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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Civil War 1860–and 2016?

Posted on August 11, 2016. Filed under: Civil War, Politics, Slavery, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , |

It’s the last post in our series examining the serious and striking comparisons between the U.S. in the months (and years) before the 1860 presidential campaign and the 2016 presidential campaign, in which we leave the campaign and think ahead to its logical and inevitable conclusion—the election of a president.

Again, our point of comparison between the 1860 and the 2016 presidential campaigns is sectionalism. In 1860, slavery drove sectional division north and south. In 2016, as we say in our first post,

Today’s sectionalism, then, represents a divide between liberals and conservatives that seems as strong as the divide between North and South ever did. Liberals and conservatives are found in every geographic region of the country, which means there is no region that serves as a safe haven for either…

Sub out “slavery” for “gun control”, “immigration”, or “religious freedom”, and you find that the language used in the 1860 campaign is strangely similar to the language used so far in the 2016 campaign.

We don’t know who will win the 2016 presidential election, but it seems fair to say that the reporting of Election Day in 2016 will be much like the reporting from the New York Times on Election Day 1860:

…The return of Napoleon from Elba did not a greater excitement than the returns of the present election. All day yesterday the inquiry was in everybody’s mouth, “What’s the latest news?” Newspapers were in demand… Every bus that carried its dozens of citizens businessward in the morning was a reading-room, a political meeting-house and a pseudo stock board, all in one. Some read the papers, some fought the bloodless battle over again, bringing their batteries of profound argument to bear upon the proposition that “they knew Lincoln would be elected”… In the streets, in the restaurants, in offices and counting-houses such was the tenor of the talk, and the character of the occupations of all to whom a leisure moment came.

Change out “newspaper” for “Internet” or “TV” and it fits pretty well. Change out “Lincoln” for “Clinton” or “Trump” and again it seems likely. One hopes that the battles after the 2016 election results are in will be bloodless; as we know, the returns in 1860 heralded the shedding of more American blood than anyone could have imagined even on November 7, 1860, when it was obvious to most Americans that sectionalism, created and exacerbated by the enslavement of black Americans, had driven a wedge so deep into the country that nothing short of a war seemed powerful enough to dissolve the sectionalism and mend the breach.

Today, Trump denies that he was inciting people to murder when he said on August 9 that the “Second Amendment people” might find a way to stop Clinton from naming Supreme Court justices if she is elected president, but this was just the most egregious of many calls to violence and bloodshed that we’ve heard in this country over the past year of campaigning, all, so far as we have seen, coming from the conservative side of the liberal-conservative sectional divide that is currently rending our country in two.

It’s hard to imagine another Civil War being fought today over liberal-conservative sectional issues. But as we said back in 2008 in Union or Slavery?:

Think of it this way: what if right now, as you sit reading this, the United States was in danger of civil war. Some group of states had actually written up papers outlining how they would secede, and they had the power and the foreign backing to do it. Imagine that every week you read about how these states—let’s say 15 western states—were ready to actually sever their ties to the U.S., and leave the nation with 35 states and a big hole.

It’s impossible for us to really imagine this. We are faced daily with serious threats to our economic, intellectual, and political unity—there’s constant talk about red and blue states and how the coasts hate the  middle and vice-versa, etc.—but we cannot imagine this translates into a threat to our actual political unity. We can’t picture facing the possibility that civil war would break out over these issues and that the United States as we know it would cease to exist.

And all over one political and social issue. An important issue, to be sure, but not one that you thought could destroy the United States. Say it was illegal immigration. It’s been simmering for decades, but it’s begun to boil in the past 10 years, and people’s emotions are getting stronger about it. What do you think will happen in this situation?

Well, you expect it to keep dragging along as a divisive issue that will someday get enough minor legislation to die down, and be replaced by something else. Inertia or a solution, those are the options.

You never expect it to cause an actual civil war, with people in your state fighting people from another state. You don’t expect to see armies formed in the western U.S. states to fight the U.S. amed forces. You don’t expect to have your home destroyed by battle next year.

And that’s the way Americans viewed slavery in the antebellum years. It was a divisive issue, and was getting hotter after 1848, but civil war? Really?

The current election is causing great anxiety for many Americans on both sides of the sectional divide, but no doubt few are ready to believe that it could spark another Civil War. As we’ve seen in the Times‘ coverage of 1860, they were loathe to believe it, too; to the very end they kept reflecting the belief that somehow the proslaveryites would gradually back down and accept the fact that they no longer controlled political power in Washington. They were wrong. And those who believe today that one side or the other will back down from civil war may also be wrong. We devoutly hope they are not. But our trip back in time to the 1860 election has, sadly, inspired more fear than hope on that issue.

