not going to be their job to go seek out illegal immigrants in the United States. That is immigrations officers’ jobs and it’s not theirs. But if they do come in contact with people that are in the country illegally, they should have a responsibility and duty to report people that are breaking the law.

Judd’s statements are disingenuous. How would that police office in Phoenix “know” that someone he meets is “here illegally” without a mechanism in place to track all immigrants and make their data available at all times to police, and require the police to consult it? There’s no way to “know” someone is a legal immigrant or not without looking up their information, which means asking/forcing the person you have “come in contact with” to give you their name, address, etc. And of course, “come in contact” with is blandly disingenuous as well: when do police officers “come in contact” with people? We’d wager that 95% of the time it’s by stopping them on the premise of a violation of the law. Judd himself puts contact in the context of a vehicle stop. So already we have a question of who is being stopped and why which has, of course, been asked for over a century in this country, beginning with black Americans stopped by police for no reason and extending to brown Americans getting the same treatment.

The reporter’s characterization of police officers resisting being turned into immigrant-catchers is in line with all white Americans being forced into being slave-catchers in 1850. Judd says it won’t be the police officer’s job to “seek out illegal immigrants”, but reiterates that police officers who don’t turn in people who are here illegally are violating their duty and the law. If you get in trouble for failing to do something, you will find ways to do it. If police officers will be sanctioned for failing to turn in illegal immigrants, they will begin turning in illegal immigrants. They will look at the data, identify people here illegally in their cities and towns, stop them on another pretext, and turn them in.

And if the police must do this, eventually they will enlist the general public in helping them to do this. They will paint all immigrants here illegally as murderers, as Judd does later in the interview by saying “I think the country is going to be a lot safer. I really do, yes, absolutely. I mean, I was there with what they call the angel families, families that had children that were killed by persons that were in the United States illegally.” And once all illegal immigrants are child-murderers, it will be against the law not to seek them out and turn them in, for everyone.

And then we are all slave-catchers.

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George Washington had slaves

Posted on August 17, 2017. Filed under: American history, Slavery, The Founders | Tags: , , , , , |

We depart from our long-held commitment to refusing to talk about black slavery in America in order to make a point and address a worryingly common argument.

When Trump said yesterday that the anti-Nazi protesters in Charlottesville were worse than the Nazis, he put it this way:

…there were people protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. …the following day it looked they had had some rough, bad people–neo-Nazis, white nationalists, whatever you want to call them, but you had a lot of people in that group who were there to innocently protest…

So this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?

This is the insidious poison of fascism: making false equivalences. We have to admit that when we first heard this, we thought that Trump was saying Lee and Jackson, Confederate generals, were heroes in the same way Washington was–military leaders, great Americans.

But it’s actually worse than that: he gives voice to the false equivalence that since Washington enslaved people, he and the Confederates had the same beliefs, the same goals, and the same impact on this nation.

This lie was ably debunked by Ilya Somin, a law professor at George Mason University, on NPR news:

SIEGEL: What clearly distinguishes a Robert E. Lee statue from a George Washington statue or a Thomas Jefferson statue since all those men owned slaves?

SOMIN: There are two big distinctions. One, nobody honors George Washington precisely for the fact that he owned slaves, whereas the Confederate leaders, when they’re honored, are honored almost entirely for their service to the Confederacy, which was created for a purpose of perpetuating and extending slavery.

Second, while I think it’s very much correct to criticize the Founding Fathers for owning slaves, those of them who did, they also had great achievements in other areas which do legitimately deserve honor. By contrast, the Confederate leaders – very few of them would be remembered today but for what they did in the Civil War to protect slavery.

When we honor Washington, we honor him for his selfless devotion and unceasing effort in the fight to establish democracy in this country. We honor his refusal to become king when it was offered to him. We honor his wise leadership.

The list of achievements accruing to Confederate leaders is quite different. They promoted slavery, first and foremost. They were traitors to their country. They helped create the de facto enslavement of black Americans in their states after the Civil War.

That’s why statues of these people should never have been allowed to stand in this country. Somin goes on to address this:

SIEGEL: One of the arguments that’s heard is that a statue of Robert E. Lee reminds us of a dark chapter in our past, that it’s part of our history. Removing it is akin to erasing history. Does that argument hold any water for you?

SOMIN: I don’t think so. We should definitely remember this period in our history. And in fact, nobody proposes that we forget. But there’s a big difference between remembering history and honoring people who fought in defense of slavery. And what these statues do is they honor these people. They don’t simply commemorate them. If the goal was just simply to remember what happened, that could be done with museums, or that could be done with more appropriate public monuments, ones that actually acknowledge the evil of slavery.

