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El Public Domain Review acaba de hacer disponible una versión digital de la primera edición del discurso pronunciado por Fredrick Douglas el 5 de julio de 1852, criticando la hipocrecia de celebrar la independencia de Estados Unidos cuando millones de negros seguían siendo esclavos.  Bajo el título First Edition Pamphlet of Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave Is the 4th of July?” (1852), este documento viene acompañado de un breve análisis de su importancia como una de las piezas de oratoria más significativas de la historia estadounidense, así como también una fuente invaluable para el estudio de la esclavitud en Estados Unidos.

Los interesados en este documento pueden ir aquí.

Para mis lectores hispano parlantes incluyo a continuación la traducción de las primeras dos páginas de este discurso producida por la página Mass Humanities.


Frederick Douglass's "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July ...

El significado del cuatro de julio para el negro Frederick Douglass July 5, 1852

Nota: Por razones históricas, en esta traducción se han empleado las formas de vosotros para la segunda persona plural. Aunque vosotros ya no se usa en el español hispanoamericano, era común durante el siglo xix, y sobre todo en la oratoria; por consiguiente, ayuda a captar, por analogía, el estilo decimonónico del inglés de Douglass.

1 Sr. Presidente, Amigos, y Ciudadanos de Compañero: La tarea antes de mi es alguno lo que requiere mucho pensamiento anterior y estudio para su desempeño adecuado. No me recuerdo nunca haber a parecer como un altavoz en frente de alguna asamblea con nerviosismo, ni con más desconfianza en mi habilidad que hago este día. Los papeles y los carteles dicen que voy a entregar una oración sobre el cuatro de julio. El hecho es, señores y señoras, la distancia entre esta plataforma y la plantación de esclavos, desde que me escapé, es considerable-y los dificultades para superar para que mover del último al anterior, no son leves. Lo que estoy aquí es algo de asombro así como de agradecimiento.

2 Esto, para el propósito de esta celebración, es el cuatro de julio. Esto es el cumpleaños de tu Independencia Nacional, y de tu libertad política. Esto, para ti, tiene la significa de la Pascua para la gente emancipada de Dios. Se lleva a tus mentes al día, y al momento de tu gran liberación. También, esta celebración significa la empieza de otro año de tu vida nacional; y te recuerda que la República de América ahora tiene 76 años. Estoy feliz, ciudadanos de compañero, porque tu nación está muy joven. Eres, incluso ahora, sólo a la empieza de tu carrera nacional, todavía persistiendo en el período de infancia. Repito, me alegre que esto es verdad. Hay esperanza en el pensamiento, y la esperanza es muy necesaria, debajo de los nubes oscuros que se bajan sobre el horizonte.

3 Ciudadanos del compañero, hace 76 años, las personas de este país eran súbditas británicas. El estilo y el título de tu “gente soberana” (en el cual tu ahora gloria) no nació. Estabas debajo de La Corona Británica. Tus padres estimaron el Gobierno Inglés como el gobierno de tu casa. Inglaterra como la patria, aunque una distancia muy lejos de tu casa, les impone, por el ejercito de sus prerrogativas de los padres, a sus niños coloniales, tales restricciones, cargas, y limitaciones, como, en su juicio maduro, se considere sabio, correcto, y adecuada.

4 Pero tus padres, cuyos no adoptaron la idea que el gobierno es infalible, y el carácter absoluto de sus acciones, presumieron a ser diferente del gobierno local en respeto al sabio y la justicia de algunos de las cargas y restricciones. Ellos se fueron en lo que para pronunciar las medidas del gobierno que son injustas, irrazonables, opresivas, y en total medidas que no la gente no debe someter a silencio. No necesito decir, ciudadanos de compañero, que mi opinión sobre las medidas son completamente en conformidad con los opiniones de tus padres. Tus padres se sentían tratados duramente e injustamente por el gobierno local, entonces tus padres, como hombres de honestidad, y hombres de espíritu, buscaron la compensación. Ellos solicitaron y protestaron; lo hicieron con una manera decorosa, respetuosa, y leal. Esto, sin embargo, no respondió al propósito. Ellos fueron maltratados con indiferencia soberana, frialdad, y desdén. Aún perseveraron.

frederick douglass Corinthian Hall 1852 speech

5 La opresión hace enojado al hombre sabio. Tus padres estuvieron intranquilos debajo de este trato. Ellos sintieron como las víctimas de errores graves que son incurables en su capacidad colonial. Con hombres valientes siempre hay un remedio para la opresión. Aquí, ¡la idea de separación total de las colonias de la corona nació! Era una idea sorprendente, mucho más que lo consideramos a esta distancia del tiempo. La gente tímida y prudente de esa día, por supuesto, estaban sorprendidas por esta idea. Su oposición al pensamiento, lo que consideraba peligroso durante en ese tiempo, estaba serio y poderoso; pero, durante de su terror y vociferaciones asustados contra de la idea, la idea alarmante y revolucionaria continuaba, y el país continuaba también. 6 El dos de julio, 1776, el Congreso Continental, para la consternación de los amantes de la facilidad y de los adoradores de la propiedad, alarmante y revolucionaria. Lo hicieron por una forma de una resolución. Casi nunca concebimos resoluciones, las que creamos en nuestras días, que tienen significados mejores que la resolución del Congreso Continental: “Resuelto, que estas colonias unidas son correctos y deben ser estados independientes y libres; también son absueltos de la lealtad de la Corona Ingles en total. 7 Ciudadanos, la resolución cumplió por tus padres. Ellos triunfaron; y hoy cosechas las frutas del triunfo de tus padres. La libertad que ganaron es tuyo; y tú, por lo tanto, puedes celebrar este aniversario. El cuatro de julio es el primer gran hecho en la historia de tu nación-la parte tan importante que todo en tu destino subdesarrollado. 8 El orgullo y patriotismo, no menos que el agradecimiento, te inspiran a celebrar y recordarlo perpetuamente. Lo he dicho que la Declaración de la Independencia es anillo – perno de la cadena del destino de tu nación; entonces, de hecho, lo considero. Los principales que están en ese instrumento son principales de salvación. Adhiere a estos principales, sea leal a estos en todos las situaciones, en todos los lugares, contra de todos los enemigos, y a cualquier precio.

Para la traducción completa se puede ir aquí.

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Eric Foner es uno de los más importantes historiadores estadounidenses. Profesor de Columbia University y ganador de premios tan prestigiosos como el Lincoln, Bancroft y  Pulitzer, Foner ha dedicado su  carrera al estudio del Partido Republicano,  la esclavitud, la guerra civil y, sobre todo, la Reconstrucción. Es a este periodo posterior a la guerra civil que Foner dedica su último libro, Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution (Norton, 2019). Enfocado en el significado de las tres enmiendas constitucionales aprobadas entre 1865 y 1870 (XIII, XIV y XV), Foner plantea que la Reconstrucción cambió radicalmente el ordenamiento político estadounidense. Al acabar con la esclavitud, definir la ciudadanía y garantizar el derecho al voto, tales enmiendas, propone Foner, conllevaron un renacer de la nación estadounidense.

Comparto con mis lectores la transcripción de una entrevista que el  historiador Ed Ayers, del podcasts Backstory, le hiciera a Foner sobre su último libro y otros temas. La entrevista se puede escuchar aquí

February 18, 1865 Harper’s Weekly cartoon depicting celebration in the House of Representatives after adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment. Source: Internet Archive.

HOW RECONSTRUCTION TRANSFORMED THE CONSTITUTION

A FEATURE CONVERSATION WITH PULITZER PRIZE-WINNING HISTORIAN ERIC FONER

If you turn on the news, you’re likely to find a heated debate about big issues, from citizenship to voting rights. For Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner, these issues are at the heart of what are often called the “Reconstruction Amendments”: the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the US Constitution. They were passed in 1865, 1868 and 1870, respectively. And if you ask Eric, they’ve been misinterpreted and overlooked for generations.

On this episode, Ed sits down with Eric Foner, a professor emeritus of history at Columbia University, to talk about public perceptions of Reconstruction, the landmark amendments to the Constitution and how they have the power to change the country today. Foner’s new book is The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution.

 

TRANSCRIPT

Download a pdf of the full transcript here.

Speaker 1: Major funding for Backstory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for The Humanities and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial foundation.

Ed Ayers: From Virginia Humanities, this is Backstory. This is Backstory, the show that explains the history behind today’s headlines. I’m Ed Ayers. If you’re new to the podcast, my colleagues, Joanne Freeman, Brian Balogh, Nathan Connolly, and myself are all historians and each week we explore the history of one topic that’s been in the news.

Speaker 3: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude except as a punishment for a crime shall exist within the United States or any place subject to [crosstalk 00:00:48]-

Speaker 4: All persons born or naturalized in the United States are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein [crosstalk 00:00:58]-

Ed Ayers: What you’re hearing are portions of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the US constitution.

Speaker 4: Which shall outweigh the privileges or [crosstalk 00:01:02]-

Speaker 3: No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.

Speaker 5: The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Ed Ayers: They’re known as the Reconstruction Amendments passed in 1865, 1868 and 1870 respectively. And if you ask Pulitzer Prize winning historian Eric Foner, they make up a second founding of the United States of America. The amendments are so important, Eric has made them the subject of his brand new book, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution. He says they have the power to bring progressive change on deep seated issues from citizenship to voting rights if only we’d give them their due. So today on Backstory, we’re bringing you a feature interview I did with Eric about his new book. It joins a host of others he’s written including Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, and The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. We talked about many things from public perceptions of Reconstruction to what Eric and I learned about the period when we were in elementary school. But I started our conversation by asking Eric why he felt we needed a book about the Reconstruction Amendments right now.