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Presidential campaigns, 1860 and 2016

Posted on June 9, 2016. Filed under: Civil War, Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , |

Here we launch a series examining the serious and striking comparisons between the U.S. in the months (and years) before the 1860 presidential campaign and the 2016 presidential campaign. We’ve often noted that the growth of a new kind of sectional tension in this country runs disturbingly parallel to sectional tension in the years before the Civil War; here we explore those parallels by going back to newspaper reports on the 1860 campaign and comparing what we find there to what we see happening now.

What is sectionalism? It’s a situation in which one part of a unified group begins to feel alienated, and to separate itself from that group, on the basis of geography or interests. Those interests usually become passions. In the two decades before the Civil War, sectionalism occurred as the South (geography) began to separate itself mentally and emotionally from the North because of the South’s commitment to slavery (interest), which the North did not share. Eventually, the North reciprocated by developing its own sectionalism, which rejected union with the South over slavery (see our post Northern sectionalism before the Civil War for more on that). Each geographic region defined itself in terms of slavery, embracing or rejecting it, and insisting that slavery was the one key issue of the day and for the nation. Eventually, sectionalism led to secession, and, as Lincoln said, the war came.

Today, sectionalism still has a slight geographic component, as southern state legislatures make a stand against liberty and justice for all (through state laws demonizing illegal immigrants, gay and transgender Americans, women seeking abortions, etc.) while most northern states do not. But geography has been trumped by interests: the real divide in the U.S. is ideological, between liberals and conservatives. Neo-conservatives, as they were called in the 1980s, found a stronghold in formerly Democratic southern states in the 1960s as the Democratic party under Johnson reached a pinnacle of civil liberty and social justice, particularly for racial minorities, that racist leaders of southern states and state politics could not accept. They moved to the Republican party, which, under Nixon, welcomed them as a bloc that supported the president’s and the party’s desire to stop civil rights legislation (on the basis that the federal government was overreaching and trying to “legislate morality”).

Conservatism had a boom under Reagan that moved it out of the south and into many white, middle-class homes around the country, as their inhabitants identified with Reagan’s image of the “real” America as white, self-supporting, and Christian, as opposed to everyone else, who was not white, on welfare (and abusing it), and non-Christian. Many white Americans also vibed to Reagan’s statement that the federal government was a curse and a burden (“government isn’t the solution to the problem; government is the problem”) and that it should be dialed way back to have minimal impact on people’s daily lives (i.e., no more social legislation). (See our post Reagan’s Farewell, 1989: We the People need no government for more on that.)

Many political leaders and people in the west seemed to embrace this new conservative message, as they saw themselves in a battle to the death with the federal government over access to and development of/mining on public lands, water, and protecting endangered animals.

Over the decades from the 80s to the 2010s, the new conservatism found strongholds in every part of the nation, wherever poor and middle-class white people felt disenfranchised and/or insulted by big business, immigrants, and/or liberals. To be fair, the movement is not entirely white; there are black and Latino conservatives. But the movement began with white people “taking back” their rights from newly-empowered minorities. For the past five years or so, the new dimension of sexuality has been added in, as conservatives generally identify as straight and feel their rights threatened and curtailed by the expansion of civil rights to gay and transgender people.

Today’s sectionalism, then, represents a divide between liberals and conservatives that seems as strong as the divide between North and South ever did. Liberals and conservatives are found in every geographic region of the country, which means there is no region that serves as a safe haven for either, although the south and west (particularly the Mountain zone) skew conservative while the northeast and Pacific Coast skew liberal. The midwest seems divided.

This new sectionalism has been an issue in every political campaign since 1980, but this year it is the be-all and end-all of the entire presidential election. And this is where the comparisons become striking:

—1860 was the year that sectionalism over slavery became the main issue of a presidential election. 2016 is the year that sectionalism between liberals and conservatives is the main issue.

—In 1860 the Democratic party fractured under the stress; the party split, nominating two different candidates: a Southern Democratic proslavery candidate, and a (northern) Democratic candidate who was on the fence but unlikely to abolish slavery. Today, the Democratic party vote may be badly divided between Sanders and Clinton.

—A new party emerged to take the place of the Whig party that had already been destroyed by sectionalism: in 1860 the Republican party was a party of radical social change dedicated to stopping the spread of slavery and “its eventual extinction”. Today, the Republican party is promoting radical social change by (presumably) nominating Trump as its candidate.

—In 1860, some people watching the campaigns were confident that the country would not split over it, while others tried hard to laugh off the idea, but no one denied that talk of civil war was in the air. In 2016, we laugh about people saying they’ll move to Canada if their candidate doesn’t win, and try hard to promote the idea that people whose candidate loses will put country ahead of cause and support the winner, but no one can deny that there are many voices saying they will do no such thing.

Next time we will get into the early coverage of the 1860 campaign and begin our comparisons, hoping as always to draw some useful plan of action from the exercise.

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Pro-Confederate is anti-American

Posted on July 2, 2015. Filed under: American history, Civil War, Slavery, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

No need to do much more than to point you to James Loewen’s frank article: Why do people believe myths about the Confederacy?