The statues of Lee, Jackson, and all the rest of them are not reminders of the past, they are loving tributes, often hysterical in their lamentations over the Lost Cause. The honor and courage of all Confederates are consistently vaunted, as on this memorial in Tampa, Florida:

confederate 2

Enough is enough. It’s time to end the myth that the Civil War was begun by the Confederacy for any other reason than to promote slavery, and to end all false equivalencies that would connect George Washington with men who had no qualms about enslaving their fellow Americans.

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Robert E. Lee was not a hero, white supremacists are not Americans

Posted on August 16, 2017. Filed under: Civil Rights, Civil War, Politics, Slavery, The Founders, Truth v. Myth, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , |

There is no need to be careful about this. Anyone who served in the armies of the Confederate States of America was a traitor to the United States; anyone who led those armies all the more so. They were part of an armed rebellion against the U.S., which is the definition of treason.

That in itself is enough. But the fact that Confederates were fighting to protect and advance slavery, to create a slave state, means their rebellion was not just political, against the political entity that was the United States, but ethical, moral, and philosophical. They specifically rebelled against the U.S. move to end slavery of black Americans, and just as American abolitionists and antislaveryites based their work to end slavery on moral principle enshrined in the Constitution—that “all men are created equal”–American proslaveryites based their work to continue and expand slavery on a rebellion against that American principle.

The Confederacy was explicitly founded to protect and promote slavery. Its leaders made absolutely no secret of that at the time (see Charles Dew’s Apostles of Disunion for all the evidence from primary sources that you need). As Confederate vice-president Alexander H. Stephens said in his famous “Cornerstone speech“,

…the new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. [Thomas] Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. …The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. …Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. [Applause.] This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind — from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics; their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just — but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails.

I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal. [our emphasis]

We quote Stephens at nauseating length to show that the Confederacy was explicitly dedicated to the anti-American principle that non-white people are biologically inferior to white people. The Confederates themselves expressed it this way, as a rejection of and rebellion against the Founders’ plan and hope that slavery would inevitably end the United States because it was “wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically”, and the United States would not tolerate this because the nation was founded on the principle of equality.

Why does this matter now, on August 16, 2017? Because Stephens still has followers in this country. The Confederacy still has supporters. There are still people living in this country who do not support our Constitution or our law, or any of our founding principles. They call themselves Americans, and most were born here, but they are not. Americans are dedicated to the founding principles of the United States of America, which include the premise that all men are created equal. Anyone who fights this is not American.

And the man currently holding the title of President of the United States is one of them. Donald Trump is no American. He is, clearly, a Confederate president, taking up the torch from Alexander Stephens. In his press conference after a white supremacist/KKK/Nazi rally in Charlottesville, VA in which one woman was killed while protesting against the racist rally, Trump said that Americans protesting fascism were just as bad, and in some ways worse, than Nazis posing as Americans, and he took the fascist side:

What about the people of the alt-left, as they came charging at the alt-right, as you call them? [shouts] What about the fact that they came charging, they came charging with clubs in their hands swinging clubs? Do they have any problem? I think they do.

As far as I’m concerned, that was a horrible, horrible day… wait a minute; I’m not finished. I’m not finished, fake news. That was a horrible day. …I will tell you, I watched this closely, more closely than any of you people, and you had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that, but I’ll say it right now. I think there’s blame on both sides and I don’t have any doubt about it and you don’t have any doubt either.

…there were people protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. …the following day it looked they had had some rough, bad people–neo-Nazis, white nationalists, whatever you want to call them, but you had a lot of people in that group who were there to innocently protest…

So this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?

Our quotes for all but the last paragraph were taken from video on Fox News’ website. So far as we saw the Fox News coverage did not include the last statement. Their commentator did describe these statements by Trump as part of a “brave and honest press conference, he pulled no punches… brutally honest, maybe too honest.”

Honest. We can’t help thinking of Stephens gloating that the premise that all people are created equal had finally been debunked as a fantasy, as fanaticism. If it’s “honest” to say that American protesting fascism are the criminals, and the fascists are the true Americans, innocent Americans, then we have entered a second civil war—or a second Confederate States of America, brought into being without a shot fired in official war.

