The Enduring Legacy of Slavery
February 18, 2019 § 2 Comments
This came through my feed on Facebook a few days ago. It’s worth re-posting and it’s worth a deeper commentary. The United States was founded upon slavery. Fact. The Founding Fathers included slave owners. Face. The Founding Fathers didn’t deal with slavery in the Constitution. Fact. The Civil War happened because the South seceded over slavery. Fact. The Southern response to Emancipation was Black Codes, the Ku Klux Klan and segregation. Fact. Desegregation only happened because of the intervention of the Supreme Court. Fact.
But. None of this is a Southern thing. Slavery initially existed in the North as well. But even after the North banned slavery, it benefited from slavery. The American industrial revolution began in Lowell, MA, due to the easy availability of Southern cotton. The North got wealthy, in other words, on the backs of Southern slaves. The North countenanced slavery.
After the Civil War, the North countenanced segregation. The second Ku Klux Klan emerged in Atlanta, true, but it operated all over the country. And, following Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that desegregated schools, the North was affected, most notably during the Boston Busing Crisis in the 1970s.
But even with the official end of desegregation with Brown v. Board, it’s not like segregation went away. Schools today remain very segregated across the United States due to the outcomes of racism, poverty and housing choices. In fact, one of the outcomes of the Boston Busing Crisis. The busing ‘experiment’ in Boston ended in 1988, by which time the Boston school district had shrunk from 100,000 students to only 57,000. Only 15% of those students were white. As of 2008, Boston’s public schools were 76% African American and Hispanic, and only 14% white. Meanwhile, Boston’s white, non-Hispanic population in 2000 was 55% white. White Bostonians pulled their children out of the city’s public schools and either enrolled them in private schools, or moved to the white suburbs.
As for housing, the Washington Post found last year, the United States is a more diverse nation than ever here in the early 21st century, but its cities remain segregated. Historian Richard Rothstein has found that the segregation of American cities was not by accident.
Then there’s the question of redlining, which was officially banned with the Fair Housing Act of 1968. But all that means is that banks and financial institutions have become more clever at discriminating against African Americans and other minorities. And more to the point, those areas of American cities that were redlined when this was legal in the 1930s continue to suffer from the same prejudices today.
Slavery and the complete and utter failure of Reconstruction after the Civil War means that African Americans in the United States today live in the long shadow of slavery and institutionalized racism. So, while the meme above is correct that it was only in 1954 that segregation is outlawed, I would be a lot more hesitant about the green light African Americans have there from 1954 onwards.
July 24, 2018 § 2 Comments
There has been a lot of hand-wringing about the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency. This began the night of the election and shows no signs of abating. The current issue of Foreign Affairs, the august publication dedicated to the impact of the world on the US and vice versa, is dedicated to unraveling this question from the point-of-view of foreign affairs and policy.
In the issue is an article from Amy Chua, John M. Duff, Jr., Professor of Law at Yale, adapted from her new book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations. In it, Chua argues that tribalism explains not just messy American involvements in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, but Trump. In the case of those three messy wars, she notes that American policy makers failed to recognize questions of ethnic or national identity in those three countries, hence the quagmires. Her argument is compelling and well argued.
But when it comes to Trump, it seems to me she is on much shakier ground. She argues that tribalism is what led to white voters to elect him. She notes that the white majority in the United States is shrinking and Trump capitalized on that. So far, so good. She goes on to discuss classism and the plight of the (white) poor in the country. Again, so far, so good. But it’s when she gets into unpacking this argument, I begin to wonder about it.
She argues, as many others have, that due to the widening gulf between rich and poor, it is now harder for the poor to escape poverty and attain middle class standing. I have yet to see compelling data on this (though it is entirely possible it exists). But, allow me to be the historian here and point out that this so-called American Dream is more a dream than a reality. The United States, like any other culture or nation, is based on inequality. And it has been since the birth of the patriot movement in Boston in the early 1770s. In those days, the élites of the city used the working classes to engage with the British, from the Boston Massacre to the outbreak of violence. As with all other armies in history, the infantry of George Washington’s nascent Continental Army was from the lower reaches of society (for a very good analysis of the plight of the white poor in American history, you can do worse than Nancy Izenberg’s White Trash).