But we will go ahead and also point you to our own posts on this topic: Amazing Fact: The Civil War was fought over slavery, What made the north and south different before the Civil War?, and Slavery leads to secession, secession leads to war.

The Confederate States of America were founded with the sole purpose of perpetuating black slavery. There is nothing heroic in that. The men who created the Confederacy did not care about states’ rights—they had repeatedly demanded that states’ rights be trampled by forcing northern states that had abolished slavery to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, by going into territories and voting that they enter the Union as slave states even though they were not residents of that territory, by terrorizing residents who wanted to vote anti-slavery, and by taking enslaved people into free states and forcing the free state residents to endure that slavery.

Soldiers of the Confederacy were not heroes. The old argument that most of them were poor and were not slaveholders is meaningless: they fought to protect their land and their governments, which meant protecting the slave system and the slave aristocracy that governed their land. If they won the war, those poor, non-slaveholding soldiers would have allowed slavery to keep going. They knew that. You can’t cherry-pick motives and focus on the heartwarming “they fought to keep their families safe” motive and ignore the chilling “the soldiers didn’t care if black Americans were enslaved as long as they kept their land” motive.

Secession was not allowed in the Constitution. There is no place in it that makes secession legal. So founding the Confederacy was the most anti-American action in our history.

It’s high time we became as tough on Confederacy worship as the Confederates were on America, democracy, and states’ rights.

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The First Thanksgiving was not a scam!

Posted on November 20, 2014. Filed under: 17th century America, American history, Colonial America, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , , |

In honor of the season, we’re re-posting our classic Truth v. Myth post on Thanksgiving. This is the time of year when people take a moment to wonder about the Pilgrims: why were they so cruel to the Indians? The Thanksgiving celebration is marred by this concern. There are many reasons why it shouldn’t be. First, Thanksgiving has only been a holiday since 1863. It’s fitting that President Lincoln instituted this holiday during the Civil War to unite the U.S. in thanks for its blessings even in the midst of that terrible war. Here’s how he put it:

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

—Britain and France have refused, in the end, to support the Confederacy, the U.S. itself is still intact and strong, and the U.S. Army and Navy are driving back the enemy.

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

—The U.S. economy has not fallen apart for lack of slave-produced cotton, as the South had always predicted it would. Industry and agriculture are stronger than ever and the U.S. continues to expand.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.

—God has punished the U.S. with this war for the sin of slavery, but is showing encouraging signs of his support for the U.S. war effort.

And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

—While thanking God for his mercies to the U.S. so far, Americans should also offer up prayers asking for his care for all those who have lost someone in the war, and asking for his help in ending the war as quickly as possible.

So the First Thanksgiving was in November 1863 and inaugurated for a good cause. The first thanksgiving in what would become the U.S. was held in November 1621 and was merely the first of many, many days of thanksgiving observed by the Pilgrims and was not celebrated as an annual holiday at all. Let’s go back to the original article to learn the real story:

____

The first Thanksgiving: it’s a hallowed phrase that, like “Washington crossing the Delaware“, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes”, or “Damn the torpedoes!”, does not bring up many solid facts. Unfortunately, “the first Thanksgiving” is usually either completely debunked, with people saying no such thing ever happened, or used as a weapon against the Pilgrims—i.e., they had a lovely Thanksgiving with the Indians and then killed them all.

The truth about the first thanksgiving is that it did happen, in the fall of 1621. The Pilgrims had landed in what is now Massachusetts the previous November—a terrible time to begin a colony. Their provisions were low, and it was too late to plant anything. It is another myth that they landed so late because they got lost. They had intended to land south of Long Island, New York and settle in what is now New Jersey, where it was warmer, but their ship was almost destroyed in a dangerous area just south of Cape Cod, and the captain turned back. They then had to crawl the ship down the Cape, looking for a suitable place to land. Long story short, they ended up in what is now Plymouth.

Most Americans know how so many of those first settlers died from starvation and disease over the winter, and how it was only by raiding Wampanoag food caches that the colony survived at all. By the spring, there were not many colonists left to plant food, but they dragged themselves out to do so. They had good luck, and help from the Wampanoags, who showed them planting techniques—potentially just to keep the Pilgrims from raiding their winter stores again. By November 1621, a very good harvest was in, and Governor William Bradford called for a day of thanksgiving.

The Pilgrims often had days of thanksgiving. In times of trouble, they had fasts, which were sacrifices given for God’s help. In celebration times, they had thanksgivings to thank God for helping them. So thanksgivings were a common part of Pilgrim life, and calling  for a thanksgiving to praise God for the harvest would not have been unusual, and would have been a day spent largely in church and at prayer.

