Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Readings On Slavery

Over the past two years I've been reading about American slavery and its continuing legacy. This post provides a brief summary of my reading; some of the books may be the basis for longer pieces in the future. 

For the experience of slavery I recommend starting with Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave's first autobiography written in 1845.  Another, lesser known, slave escape narrative is Running A Thousand Miles for Freedom by William and Ellen Craft.  Ellen and William, married slaves in Macon, Georgia escaped to the North in December 1848.  Their ruse involved Ellen, the daughter of a mulatto and slave master who passed for white, dressing as a man with William posing as her (his) manservant.  Reaching Boston, they were threatened by recapture after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 and emigrated to England where the account of their escape was published.

In the late 1850s, Frederick Law Olmsted, the famed landscape architect responsible for New York's Central Park and Boston's Fenway, undertook several lengthy journeys through the American deep south.  His observations, published in 1861 as The Cotton Kingdom, take us on a tour of a land with little infrastructure, isolated settlements, little or no public education, and a three class system of wealthy slave owners, impoverished whites, and slaves; a utterly different world from the more prosperous North and West of the country.  Olmsted is very observant, commenting on the relationship between master and slave.  One interesting tidbit is his reporting on the very dangerous job of loading and unloading heavy materials from boats.  Business owners preferred to use Irish immigrant laborers rather than slaves for the task, since if injured they could be easily dismissed, while an injury to a slave meant a capital asset was impaired.

A very sad and moving tale is told in Help Me To Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery (2016) by Heather Andrea Williams, current professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.  I came across this book by accident, having just finished watching someone on CSPAN and about to switch channels when Professor Williams came on and I was drawn into her discussion.  The topic was one I never had thought about but as Williams spoke I thought "of course!".  Help Me To Find My People is the story of the post-Civil War search by freed slaves for children, spouses, and parents separated by sale before the war.  This is not some dry data driven tome, its power deriving from the stories of individuals trying, often futilely, to locate and reassemble their shattered families.

And how did those in the South wrestle with the question of slavery?  In John Archibald Campbell: Southern Moderate (1997), Robert Saunders Jr, a history professor at Troy State University presents us with a prominent Alabamian who recognized the times were changing.  According to Saunders, Campbell, a leading Alabama lawyer and eventually a Supreme Court Justice, believed that the institution of slavery was disappearing because it was no longer acceptable in the modern world, that the economic development of the region was hampered by slavery, and the South needed to prepare itself for its disappearance.  Campbell also opposed secession and, at least in the 1840s, believed that Congress could legally prohibit slavery in the territories (even writing John C Calhoun, who thought slavery a "positive good", of his views), all of which goes to the book's "moderate" label in its subtitle.   At the same time Judge Campbell was a fierce opponent of abolitionists and a strong proponent of states rights.  By 1857, when the Dred Scott case came before the Court, Campbell's views on the Constitution had changed and he authored an opinion concluding Congress had no authority to ban slavery in the territories.  After the war, Campbell, relocated to New Orleans, supported the imposition of control laws on the freed slaves and the initiation of the process of Jim Crow.  Thought slavery was gone, freed slaves would remain in a subordinate and oppressed class in Southern society.

And what of the North?  In Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era (2004), Ball St professor Nicole Etcheson provides a useful tour of the events in the Kansas territory of the 1850s, events that were both a spark and precursor of the violence of the next decade.  Most interesting to me is her description of changes in attitudes of white free soil settlers regarding African Americans.  Initially the northern settlers, who wanted Kansas to be a free territory, viewed blacks, free or slave, as unfair competition and wanted them banned from Kansas.  However, the first hand examples they saw of their treatment by slave owners created more sympathy for them during the course of the struggle. 