For over 150 years, the citizens of the United States perpetrated a dangerous wrong by allowing statues of traitors who fought against the U.S. politically and morally, traitors who were dedicated to the lie that all people are not created equal, to stand. “Oh, it’s not about slavery,” people would say; “it’s just their culture.” We once heard someone say there are no statues to Nazi leaders in Germany. Why are there memorials to Confederate leaders in the United States? Now we see the result of 150 years of dedicated fighting after Appomattox by people who will never be real Americans, and a concentrated effort over the last 50 years, since the Civil Rights movement, to revive the Confederate States of America.

Needless to say, we can’t give in. While Trump has basically invited and urged Nazis to show up when the statue of Jackson is taken down, and has given new hope and excitement to Nazis in America, we Americans have to fight. It’s much harder to fight a guerrilla war than it was to go into actual battle during the Civil War. Right now the best path is to meet the Nazis wherever they go, and not remain a silent majority.

Every nation has a fraction of its population that urges fascism and hatred. Sometimes they manage to monopolize the microphone and take up more space in the media than their numbers justify. Now is such a time in the U.S. Now is the time to muscle these people back into the shadows if we can’t drive them out of the country. That’s the “brutally honest” truth.

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“Most slave families were headed by two parents”, and other lies

Posted on June 30, 2017. Filed under: Civil War, Politics, Slavery, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

Welcome to part the last of our short series of excerpts from the high school textbook American History: A Survey wherein we finish by giving an example of the damage done by history textbooks that are inaccurate at best, harmful at worst.

Inside Higher Ed recently reported on a dispute over a sociology test given at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Lecturer Judy Morelock was challenged by student Kayla Renee Parker:

sociology question

This reasonable question seems to have been quickly escalated into bitterness by the instructor, as evidenced by her postings on Facebook: “After the semester is over and she is no longer my student, I will post her name, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn … after she graduates, all bets are off,” “I don’t forget malevolent attempts to harm me. #karmawillfindyou,” and “Ignore the facts, promote a misinformed viewpoint, trash me and I will fight you.”  Ms. Morelock says some of these comments were not about Ms. Parker.

Ms. Parker blames “outdated research that ‘whitewashes’ the realities of slavery to back up her argument”. We would add inaccurate, whitewashed American history textbooks to that list. Where might an instructor have learned that “most slave families were headed by two parents”? Where might an instructor find quotes to back that myth up? American history textbooks. This is not just an issue with American History: A Survey. Textbook publishers are at the mercy of state boards of education and state school committees that decide which textbooks to purchase for every school in the state. The biggest states call the shots here, as they are the biggest moneymakers for the publishers, of course, so whatever version is approved by those large states is generally the version that goes to all states that buy the textbook.

Some of the biggest states are Texas, Florida, and Virginia. For over a century these southern states have argued with objective descriptions of slavery and Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the civil rights movement. Watered-down pap like we found in AH is the result. Unfortunate that it goes to those three states; worse that it goes to all states that buy the textbooks.

We see high school white-washing moving inevitably into intro-level college history survey courses. To state that “most slave families were headed by two parents” is preposterous. It erases the fact that enslaved black Americans were bred for sale like livestock, with healthy children sold away from their parents for a profit, and women who had recently given birth to healthy children sold immediately so they could be forced to have sex with “productive” enslaved men on other plantations while they were still young and fertile. Once Congress ended the slave trade in 1808, Africans could not be sold into slavery in the U.S. The enslaved population had to grow through reproduction alone. This was a death knell to enslaved black families. Enslaved families were broken up for profit, out of spite, and as a punishment. Marriages between enslaved people were not recognized by law in many states, and no enslaved person had any legal custody rights to their children. They, and their children, were legally defined as the property of the people who enslaved them.

It’s not “malevolent” to stand up to harmful lies about our nation’s history. Fight them wherever you find them, starting in high school.

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The myth of the North being “more racist” than the South

Posted on June 22, 2017. Filed under: Civil Rights, Civil War, Slavery, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , |

Welcome to part 3 of our short series of excerpts from the high school textbook American History: A Survey which deals with with one last reading from AH.

It’s a bitter irony that under the subheading “Black Abolitionists”, American History promotes the sickening myth that free black Americans living in the free states of the north before the Civil War were subject to more racism and worse living conditions than black Americans enslaved in the south:

Abolitionism had a particular appeal to the free blacks of the North, who in 1850 numbered about 250,000, mostly concentrated in cities. They lived in conditions of poverty and oppression often worse than those of their slave counterparts in the South.