So the men went out to shoot some “fowls” for the dinner, and perhaps they ran into some Wampanoags, or maybe a few Wampanoags were visting Plymouth, as they often did, and heard about the day of celebration. At any rate, here is the only—yes, the one and only—eyewitness description of what happened next:

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors.  They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week.  At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.  And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

That’s Edward Winslow, writing about the thanksgiving in his journal of Pilgrim life called “Mourt’s Relation”, published in London in 1622. We see that Massasoit and 90 of his men arrived at some point, having heard about the feast, and the Pilgrims hosted them for three days, and had some rather Anglican sport firing their guns. Certainly the Wampanoags had a right to feel they should join in, since it was their help that had led to the good harvest. A one-day thanksgiving turned into three days of feasting and games.

And that was it. People often wonder why there wasn’t another thanksgiving the next year, but the idea of celebrating the harvest every year didn’t make sense to the Pilgrims. They had only held a thanksgiving for the first good harvest because it was a life-saving change from the previous fall. Once they were on their feet, they expected good harvests, and didn’t have to celebrate them. It was also against their Separatist beliefs to celebrate annual holidays—like the Puritans, they did not celebrate any holidays, not even Christmas. Holidays were a human invention that made some days better than others when God had made all days equally holy. So to hold a regular, annual harvest thanksgiving was not their way. When things were going well, Separatists and Puritans had days of thanksgiving. When things were going badly, they had days of fasting. None of them were annual holidays or cause for feasting (of course fast days weren’t, but even thanksgivings were mostly spent in church, with no special meal).

That one-time harvest thanksgiving was indeed a happy event, shared in equally by Pilgrim and Wampanoag. And those Pilgrims who sat down with Massasoit and his men did not then slaughter them all; it would not be until their grandchildren’s generation that war broke out, in 1676, once Massasoit and the Pilgrims at that table were long dead.

The first Thanksgiving was an impromptu, bi-cultural celebration that we can all think of happily as we sit down to our annual table (provided by Abraham Lincoln, who made an annual Thanksgiving a holiday in 1863).

_____

The hype around the Pilgrims’ first thanksgiving only began after 1863, when historians noted the tradition of impromptu thanksgivings in the 1600s and made an unwarranted and improper connection to the new holiday to make it seem less new and more traditionally American. Before then, their many days of thanksgiving and fasting were completely forgotten. The Pilgrims certainly weren’t the inspiration for the holiday we celebrate today—they were retroactively brought into that in the worst, most ironic way: after the Civil War, southerners resented Thanksgiving as a “Union” holiday celebrating U.S. victories in the war and so the focus was changed from fighting slavery to the Pilgrims. It’s bitterly ironic because now people use Thanksgiving as a time to criticize white treatment of Indians when they should be celebrating our nation’s commitment to winning a war to end slavery.

This year, feel free to enjoy this Thanksgiving and share the truth about the Pilgrims and where the holiday really comes from—the depths of a terrible war fought for the greatest of causes. Let Thanksgiving inspire you to stand up for the founding principles of this nation and re-commit to upholding them in your own daily life of good times and bad.

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Slavery: tough on white Americans

Posted on October 30, 2012. Filed under: Civil War, Historians, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

Hello and welcome to part 5 of our series on Michael Woods’ article  “What Twenty-First-Century Historians have said about the Causes of Disunion: A Civil War Sesquicentennial Review of the Recent Literature”, in the latest issue of the Journal of American History (published by the Organization of American Historians). Here we look at ways today’s historians are approaching the convoluted politics of race and slavery in the U.S. before the Civil War, and the insights into the many reasons why white antislaveryites opposed slavery—many of which were about protecting their own interests.

How was slavery a threat to white Americans, as they saw it? Here are the bullets:

