Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A history of slavery in the U.S.

I first began to view slavery (as practiced in the U.S.) from a different perspective perhaps 15 or more years ago, while I was developing the American history program for Sonlight Curriculum. Up until that time, I had never heard or seen any attempted defense of what, up till that moment, I had assumed was an indefensible Southern perspective and practice--a perspective and practice that, for a morally compelling reason, led the United States government to prosecute a war against morally corrupt Southerners. And, of course, most of us know that war today as the American Civil War.

It was back in the mid-90s that I first heard
  • Of alternative names for the Civil War (the "War of Northern Aggression"; the "War for Southern Independence"; and so forth [I had heard of the "War Between the States"]) . . . and reasons why various historians prefer one name over the others.
  • That
    • The members of the United States were very much independent states prior to the Civil War. Look at the founding documents. Look at popular documents of the first half of the 19th Century. Reference is almost always made to "these United States" rather than "the United States."
    • Prior to the Civil War, the United States was, much like the European Union is today, a confederation of independent nations.
    • It was only as a result of the War that the consolidated national federal government we know today was created in the United States.
  • The War may not have been fought solely or even primarily over slavery.
  • That the horrible abuses of slaves were most definitely not the de facto standard treatment under which slaves suffered throughout the South and that, instead, much of what I had been taught was the equivalent of partisan political posturing in which anti-slavery/abolitionist advocates used the most horrifying news stories of the day to proclaim that the abuses were the "standard"--much as anti-homeschooling zealots today use the most horrifying examples of abuse to suggest that these parents' behaviors are the "norm" among homeschoolers. (When newspapers begin headlining articles, as this one does, "Another Homeschool Killing," you know what the author and/or editor thinks about homeschooling!)
  • That the majority of citizens in Northern states may have actually been more racist than the citizens of Southern states.
  • That Northern states had horribly racist laws.
  • That many free blacks in the South owned black slaves.
  • And so on and so forth.
This was all new to me. And deeply disturbing. That I had never even heard of these things. That I had never been presented with arguments either in favor of or opposed to these various perspectives. No. Rather, the way I was brought up, it was as if these perspectives didn't exist.

And so last Saturday I came across an article titled Why The War Was Not About Slavery by Donald W. Livingston.

I am very impressed.

Some key points:
  • "The first thing to appreciate is slavery was, from the very first, a national enormity, an American sin for which every section of the Union bore some responsibility. This, however, is not how we have been trained to think. . . ." --See pg. 2 in the article to find out how far you want to agree or disagree with the author's claims.
  • "Slavery . . . was a national enormity integral to the entire economic and political structure of the United States from the beginning. Its elimination, therefore, morally demanded a national solution where all would share, to some degree, in the sacrifices and costs necessary to remove it.

    "From our perspective, the morally right thing would have been a nationally funded program to emancipate slaves, compensate slave owners for their loss, and integrate the African population into American society as social and political equals. Yet, throughout the entire antebellum period, no national political party of any importance ever proposed emancipation, much less compensation and integration.

    "The South could not have seceded and fought to reject a morally responsible solution urged by the North because no such program was ever proposed or even contemplated."
  • "Most all antebellum Americans believed two propositions.

    "The first proposition is that slavery abstractly considered (that is independent of positive law, circumstance, and custom) is a violation of natural law. This was as true of Southerners as Northerners.

    "Lincoln makes this clear in one of his debates with Douglas: 'Before proceeding, let me say I think I have no prejudice against the Southern people. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it.'

    "Why not? Because Southerners, like most Americans, thought that slavery abstractly considered is a violation of natural law.

    "The second proposition held by most Americans and especially by Northerners is the African population was never to be part of the American polity.

    "These two propositions are not contradictory, but they exist together in tension. If slavery, abstractly considered, is a violation of natural law, then slaves in America should be freed. But if America is a white European polity to which Africans are never to belong, then, even if freed, they would be in a permanently servile position without the protections of the master who had, if nothing else, an economic interest in the welfare of the slave."

    --Quite the claims! But fraught with deeper implications and meaning. --I commend the original article to you for your consideration. Was the North especially dedicated to the proposal that the African population should never be a part of the American polity?
  • Hard for many of us to imagine today, following Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement of the 60s and 70s, but, "The only place where the African population was accepted as part of society [prior to the Civil War] was in the South. There blacks were integrated into society through the family, i.e.; the plantation household. Southerners had come to think that the native soil of blacks was Virginia and Georgia, not Africa. There was subordination in the Old South but not segregation."
I could go on, but I really encourage you to read Livingston's article itself. It's a bit longer than what you are likely normally to read in a magazine, but well worth the effort. You may find yourself walking away with a new perspective on one of the most significant events in American history.
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