—…if free black Americans were worse off than enslaved black Americans, why would abolitionism appeal to them? This logical fallacy begins a section that only gets worse.

We are getting this message for the second time; you’ll recall in part 1 of this series AH pushed the idea that immigrant factory workers were worse-off than enslaved black Americans. Again, we shudder at the comfort AH has with referring to human beings as “slaves” rather than “enslaved people” or “enslaved Americans”. Calling people “slaves” changes them from people to things, which is why the word exists. It allows you to go on to say things like this:

An English traveler who had visited both sections of the country wrote in 1854 that he was “utterly at a loss to imagine the source of that prejudice which subsists against [African Americans] in the Northern states, a prejudice unknown in the South, where the relations between the Africans and the European [white American] are so much more intimate.”

—Let’s unpack. The English traveler is Marshall Hall, an abolitionist who visited the U.S. and Canada and wrote The Two-Fold Slavery of the United States with the hope of appealing to slaveholders in the U.S. to end slavery. Hall’s purpose was to use positive energy to end slavery: rather than attack slaveholders as the inhuman monsters they were, he hoped to reach out to them as good people who would, by nature of their goodness, come to see that enslaving people was wrong. As he put it to them, “I take the liberty of addressing [myself] to you, because from you, I believe, all good to the poor African people in the United States must originate. …from your kindness and generosity, and sense of justice, any peaceful, beneficent, and momentous change in their condition must flow.”

Hall’s tactic is not in itself a bad one; you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, and people you attack are not likely to come around to your way of thinking. But in his efforts to portray slaveholders as basically good people, Hall goes much too far.

Notice his title is the “two-fold” slavery of the U.S. Hall was taken aback by the difficult condition free black Americans lived in in the north. He had expected to see terrors and suffering in the slave south, and happy bliss in the free north. What he saw instead, he says, was “a [virtual] slavery to which too little attention has hitherto been paid.” Free black Americans in the north, says Hall, have it worse than enslaved black Americans in the south.

We immediately suspect that Hall was the guest of slaveholders who made sure that the people they held as livestock put on their best face for the visitor. “Happy” enslaved servants were given new clothes and good food for the duration of Hall’s visit, and were instructed to do all in their power to give him a good impression of slavery—or else. This suspicion is reinforced by Hall’s observation that

…the African in the slavery of the United States is usually so well cared for, that he is for the most part, according to the expression of Henry Clay, “fat and sleek”, and his numbers increase in a higher ratio than those of the European [i.e., whites]; whilst the African said to be free is so crushed by state legislation and popular prejudice as to provide for himself and family through extreme difficulties, and is at once wretched individually and scarcely increases his numbers as a race…

Much, therefore, as has been said of Abolition, I can scarcely regard it, under existing circumstances, as a boon to the poor African in the United States.

Quoting Henry Clay, the “great compromiser” who did so much to expand slavery in the U.S., in an antislavery book is pretty dicey. Clay had a vested interest in telling Americans that enslaved people were “fat and happy”.  Hall notes that freedom in the north is but technical, and therefore abolition as it exists in the U.S. is worthless. It is slavery by another name.

He goes on to elaborate this point in his very short chapter on Slavery: Its Cruelties and Indignities—a meager three pages that begin on page 118 in a book of over 200 pages. As Hall notes, “This has usually been the first topic with anti-slavery writers.” But Hall has little time for the physical cruelty of slavery because his entire labor is to show that physical slavery is nothing compared with spiritual bondage. As he puts it, “The cruelties of slavery are, at the most, physical. I have told you of moral and intellectual inflictions; of hearts rent asunder and of minds crushed.”

Yes, we may grant him his case that mental and emotional torture are equally bad, and sometimes worse, than physical torture. But they are both torture. Hall’s subsequent descriptions of physical cruelty against enslaved people turn the stomach. Clearly Hall was shown “happy” enslaved people but also allowed to see the “necessary discipline” that was sometimes “required” to keep enslaved people down. We will only quote one ad from North Carolina for a runaway that Hall includes:

Run away, a negro woman and two children. A few days before she went off, I burnt her with a hot iron, on the left side of her face. I tried to make the letter M.

M. RICKS, July 18, 1838

“I tried to make the letter M” is a statement, an image, that is forever implanted in your mind once you read it. “Trying” to brand your initial with a hot iron onto a person’s face is a kind of barbarism that is hard to even take in. It is only possible if you don’t think of that person as a human being but as a piece of livestock that belongs to you. We realize the slaveholder likely failed to make the M because of the woman’s struggles and screams. Is this really better than “moral and intellectual inflictions”? Is this really incapable of “rending a heart asunder” and crushing a mind? Is being branded better than being denied a good job in the north? Hall seems to see people like Ricks as the exception that proves the rule that actual slavery is reliably better than the wage slavery faced by black Americans in the north.