Inequality has always been the norm here, and it remains so today. Sociologists and political analysts have been wringing their hands over the white working classes and the white poor who voted for Trump in various parts of the nation (together with continuing with the canard that Hillary Clinton did not visit key parts of the country where such folk live). But the white working classes and the poor have been here for a long time. I lived in Appalachia in Tennessee when Trump was elected. My neighbours voted for him, as they voted for Republicans in 2012, 2008, 2004, 2000, and 1996 (it is possible they voted for their fellow Southerner Bill Clinton in 1992) and before that too. The people where I lived were poor then, too, and they were poor when they helped elect Ronald Reagan in 1980, too. And so on.
Chua argues, though, that tribalism is emerging amongst the white working classes and the poor. But, my historian’s training tells me this is nothing new, either. In fact, this was how the planter élite in the antebellum and Civil War South convinced the poor white farmers that ethnic/racial lines mattered more than class lines. The historian Noel Ignatiev argued in 1997 in his ridiculous How the Irish Became White that had the Irish, the most downtrodden of the downtrodden white people in the antebellum United States pitched their lot with African Americans, then slavery would’ve ended a generation or two earlier. There is no universe I can see where that would’ve happened. The Irish were never going to cast their lot with African Americans in the United States, in the North, the black population was their closest economic rival. In Canada, it was the French Canadians with whom the Irish shared the lowest rung of the ladder. And the Irish and French Canadians did fight, literally. But they also intermarried and socialized together. But, of course, in the antebellum North, so did the Irish and free black populations, from both vicious racial attacks in Manhattan’s Five Points by the Irish, to intermarriage and socialization.
But the larger point is that the way in which capitalism is organized is to exploit differences and tribalism at base levels. In other words, the second lowest group on a totem pole is never going to side with the group below it. That’s not how it works. And in the United States, as David Roediger argued, questions of whiteness were exploited by the capitalists and planter class to get the poor people to authenticate a form of shared whiteness. Roediger made the argument that what sociologists called ‘ethnic brokers’ encouraged the white working classes (a large segment of which was Irish) to side with their (white) social betters against African Americans.
In other words, what Chua is identifying is not new. Tribalism on the part of the white working classes was part and parcel of the American experience in the 19th century, and it was in the 20th, too. And not just in the example of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan, of course, in all of its manifestations, may have been led by élites, but it was the poor and the working classes and farmers who engaged in the racist behaviour and violence (with some help, of course). But the white working-, middle-, and poor classes during the Civil Rights Era were the resistance to the work of Dr. King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, and others.
So, ultimately, Chua’s argument (at least in the Foreign Affairs August issue, I haven’t read her new book yet) falls on its face here. Identifying an old standing behaviour and calling it new and exceptional to explain something surprising does not hold water.
#FakeNews, Memes, and US History
September 5, 2017 § Leave a comment
Sometimes I think that memes are going to be the undoing of all of us. They tend towards the stupid. I have written of this before, here and here. This weekend on Facebook, I came across this meme:
And once more we have a stupid meme. The quotation from Lincoln is out of context, and it would appear that Robert E. Lee never said this. Let’s start with Lincoln.
The quotation here comes from a letter he wrote to the prominent New York City abolitionist Horace Greeley, on 22 August 1862. Lincoln wrote to Greeley in response to the latter’s editorial in his influential New York Tribune, calling for the emancipation of the Confederacy’s slaves immediately. Here is the full text of that letter:
Washington, August 22, 1862.
