Modern Defenses of Past Slavery

Wayne,

I thought that this Vox article was worthwhile: Why are people still defending slavery in America? 5 common excuses debunked.

Before the Civil War, Southern white thinkers defended their “peculiar institution,” as they called it. After the Civil War, Southern whites continued to defend that institution, by denying that the Civil War had anything to do with slavery, by asserting that it was a benevolent practice that benefitted the black slaves, and by claiming that it was, in any case, an institution that was dying out, not requiring a terrible and bloody fraternal war to eliminate.

All of these claims are false. Strangely, some politicians, writers, and journalists repeat these ideas today. Why would these arguments from a hundred or two hundred years ago be relevant to some modern thinkers? A recent remarkable case arose when Michelle Obama, in her speech at the Democratic National Convention, stated that slaves had built the White House. This statement was a simple statement of fact, although slaves were not the only workers. It also bypasses the conventional way of speaking that attributes to the owner the building of a house even though it was the carpenters, bricklayers, concrete workers, plumbers, electricians, and glaziers to literally did all the work.

Faux Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly asserted that those slaves were well-treated, well-fed, and even paid. O’Reilly has several historical books to his name (ghost-written), so he may know, or maybe not, that it was a common practice for slave owners to “rent” their slaves to others. Compensation for the slaves’ work went to the slaves’ owner, not to the slaves. Some slaves were allowed to earn and keep small sums from their labor, as when they sold vegetables from personal gardens, and some used these funds to purchase their own freedom.

This claim is one of the 5 considered and rejected in the Vox article. Here are all five, but I recommend the article for the context and details:

  1. Slaves were well-fed
  2. Slaves were happy to have work
  3. Other countries had slavery too
  4. The Irish in America were also slaves
  5. Africans sold other Africans as slaves

Why would people today still be making these arguments today. Some are advocating a particular reading or interpretation of American history. Others are making a statements or arguments about modern America, as they see it.

Bernard

Each of us lives in her/his own time, having been imprinted from infancy with all kinds of attitudes, beliefs, prejudices and so forth, and without benefit of knowing where history will go. In 1776 no human knew what a species was. No one knew that under the skin all humans are alike. White people went to sea around the world and grabbed whatever would profit them. Meanwhile, across Africa some tribes migrated and expanded across the continent, grabbing whatever would profit them, taking other tribes into slavery, and selling some of their own tribe to white slavers or other black slavers. 

It makes no sense to me to assert that our founding fathers acted hypocritically. They were as infants in their knowledge of human races and human history. They took some wonderful steps, for example constructing our form of government. In hindsight, we see that many of them, but not all, were severely flawed with respect to race. Times have gotten better. We’re all still imperfect. 

Are you and I hypocritical in our tolerance for poverty among us? Maybe. I think more likely we’re ignorant about certain things, in particular how to run a society so that no group can relentlessly exploit other groups. Or run a world so that no nation can inflict harm on other nations unchecked, or exploit other nations only in its own interest, unchecked. Hopefully we’ll get there. Nothing guarantees we actually will. We can and must learn from the past. But I feel we need not and should not throw stones at the dead, lest we get pelted by our future better selves. 

I feel the same way about many honorable and excellent Southern people who believed they had to stay with their families in our tragic Civil War, and therefore believed they had to break their sworn covenants with the larger nation. An awful decision to be forced to make.

 Wayne

I agree with you that it is unfair to judge people from the past by today’s standards. Slavery has been a condition of human existence throughout all of history and in every society until modern times. Usually, this slavery was the result of warfare. Victors imposed the choice of death or enslavement upon those they had defeated. Slavery might also arise from debt or poverty.

People often remark that Thomas Jefferson, the author of the stirring words of the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

Was a slave-owner and kept a slave mistress. The story about Thomas Jefferson, just one remarkable person of course, is complex, and this essay from the Monticello web page is good to read: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery. From that site, I have this Jefferson quotation: “Jefferson wrote that maintaining slavery was like holding ‘a wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.”

As interesting as this subject is, it is not the subject of my original blog post. That post was about modern people who defend slavery of the past for their purposes in today’s political and social arguments.

I have another interest in this general subject. When advocates ask that governments remove the names or statues of slave owners or Confederate leaders from public places of honor, those who resist often say “You can’t change history. This was a part of our history.” There are many examples of this. Consider that Mississippi has a statue of Jefferson Davis (!) in the U S Capital’s Hall of Statuary, and Virginia honors Robert E Lee. Consider that a major U S military base, Ft. Bragg, honors an important and senior Confederate military officer. Or to consider examples from academia. There is now a fuss about Calhoun Hall at Yale, and Princeton is now wrestling with the legacy of Woodrow Wilson, the man who re-segregated the Civil Service and honored The Birth of a Nation with a White House showing.

I’d take these assertions about not being able to change history more seriously, if, say, Yale had had information displayed about South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun that included the facts about his defense of slavery, or if Princeton had mentioned Wilson’s segregationist legacy.

Thus, if by history people mean the events of the past, then I agree that you cannot change them. But if by history people mean what scholars and others write and think about the past, then we definitely can change it. Indeed, as I pointed out at the beginning of this discussion, it is the defenders of slavery, both modern and past, who try to remove slavery from the historical record.

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