  • Slavery as a threat to white jobs: Remember our distinction between abolitionists, who believed slavery was a moral wrong, and antislaveryites, whose problem with slavery was that it took jobs from white Americans and threatened our democratic political system. Antislaveryites did not want slave labor spreading through the country, taking jobs away from the white laboring classes and giving a fractional minority of white slaveholders far more power than they were due in Washington. This takes us to point 2—
  • Slavery as a threat to republicanism: If a handful of plutocrat southern slaveholders controlled most of the U.S. economy through the labor of their enslaved people, they would become “too big to fail” in Congress, and their demands would dictate U.S. policy. This was a threat to republican liberty that was not fantasy, as the south, though the smaller section, lost very few battles in Washington, and often had the federal government bending over backward to placate it. So slavery was a threat to the poor white worker and the white nation as a whole. Sectional conflicts like Bleeding Kansas can be read as “a struggle to secure the political liberties of whites” —the whites who voted to make Kansas a free state, who were threatened literally and figuratively by proslaveryites who killed settlers and overrode the antislavery constitution of the territory to present their proslavery constitution to the proslavery president James Buchanan, who accepted it. [Woods 432]
  • Slavery as a threat to white liberty: the 1854 Fugitive Slave Law was only the boldest and latest move of the slave power to not only steal liberty from enslaved people who escaped to freedom, but to encroach on white liberty itself. Whites were forced by the law to help slavecatchers, 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. If the Fugitive Slave Law was all about black slaves, why was it fining, jailing, and threatening free whites? Why did it seem to focus on attacking the liberties of northern white citizens as much as it did on preventing black Americans from gaining liberty? It was just another example of the slave power perverting democracy and threatening free government.
  • Slavery as a perverting force on white nature: northerners who read about the inhuman abuses slaveholders inflicted on black Americans, and read proslavery politicians’ own forceful defenses of violence against the enslaved, and read about or saw for themselves the aristocratic lifestyle of major slaveholders, were disgusted at what slaveholding seemed to do to white nature. Slaveholders were not tough, hardworking, honest men, as whites were supposed to be, but lazy and corrupted by power, living lives of ease that made them effeminate and shallow. Slavery had led to the development of a chivalric code that emphasized violence in defense of one’s honor, but no exertions of body or spirit in any other direction. And, as we’ve seen, slaveholding had led wealthy slaveholders to pervert American democracy itself to protect and extend their twisted way of life. Antislavery emotion in the north often called on its followers to counter this perversion of whiteness, and the free soil, free labor ideology (of free, honest, hardworking, muscular farmers) was a direct counterpart to the depraved planter.
  • Slavery as a wedge into the white race: this is directly related to the point above. Rich white slaveholders had long prevented poor southern whites from rising up against their oligarchy by focusing on race instead of class. Don’t focus on how unequal you are to us in every respect, they told poor whites; focus on how superior we all are to blacks. Even the poorest, least educated white man is better than a black man. Focusing the poor white majority on racial solidarity rather than class inequality preserved the unequal social and political system in the south and shored up slavery. Since the vast majority of white southerners did not hold slaves, and had nothing in common with slaveholders, how was it that they were willing to fight a war for slavery? This question has been asked by Confederate apologists for over a century, and had a featured role in Ken Burns’ The Civil War. The answer, that poor white southerners wouldn’t have fought to defend slavery, is used to “prove” the point that the war was not fought over slavery and that southerners were fighting for states’ rights. But the real answer is that poor whites fought the war for many reasons, but one was because rich whites asked them to, and fought alongside them, in a living illustration of the bond of race. Poor southerners, like any human beings, were not about to allow “foreigners” from the north invade their homes and farms without raising a finger to stop them simply because those poor southerners didn’t hold slaves. Poor southerners fought to protect their lands and families. But during and especially after the war, rich southerners put a gloss on that that made the war about whites joining together to fight for white superiority. The horrid backlash against southern blacks after the war sprang in large part from poor whites’ fury at having their racial superiority taken from them, and to prevent blacks from achieving true equality with them. So the white racial “bonding” over slavery was seen by northern whites as another perversion of white identity brought on by slaveholders.

We see from this survey one of the main points of recent scholarship: bringing slavery back to its central role in provoking the Civil War. In the latter part of the 20th century, slavery was de-emphasized as a cause of war, in part because studies focusing on northern racism came to the fore at that time, and the logic ran that if everyone was racist then slavery couldn’t have started the war. This point of view had been popular with southerners since 1865, as they went about the business of recasting the war as a noble fight for states’ rights that had nothing to do with slavery. It caught on with a new generation of non-white scholars who felt white historians gave the north too much credit in saying it fought the war over slavery. This was a necessary correction to the super-noble representation of northern feeling popular in the north since 1863. But as research continues, we begin to see a more complete and complex picture of the truth: slavery was the only issue leading to war, but not just because of its immorality—as Woods points out, “Some forty years ago, Larry Gara urged historians to make a ‘crucial distinction’ between self-interested opposition to slaveholder power and moral opposition to slavery as an oppressive institution.” [Woods 431] But whether you were against slavery because it was cruel or because you felt it robbed you of a job, slavery was your issue going into the war, and, as Woods points out, few people were so black-and-white about the issue. People felt a range of sometimes contradictory emotions about slavery, and those feeling grew and changed during the war. Recognizing human complexity in any field is crucial to truly understanding it.

Next time: still fighting over slavery

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Northern Sectionalism before the Civil War

Posted on October 18, 2012. Filed under: Civil War, Historians, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

In part 4 of our look at trends in 21st-century Civil War scholarship, we look at the new attention being paid to northern sectionalism. This post, like the others in this series, are informed by Michael Woods’ very interesting article in the lastest issue of the Journal of American History (published by the Organization of American Historians) called “What Twenty-First-Century Historians have said about the Causes of Disunion: A Civil War Sesquicentennial Review of the Recent Literature.”

We tend to learn that in the years before the Civil War, the south became increasingly divided from the rest of the nation, and that southern sectionalism was basically defined by proslavery politics and devotion to a chivalric social ideal and an agrarian economy. This is presented in contrast to the north, which was simply the United States as it had always been, unchanged before the war, unchanging during the war, and triumphantly reimposed on the south after the war. “The North” and “the Union” are used interchangeably by most texts.