And this is the man American History chooses to quote to American students today, in 2017, as a reliable, objective observer whose words are, apparently, proof that free black Americans would have been better off enslaved.

Somehow, we go on, back to AH:

This [quote from Hall] confirmed an earlier observation by Tocqueville that “the prejudice which repels the Negroes seems to increase in proportion as they are emancipated.”

—But the famous French traveller through the United States was not supporting the idea that abolition was a lie; de Tocqueville was observing that in a nation where race-based slavery is legal, any black person who gains freedom will present a problem. The free black person is a rebuke and a challenge to the slave law; the free black person, by living a human life, shows that slavery is not part of God’s benevolent plan but an artificial human invention designed to turn people into livestock. And a slave nation does not want to see that.

Northern blacks were often victimized by mob violence; they had virtually no access to education; they could vote in only  a few states; and they were barred from all but the most menial of occupations.

—All of the statements about black Americans made here were also true of American women of all colors. Women were virtually enslaved in this way, and that enslavement was encoded in laws that did not let women vote, inherit money or property, or claim custody of their children. Yet we don’t find AH saying women would have been better off enslaved. (We hope not; we didn’t read their chapter on women’s suffrage…)

…For all their problems, however, northern blacks were aware of, and fiercely proud of, their freedom. And they remained acutely sensitive to the plight of those members of their race who remained in bondage, aware that their own position in society would remain precarious as long as slavery existed.

—We’re not sure what the first sentence means: black Americans were “aware of” their freedom? All of the language fails here, perhaps because of its shameful duplicity. Black American were sensitive to the “plight” of “those members of their race” who remained in “bondage”? A more honest sentence might read “they remained acutely aware of the horrors suffered by other black Americans who were enslaved and held as livestock”. 

But the worst is at the end, where apparently free black Americans were only aware of enslaved black Americans as a threat to their own freedom. AH makes it sound like free black resented and feared enslaved blacks for making their own lives in the north harder.

We’ll end for now with a reiteration of the fact that living with institutional racism and oppression is not, in fact, worse than being bred for sale. And while there was institutional racism and oppression in the free states before the Civil War, it is impossible to say that people who voted to end black slavery were “just as racist” as people who refused to do so.

Next time: we conclude with an example of the damage textbooks like this do.

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Louisa, unenthusiastically enslaved

Posted on June 15, 2017. Filed under: Civil War, Slavery, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

Part 2 of our short series of excerpts from the high school textbook American History: A Survey focuses on this photo:

Louisa

The photo is easily found online—we found it on the PBS site Africans in America. It is a photo of a black American named Louisa who was enslaved by the Hayward family in  Missouri. Here’s how PBS describes this photo:

Under the institution of slavery, African Americans and the white people who owned them lived in close proximity and developed relationships with each other. These were defined by the power imbalance between the people involved. They could be relationships of mutual compassion or mutual hatred, but they were an inherent part of daily life.

One of the most complex relationships was the one that existed between white children and their African American caretakers. White children were often in the unnatural position of standing to inherit the people who raised them, and enslaved nannies were in the similarly unnatural position of caring for the children who would grow up to be their masters. This picture, of slave nurse Louisa and her charge, H. E. Hayward, suggests the inherent tension of these relationships.

We’ve already quarreled in part one with the idea that “compassion” between enslaved people and the people claiming to own them as livestock could ever be genuine. Here we want to focus on the second paragraph, which to us is an accurate description of the image. The baby is happy. The young woman holding him looks sorrowful at best, wary and emotionally beaten down at worst. Her eyes, like the baby’s, are on the face of the Hayward parent or parents who wanted the photo. The baby smiles, while Louisa seems to feel all of the stress of being responsible for a white child. If anything happens to that child, Louisa will bear the blame and be punished accordingly. Her life and welfare hang on his. That baby is already her “master.” Any love she might feel for a baby in her care is marred by the fact that she is forced to care for him and not her own children, who may have been sold away from her, and by the fact that any love he might feel for her as his closest caregiver will be systematically and deliberately destroyed as he grows up, so that he will be able to sell her as livestock when that becomes necessary for his own personal enrichment. The photo is a haunting representation of the perversion of all natural human emotion that slavery depends upon, and that’s why it’s famous.