Foner

Eric Foner

Eric Foner: Two things; one the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, I argue and I think many scholars would agree, really transformed the constitution and are essential to understanding the Civil War era and indeed our current situation today, and yet they are not widely known or understood. Even though they really are central documents of American history, they don’t occupy the same place in our historical imagination as other key documents such as the Declaration of Independence or the Emancipation Proclamation. Your man or woman in the street has probably never heard of the people who wrote these amendments, people like John Bingham and James Ashley and Henry Wilson. They’re not part of the Pantheon of key figures in American history. I just wanted to draw attention to why they’re important, why those people are important, why the amendments are important.

Eric Foner: But secondly, as I said, I lecture a lot, as you do, to all sorts of audiences within the university, outside, or people who are just interested in history and I’ve found that there’s very little understanding of what these amendments were attempting to accomplish. Even in law schools, I hate to say it, I’m not a lawyer or a law scholar, I find that there’s a lot of misconception and even, dare I say it, on the halls of the Supreme Court. One of my arguments is that there’s a long history of what I can think of as misconceived Supreme Court decisions that are still embedded in our jurisprudence. If my book can help nudge the nine members of the Supreme Court toward a more expansive vision of these amendments, then I think that would be all to the good.

Ed Ayers: Yeah, that would be quite a return on your investment here. So you talk about being out in the world talking about Reconstruction, and I find that people don’t even claim to know anything about Reconstruction. My joke is that Reconstruction happens over the winter break and between volume one and volume two, and that it-

Eric Foner: They don’t reach it in the first semester if you’re teaching the survey of American history or if it’s the beginning of the second. They scoot right through it because there’s a heck of a lot of history coming along afterwards, but that’s a step forward Ed. You and I know that not that long ago when you mentioned Reconstruction, people knew “about it.” What they knew was that it was a period of misgovernment, corruption, the lowest point in the saga of American democracy. And that the reason for that was one, vindictive Northern radicals who wanted to fasten their power on the South, but also the former slaves who were just incapable of exercising democratic rights. They were manipulated by whites. They were childlike, and that giving them the right to vote was a disastrous mistake.

71DfIQ9brpL._SY741_Eric Foner: That played an important part in the ideological edifice of the Jim Crow era. The supposed horrors of Reconstruction were part of the justification for taking the right to vote away from black men in the late 19th, early 20th Century. That people no longer generally hold that view and actually know little is better. That at least now if people are interested, they can go at it with a fresh, a clean slate rather than having to disabuse themselves of a lot of mythologies.

Ed Ayers: That’s a very optimistic interpretation. I like that. Now it’s my sense that a lot of people still take their general idea about Reconstruction from Gone with the Wind, in which we have this great saga of that in which the victim is a slave holding white woman from the South. We’re sympathetic with her and it creates the impression that Reconstruction began immediately after the end of the war and the devastation there. Is this your experience? Do you think that people are still filtering this through … What do they think they know about Reconstruction? Where does it come from?

Eric Foner: Yeah. Well certainly Gone with the Wind or if you want to push back further Birth of a Nation, which of course is even much more pernicious because it’s a direct defense and glorification of the Ku Klux Klan, Gone with the Wind is probably the most popular American movie ever made and it’s constantly being shown on Turner movie channels. Look, people don’t watch Gone with the Wind for a history lesson on Reconstruction. They watch so they can trace out Scarlet O’Hara’s ups and downs. But yes, the Klan is in there, the whole idea that black people were just ignorant and incapable of taking part of democracy is in there. Whether it’s that or just what you learned in school.

Eric Foner: I’m old enough to have learned in high school, and this was in Long Island, the suburbs of New York. I learned the old Dunning School view that Reconstruction was the worst period in all of American history. I think today most scholars see Reconstruction, or at least I’ve tried to argue, as a important moment in the history of democracy, the first effort to really make the United States an interracial democracy, which it had never been before the Civil War and then would not be again that until our own era. The tragedy of Reconstruction is not that it was attempted, but that it failed, and that left to subsequent generations, including our own, this question of racial justice in America.

Ed Ayers: Yeah. I should say in full disclosure, you learned about Reconstruction on Long Island in New York. I learned about it at Andrew Johnson Elementary School in East Tennessee, and I’m not kidding. There’s only two in the United States, and I was at one of them, but I had my students and for a class here at the University of Richmond go online and say, “What do we think about Reconstruction? What’s the general sense that you get?” And they came back with one word; failure. That’s a word that you used, a description right now. And so what’s the consequences of thinking of Reconstruction as failure? It’s been a great continuity, as you’re saying that people who hated Reconstruction defined it as a failure and people who admire it defined it as a failure. Does that have any cost?

9781912128228Eric Foner: I think that’s a great question and I will withdraw my word failure. You’re absolutely right. It is so embedded. That idea is so embedded that it’s just impossible to avoid. The problem with declaring Reconstruction a failure is that then it makes the question at hand why did it fail, rather than what it seek to accomplish and how much of that was accomplished? If you define Reconstruction as the effort to create a utopian society, it failed. We haven’t had one yet, and certainly if you go a little less expansive than that and just say the effort to put into the laws and constitution and to enforce them, the basic rights of citizens for all Americans, including African-Americans, well it’s not exactly that it failed, but it didn’t become secure enough that later on these rights couldn’t be taken away.

Eric Foner: But of course Reconstruction was many, many things and not all of them were a failure. Reconstruction saw the creation of the black church as really a major, major institution throughout the country. That’s still here and as you well know, the black church has been the springboard for all sorts of activism among African Americans. Schooling, which was denied to almost all black people before the Civil War, this is when the public school systems of the South were created. This was when the black colleges were created. Those survived and so the black family, which had been it really disrupted in many ways by slavery now is consolidated and becomes the foundation of black communities. That didn’t go away when Reconstruction ended.

Eric Foner: So yeah, we should amend failure at least to say, well, in what realms did it fail and in what realms did it succeed? Because my definition of Reconstruction is not a specific time period, let’s say 1865 to 1877 or other people have other dates, but as a historical process. How does the United States deal with the end of slavery?

Ed Ayers: As we’re thinking really about the place of Reconstruction in the current American imagination, we have seen signs of awakened acknowledgement and interest in it. You and I both were fortunate to be in the Henry Louis Gates series on the Reconstruction on PBS, and people seem to really engage with that. So where do you think this interest is coming from?

Eric Foner: Well, I, like your students, I look around and say, “Well, how is …” I look particularly at how Reconstruction is referred to in the press by journalists almost offhandedly. It’s not that long ago. I remember in the 1990s, a distinguished, I’m not going to name any names, but a pretty distinguished journalist for the New York Times wrote a little article about the Bosnian Civil War. And he said, “Well, I hope that after the Bosnian Civil War is over that the victorious side just doesn’t wreak vengeance on the losers as happened in the United States in Reconstruction.” And I, as a complainer, I send him a note. And I said, “You’re not writing about Reconstruction really, but I think it’s important to know that that’s not how historians view it anymore. You’re reinforcing the idea that giving rights to black people is an act of vengeance against white people, which is a really dangerous idea.”

920x920Eric Foner: He wrote back and said, “You’re absolutely right. I shouldn’t have said that, but my wife is from South Carolina,” and I’ve heard this all the time. And I said to myself, “That’s a funny way of running journalism.” You put in your article what your wife told you over breakfast. But be that as it may, you don’t see that anymore. I think what now, if Reconstruction pops up is Tim Scott is the first black Senator from South Carolina and the first ones were in Reconstruction. I think Reconstruction is being seen as a time when positive things happened even though negative things happened as well. So I think it’s good. And of course the Gates series was very important as you well know, that there’s now a national park site being developed in Beaufort, South Carolina to highlight the history of Reconstruction. So I think Reconstruction is, people are encountering it in all sorts of venues and I think in a more modern form than the old what we call Dunning School approach.

Ed Ayers: Well you were modest before in walking away from the word failure, but in many ways you came up with the right word back in 1988 with your great book on Reconstruction; unfinished revolution. Are you willing to stand by that phrase still?

Eric Foner: Yeah, I am. That was the very last words of the Gates series, if you may remember. Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw got the very last word in Reconstruction was an Unfinished Revolution. So I said, “Oh, look at that. That’s nice. My phrase still reverberating out there.” The funny thing is that that wasn’t the title of the book. The title of book was just Reconstruction, and the day before it finally went to the printer, my editor called me and said, “People here don’t think anyone’s going to buy that book. It needs a good subtitle. By tomorrow morning, give us a subtitle.” And I thought, “Gee whiz.” And I thought and thought and thought and suddenly this popped into my head, The Unfinished Revolution and I told it to him. So it wasn’t something that had shaped the way I wrote the book or anything like that.

Eric Foner: But anyway, yeah, it’s unfinished, and particularly, when you talk about the legal and constitutional aspects, yes. The Reconstruction put forward a whole set of ideals, a whole set of principles for our society and they weren’t fully accomplished, certainly. I want to give the impression of something that’s still ongoing, that Reconstruction is not just the dead past. It’s still happening in the sense that the issues of Reconstruction; who should be a citizen? Who should have the right to vote? How do we deal with terrorism and others? These are on our agenda today. So that debate is still unfinished.

Ed Ayers: Your new book, let’s talk about the title of it. The Second Founding. So why did United States need a second founding? What was it about the first founding that was inadequate?