But recent scholarship has focused on the north’s own sectionalism—its departure from traditional United States ideas and practices, which was prompted in large part by and was a reaction to southern sectionalism. As the south defined itself as a region, so the north began to define itself as a region, one that was morally and economically superior to the south [Woods 427]

Here are some facets of northern sectionalism:

Free labor, free soil sentiment: As the south pressed a proslavery agenda, the north began to develop a free labor agenda. Neither agenda was original to the founding of the U.S. or its politics and economy until the rise of sectionalism. The U.S. was founded on a mix of free and slave labor. But the north responded to southern proslavery by developing a cult around free labor—the image of the independent, strong, self-sufficient yeoman laborer, be he farmer or industrial worker, who supports his family by the honest labor of his body. Free labor, the north opined, was wholesome and manly, and invigorated the entire nation. This went beyond opposing slavery; many people who opposed slavery did not buy into this romanticized vision of labor, realizing that factory workers had little control over their wages, worked in unsafe conditions for far too many hours, and were actually made up of women and children as well as men. They also knew that farming did not always repay honest labor, being at the mercy of the weather, and, later, railroad shipping costs. But the romance of free labor was a defining feature of northern sectionalism, opposed as it was to slave labor, of course, but also to lazy, weak, effeminate slaveholders who profited from the labor of others.

Manufacturing: The U.S. was not founded on manufacturing. Like all nations at that time, its economy was predominately agricultural. But in the decades leading up to the Civil War, the north identified itself as a manufacturing economy—a modern, exciting, powerful economy of the future that provided a living for unskilled workers and uneducated immigrants and grew the wealth of society as a whole. Again, the reality of dangerous working conditions, exploitive hours, women and child laborers, and no rights for workers was overlooked by those pushing manufacturing as modern and uniquely northern. Southerners who argued that factory workers were basically slaves were ignored.

Disunionism: Like the south, the north had populations calling for civil war. Radical abolitionists declared that the United States was founded on the sin of slavery and could not be salvaged. It would have to be destroyed, and a new nation started from scratch. Like radical proslaveryites in the south, these northerners believed it was their region alone that could do this important work.

Recasting patriotism in its own image: Southern proslaveryites used U.S. founding documents, the Revolution, and hero-Founders like Jefferson to support their proslavery position, using all three to find quotes that supported their position. Thus proslavery southerners could claim to be the real Americans, fighting malevolent attempts to pervert the Constitution by ending slavery. This we learn early and often. But the north followed the same path, using the same three sources to prove that they were the real Americans. Antislavery northerners crafted a position that balancing slave with free states, and not extending slavery into the west, was the dream and purpose of the founders. Abolitionist northerners said that the War was meant to end slavery forever. Free labor northerners claimed that the south was perverting the principles of the nation by tying the economy to old-fashioned, agriculatural labor and halting the Manifest-Destiny possessing of the west. Whichever group you belonged to, you as a citizen of the northern section were the real American.

Woods sums this up well: “Together, recent studies of northern sectionalism and southern nationalism make a compelling case for why the Civil War broke out when it did. If the South was always a separatist minority, and if the North always defended the American way, secession might well have come long before 1861. It is more helpful to view the sectional conflict as one between equally authentic (not morally equivalent) strands of American nationalism grappling for the power to govern the entire country according to sectionally specific values.” [430]

Next time: slavery hurt white people the most   ?

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The coming of the Civil War: how disunion evolved over the decades

Posted on October 3, 2012. Filed under: Civil War, Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

Welcome to part 2 of our perusal of Michael Woods’ very interesting article in the lastest issue of the Journal of American History (published by the Organization of American Historians) called “What Twenty-First-Century Historians have said about the Causes of Disunion: A Civil War Sesquicentennial Review of the Recent Literature.” Here we look at Elizabeth Varon’s book Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 and her persusasive argument that cries of disunion evolved in interesting ways between 1789 and 1860.

Disunion, just to be clear, refers to states leaving the United States and, therefore, breaking up the Union. Disunion was a cry heard constantly in the decades in question in the U.S., and was synonymous with civil war.

We should also describe the sides that participated in disunion language. We tend to think there were people for slavery and people who wanted slavery to be abolished, but there were more sides than that. There were proslavery Americans who wanted slavery to remain protected by the Constitution; these split into some who thought slavery should not extend into the west (because this provoked antislavery protests) and those who thought it should. Then there were antislavery Americans who did not support abolishing slavery—slavery could still exist in the U.S.—they just wanted to keep it hemmed in in the southern states where it already existed and keep it out of the west. Antislavery people differed from proslavery Americans in that they did not claim that slavery was a terrific benefit for the enslaved and a mandate from God, as proslavery Americans did. Antislavery Americans would have liked to see slavery disappear but did not want the newly freed black Americans to stay in the country, and since there seemed to be no way to get rid of them all, were content to live with the status quo (which meant stopping the westward expansion of slavery).