Hon. Horace Greeley:
I have just read yours of the 19th. addressed to myself through the New-York Tribune. If there be in it any statements, or assumptions of fact, which I may know to be erroneous, I do not, now and here, controvert them. If there be in it any inferences which I may believe to be falsely drawn, I do not now and here, argue against them. If there be perceptable in it an impatient and dictatorial tone, I waive it in deference to an old friend, whose heart I have always supposed to be right.
As to the policy I “seem to be pursuing” as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt.
I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.
I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.
In other words, for Lincoln, his primary duty was to uphold the Union. And, as any American historian will tell you, every action he took during his presidency was directed at exactly that goal. Slavery was not an issue for the Union, it was not why it went to war. That, of course, changed on 1 January 1863 when Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation came into effect.
As for Robert E. Lee, there is no evidence whatsoever he said this. It is most likely that this fake quote is a mangling of something he did say or write, but I even have my doubts about that.
Lee, of course, was the the Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia for the Confederate States of America, a failed statelet that existed from 1861-65. During its short lifespan, the CSA did not gain the official recognition of any other state. And it ended with the massive defeat of the Confederacy’s army. At any rate, Lee fought to preserve slavery. Full stop.
Slavery was the primary reason for the secession for each and every of the Confederate states. It was also the primary reason for the existence of the Confederacy. Not states’ rights. Not taxation. Slavery. And this was what Robert E. Lee fought to preserve.
So even IF this line from Lincoln could be extrapolated to mean something, and even IF Robert E. Lee said what this meme claims, it is irrelevant. One man ultimately ended slavery, the other fought to preserve it.
But, the meme is not correct. It is FAKE NEWS.
History & Memory and Abraham Lincoln
March 27, 2017 § 12 Comments
Lincoln’s birthday came and went in February, largely ignored in Tennessee and other Southern states. In the wake of his birthday, this image came floating through my Twitter feed. This is an interesting take on the question of history and memory of the Civil War. It fascinates me on both levels.
Factually, there is not much in this that is true. And the interpretation presented in this poster is, well, wrong. The part on top, with the spelling and grammatical mistakes, was tacked onto the Wanted poster by someone as it travelled through the right wing, Confederate social media world. I don’t know who did it.
Note how the unknown commentator claims that Lincoln waged an unholy war against the South. The Civil War, of course, was begun by the Confederacy, when it attacked Fort Sumter, in the harbour of Charleston, SC, on 11 April 1865. Thus, the war is not the fault of the Union. Fort Sumter was a fort held by the United States military, constructed in the wake of the War of 1812. There are no ‘hard facts’ that can be presented to deny this historical truth.
But, of course, fact and memory are not the same thing. And this is why the question of history and memory fascinates me. It’s not simply a matter of how we remember history as individuals, as our own individual memories are a function of society as well, but it’s also a question of how all of our individual memories work in concert with each other to form cultural memory.
Certainly, in the South, the Civil War is remembered differently from the North. And it is not always remembered in a cartoonish, neo-Confederate manner as this. On a more basic level, many Southerners can express distaste for the actual causes of the war and the war aims of the Confederacy and a deep pride in their ancestors’ gallantry in battle against the North. Hence the romance and popularity of Civil War re-enactors and their romance of the Confederacy. And, of course, there is a careful parsing of the larger context of the Confederacy and its reasons for fighting the war in the first place.
Slavery is the first or second thing mentioned in every single Confederate state’s articles of secession. It was central to the war aims of the Confederacy. It was not, however, central to the war aims of the Union, despite what many Northerners believe. It was not until the Emancipation Proclamation came into effect on 1 January 1863, nearly two years into the war, that the end of slavery became a Northern war aim. In short, then, the Civil War happened, from the perspective of the Confederacy, over slavery. Not states’ rights (had it been, the fight over the entry of new states to the Union and whether they’d be slave states or not, would not have happened).