Eric Foner: Well, as you well know, there’s a lot of debate among historians about exactly what the relationship between the constitution and slavery was. I don’t want to get into that right here. The abolitionist movement debated that forever, but I think we would all have to say that slavery in some form was embedded in the original constitution. We had the Fugitive Slave Clause, which required the return of those who managed to escape to freedom. We had the Three-Fifths Clause, which gave the slave South added representation in the House of Representatives by counting part of their slave population. So we needed a second founding to cleanse the constitution of slavery and to clarify issues which the constitution had left undecided.

Eric Foner: Number one, who is a citizen of the United States? One of the funny things is the constitution refers to citizens all over the place, but it never defines who is a citizen. What do you need to be to be a citizen? My view of Reconstruction, I use this phrase, a modern phrase, I didn’t use it back then, is this is regime change that’s going on. A pro-slavery regime is being replaced with what? With some kind of antislavery regime and you’ve got to rewrite the constitution in order to cleanse it of the remnants of the pro-slavery regime.

Ed Ayers: And that regime wasn’t just in the South. The whole nation was a regime based on slavery.

Eric Foner: Absolutely. That’s why Lincoln in his second inaugural address referred to it as American slavery, not Southern slavery. Lincoln always said that, that we are complicitous in the North. We don’t own slaves right now, but we are complicitous. We profit from slavery.

Ed Ayers: So as you know from out giving talks, people think that the Civil War itself ended slavery and that the 13th Amendment was just a codification of something that had already happened with the Emancipation Proclamation and so forth. So I thought that was one thing that was interesting about the Lincoln movie focusing on the 13th Amendment. So why did we need the 13th Amendment if the Civil War ended slavery?

GatewayEric Foner: Well there were still slaves on the ground when the Civil War ended, quite a few of them. People who had gotten to Union lines or where the Union Army had come and established control, yeah. Part of their job, part of the Union Army’s job once the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, was to protect the freedom that Lincoln had announced. But legally speaking, emancipation and abolition are not quite the same thing. Slavery is created by state law, not federal law, state law. States can abolish slavery as the Northern states did soon after the American Revolution, but freeing individuals does not abrogate the state laws that create slavery. That’s why Lincoln’s, even though you wouldn’t quite see this in the movie. That’s fine. It’s not a historical treatise. Lincoln’s preferred route to the end of slavery during the war was state by state abolition.

Eric Foner: Even after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he was pressing Southern states. If any of them wanted to come back in the union, they would have to abolish slavery. That’s how you get rid of slavery on the ground, by having the state laws abrogated. But that couldn’t really happen in the Civil War very much, and so by 1864, many people particularly abolitionists are saying the simpler way is just to have this constitutional amendment. That will completely abrogate slavery everywhere in the country. We won’t have to go state by state and let’s do it that way. Lincoln got onboard of course, and as the movie shows, twisted a lot of arms in January, 1865 to get some people in the House of Representatives to vote for the 13th Amendment, so to completely get rid of slavery. It’s certainly true. The war disrupted slavery. Many people fled. Some states like Maryland, a border state and Louisiana where Lincoln was trying to push a Reconstruction plan, they abolished slavery on the state level, but there were plenty of places slavery was still existing when the Civil War ended.

Ed Ayers: Well, why would Lincoln have to twist so many arms if the United States awakened to the great injustice of slavery during the war and mobilized 200000 African American men to be soldiers and sailors? Why was there still resistance to it as late as 1864 and early 1865?

Eric Foner: Yeah, well, of course the first time they tried, the 13th Amendment failed in the House of Representatives. Remember, it needs two-thirds vote in the Congress, which is often not that easy to get. The Democratic Party was still there. It was still, if not pro-slavery, it was still resistant to abolition. The border slave states, the people there were quite adamant that they didn’t, Kentucky, Maryland said they didn’t want this constitutional amendment. They were still in the union, but it took arm twisting because the 13th Amendment gets lost in the shuffle in a way. We talk about the 14th and 15th much more for complicated reasons, but the 13th Amendment was really a constitutional revolution in and of itself.

Eric Foner: Never before had the constitution been written or amended to just abrogate a whole type of property. Some of the people in Congress said, “Wait a minute. If we’re going to say this kind of property is gone, next year there’ll be demanding that we confiscate the factories of New England.” It also completely reversed the position and that was traditional, but from the constitution arm, with the ratification of the constitution arm, that this was a state matter. Now it’s a, “Forget it. I don’t care what the states want. No slavery anymore in this country, do supersede.” That is a fundamental shift of power from the states to the federal government. And then the second clause. The first clause, abolition of slavery. The second clause, Congress shall have the power to enforce this amendment. A lot of southerners, once the war is over and Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction plan is moving along, a lot of white Southerners say, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. Yeah, slavery is dead. We understand that. We’re not going to have slavery back, but this second clause seems to give Congress the right to legislate about anything they want.”

Eric Foner: How do you enforce the abolition of slavery? Do you give black people the right to vote? Yeah. People said that’s what they need if they’re going to be free. Do you give them land? That’s what African Americans wanted. In other words, it’s very open-ended. Enforcing the abolition of slavery is a very complicated idea. Unfortunately, for very complex legal reasons, it has never really been implemented. The Supreme court has barely ever used the 13th Amendment as a weapon against the racial inequality that is, of course, tied up in slavery.

Ed Ayers: Yeah, so the 13th Amendment, it’s a breakthrough in thinking about what the nation is as well as ending slavery right?

Eric Foner: Right.

Ed Ayers: Does that help explain why the 14th Amendment comes so quickly after the 13th after there have been decades, really, without constitutional change?

WhoEric Foner: Yeah. The 14th Amendment, I would say, is working out the consequences of the 13th Amendment as well as the consequences of the Civil War. I see the 14th Amendment as putting the Northern Republicans understanding of what they had achieved in the Civil War into the constitution. Some of it has something to do with race or slavery, for example, that Confederate bonds are never going to be repaid. If you patriotically loaned money to the Confederacy, forget it. You’re never getting that back. It has to do with various other things related to the war. But the first section, which is the key one, is really henceforth because of the abolition of slavery, everybody born in the United States is a citizen of the United States.

Eric Foner: You needed that because the status of citizenship was still very uncertain and then more important, all those citizens are going to enjoy the equal protection of the law. The original constitution said nothing about equality among Americans, nothing. It’s the 14th Amendment that makes the constitution as it has been in our own time, a vehicle through which all sorts of people can claim greater equality. The gay marriage decision a few years ago was a 14th Amendment decision. They weren’t thinking of gay marriage when they were writing the 14th Amendment, but they were thinking of how do you make people equal before the law?

Ed Ayers: The last amendment you talk about of course, is the 15th, which I think often tends to be seen as a footnote to the 14th but was that also a hard fought battle to create that?

Eric Foner: That was very hard fought because the principle that the states controlled the right to vote was deeply embedded North and South. There were plenty of Northern states that were nervous. In Congress, they were those who said, “We want an amendment that just says every male citizen age 21 has the right to vote.” If they had gotten that through, just think of all the trouble that would have been avoided. Even today when we’re debating voter IDs and all that, a positive statement. Now they weren’t willing to give women the right to vote and the women’s movement was very outraged by that. But Northern states, the Chinese couldn’t vote in California. Immigrants couldn’t vote on the same basis as a native born in Rhode Island. Massachusetts had a literacy test for voting. They didn’t want to give up their control of the rights. So instead of a positive amendment, it’s what you might call a negative amendment; that no state can deny anyone the right to vote because of race.

Ed Ayers: Well, it’s a work-around in a way, right? It’s-

Eric Foner: It’s a work-around and it has a serious flaw, which is any other limit on the right to vote is not prohibited right? You can have a literacy test. You can have a poll tax. When the Southern states, as you well know, took away the right to vote, they didn’t do it by saying, “Hey, black people can’t vote anymore,” because that would’ve violated the 15th Amendment. What they did was put all these other qualifications and then understanding clauses. You’ve got to prove to the registrar that you understand the state constitution, but the Supreme Court allowed this to happen. They said, “Well, look, they’re not talking about race actually. This law says nothing about race so it doesn’t violate the 15th Amendment.”

Ed Ayers: Well and there’s other parts of these amendments that have come back to haunt us in some ways. Perhaps you could talk a little bit about the clause about involuntary servitude and the 13th Amendment?

Eric Foner: That’s been highlighted a few years ago by the documentary of, the Hollywood documentary, 13th. 13th Amendment, the language is taken just about directly from the Northwest Ordinance of Thomas Jefferson, and it says, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude except as a punishment for crime, can exist in the United States.” That criminal exemption. Now this is not a conspiracy as some people think, “Oh look. They were looking ahead to mass incarceration, to convict labor, to the exploitation of the labor.” They were hardly any prisons in 1865. There was a little bit of a history of convict labor to help pay the cost of prisons, but it wasn’t a mass system. But this little, this exemption, which was not even debated in Congress, nobody even mentioned it except Charles Sumner, the abolitionist Senator from Massachusetts. It wasn’t debated in the press. I looked through the newspapers. Nobody mentions it.