Abolitionists wanted to get rid of slavery. They divided into immediatists, who wanted slavery ended immediately, by any means necessary, no matter what, and gradualists who wanted to wait until a good plan to deal with newly freed people could be agreed upon by all. Gradualists would have been happy with a state-by-state progress of states deciding to abolish slavery in their own good time. Immediatists would not accept this, and embraced charges that they would bring about a race war or, even worse in the eyes of proslavery supporters, interracial marriage by immediately freeing black Americans.

In her book Varon describes how each group described disunion over time as, variously,

—a prophecy: proslavery Americans predicted that antislaveryites and abolitionists were bringing about disunion with their attacks on slavery, while antislaveryites foresaw a future where proslaveryites had caused disunion. Prophecy disunion prevailed mostly in the early part of our 1789-1860 time period, when real civil war seemed very unlikely, and was referred to as part of a distant, dystopian future that could never come to pass.

—a threat: proslaveryites were constantly threatening to secede from the Union in response to perceived “attacks” on slavery. If the Constitution was going to be trampled, they said, then there was no valid Union to support. Antislavery Americans swung between fear at these threats and bored eye-rolling at the states who cried secession once too often. On the other hand, immediatist abolitionists in the 1830s began to make their own threats of disunion, saying that any Union that protected slavery was no Union and should be immediately destroyed and a new nation brought forth in true freedom. Angry accusations that they would bring about civil war were happily accepted by these immediatists. Threat disunion came on the scene in the 1820s with the Nullification Crisis and picked up steam after the Mexican Cession in 1848, which brought huge western lands under U.S. control and made the question of spreading slavery into the west the hottest issue of the day. Immediatists threatened disunion if slavery did go west, proslaveryites threatened it if slavery did not go west.

—an accusation: Each of the three sides accused the others of bringing about disunion with their radical talk or stubborn ways. Sometimes the accusation was that one side was unknowingly provoking disunion, sometimes that a side was deliberately and premeditatedly weakening the nation. Accusation, like threat language, picked up after the Mexican Cession as Americans battled fiercely to make the new western states slave or free, and John C. Calhoun’s “Southern Address” is a good example of this language.

—a process: Americans recognized that slavery was an issue carving out factions in the nation, and making the divide of regional sectionism more and more impassable. Whether they supported slavery or wanted it limited or abolished, all Americans saw that the process of debating slavery was creating a deadly us v. them mentality that could only lead to civil war. The process of arguing about slavery had made disunion nearly inevitable, and this was the feeling from the Cession on. Republican Senator William Seward’s “irrespressible conflict” speech is a classic example of process disunion language.

—a program: This was for those Americans, of all sides, who saw the wheels of disunion already in motion because of the evil actions of the other sides. Those who began to favor disunion (the immediatists and proslaveryites) promoted disunion processes as necessary and ultimately for the greater good of the new nation that would be formed once the old Union was torn apart. Program talk was also more common after the Cession and especially in the 1850s.

Next we’ll look at the ways the proslavery stance and its language changed over these decades.

Next time: from unavoidable evil to positive good

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Taxation = Slavery

Posted on August 1, 2011. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, Civil War, Economics, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

As always, when history is being made in the present, or the present is clearly marked in a historical cycle, we delve into it here on the HP.

In this case, it is the debate in Congress over whether to raise the debt ceiling or default. The main sticking point has been the refusal of a sizable minority of Republicans, mostly belonging to the Tea Party faction, to allow the federal government to collect tax revenue. This group demands tax breaks for the wealthy, including corporations, and the maintenance of tax loopholes that allow millions of dollars of tax revenue to go uncollected.

This is not the place to go into the details of their platform, or the response by moderate Republicans and Democrats. Here, the issue is the extreme instransigence of the Republican minority on the issue of taxation. It has become, to them, a crime for the government to raise taxes or even to collect taxes. To them, there is no compromise on taxation: you are either for it (and therefore un-American) or against it. Again, we’ll leave aside for this post the historical fallacy of anti-tax advocates calling themselves “Tea Party”; read about that here. For now, we’ll focus on the black-and-white issue they have turned taxation into. It’s hard to think of a time when Congress was so completely divided, so unwilling and unable to compromise on an issue; when you look back at our history, only one comparable time comes up—the slavery debates of the late 1850s.

You could not compromise on slavery during those Congresses. You were for it or against it, and this divide worked its way into many other, seemingly unrelated issues, and the uncompromisable issue of slavery could not be resolved. Congress could no longer function to govern the country, and civil war ensued at the 1860 election.

Today, Congress’ refusal to accept compromise on taxation is quite similar to those Congress’ refusal to accept compromise on slavery. But there are two key differences: first, the American people were becoming just as divided over slavery as their representatives; second, slavery really is an issue you can’t seriously compromise on.

Americans in the 1850s didn’t want to fight a war over slavery, but they were rapidly becoming more polarized over it. Even those who didn’t particularly want abolition for morality’s sake blamed slavery for all of America’s ills, and would have gotten rid of it for economic or political reasons. Their representatives’ furor over slavery was not out of line, then, with Americans’ feelings about slavery. It does not seem accurate to make that claim today. Many Tea Party Congress members have said their constituents contacted them to say it’s okay to raise taxes to avoid default, but those members refused to do so out of principle. The extreme polarization in Congress today does not really have its roots in how Americans are feeling.