American History, however, has a different take:

NURSING THE MASTER’S CHILD Louisa, a slave on a Missouri plantation owned by the Hayward family in the 1850s, is photographed here holding the master’s infant son. Black women typically cared for white children on plantations, sometimes with great affection and sometimes—as this photograph may suggest—dutifully and without enthusiasm.

Again, AH‘s level of comfort with the terms “master” and “slave” is jarring. But then, perhaps that is what enables AH to criticize Louisa as unenthusiastic in her “duty”. That the editors of AH could look at this photo and approve a caption that belittles her fear and subjection by saying she has no “enthusiasm” for babysitting an adorable child is astounding. How they could critique her for just being “dutiful” instead of “enthusiastic” is completely inexplicable. It comes perilously close to the old “lazy negro” caricature wherein black Americans were depicted as lazy and sullen and unwilling to work hard.

We go on next time to AH’s thoughts on black abolitionists.

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What do you think was the worst thing about a slave auction?

Posted on May 31, 2017. Filed under: Civil Rights, Civil War, Slavery, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , |

That was the question on a 10th-grade American history homework handout we were shown this week, from a public school in the Northeast. Needless to say, it was from the Civil War section of the curriculum. It was followed by this puzzler: “How do you think slaves felt at a slave auction, and why?”

The mind boggles at these questions. A slave auction is the place where the purpose of slavery is fulfilled: to breed human beings for sale. Is there any facet of a slave auction that is not repellent? Can the horrors of a slave auction be hierarchized? What were students supposed to say to answer this question? It implies that there were some aspects of slave auctions that were less awful than others, which is simply untrue.

We asked what textbook the class was using, and were given a copy: American History: A Survey, with Alan Brinkley listed as main author on the cover (McGraw-Hill, 2003 edition). While the handout in question did not come from this textbook, its habit of qualifying slavery as only partly bad is shared and propounded by American History.

First, we’d like to remind our readers that We don’t talk about black slavery in America:

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.

Like most Americans, however, American History uses the word slave without qualm. The damage this does is quickly apparent. Let’s parse a few quotes from the book.

From a section on black codes:

These and dozens of other restrictions might seem to suggest that slaves lived under a uniformly harsh and dismal regime. Had the laws been rigidly enforced, that might have been the case. In fact, however, enforcement was spotty and uneven. Some slaves did acquire property, did learn to read and write, and assemble with other slaves, in spite of laws to the contrary. Although the major slave offenses generally fell under the jurisdiction of the courts (and thus of the Slave Codes), white owners handled most transgressions and inflicted widely varying punishments. In other words, despite the rigid provisions of the law, there was in reality considerable variety within the slave system. Some blacks lived in almost prison-like conditions, rigidly and harshly controlled by their masters. Many (probably most) others enjoyed some flexibility and (at least in comparison with the regimen prescribed by law) a striking degree of autonomy.

—Using the word “slave” here does exactly what racists in the 19th century wanted it to do: it dehumanizes. “Slaves” do this and that, “slaves” experience different treatment by “owners”, “slaves” enjoy flexibility. How can we still be referring to some human beings as “owners” of other human beings in 2017?? It is inexcusable. And we’re not sure what proofs the authors have that “probably most” enslaved Americans were able to escape the harshness of black codes.

A quick note: history textbooks from big K-12 publishers are produced by freelance writers, and edited by freelance editors. The historian’s name on the cover means little. Usually that historian has been brought in to write a new chapter, a new section or two, and to help come up with supplementary material. The main text is mostly static. Freelance writers are given existing copy and asked to revise it in some way (usually to shorten it). HP authors have worked as freelance writers and editors for history textbooks, so we could take a page out of American History and say that “many, probably most,” freelance writers working on textbooks have no idea whether the content they are given is accurate/factual or not. They are not asked to vet the copy for accuracy. If, as some HP writers have done, they point out errors to their editor, the editor is usually at a complete loss about what to do—there is no contingency plan for changing what the copy says, just for shortening or moving it around or putting it into bullet points or multiple choice questions. We had nothing to do with the writing of American History, and do not make any claims to know exactly how it was produced; we work under our own assumption that it followed this standard procedure. And so when we wonder what proofs are given that “most” enslaved Americans were not subject to the full force of the black codes, we feel sure that that question, if it was ever asked by a freelancer, was never answered.