And clearly, Lincoln is remembered differently on either side of the Mason-Dixon line. But there is also a question of history. When the Republican Party tweeted a fake quote from Lincoln for Lincoln’s Birthday (in a tweet that has since been deleted), it wasn’t the fake quote that amused me, it was the GOP’s statement. Lincoln certainly did not bring the nation together. His election was the excuse the Confederacy used to justify secession.
But at any rate, to return to the original issue here of the differing memories of the Civil War and un-reconstructed Southerners: One could indeed argue that Lincoln violated the Constitution. Many people have made this argument, including respected historians and constitutional scholars. Lincoln was very aware of his expansionist reading of the Constitution and reminded his opponents that they could question him, through the ballot box and via the court system. Ultimately, however, his expansion of the Constitution has been recognized by scholars as an historical fact, more or less.
But there is also the question of other means of bending the Constitution. In the case of habeus corpus, Art. I. Sec. 9, cl. 2 of the Constitution reads:
The Privilege of the Writ of Habeus Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public safety may require it.
However, Article I of the Constitution lays out the powers of Congress, not the Executive (that’s Article II). However, Congress can delegate authorities to the Executive, and has (for example, during World War I, the Food and Fuel Control Act of 1917). But, Congress had not delegated this power to Lincoln. Thus, in ex parte Merryman, a federal court decision in 1861, Justice Roger Taney, who was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, but sitting as a federal court justice, found Lincoln’s suspension of habeus corpus and his delegating of this power to United States Army officers to be beyond the law, that the suspension of habeus corpus was limited to Congress, which could, of course, delegate this power. Merryman, however, was ignored by Lincoln on the grounds of necessity due to the unusual circumstances of the war. He argued that the Civil War was exactly situation noted in the Constitution, a case of rebellion. And, furthermore, he argued that the President has had to act many times when Congress was not in session. Indeed, this is true, dating back at least Jefferson’s era. In these cases, the President is expected to seek post facto permission for his actions from Congress. Indeed, in 1863, Congress passed An Act relating to Habeas Corpus, and regulating Judicial Proceedings in Certain Cases.
Indeed, in my copy of Richard Beeman’s Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution, which I assign every semester, as it annotates the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, Beeman merely states the following:
On at least a few occasions American presidents have suspended while either suppressing rebellion or protecting public safety.
Beeman then uses President Lincoln and the Civil War and President George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11 as examples. That’s all. In other words, this is a recognized power of the president, though Beeman does note that Bush based his actions on the USA Patriot Act, which is obviously an act of Congress.
As for the treason claimed in the Wanted post, I’m not sure where this comes from, given that the attempted secession by the Confederacy was, by definition, a treasonous act. Treason is an attempt to overthrow or betray one’s country. Certainly, the Confederates felt that the American government had overstepped its bounds and was attempting to claim the right to rebel, as the Founding Fathers had in the Declaration of Independence.
Nor did Lincoln imprison 40,000 Northerners in military prisons during the war. I’m not even certain where such a number would come from.
As for the question of the plight of Southerners under Union occupation, that is another thing entirely. Certainly, federal troops did commandeer supplies and property. They did rape Southern women. But, the argument about the loss of civil rights, well, the Confederacy did start the war. There was no official declaration of war, given that the Union refused to recognize the Confederacy, nonetheless, there was most certainly a war And the war was fought in Southern territories. Thus, the suspension of civil liberties in a territory of open rebellion should not be surprising.
Nonetheless, while I would not state that the vision of Abraham Lincoln in this Wanted poster is a common one in the South, there is a small fringe that does view him in this manner. And I also do not find this surprising, given the romanticization of the Civil War in the minds of many (and not just in the South). Lincoln was the enemy, obviously. And so it should not be surprising that someone, thinking it clever, created this Wanted poster (though I cannot speak to the editorialization attached to it).