And taxation is not slavery. It’s not a black-and-white, moral issue that no one can take a moderate stance on. The government raises taxes in order to provide services. It’s a very simple and fundamental tenet of government. We have representation to our government to decide what services and how much taxation, not to stop the collection of tax revenue.

The taxation issue is part of a larger move to reduce the federal government to a negative function: the federal government will not provide social services (no Medicare, Social Security, Head Start, etc.), will not regulate business (protect the environment, police Wall Street, etc.), will not really legislate (instead, Constitutional Amendments will be put in place to handle social issues), amd will not extend civil rights to immigrants, gay people, etc. All it would do under this plan, apparently, is fund wars.

No one really wants to live in that world. It is undemocratic, and unself-sustaining. This experiment with such negative chaos is a dangerous one. The first experiment ended in civil war; it remains to be seen where we are headed in the next 20 years.

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Black Confederates, slavery, and the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War

Posted on April 13, 2011. Filed under: Civil War | Tags: , , , |

Just a day late to join the many people commemorating the start of the Civil War on April 12, 1861, when South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter. I noticed that many of the news stories focused on whether we are “still fighting the Civil War” today (since there is still racism), and one story harped irritatingly on the misguided idea that many enslaved black Americans fought for the Confederacy.

The show (NPR’s The Takeaway) had a few black Americans in to talk about ancestors who fought for the Confederacy. I was about to post here in despair, in an attempt to set the record straight, but thankfully, the show brought in the wonderful Kevin Levin, author of the Civil War Memory blog, to set it straight himself. You can hear the interview here.

Here’s what Kevin had to say later on his blog:

“Unfortunately, the time [on the show] went by way too fast.  I would have been happy to listen to any number of people on this issue, but of course, I am pleased that they asked me to join them this morning. For additional reading, I highly recommend Bruce Levine’s Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War and Stephanie McCurry’s Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South.  You may also want to take a look at my Black Confederate Resources page, which provides an overview of what I’ve written on the subject on this blog.  You will also find a great deal of commentary on this site about Earl Ijames, who was mentioned in the course of the interview.  Click here for the post on Ijames and Henry L. Gates.”

I pass these resources along to readers of the HP, and pass along my thanks once again to Kevin for his tirelessly objective and valuable work.

On the other points, I think it’s hard to say we’re still fighting the Civil War; I think the Civil War was one watershed event in the history of acknowledging racism as an evil. We fought the Civil War as one battle in the war on racism. We’re still fighting that war, but not the Civil War.

Finally, there were many predictable claims that the Civil War was not fought over slavery but states’ rights. This began life immediately after the war, when Confederate leaders and supporters immediately began a spin campaign to put their actions in the best possible light. They claimed they had never fought for slavery, that the Constitution and states’ rights were the be-all and end-all of the Cause. This was debunked thoroughly over the years, notably by Charles Dew in his book Apostles of Disunion (see “Slavery leads to secession, secession leads to war” for more).

Once it was clear that southern leaders were 100% in their desire to fight the war to protect slavery, the argument shifted: now revisionists said that while powerful southerners fought for slavery, the average Confederate in the trenches was a poor man who didn’t own any enslaved people, who only fought because his homeland was invaded. Most notable in spreading this idea was Shelby Foote in Ken Burns’ documentary The Civi War, who quotes a Confederate telling a Union soldier that he fought “because you are down here.”

And this is the argument put about now—that the average Confederate soldier did not fight for slavery, and therefore bears no shame for his part in the war. But why was the Union “down there” in the first place? Because the southern states had seceeded so they could continue slavery. From the moment the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, January 1, 1863, the Union was fighting to end slavery, and even before that date, many Union soldiers had that as a personal aim.

If the average poor Confederate really did resent the rich whites who hired substitutes to fight for them, why fight their war? Why fight and die so those rich whites could continue to control society and politics, have slaves, and keep poor white people poor?

No war is simple. There’s no one reason why poor southern men fought for the Confederacy. They fought, as all people do, for a mix of reasons; in this case, fear and anger at being invaded, a sense of having no choice but to enlist once war began, wanting to join their friends in the army, loyalty to rich white leaders in their own towns and counties, excitement at the prospect of war, resentment of the North’s “anti-southern” policies, and a host of other, private reasons. Union soldiers had the same mix, and many of the same inducements.

But no matter why they fought, they fought, and they fought for the Confederacy, to preserve its slave society. There’s nothing noble about that.

The one way we’re still fighting the Civil War is in our unending attempts to understand what it was about, in all its complexity. But a few concrete facts must guide that understanding, and the fact that it was a war fought for slavery, even by the lowliest Confederate soldier, is one  of them.

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