Eric Foner: It’s just boilerplate language really. But nonetheless, inadvertently, it created this loophole through which the Southern states particularly drove this Mack truck in the late 19th century of massive convict labor, either within prisons or leasing out of convicts to work in mines and plantations and on roadwork and stuff like this, under terribly oppressive conditions. The courts have persistently ruled that the 13th Amendment allows the requirement, the involuntary labor of people convicted of a crime. And then after Reconstruction, Southern states began making almost anything a felony. You steal a chicken, it’s a felony, and you’re eight years in jail and you are sent out pretty soon to labor on some guy’s plantation who has rented the labor of the prisoners from the federal government. So it’s disastrous really in Southern history later on, but it was inadvertent almost. What it shows you is people talk a lot about the original intention. Sometimes unintended consequences can be just as important as the intended consequences of an amendment.

Ed Ayers: You talked before, Eric, about the way that even though women played such a crucial role in bringing about these amendments; petitioning Congress during the war and afterwards, that they were excluded from this. How about the place of American Indians in all this? Who’s been born in this country more than American Indians? So why is that a blind spot in these laws of the post Civil War era?

Eric Foner: The legal status of Native Americans was murky, to say the least. You still had the remnants of the idea that they were not Americans. They were members of their own tribal sovereignties. People talked about the Cherokee Nation, the Choctaw Nation. You are not a citizen of the United States. You were a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. Now, of course, by this time, the power of the Indian nations in most places had been broken, and it wasn’t as if you had the United States government dealing with equal nations on the other side. But the people who wrote the [inaudible 00:29:15] did not, their aim was not to make Native Americans citizens. The exemption in the 14th Amendment says, “Anybody born in the United States or naturalized coming from abroad except and subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.” And the idea, well Native Americans are not subject to the jurisdiction of the United States. They’re subject to the laws of their own national sovereignties.

ForeverEric Foner: So Indians were not citizens and it’s not until 1924 that Congress enacts a law making all Native Americans, regardless of where they are living, regardless of what tribe they in, citizens of the United States. So yeah. These amendments had exemptions, they had loopholes, they had serious flaws. Women, as you said, certainly objected to the 15th Amendment, which didn’t give them the right to vote, and the second clause of the 14th Amendment, which introduces the word male for the first time into the constitution. These measures were compromises. They were worked out after long debate and amendments and ups and downs in Congress. There’s no single mind behind the 13th, 14th or 15th Amendments. They were the result of all sorts of negotiation and controversy. Nonetheless, the basic principles are pretty clear. The abolition of slavery, the establishment of a universal notion of citizenship, despite without the native Americans and of equality among those citizens and the vast expansion of the right to vote.

Ed Ayers: And they are alive in today’s political and legal culture. What do you see as the issues that are most salient right now on either being contested or helping drive forward some kind of change?

Eric Foner: Well, sadly, yeah. Many of these issues are still unresolved and I’d have to say sadly, our Supreme Court has adopted an increasingly narrow definition of the implications of these amendments. The most notable was a few years ago in the Shelby County decision, which overturned a very important part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That’s a law passed under the 15th Amendment. It was passed with virtual unanimity in Congress, forcing jurisdictions in the South that had a long history of discrimination and voting to get prior approval from the federal government before they changed the voting rules. Supreme Court a few years ago said, “Well that’s a violation of federalism. It treats some states more harshly than other states.” Well, these are states that had slavery and not every state did. And also these are states that had consciously removed the right to vote over many years.

Eric Foner: But anyway, so their narrowing the 15th Amendment. Who should have the right to vote is a hot issue in our politics as you well know, with gerrymandering, with various ID and other voter suppression laws. Citizenship, how relevant can you be on our border today? This is being debated all the time. Who has the right to be an American citizen? For example, does the child born in the United States of a undocumented immigrant, is that child automatically an American citizen? Well, language of the 14th Amendment is pretty clear. Yes. Any person born in the United States. Your parents can be bank robbers. That doesn’t mean that you can’t be a citizen of the United States. But President Trump, among other things, has said that he feels he has the right as president to abrogate the first sentence of the 14th Amendment, the birthright citizenship sentence for the children of undocumented immigrants.

Eric Foner: I don’t personally think the president can all by himself eradicate part of the constitution, but some people have tried to do that. So these issues are certainly on our political agenda today and I think an understanding of how the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were enacted, what they were intended to accomplish, can help us think through the implications of that today.

Ed Ayers: Eric Foner is professor emeritus of history at Columbia University. His latest book is The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution. That’s going to do it for us today, but you can keep the conversation going online. Let us know what you thought of the episode or ask us your questions about history. You’ll find this at backstoryradio.org or send an email to backstory@Virginia.edu. We’re also on Facebook and Twitter at Backstory Radio. Special thanks this week to Jerry [inaudible 00:34:10] and Katie Gary.

Ed Ayers: Backstory is produced at Virginia Humanities. Major support is provided by an anonymous donor, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial foundation, the Johns Hopkins University and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this podcast do not necessarily represent those that the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional support is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment.

Speaker 6: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Ed Ayers is professor of the humanities and president emeritus of the University of Richmond. Joanne Freeman is professor of history and American studies at Yale University. Nathan Connolly is the Herbert Baxter Adams associate professor of history at the Johns Hopkins University. Backstory was created by Andrew Wyndham for Virginia Humanities.

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Thin LightAcabo de leer un libro extraordinario, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipations in the Heart of America. Su autor, Edward L. Ayers, es un historiador estadounidense, ex Presidente de la Universidad de Richmond y miembro fundador del  podcast de historia estadounidense Backstory.  The Thin Light of Freedom completa su obra In The Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863, ganadora del prestigioso Bancroft Prize del año 2004.

Ganador del 2018 Lincoln Prize, este libro examina la guerra de secesión estadounidense a partir de 1863, desde la perspectiva de dos condados estadounidenses claves por su ubicación estratégica: Franklin (Pensilvania-Unionista) y Augusta (Virginia-Confederado). Ello le permite a su autor hacer un examen  micro de un proceso histórico tan complejo como la guerra civil estadounidense.

Dada la magnitud de esta obra, me limitaré hacer algunos comentarios generales sobre su contenido.

Ayers

Edward L. Ayers

En más de una ocasión he escuchado  a colegas minimizar e inclusive negar la esclavitud como el factor clave de la guerra civil estadounidense. Quienes así piensan, por lo general justifican su argumento subrayando la disposición de Lincoln para un acomodo con el Sur que evitara la secesión y la guerra. Ayers hace un trabajo extraordinario subrayando la centralidad de la esclavitud  en el guerra civil estadounidense. Tal vez Lincoln estuvo dispuesto a llegar a un acuerdo sobre el futuro de la esclavitud, pero el Sur no. En otras palabras, es la tenaz resistencia de los esclavistas lo que lleva al Norte a adoptar una posición abolicionista. Según Ayers, la libertad para los negros avanzó más rápido de lo que sus defensores habían podido imaginar, gracias a la agresividad de los sureños. Para acabar con el Sur – y poner fin a la guerra – era necesario acabar con la esclavitud.

Ayers enfatiza que la emancipación y la Reconstrucción no eran inevitables resultados de la economía moderna, del poder del Norte o de la justicia. Las consecuencias de la guerra permanecieron en duda durante el conflicto y el periodo posterior. Pocos hubieran imaginado en 1860 que en cinco años la esclavitud sería destruida y que los libertos se convertirían en ciudadanos estadounidenses.

En la etapa posterior a la guerra –la llamada Reconstrucción– la actitud de los sureños también jugó un papel clave. Su resistencia y oposición ayudaron a que la revolución que la Reconstrucción significaba avanzara.

Sin embargo, no hay un final feliz. Los enemigos de la libertad de los negros no desaparecieron después de la Reconstrucción. Éstos no se rindieron y por décadas lucharon para hacer retroceder la expansión de la democracia en el Sur, socavando los derechos adquiridos por los negros en la década de 1860.

15disunion-blog480

The Battle of Nashville (Library of Congress)

No puedo terminara sin subrayar dos elementos impresionantes de este libro: lo bien que está escrito y sus fuentes. Esta es una obra con una narración extraordinaria que atrapa al lector sin perder profundidad académica. Ayers recurre a una variedad extraordinaria de fuentes primaras: periódicos, informes, cartas, etc. Destaca el uso de diarios para reconstruir cómo experimentaron la guerra soldados, esposas de soldados, civiles, etc.

Norberto Barreto Velázquez

Lima, 19 de julio de 2018

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Frederick Douglas

Hoy 4 de julio, los estadounidenses celebran el día de la declaración de su independencia. Para conmemorar tan relevante evento, comparto con ustedes un discurso titulado “What to Slave is the 4th of July” que fue pronunciado por Frederick Douglas el 4 de julio de 1852 en Rochester, Nueva York.  Douglas, quien nació esclavo, se convirtió en una de las voces más poderosas contra la esclavitud en los Estados Unidos.  Leído por James Earl Jones, este discurso forma parte de una serie de actuaciones organizadas por el gran historiador Howard Zinn bajo el título Voices of a People’s History of the United States.

Norberto Barreto Velázquez

Lima, Perú, 4 de julio de 2018

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download-1El 2018 Lincoln Prize ha sido sido concedido al trabajo de Edward Ayers,  The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America (W.W. Norton and Company). Este premio, que consiste de $50,000, es otorgado anualmente por  el Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History para reconocer el mejor trabajo investigativo sobre Lincoln y el periodo de la guerra civil. Ayers es un historiador estadounidense, ex Presidente de la Universidad de Richmond y miembro fundador de unos de los mejores podcast de historia estadounidense: Backstory. Ha sido merecedor tanto del Bancroft Prize como  del Beveridge Prize.