That there was a distinct difference between supporting abolition and believing in the social equality of all American citizens and the role of freed slaves is made clear in Annette Gordon-Reed's biography Andrew Johnson (2011).  Lincoln's successor was a Southern opponent of secession, stayed loyal to the Union in 1861, and supported abolition.  An advocate for poor southern whites, Johnson hated blacks and saw slave owners and slaves as equally culpable for the plight of the region.  Other than seeing the freeing of slaves as the way to destroy the southern oligarchs he had no desire to protect them against white violence and oppression after abolition. Gordon-Reed is also the author of the The Hemingses of Monticello which makes a compelling circumstantial case, based on both timing and psychology, for the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, and which, regardless of whether you accept her case (as I do), provides fascinating and detailed analysis on the evolution of slavery laws in Virginia from the 17th century through Jefferson's lifetime.

The same theme can be seen in the failure of the post-Civil War regime told by Allen Guelzo in his recent book Reconstruction: A Concise History (2018) a brief, but useful, overview.  Once the tide of Radical Republicanism ebbed at the end of the 1860s, and despite the fitful efforts of President Grant to stem the tide of violence against blacks, northern interest quickly diminished in guaranteeing a meaningful path to participating in society for the freed slaves, and with it, the will to take on a resurgent white South.  Some years ago I also read Eric Foner's more detailed book Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution (1989) which is worthwhile, though the author's Marxist economic determinist worldview means you need to carefully evaluate some of his focus and conclusions.

The legal tradition underpinning abolition is explored in Natural Law and the Antislavery Constitutional Tradition (2012) by Justin Buckley Dyer, a professor of American politics at the University of Missouri.  Natural law is out of favor today, particularly in academia, but was a keystone of the abolitionist argument against slavery, an argument ignited by Lord Mansfield in his 1772 opinion (Somerset v Stewart) ruling that slavery was unsupported by common law in England and Wales.  Ranging as far back as Rome to trace the legal status of slavery Mansfield concluded:
The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law [statute], which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasions, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. 
The same year as Dyer's analysis was published, Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States 1861-1865 by James Oakes, history professor at the City University of New York, was released.  In its first section, Oakes focuses on natural law theory and the contesting constitutional interpretations of three groups; abolitionists, those who opposed the expansion of slavery, and those who advocated expansion.  The term "freedom national" refers to those who opposed slavery's expansion, viewing the Constitution as making freedom the default status in the United States with slavery only allowed when permitted by preexisting law while slavery expansionists preferred a reading of "freedom regional" and "slavery national". The latter part deals with the actions, many of which I had been unaware of and many taken by the Republican Congress prior to the Emancipation Proclamation and justified using the unique circumstances of the war, to step by step liberate slaves.

A different perspective is provided by Forrest A Nabors, a political science professor at the U of Alaska in From Oligarchy to Republicanism: The Great Task of Reconstruction (2017).  Nabors thesis is that the predominant driver of radical reconstruction was the demolition of the South's slave owning oligarchy that had denied the majority of its population a true Republican form of government.  Along the way, Nabors marshals a great deal of contemporary evidence to support his thesis, though I think he underestimates the underlying racial dynamic of Southern society.

The last three books discussed address the full scope of America's encounter with race up to the present day and are essential reading for anyone interested in the subject.

In his 1992 book The Color-Blind Constitution, Andrew Kull, a law professor at Emory University, traces the struggle of our legal system to deal with race and discrimination from the 1840s battle to desegregate public schools in Massachusetts right up to the 1990s.  Kull's points out that the America has never had a color-blind constitution despite the 13th and 14th Amendments.  Contrary to the common understanding, the legal reasoning of the infamous Plessy v Ferguson decision of 1896, is still the reasoning used by the Supreme Court - that discrimination based upon race can be legal if the Court determines such discrimination is proper, though what the court today deems a proper basis for discrimination differs from what it thought proper in 1896.  What is astonishing is that the Court has maintained the position it can determine when discrimination is appropriate despite the explicit language of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbidding discrimination based upon race.