In this romanticized version of the Civil War I have seen up close, at County Fairs and the like in Alabama and Tennessee, something interesting happens to the Civil War. Race is removed from it, in that the Sons of the Confederacy, the ones who dress up and Civil War garb and re-enact the war, insist they have no racial malice and that there is no racial malice behind their play-acting nor flying of the Confederate Battle Flag (whether or not this is true is a matter for another blog post). Rather, they claim, they are celebrating the gallantry of their ancestors against the Northern incursion (and, of course, the reasons for that incursion are elided).
And this brings me to what I see as the greatest irony of the lionizing of the Confederacy. I had a student who wrote an MA thesis on the Confederate soldiers between the Battle of Shiloh in southwestern Tennessee in April 1862 and the Battle of Mobile Bay in southern Alabama in August 1864. She used soldiers’ diaries as a major primary source. Shiloh was their first battle and many of these men responded much as you’d expect: abject terror at the actual grizzly face of mid-19th century war. And almost overnight, these young men went from being keen to be battle-tested to bitter. They were bitter at their inadequate supplies and medical care and leadership. But they were also bitter that they were being compelled to fight for the right of rich men to own slaves. As they marched South, chased by the Union Army through Mississippi and Alabama to Mobile Bay, they became increasingly angry and bitter. Those that survived did fight, against insane odds. And generally lost in this theatre of war, which was very different than the one commanded by Robert E. Lee in Virginia. In Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi, they were outgunned, outmanned, and victim to poor leadership. But even the soldiers in Lee’s Army of Virginia were well aware of the irony that they, too poor to own slaves, were laying their lives on the line for the rich slave owners.
It’s certainly a historical truism that poor men are the cannon fodder for the rich. Even today, the US Armed Forces tend to draw their recruits from the poorer areas of the South. So that the poor white men of the South found themselves in grey uniforms and fighting the US Army should not be surprising. So, in many ways, this is what these men, the Civil War Confederate re-enactors are interested in: the plight of poor men. And celebrating their ancestors. But, their ancestors were on the wrong side of history. And the wrong side of the Civil War.
And so they’re left with the uncomfortable problem of unsorting the simple fact of slavery and racism from their views of the Civil War. Hence the rise of the states’ rights claim. Or others. The simple fact is that they’re confronted with a double dose of difficult knowledge in confronting the Confederacy and the Civil War. First, the slavery issue. Second, their ancestors’ plight of fighting and dying for rich, slave-owning plantation owners. And perhaps this is their way out of the racial conundrum: these men and women, their ancestors weren’t the slave owners.
On Experts & Anti-Intellectualism
July 5, 2016 § 5 Comments
Nancy Isenberg‘s new book, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, is attracting a lot of attention. No doubt this is, in part, due to the catchy title. White trash is a derogatory and insulting term, usually applied to poor white people in the South, the descendants of the Scots-Irish who settled down here prior to the Civil War, the men who picked up their guns and fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. (Oddly, the term is not really applied all that often to poor white people in the North).
I am also deeply suspicious of books that promise to tell me the “untold” or “true” story of anything. And certainly, if you asked American historians if class was an “untold story”, they’d laugh you right out of their office. But no doubt the title is due to Viking’s marketing department, not Isenbeg.
Nonetheless, I bought the book, but as I was doing so, I read some of the reviews on Amazon.The negative ones caught my eye. Most of the negative reviews were either misogynistic or anti-Semitic. But, one, by someone calling themselves Ralphe Wiggins, caught my eye:
This book purports to be a history of white trash in America. It is not. It is a series of recounting of what others have said about the lower white classes over the past 400 years. In most cases the author’s summarizations are a simple assertions of her opinion.
The book is 55% text, 35% references and 10% index. The “Epilog” is a mishmash of generalizations of Isenberg’s earlier generalizations.
Let us now parse Wiggins’ commentary. First, Wiggins complains that Isenberg simply summarizes “her opinion” and then generalizes her generalizations. Clearly, Wiggins does not understand how historians go about their craft. Sure, we have opinions and politics. But we are also meticulous researchers, and skilled in the art of critical thinking. The argument Isenberg makes in White Trash are not simply her “opinion,” they’re based on years of research and critical thinking.