Vale mencionar a los finalistas de tan prestigioso premio:

  • Ron Chernow, Grant (Penguin Press).
  • Gordon Rhea, On to Petersburg: Grant and Lee, June 4-14, 1864 (LSU Press).
  • Tera Hunter, Bound in Wedlock:  Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century(Harvard University Press).
  • Cate Lineberry, Be Free or Die (St. Martin’s Press).
  • Graham Peck, Making an Antislavery Nation(University of Illinois Press).
  • Adam I.P. Smith, The Stormy Present: Conservatism and the Problem of Slavery in Northern Politics: 1846—1865 (University of North Carolina Press).

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A mob attacking the warehouse of Godfrey & Gilman in Alton, Ill., where the abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy was killed in 1837.Credit Corbis

A mob attacking the warehouse of Godfrey & Gilman in Alton, Ill., where the abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy was killed in 1837.Credit Corbis

Was Abolitionism a Failure?

disunion45Jan. 31, 1865, Congress passed the 13th Amendment, banning slavery in America. It was an achievement that abolitionists had spent decades fighting for — and one for which their movement has been lauded ever since.

But before abolitionism succeeded, it failed. As a pre-Civil War movement, it was a flop. Antislavery congressmen were able to push through their amendment because of the absence of the pro-slavery South, and the complicated politics of the Civil War. Abolitionism’s surprise victory has misled generations about how change gets made.

Today, diverse movements cast themselves as modern versions of the struggle against slavery. The former Republican senator Jim DeMint, now the president of the Heritage Foundation, claimed that small-government “constitutional conservatism” has inherited the cause; the liberal TV host Chris Hayes, writing in The Nation, said battling climate change was the “new abolitionism.” That term has become shorthand for “fighting the good fight.” But the long struggle against slavery shows how jerky, contingent and downright lucky winning that good fight was. 

It’s hard to accept just how unpopular abolitionism was before the Civil War. The abolitionist Liberty Party never won a majority in a single county, anywhere in America, in any presidential race. Ralph Nader got closer to the presidency. In 1860 the premier antislavery newspaper, The Liberator, had a circulation of under 3,000, in a nation of 31 million.

Even among Northerners who wanted to stop the spread of slavery, the idea of banning it altogether seemed fanatical. On the eve of the Civil War, America’s greatest sage, Ralph Waldo Emerson, predicted that slavery might end one day, but “we shall not live to see it.”

In a deeply racist society, where most white Americans, South and North, valued sectional unity above equal rights, “abolitionist” was usually a dirty word. One man who campaigned for Abraham Lincoln in 1860 complained: “I have been denounced as impudent, foppish, immature, and worse than all, an Abolitionist.”

While we remember the war as a struggle for freedom, at its outset neither Lincoln nor the Republican Party planned to ban slavery. To calm talk of secession, Congress passed a never-ratified, now-forgotten 13th Amendment promising that no amendment could ever end slavery. Lincoln backed it. Going into the conflict, Congress offered to abolish abolitionism, not slavery.

Abolitionism gained strength thanks to the uncompromising stance of radical “fire eating” Southerners. By ostracizing Northern allies, seceding and then starting a war, Southern radicals gave abolitionism gift after gift after gift. When South Carolina militiamen fired on Fort Sumter, Frederick Douglass exalted: “Thank God! — The slaveholders themselves have saved our cause from ruin!”

The war’s length and brutality gave further fuel to the abolitionist fire. The historian Gary W. Gallagher has argued that the successful generalship of Robert E. Lee ultimately helped emancipation, pushing bloodied and vengeful Northerners to free slaves. Moderates like Lincoln became convinced that “we must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued.”

Still, the war, not the strength of abolitionism, made the difference. When he finally issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln operated under the president’s war powers. And when thousands of slaves freed themselves and fought the Confederacy, they mostly did so as the Union Army entered their regions. Antislavery blacks fought bravely and lobbied cannily, helped by the radicalism of their former masters.

By January 1865, the tide had turned. Congress moved to ban slavery everywhere (not just in the Confederacy, but in loyal slave states like Maryland and Kentucky). A body that had tried to make slavery un-abolishable a few years before voted to free four million men and women. It could never have passed the amendment if all those Southern congressmen had stayed in Washington to vote against it. Every politician who stormed off to join the Confederacy cast an inadvertent ballot for abolition.

Here’s where the confusion emerges. After the war, many Americans interpreted slaveholder mistakes as abolitionist victories. Abolition looked like a road map for reform. Many claimed to have been on its side before the war. Publishers printed a torrent of memoirs by supposed abolitionists; everyone who ever cast a ballot for the Liberty Party seemed to write a book about it.

The generation of Americans raised after the Civil War modeled diverse movements on abolitionism, from supporters of labor, women’s rights and socialism to opponents of popular democracy and mass immigration. The Boston poet James Russell Lowell even compared a movement to suppress poor voters to abolitionists, writing: “They emancipated the negro; we mean to emancipate the respectable white man.”

Today, we point to abolition as proof that we can improve society by eliminating one glaring evil. This is what unites “new abolitionists” across the political spectrum, whether they’re working to end the death penalty or ban abortion. We like the idea of sweeping change, of an idealistic movement triumphing over something so clearly wrong.

The problem is, that’s not really how slavery ended. Those upright, moral, prewar abolitionists did not succeed. Neither did the stiff-necked Southern radicals who ended up destroying the institution they went to war to maintain. It was the flexibility of the Northern moderates, those flip-floppers who voted against abolition before they voted for it, who really ended 250 years of slavery.

Abolitionists make better heroes, though, principled and courageous and seemingly in step with 21st century values. But people from the past who espoused beliefs we hold today were usually rejected at the time. We can only wonder which of today’s unpopular causes will, in 150 years, be considered the abolitionism of 2015.

Read more about the events of the civil war with this timeline of stories, photos and maps. Follow Disunion at twitter.com/NYTcivilwar or join us on Facebook

Jon Grinspan

Jon Grinspan is the author of a forthcoming book on the role of young people in 19th-century American democracy.

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“Counter-Revolution of 1776”: Was U.S. Independence War a Conservative Revolt in Favor of Slavery?

Democracy Now    June 27, 2014

As the United States prepares to celebrate Independence Day, we look at why July 4 is not a cause for celebration for all. For Native Americans, it may be a bitter reminder of colonialism, which brought fatal diseases, cultural hegemony and genocide. Neither did the new republic’s promise of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” extend to African Americans. The colonists who declared their freedom from England did not share their newly founded liberation with the millions of Africans they had captured and forced into slavery. We speak with historian Gerald Horne, who argues the so-called Revolutionary War was actually a conservative effort by American colonists to protect their system of slavery. He is the author of two new books: “The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America” and “Race to Revolution: The U.S. and Cuba During Slavery and Jim Crow.” Horne is professor of history and African American studies at the University of Houston.

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org,The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman in Chicago with our next guest. Juan González is in New York.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, next weekend, the United States celebrates the Fourth of July, the day the American colonies declared their independence from England in 1776. While many Americans will hang flags, participate in parades and watch fireworks, Independence Day is not a cause for celebration for all. For Native Americans, it is yet another bitter reminder of colonialism, which brought fatal diseases, cultural hegemony and full-out genocide. Neither did the new republic’s promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness extend to African Americans. As our next guest notes, the white colonists who declared their freedom from the crown did not share their newly founded liberation with the millions of Africans they had captured and forced into slavery.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Gerald Horne argues that the so-called Revolutionary War was actually a counterrevolution, in part, not a progressive step forward for humanity, but a conservative effort by American colonialists to protect their system of slavery.

9781479893409_FullFor more, Professor Horne joins us here in our Chicago studio. He’s the author of two new books: The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America and another new book, just out, Race to Revolution: The U.S. and Cuba During Slavery and Jim Crow. Professor Horne teaches history and African American studies at the University of Houston.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. So, as we move into this Independence Day week, what should we understand about the founding of the United States?

GERALD HORNE: We should understand that July 4th, 1776, in many ways, represents a counterrevolution. That is to say that what helped to prompt July 4th, 1776, was the perception amongst European settlers on the North American mainland that London was moving rapidly towards abolition. This perception was prompted by Somerset’s case, a case decided in London in June 1772 which seemed to suggest that abolition, which not only was going to be ratified in London itself, was going to cross the Atlantic and basically sweep through the mainland, thereby jeopardizing numerous fortunes, not only based upon slavery, but the slave trade. That’s the short answer.

The longer answer would involve going back to another revolution—that is to say, the so-called Glorious Revolution in England in 1688, which, among other things, involved a step back from the monarch—for the monarch, the king, and a step forward for the rising merchant class. This led to a deregulation of the African slave trade. That is to say, the Royal African Company theretofore had been in control of the slave trade, but with the rising power of the merchant class, this slave trade was deregulated, leading to what I call free trade in Africans. That is to say, merchants then descended upon the African continent manacling and handcuffing every African in sight, with the energy of demented and crazed bees, dragging them across the Atlantic, particularly to the Caribbean and to the North American mainland. This was prompted by the fact that the profits for the slave trade were tremendous, sometimes up to 1,600 or 1,700 percent. And as you know, there are those even today who will sell their firstborn for such a profit. This, on the one hand, helped to boost the productive forces both in the Caribbean and on the mainland, but it led to numerous slave revolts, not least in the Caribbean, but also on the mainland, which helped to give the mainlanders second thoughts about London’s tentative steps towards abolition.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Gerald Horne, one of the things that struck me in your book is not only your main thesis, that this was in large part a counterrevolution, our—the United States’ war of independence, but you also link very closely the—what was going on in the Caribbean colonies of England, as well as in the United States, not only in terms of among the slaves in both areas, but also among the white population. And, in fact, you indicate that quite a few of those who ended up here in the United States fostering the American Revolution had actually been refugees from the battles between whites and slaves in the Caribbean. Could you expound on that?