Back to the text:

White farmers with few slaves generally supervised their workers directly and often worked closely alongside them. On such farms, black and whites developed a form of intimacy unknown on larger plantations. The paternal relationship between such masters and their slaves could, like relationships between fathers and children, be warm and affectionate. It could also be tyrannical and cruel. In either case, it was a relationship based on the relative powerlessness of the slaves and the nearly absolute authority of their masters. In general, African Americans themselves preferred to live on larger plantations, where they had more privacy and a chance to build a cultural and social world of their own.

—It is hard to believe one’s eyes: the 19th century idea of paternalism is being endorsed by a 21st-century textbook. The relationship between “masters” and “slaves” was like that between fathers and children? The idea that slavery could be a “positive good”, helping poor ignorant black people to learn how to live in society and follow Christian teaching, was relentlessly shopped by proslavery Americans in the 1800s. And here it is again in the 2000s, as students are told that “intimacy,” and “warm and affectionate” feelings could grow between people who were being bred for sale and those breeding them for sale.

Of course, we should back up to the first line, in which enslaved people are described as “workers.” Another textbook came under fire for doing this in 2015; people who are enslaved and by law treated as livestock are not “workers”. We’ll revisit this below.

Finally, to describe large plantations as having safe spaces for people suddenly referred to as “African Americans” to have private lives and create their own culture, without giving any kind of proof of this claim, is pretty alarming. Why is this the one place where “slaves” are suddenly “African Americans”? The suggestion is that on large plantations–which were large because the forced breeding was ramped up–were in part havens in which black Americans began to create African-American culture.

Even so, according to some scholars, the actual material conditions of slavery may, in fact, have been better than those of many northern factory workers and considerably better than those of both peasants and industrial workers in 19th-century Europe.

—…we’d say “some (not most) scholars” on this one. Here enslavement is presented once again as just another kind of hard “work.” But it’s also yet another argument proslavery Americans made in the 1800s, before and after the Civil War, to promote and protect slavery. Yes, factory workers lived in abysmal poverty, and their bosses had total control over them at work. But they weren’t bred for sale, their families weren’t broken up and sold to different people who considered themselves their “owners”, and you could quit factory work if you wanted to. You could work your way up the ladder to be a boss. You got paid. You could vote. You could get married if you wanted to, to whoever you wanted to. You could move away. You were a citizen of this country, with the rights of a citizen. This is, to put it mildly, better than slavery.

Most free blacks [in the south], however, lived in abject poverty, under conditions worse than those of blacks in the north. Law or custom closed many occupations to them, forbade them to assemble without white supervision, and placed numerous other restraints on them. They were only quasi-free, and yet they had all the burdens of freedom: the necessity to support themselves, to find housing, to pay taxes. Yet great as were the hardships of freedom, blacks usually preferred them to slavery.”

—The “burdens of freedom” is an expression, a concept, that we have not encountered before. Again, echoes of the old proslavery arguments are heard: slaveholders give slaves food, shelter, clothes, religion; they care for them when they’re sick; they support them when they’re too old to work. Why, slaves had it pretty good! If it weren’t so breathtakingly awful to say blacks usually preferred freedom to slavery, we would laugh. Yes, black Americans usually preferred freedom to slavery. Like people usually prefer not being tortured to being tortured.

This last line is the most sickening, perhaps, of the echoes of proslavery arguments: that the enslaved liked slavery. That they knew they were not intelligent enough, not civilized enough, to be free, and they were grateful for their white masters’ help and care. The recently revived myth that “many” enslaved black men fought willingly for the Confederacy is a sign of the undying appeal of this idea to a small number of Americans (see more on this myth here).

Next time: more, if you can bear it, from American History: A Survey

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The 2017 Fugitive Immigrant Act

Posted on January 27, 2017. Filed under: Civil Rights, Immigration, Slavery | Tags: , , , , |

We’re interrupting our series on Barack Obama’s Farewell Address once again, but this time not because it was removed from whitehouse.gov, along with pages on civil rights, healthcare, and climate science, by the Trump Administration. Instead, we are struck by how much the war on Latin American immigrants (and this one group is the real focus of  anti-immigrant activism in this country) reminds us of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act (also known as the Fugitive Slave Law).

We learn about the FSA when we learn about the Compromise of 1850, of which it was a part. To pacify proslavery forces who were angry that California was allowed to enter the Union as a free state, the Compromise allowed slaveholding and trading to continue in Washington, DC, and upheld the “rights” of slaveholders to their “property”—enslaved people—throughout the Union.