One of the most surprising aspects to me was Kull's discussion of the passage of the 14th Amendment which, as adopted, forbids state abridgement of the privileges and immunities of U.S. citizens and prohibits deprivation of life, liberty, and property without due process of law, clauses triggering much litigation as to their specific meaning resulting in a very narrow intepretation as applied to race.  Although inspired by the recent war, the amendment contains no language referencing race.  A much simpler and more direct alternative was proposed by radical Republican congressman Thaddeus Stevens:
All national and State laws shall be equally applicable to every citizen, and no discrimination shall be made on account of race and color.
Unfortunately, Stevens' alternative, which would have given us a color-blind constitution, was rejected, though it must be acknowledged that it could have never been enacted given white attitudes of that era.

Racial attitudes across our country, but with particular focus on the Northern states after Emancipation is the focus of Reckoning With Race: America's Failure (2017) by Gene Dattel.  From America's founding until well into the 20th century assimilation of immigrants was a key element in our success, but, as Dattel notes, despite the 14th Amendment, social norms continued to exclude blacks from the process of assimilation for many decades.

After the Civil War, and until World War I, whites from the North and West were content with policies that left freed blacks in the former slave states, rejecting any proposal to encourage them to relocate, or to press for fair treatment, with the result that until the early 20th century, over 95% of blacks remained where they were when freed.

Dattel takes the reader through the long and discouraging post Civil War history of white Northern attitudes and actions towards black Americans, including rejections of attempts at assimilation, particularly as the Great Migration north of southern blacks took place from 1915 to 1960.  It makes for depressing reading.

After rightfully lambasting whites for much of its course, Reckoning With Race moves in a different direction in its concluding chapters.  With dramatic changes in the attitudes of whites since World War II, new and effective Civil Rights legislation was enacted and a world of opportunities opened for the descendants of slaves.  Dattel rues that these opportunities have not been more actively seized and, instead, doctrines of multiculturalism, separatism, and a failure to confront community issues of family disintegration and violence, along with an unjustified pessimism have begun to dominate to the detriment of African-Americans.  The author sums it up in this way, ". . . current racial issues are likened to those of the 1960s as a way of cloaking today's problems with the aura of the civil rights movement."

What does the historical experience of the United States look like in comparison to the other nations of the Americas where slavery was established and which have had to deal with the integration of freed slaves and their descendants into their societies?  That's the subject of a magisterial comparative study by Robert J Cottrol, professor of law at George Washington University;  The Long, Lingering Shadow: Slavery, Race, and Law in the American Hemisphere (2013) in which the Afro-American experience in nine nations - the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic) is examined in detail.  The books is brimming with history I'd been previously unfamiliar with.  The wide scope is appropriate as the lands now part of the United States were the destination for only about 4% of the poor souls transported in the Trans-Atlantic trade; Brazil received almost half of those transported, the British and French sugar colonies in the Caribbean about 30%, with the Spanish colonies the remainder (of which Cuba received more than half).  So many Africans were brought to the New World that from 1492 until the end of the 19th century more Africans than Europeans reached the Western Hemisphere! 

And that's apart from the other half of the sub-Saharan slave trade, in which up to 18 million Africans may have been transported to the Muslim (mostly Arab) world.

The cultural and geographic differences of the receiving societies in the Americas are thoroughly explored by Cottrol, as well as the distinct legal systems and their consequences for the slaves and their descendents.  The author has some fascinating insights into how the hierarchical Iberian societies and the aspirations for equality (at least for whites) of the United States contributed to different outcomes when it came to the treatment of slaves and freed blacks.  Cottrol draws no overall conclusion as to whether any of these systems was better than the others and I suspect readers will come to very different judgments.

One intriguing aspect of the Latin countries was their effort, starting in the late 19th century, to attract European immigrants in order to "whiten" their populations.  It turns out Fidel Castro's father emigrated from Spain to Cuba in the early 20th century as part of this initiative!

The legal system instituted by the South after the Civil War to control freed blacks, popularly known as Jim Crow, was unprecedented in the Americas in its strictness, but Cottrol points out that with the start of the post World War II revolution in civil rights, along with changes in the U.S. legal system and the attitudes of whites, America jumped ahead of the rest of the hemisphere in the integration of Afro-Americans into society and, in fact, served as a prod to speed up such efforts in other nations.  Because of this Cottrol ends on a cautiously optimistic note when it comes to the United States.


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