GERALD HORNE: It’s well known that up until the middle part of the 18th century, London felt that the Caribbean colonies—Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua, in particular—were in some ways more valuable than the mainland colonies. The problem was that in the Caribbean colonies the Africans outnumbered the European settlers, sometimes at a rate of 20 to one, which facilitated slave revolts. There were major slave revolts in Antigua, for example, in 1709 and 1736. The Maroons—that is to say, the Africans who had escaped London’s jurisdiction in Jamaica—had challenged the crown quite sternly. This led, as your question suggests, to many European settlers in the Caribbean making the great trek to the mainland, being chased out of the Caribbean by enraged Africans. For example, I did research for this book in Newport, Rhode Island, and the main library there, to this very day, is named after Abraham Redwood, who fled Antigua after the 1736 slave revolt because many of his, quote, “Africans,” unquote, were involved in the slave revolt. And he fled in fear and established the main library in Newport, to this very day, and helped to basically establish that city on the Atlantic coast. So, there is a close connection between what was transpiring in the Caribbean and what was taking place on the mainland. And historians need to recognize that even though these colonies were not necessarily a unitary project, there were close and intimate connections between and amongst them.

AMY GOODMAN: So, why this great disparity between how people in the United States talk about the creation myth of the United States, if you will—I’m not talking about indigenous people, Native American people—and this story that you have researched?

GERALD HORNE: Well, it is fair to say that the United States did provide a sanctuary for Europeans. Indeed, I think part of the, quote, “genius,” unquote, of the U.S. project, if there was such a genius, was the fact that the founders in the United States basically called a formal truce, a formal ceasefire, with regard to the religious warfare that had been bedeviling Europe for many decades and centuries—that is to say, Protestant London, so-called, versus Catholic Madrid and Catholic France. What the settlers on the North American mainland did was call a formal truce with regard to religious conflict, but then they opened a new front with regard to race—that is to say, Europeans versus non-Europeans.

This, at once, broadened the base for the settler project. That is to say, they could draw upon those defined as white who had roots from the Atlantic to the Ural Mountains, and indeed even to the Arab world, if you look at people like Ralph Nader and Marlo Thomas, for example, whose roots are in Lebanon but are considered to be, quote, “white,” unquote. This obviously expanded the population base for the settler project. And because many rights were then accorded to these newly minted whites, it obviously helped to ensure that many of them would be beholden to the country that then emerged, the United States of America, whereas those of us who were not defined as white got the short end of the stick, if you like.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Gerald Horne, as a result of that, during the American Revolution, what was the perception or the attitude of the African slaves in the U.S. to that conflict? You also—you talk about, during the colonial times, many slaves preferred to flee to the Spanish colonies or the French colonies, rather than to stay in the American colonies of England.

GERALD HORNE: You are correct. The fact of the matter is, is that Spain had been arming Africans since the 1500s. And indeed, because Spain was arming Africans and then unleashing them on mainland colonies, particularly South Carolina, this put competitive pressure on London to act in a similar fashion. The problem there was, is that the mainland settlers had embarked on a project and a model of development that was inconsistent with arming Africans. Indeed, their project was involved in enslaving and manacling every African in sight. This deepens the schism between the colonies and the metropolis—that is to say, London—thereby helping to foment a revolt against British rule in 1776.

It’s well known that more Africans fought alongside of the Redcoats—fought alongside the Redcoats than fought with the settlers. And this is understandable, because if you think about it for more than a nanosecond, it makes little sense for slaves to fight alongside slave masters so that slave masters could then deepen the persecution of the enslaved and, indeed, as happened after 1776, bring more Africans to the mainland, bring more Africans to Cuba, bring more Africans to Brazil, for their profit.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to historian Gerald Horne. He’s author of two new books. We’re talking about The Counter-Revolution of 1776. The subtitle of that book is Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America. And his latest book, just out, is called Race to Revolution: The U.S. and Cuba During Slavery and Jim Crow. He’s professor of history and African American studies at University of Houston. When we come back, we’ll talk about that second book about Cuba. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Slavery Days” by Burning Spear, here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org,The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman in Chicago. Juan González is in New York. Before we talk about the book on slavery, I want to turn to President Obama’s remarks at the White House’s Fourth of July celebration last year. This is how President Obama described what happened in 1776.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: On July 4th, 1776, a small band of patriots declared that we were a people created equal, free to think and worship and live as we please, that our destiny would not be determined for us, it would be determined by us. And it was bold, and it was brave. And it was unprecedented. It was unthinkable. At that time in human history, it was kings and princes and emperors who made decisions. But those patriots knew there was a better way of doing things, that freedom was possible, and that to achieve their freedom, they’d be willing to lay down their lives, their fortune and their honor. And so they fought a revolution. And few would have bet on their side. But for the first time of many times to come, America proved the doubters wrong. And now, 237 years later, this improbable experiment in democracy, the United States of America, stands as the greatest nation on Earth.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was President Obama talking about the meaning of July 4th. Gerald Horne, your book, The Counter-Revolution of 1776, is a direct rebuttal of this, as you call, creation myth. Could you talk about that?

GERALD HORNE: Well, with all due respect to President Obama, I think that he represents, in those remarks you just cited, the consensus view. That is to say that, on the one hand, there is little doubt that 1776 represented a step forward with regard to the triumph over monarchy. The problem with 1776 was that it went on to establish what I refer to as the first apartheid state. That is to say, the rights that Mr. Obama refers to were accorded to only those who were defined as white. To that degree, I argue in the book that 1776, in many ways, was analogous to Unilateral Declaration of Independence in the country then known as Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, in November 1965. UDI, Unilateral Declaration of Independence, was in many ways an attempt to forestall decolonization. 1776, in many ways, was an attempt to forestall the abolition of slavery. That attempt succeeded until the experiment crashed and burned in 1861 with the U.S. Civil War, the bloodiest conflict, to this point, the United States has ever been involved in.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Gerald Horne, how does this story, this, what you call, counterrevolution, fit in with your latest book, Race to Revolution: The U.S. and Cuba During Slavery and Jim Crow?

GERALD HORNE: Well, there’s a certain consistency between the two books. Keep in mind that in 1762 Britain temporarily seized Cuba from Spain. And one of the regulations that Britain imposed outraged the settlers, as I argue in both books. What happened was that Britain sought to regulate the slave trade, and the settlers on the North American mainland wanted deregulation of the slave trade, thereby bringing in more Africans. What happens is that that was one of the points of contention that lead to a detonation and a revolt against British rule in 1776.

I go on in the Cuba book to talk about how one of the many reasons why you have so many black people in Cuba was because of the manic energy of U.S. slave traders and slave dealers, particularly going into the Congo River Basin and dragging Africans across the Atlantic. Likewise, I had argued in a previous book on the African slave trade to Brazil that one of the many reasons why you have so many black people in Brazil, more than any place outside of Nigeria, is, once again, because of the manic energy of U.S. slave traders and slave dealers, who go into Angola, in particular, and drag Africans across the Atlantic to Brazil.

It seems to me that it’s very difficult to reconcile the creation myth of this great leap forward for humanity when, after 1776 and the foundation of the United States of America, the United States ousts Britain from control of the African slave trade. Britain then becomes the cop on the beat trying to detain and deter U.S. slave traders and slave dealers. It seems to me that if this was a step forward for humanity, it was certainly not a step forward for Africans, who, the last time I looked, comprise a significant percentage of humanity.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Gerald Horne, so, in other words, as you’re explaining the involvement of American companies in the slave trade in Brazil and Cuba, this—that book and also your The Counter-Revolution of 1776 makes the same point that slavery was not just an issue of interest in the South to the Southern plantation owners, but that in the North, banking, insurance, merchants, shipping were all involved in the slave trade, as well.

GERALD HORNE: Well, Juan, as you well know, New York City was a citadel of the African slave trade, even after the formal abolition of the U.S. role in the African slave trade in 1808. Rhode Island was also a center for the African slave trade. Ditto for Massachusetts. Part of the unity between North and South was that it was in the North that the financing for the African slave trade took place, and it was in the South where you had the Africans deposited. That helps to undermine, to a degree, the very easy notion that the North was abolitionist and the South was pro-slavery.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Gerald Horne, what most surprised you in your research around Cuba, U.S. slavery and Jim Crow?

GERALD HORNE: Well, what most surprised me with regard to both of these projects was the restiveness, the rebelliousness of the Africans involved. It’s well known that the Africans in the Caribbean were very much involved in various extermination plots, liquidation plots, seeking to abolish, through force of arms and violence, the institution of slavery. Unfortunately, I think that historians on the North American mainland have tended to downplay the restiveness of Africans, and I think it’s done a disservice to the descendants of the population of mainland enslaved Africans. That is to say that because the restiveness of Africans in the United States has been downplayed, it leads many African Americans today to either, A, think that their ancestors were chumps—that is to say, that they fought alongside slave owners to bring more freedom to slave owners and more persecution to themselves—or, B, that they were ciphers—that is to say, they stood on the sidelines as their fate was being determined. I think that both of these books seek to disprove those very unfortunate notions.

AMY GOODMAN: So, as we move into the Independence Day weekend next weekend, what do you say to people in the United States?