This meant that if you lived in, say, Wisconsin, and had voted to pass personal liberty laws in your state outlawing slavery, those laws were overturned. Slavery would be upheld in “free” states, because slaveholders were allowed to enter free states and reclaim escaped people, and even pick up black citizens who had never been enslaved—the word of the slaveholder was accepted over the word of the black citizen and even the white citizens of the state. Whites were forced by the law to help slave-catchers, they were fined and jailed for failing to do so, or for helping an escapee, and whites were forced to live with the rescinding of the personal liberty laws they had voted for on a state level. Thus, slavery was basically enforced in every state of the Union, and outrage over this was expressed by many Northerners who had previously been publicly neutral about slavery.

If the Fugitive Slave Act was all about black slaves, asked Northerners, why was it fining, jailing, and threatening free whites? Why did it seem to focus just as much on attacking the liberties of northern white citizens as it did on preventing black Americans from gaining their liberty? It was just another example of the slave power perverting democracy and threatening free government.

When we hear people today, in 2017, talking about the laws and acts they are going to put in place to stop the alleged democracy-killing overflow of Spanish-speaking immigration to the United States, they sound a lot like people who would have liked the Fugitive Slave Act. Here is an NPR interview with Brandon Judd, president of the union that represents U.S. Border Patrol agents, the National Border Patrol Council, which endorsed Trump during the campaign, from yesterday:

INSKEEP: What do you think about the president’s effort to compel, if he can, local and state authorities to be more helpful to the Border Patrol and immigration authorities in doing their jobs and rounding up people who are here illegally?

JUDD: Well – so my understanding is that he’s not compelling them to help us round them up. But what he is saying is if they come in contact, if a police officer, say, from Phoenix Police Department – if a police officer from the Phoenix, Ariz., police department comes in contact with somebody that he knows is here or suspects that is here illegally, then his responsibility is to contact an immigration enforcement officer to come in and find out. It’s the same with me. As a Border Patrol agent, if I make a vehicle stop and I find that illegal activity is taking place outside of the laws that I enforce…

INSKEEP: Drunk driver for example.

JUDD: Exactly – it’s my responsibility to call the local law – the local law enforcement so that they can come out and take care of the problem.

INSKEEP: Are we not actually arguing about that much then? Because there are local authorities who are saying, yeah, yeah, if we find somebody who’s obviously in violation, we have to turn them over, but we do not want to make that our job. We don’t want it to be our job to seek them out or to hold people when otherwise there would not be reason to hold them.

JUDD: And it’s not going to be their job. It’s not going to be their job to go seek out illegal immigrants in the United States. That is immigrations officers’ jobs and it’s not theirs. But if they do come in contact with people that are in the country illegally, they should have a responsibility and duty to report people that are breaking the law.

Judd’s statements are disingenuous. How would that police office in Phoenix “know” that someone he meets is “here illegally” without a mechanism in place to track all immigrants and make their data available at all times to police, and require the police to consult it? There’s no way to “know” someone is a legal immigrant or not without looking up their information, which means asking/forcing the person you have “come in contact with” to give you their name, address, etc. And of course, “come in contact” with is blandly disingenuous as well: when do police officers “come in contact” with people? We’d wager that 95% of the time it’s by stopping them on the premise of a violation of the law. Judd himself puts contact in the context of a vehicle stop. So already we have a question of who is being stopped and why which has, of course, been asked for over a century in this country, beginning with black Americans stopped by police for no reason and extending to brown immigrants getting the same treatment.

The reporter’s characterization of police officers resisting being turned into immigrant-catchers is in line with all white Americans being forced into being slave-catchers in 1850. Judd says it won’t be the police officer’s job to “seek out illegal immigrants”, but reiterates that police officers who don’t turn in people who are here illegally are violating their duty and the law. If you get in trouble for failing to do something, you will find ways to do it. If police officers will be sanctioned for failing to turn in illegal immigrants, they will begin turning in illegal immigrants. They will look at the data, identify people here illegally in their cities and towns, stop them on another pretext, and turn them in.

And if the police must do this, eventually they will enlist the general public in helping them to do this. They will paint all immigrants here illegally as murderers, as Judd does later in the interview by saying “I think the country is going to be a lot safer. I really do, yes, absolutely. I mean, I was there with what they call the angel families, families that had children that were killed by persons that were in the United States illegally.” And once all illegal immigrants are child-murderers, it will be against the law not to seek them out and turn them in, for everyone.

And then we are all slave-catchers.

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