Second, Wiggins complains that the book is 35% references and 10% index. Of course it is, it’s an academic work. The arguments Isenberg makes are based on her readings of primary and secondary sources, which are then noted in her references so the interested reader can go read these sources themselves to see what they make of them. Revealing our sources is also part of the openness of scholarship.
Wiggins’ review reminds me of Reza Aslan’s famous turn on FoxNews, where he was accused by the host of not being able to write a history of Jesus because he’s a Muslim. Aslan patiently explained to her over and over again that he was a trained academic, and had spent twenty years researching and pondering the life and times of Jesus. That was what made him qualified to write Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.
But all of this, Wiggins’ review, Aslan’s turn on FoxNews is symptomatic of a bigger problem: the turning away from expertise. In the wake of the Brexit vote, the satirical news site “News Thump” announced that all experts would be replaced by Simon Kettering, a local at the neighbourhood pub:
Williams knows absolutely everything about any subject and is unafraid to hold forth against the received wisdom of 400 years of the scientific method, especially after four pints of Strongbow.
Amongst his many accomplishments Simon is remarkably well-informed about optimal football formations, the effects of political events on international capital and bond markets, and the best way to pleasure a woman – possibly his favourite subject.
His breadth of knowledge is all the more impressive as he doesn’t even need to bother spending ten seconds fact-checking on Google before issuing a firm statement.
As my good friend, Michael Innes, noted in response:
Yep. Personally, I’m looking forward to all the medical and public health experts at my local surgery being fired and replaced with Simon. Not to mention the car mechanics at my local garage. I’m sure with a little creative thinking (no research!!!) we can dig deeper and weed out yet more of the rot, too.
See, experts can be useful now and then. And Nancy Isenberg is certainly one, given that she is T. Harry Williams Professor of History at Louisiana State University.
Slave Narratives and the Carolina Chocolate Drops
March 31, 2014 § 6 Comments
Last night, we were up in Woodstock, VT, to see the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a string band from Durham, North Carolina. The band is comprised of three African-Americans and fronted by Rhiannon Giddens, who is of mixed white, black, and aboriginal descent, they play a mixture of traditional and modern folk/roots instruments. They’ve revived a number of songs from the slave era in the Deep South, most of which, according to Giddens, were set down in the 1850s, just before the onset of the Civil War. Most of these, however, come without lyrics, for perhaps obvious reasons. The band were incredibly talkative on the stage last night, which created an incredible community vibe inside this small theatre in small-town Vermont. Both Giddens and band mate Hubby Jenkins kept up a running monologue with the crowd, telling us about their songs, how they came to perform them, write them, play them, their traditional instruments, and so on.
Before one song, Giddens told us about her explorations of American history, specifically African-American history, and about a book she read that collated slave narratives, and analysed them collectively, as opposed to the usual individuated approach to slave narratives. However, Giddens also noted one story that stuck out for her, about a slave woman named Julie at the tail end of the Civil War, as the Union Army was coming over the crest of the hill towards the plantation that Julie lived on. Julie is standing with her Mistress, watching them approach in the song, “Julie.”
This video was shot last night, by someone sitting close by us, though I don’t know who shot it, I didn’t see it happening. This is one powerful song, and it got me thinking. I’m teaching the Civil War right now in my US History class, and as I cast about for sources I am intrigued by slavery apologists, then and now, who argue that the slaves were happy. But even more striking are the stories about slave owners who were shocked to their core when the war ended and their slaves took their leave quickly, looking to explore their freedom.
It seems that the slave owners had really convinced themselves that they and their slaves were “friends” and that their slaves loved them. That arrogance seems astounding to me in the early 21st century. But this song last night powerfully brought the story right back around.