GERALD HORNE: What I say to the people in the United States is that you have proved that you can be very critical of what you deem to be revolutionary processes. You have a number of scholars and intellectuals who make a good living by critiquing the Cuban Revolution of 1959, by critiquing the Russian Revolution of 1917, by critiquing the French Revolution of the 18th century, but yet we get the impression that what happened in 1776 was all upside, which is rather far-fetched, given what I’ve just laid out before you in terms of how the enslaved African population had their plight worsened by 1776, not to mention the subsequent liquidation of independent Native American polities as a result of 1776. I think that we need a more balanced presentation of the foundation of the United States of America, and I think that there’s no sooner place to begin than next week with July 4th, 2014.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Gerald Horne, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Historian Gerald Horne is author of two new books: The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America as well as Race to Revolution: The U.S. and Cuba During Slavery and Jim Crow. He’s a professor of history and African American studies at the University of Houston.

That does it for our broadcast. Happy birthday to Jon Randolph. Democracy Now! has two job openings — administrative director, as well as a seasoned Linux systems administrator — as well asfall internships. Check out democracynow.org/jobs for more information.

 

 

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I Freed Myself: African American Self-Emancipation in the Civil War Era

Marshall Poe 

New Books in History  June 5, 2014

David Williams

David Williams

Lincoln was very clear–at least in public–that the Civil War was not fought over slavery: it was, he 61eT-apOtrL._SL160_said, for the preservation of the Union first and foremost. So it’s not surprising that when the conflict started he had no firm plan to emancipate the slaves in the borderland or Southern states. He also knew that such a move might prove very unpopular in the North.

So why did he issue the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863? There are many reasons. According to David Williams‘ fascinating new book I Freed Myself: African American Self-Emancipation in the Civil War Era (Cambridge University Press, 2014), an important and neglected one has to do with African American self-emancipation. After the war began, masses of slaves began to leave the South and head for the Northern lines. The Union forces received them as “contraband” seized from the enemy during wartime. As such, their status was uncertain. Many wanted to fight or at least serve as auxiliaries in the Union armies like freemen, but they were still seen as property. As Williams points out, the North certainly needed their manpower–as Lincoln knew better than anyone. Bearing this in mind, the President felt the time was propitious to do what he thought was right all along–free the slaves. Listen in.

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In Defense of History According to Hollywood

by Yohuru Williams

HNN  February 17, 2014

Yohuru Williams is chair and professor of history at Fairfield University. Follow him on Twitter @yohuruwilliams

Image via Wiki Commons.

After weeks of badgering from a friend, I saw Frost/ Nixon a few years back and left the theatre pleasantly surprised. When I called her to discuss the film, she seemed disappointed in my reaction. As a scholar of Twentieth Century United States History, she was anxious to compare notes on the historical inaccuracies she documented in the film.  I had gone in with the same game plan, but somewhere in between the endless parade of advertising, forthcoming features, and the opening credits, I lapsed into casual moviegoer mode. I truly wanted to see how director Ron Howard would tell the story and so I was able to muster the advice of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and “suspend disbelief” in deference to “poetic faith.”

It helps that I had no professional stake in the movie.  My friend reminded me of my incessant petulance after seeing the movie Panther in 1995. As a young graduate student eager to reclaim my topic, I marched into the theatre with a pen and pad and emerged two hours later, with my hands literally bathed in ink from my furious attempt to detail and highlight every factual error.

In this sense, a historian in a history film is very much like the proverbial bull in a China shop. At every moment, we threaten to shatter the delicate handiwork of the shop owner without regard to the intricate and difficult nature of her task. Films that delve into history have the toughest audience. They must satisfy the movie going public’s desire to see a good story, complete with a satisfactory ending — with the reality that the study of the past offers us very few examples of neat, self-contained, happy endings.

That is a big part of the problem for historians. As the Bradley Commission notably observed in 1988, history is unfinished business.  Any medium that purports to neatly package the past and reconcile its meaning in a few hours is immediately suspect. Yet, this is what the “people” demand, underscoring William Dean Howells famous observation, “What the American public always wants is a tragedy with a happy ending.” Historical narratives, of course, are rarely this uncomplicated. What may worry the professional historian most, in her effort to reconstruct the past from incomplete and not always trustworthy sources, may be of little concern to the historical filmmaker seeking to satisfy a larger agenda. As David Blight observed in Race, Reunion and the Civil War with regard to D.W. Griffith’s deeply flawed cinematic vision of the Civil War and Reconstruction, Birth of Nation was as much a movie as it was a political statement.

Audiences today, one might argue-problematically of course, are more sophisticated. The recent news that film maker Oliver Stone dropped out of a project to bring the life of Martin Luther King to the big screen, did little to quiet rumblings from those concerned that the film would fail to capture the “historical” King. Some questioned, for instance, if such a film would detail Dr. King’s marital infidelities, perhaps understandable given our current preoccupation with the private lives of public figures. This was presumably not an issue in 1978 when Director Daniel Mann brought Dr. King’s life to the small screen in the three-part miniseries, King, starring Paul Winfield in the title role. The film, which still occasionally makes appearances on Dr. King’s birthday and during Black History Month, remains controversial for other reasons. Although the director devoted six hours to telling King’s story, the miniseries is perhaps best remembered for the liberties, and in some cases total falsehoods it concocted in documenting the movement including a scene where Dr. King and Malcolm X engage in a frank chat about nonviolence in Chicago in 1966 — nearly a year after Malcolm’s assassination in February of 1965. Although the invented conversation has the desired effect of contrasting the two men’s views, it is entirely a fabrication.

Directorial license theoretically knows no bounds — except in crafting a story that will appeal to a target audience, even if that includes the manufacture of characters or storylines. In 1988, Coretta Scott King famously weighed in on Mississippi Burning, challenging the film for its skewed view of the Civil Rights Movement — told not from the perspective of the embattled Civil Rights workers who risked their lives but the white FBI agents who, for the most part, watched from the sidelines.

So, if Hollywood is so terrible at getting it right, why do historians and history teachers continue to go to and in some cases, show such movies in class? In his celebrated essay “Why We Crave Horror Films?” author Stephen King laid bare the art of his craft. Although geared toward a different genre, his view may have some relevance for us. “The mythic horror movie,” he explained “like the sick joke has a dirty job to do….It deliberately appeals to all that is worst in us. It is morbidity unchained, our most base instincts let free, our nastiest fantasies realized . . . and it all happens, fittingly enough, in the dark.”

If this is true, what might we say about the mythic History film? For it surely also has a job to do, within much tighter confines — and in the blinding light of hindsight. While the horror film can take liberties with our imagination in making the unthinkable real, the historical film faces its own burdens of voice and authenticity. The history filmmakers lens must serve simultaneously as a time machine and a mirror to society.  When viewing our image in that mirror we need to recognize ourselves in its reflection and whether it is a positive view (Band of Brothers) or a negative one (Mississippi Burning) it needs to be familiar — even if (12 Years a Slave) uncomfortably so. As John Hope Franklin and Abraham Eisenstaedt have observed “every generation writes its own history for it tends to see the past in the foreshortened perspective of its own experience.”

Historical films thus have an inherent degree of tension. In addition to their mission to entertain, they often speak problematically to two audiences, one looking to safeguard its legacy and the other to understand its values. For those old enough to remember, historical movies can be a pleasant or disturbing trek down memory lane. For those with no memory or connective tissue, they very much represent a roadmap of sorts, which is probably why we remain so deeply invested in getting it right and debating the finer points of historical movies. History matters. From the military history buffs ready to pounce on the slightest variation in a unit’s insignia, to the participants ready to challenge those who question their motivations, to the now adult who never quite understood why her parents wept so bitterly the day Kennedy died, we are constantly negotiating and renegotiating the meaning of the past. History films are like our own fickle and often, subjective memories committed to celluloid. What they reflect or who we see reflected in them can tell us a lot about where we are at any given moment. In a society rapidly transitioning away from oral and written to visual sources, soon they may become even more significant – as a means to not only imagine the past, but also shape its meaning.

George Will famously referred to Oliver Stone’s 1991 docudrama JFK as a “three hour lie from an intellectual sociopath.” It nevertheless grossed 205 million worldwide and sparked intense debate and discussion. A Newsweek magazine cover featuring a photo of actor Djimon Hounsou manacled and with the subtitle “Should America apologize for slavery or just get over it?” attempted to use the film to promote a national discussion over slavery. As a High school teacher, I took my class to the film and despite my blistering critique my students literally spent the next month and half referencing it. That is the rub. Even when they get it wrong, as they often do, there is still tremendous value in the exercise.  It creates for those with no memory and or no engagement with scholarship a frame of reference, no matter how flawed.

There is another important consideration beyond this as well. As the movie Forest Gump reminded us, it not just the facades and the fashions that transport us back, not merely the music or the language, although clearly they help. It is the culmination of our collective hopes and fears transferred to the big screen starring back at us to affirm not only who we are but what we aspire to be.

Critics challenge history movies for a host of reasons, including historical inaccuracies, manufactured dialogue, and/or conflated characters. A film can never reproduce a life, nor for that matter can a historian. Even with the most complete sources, we cannot know with absolute certainty that what we write is 100% accurate. It is why we discuss history in terms of changing interpretations rather than ironclad narratives.  It is also why we crave history films as a means of judging not only our values but also the narratives that prevail currently. In stark contrast to Stephen King’s horror film, the mythic history film represents morbidity, in the form of the unknown, checked, our most base instincts subdued, and our best qualities, in the form of manufactured heroes and happy endings idealized. To their detractors, of course, these qualities can make history movies a horror of a different stripe for they deliberately appeal, usually in the creation of heroes, to the best in all of us — at times at the expense of frank discussions about our not so glorious past. Nevertheless, even in all their flaws, they invaluable as teaching tools especially in terms of getting people thinking and talking about past.

Yohuru Williams is chair and professor of history at Fairfield University. Follow him on Twitter @yohuruwilliams

 

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Untold History: More Than a Quarter of U.S. Presidents Were Involved in Slavery, Human Trafficking

Democracy Now     February 17, 2014

As the country marks Presidents’ Day, we turn to an aspect of U.S. history that is often missed: the complicity of American presidents with slavery. “More than one-in-four U.S. presidents were involved in human trafficking and slavery. These presidents bought, sold and bred enslaved people for profit. Of the 12 presidents who were enslavers, more than half kept people in bondage at the White House,” writes historian Clarence Lusane in his most recent article, “Missing from Presidents’ Day: The People They Enslaved.”

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As the country marks Presidents’ Day today, we turn to an aspect of U.S. history often missed: the complicity of American presidents with slavery. The first person of African descent to enter the White House was most likely a slave. The nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., once hosted markets where human beings were sold for profit. Slaves built some of the country’s most famous landmarks, including Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, Boston’s Faneuil Hall, James Madison’s Montpelier. Last week, President Obama mentioned the role of slaves in building one specific landmark: Thomas Jefferson’s plantation estate in Charlottesville, Virginia. Obama was touring the home of America’s third president with French leader François Hollande. This is what Obama had to say about Monticello.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This house also represents a complicated history of the United States. We just visited downstairs, where we know that slaves helped to build this magnificent structure, and the complex relations that Jefferson, the drafter of the Declaration of Independence, had to slavery. And it’s a reminder for both of us that we are going to continue this fight on behalf of the rights of all peoples, something that I know France has always been committed to and we are committed to, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama speaking last week during French President François Hollande’s visit to the U.S.

We’re joined now by Clarence Lusane, who has documented the racial history of Washington, D.C., and the presidency. His most recent article is “Missing from Presidents’ Day: The People They Enslaved.” Clarence Lusane writes, quote, “more than one in four U.S. presidents were involved in human trafficking and slavery. These presidents bought, sold, and bred enslaved people for profit. Of the 12 presidents who were enslavers, more than half kept people in bondage at the White House,” he writes. Clarence Lusane is author of The Black History of the White House, a member of the D.C. Commission on African American Affairs, also professor at American University in Washington, D.C.

Professor Lusane, welcome to Democracy Now! So, talk about this history of slavery and U.S. presidents.

CLARENCE LUSANE: Well, I’m glad that you pointed out that President Obama, when he went to Jefferson’s home, pointed out the slave history there. But it’s also important to note that the most iconic building in the U.S., the one that represents the country to the world, the White House, also was a place where slavery existed. Not only that, it was built by slaves. And none of that has been publicly acknowledged. There is over a million people who visit the White House every year, who go on tours, who come for meetings, and you can go through that building and never have a sense of that important history.

And that’s critical because I think Presidents’ Day should be a period of critical reflection, not some kind of blind celebration, but it should be one where we really try to get a better sense of the country’s history. And part of that history, part of what I think resonates even to this day, is that, significantly, before the Civil War, nearly every U.S. president was a slave owner, which meant that they were compromised on the issue of slavery, and that had repercussions that, you know, redounded through history. So it’s really critical, I think, that we have that acknowledgment, because we grow up, we go to school, we have history classes, and none of that history is told to us.

AMY GOODMAN: So, give us a black history of U.S. presidents, as you call it.

CLARENCE LUSANE: Well, in looking at the White House—and I use that as the prism to try to look at this longer history that basically led up to President Obama—one of the things that we find that’s missing in that history is the voices of people, particularly African Americans, who were enslaved during that long, long, long history. And that was critical because when you think about George Washington, Madison, Monroe, all of the early presidents, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, they wrote the Constitution, they wrote the Articles of Confederation, all of these documents, these founding documents that extol the principles of democracy, liberty, equality, they were living a contradiction. And that contradiction is that every single day of their life, every moment in their life, they were surrounded by people who were enslaved.

Now, fortunately, because of some of the historic records that have been kept, we now know who some of those people were. George Washington, for example, when he was president and his presidency was in Philadelphia, had at least nine individuals with him who were enslaved—Oney Maria Judge, for example, who was a young woman of about 22 who escaped from George Washington. She escaped—this was in 1796, when she found out that Martha Washington was planning to give her away as a wedding gift. And she made contact with the free black population in Philadelphia, was able to escape. Now, this is remarkable because we’re talking about a young woman who basically traveled nowhere by herself, who escapes from the most powerful person on the planet, pretty much, certainly most powerful person in the United States. Her story is important because she lived—she outlived Washington. She lived to be, I believe, in her eighties and lived a life where she learned to read, became active in her community. You also had Hercules, who was Washington’s cook, who also escaped from Washington.

So there are people who we were in and around the White House who had stories to tell that are part of that history that we literally were never taught about for all of the years that, you know, we took schooling and we took classes in history. And so, I thought it was important, and there are others who have written to re-enter into the historic narrative the stories of these individuals, because they really are critical if you really want to understand the politics of George Washington or the politics of Thomas Jefferson or any of the other presidents who held slaves.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about Paul Jennings.

CLARENCE LUSANE: Paul Jennings, again, is another fascinating character. He was enslaved to the Madisons, to James and Dolly Madison. He was, in fact, the first individual to actually write about working in the White House. He published a memoir—this was in the late 1860s—that talked about the time when he was in the White House. And he was there in 1814. He was there when the British literally were burning down the city, and was part of the contingent of folks who were attempting to get materials out of the White House and preserve them before the British came. So he really had a fascinating history.

He was supposed to be free when James Madison died, but Dolly Madison basically reneged on the deal. So he—it took him a few years to buy his freedom, which he eventually did. And then he actually came to help Dolly Madison. She fell on hard times. She wasn’t wealthy. She wasn’t a wealthy person, and she wasn’t part of the social elite of Washington. And so, when she fell on hard times and her family and friends abandoned her, Jennings would often bring her food and bring her money and basically would look after her. But what was also important about James Jennings is that he also was—

AMY GOODMAN: Paul Jennings.

CLARENCE LUSANE: Paul Jennings, I’m sorry, is that he was also central to the largest attempt at escaping from slavery that happened in Washington, D.C. This happened in 1848. For a number of reasons, the escape attempt failed, but Jennings was never brought in. He was never seen as being part of it. And it was only literally after his death that it was revealed that he had played a very critical role in that. So, my point is that you had these individuals who were enslaved to presidents, who really had fascinating kinds of stories and fascinating kinds of lives that we should know about, because they really are also a part of the history of the White House and the history of the presidency.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play a clip from the trailer of the film Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg, released last year, about President Abraham Lincoln and the fight to end slavery in the United States. In this clip, you first hear Abraham Lincoln, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, followed by the voices of Thaddeus Stevens, the congressmember from Pennsylvania, and Mary Todd Lincoln, the first lady. Let’s go to that clip.

PRESIDENT ABRAHAM LINCOLN: [played by Daniel Day-Lewis] We’re stepped out upon the world stage now, the fate of human dignity in our hands! Blood’s been spilt to afford us this moment! Now! Now! Now!

THADDEUS STEVENS: [played by Tommy Lee Jones] Abraham Lincoln has asked us to work with him to accomplish the death of slavery.

MARY TODD LINCOLN: [played by Sally Field] No one’s ever been loved so much by the people. Don’t waste that power.

AMY GOODMAN: That was an excerpt of Lincoln. Clarence Lusane, talk about Abraham Lincoln and slavery.

CLARENCE LUSANE: Lincoln was—the Lincoln administration was a turning point in terms of the history of the relationship between African Americans and the White House. It was during Lincoln’s tenure that the first meeting took place between a U.S. president and leaders of the black community. This happened in 1862, I believe. Now, this was critical because up until that point, although African Americans, particularly free African Americans in the North, had been organized and had been raising issues, policy issues, issues around slavery, they simply had no access to the White House or to policymakers. Lincoln, however, opened up some of that space.

And part of what I think moved Lincoln from being not just simply anti-slavery, but ultimately to recognizing that you had to eliminate slavery, that abolition was the only path forward, in part, came because of his discussions with black leaders, not only church leaders, but people like Frederick Douglass, but also—and this is in the film—discussions with Elizabeth Keckley. In the film, she’s the woman who’s often seen with Mary Lincoln. She’s played by Reuben, Gloria Reuben, in the film. And the film is a little bit disingenuous in that you could think that maybe she was a servant, but in fact she was an independent businesswoman who had become basically best friends with Mary Lincoln, but also she spent a great deal of time at the White House having discussions with Abraham Lincoln about race, about slavery, about the future of the country. And again, her story is important to be told because she, again, was part of a contingent of African Americans who thought to influence the presidency and to address issues that needed to be dealt with. And so, the movie Lincoln doesn’t quite take you there to show you that side of the people who influenced Lincoln, but it’s an important part of understanding what happened in the Civil War and how Lincoln actually got to the point where he said the only way out of this situation is that slavery has to end.

AMY GOODMAN: Then that moment, that meeting, August 14th, 1862, Abraham Lincoln does something unprecedented: He meets with a small delegation of black leaders, clergy.

CLARENCE LUSANE: Right. And at that point, Lincoln had already decided to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. There was some debate about which date to issue it on, but he was already moving in a position where he saw the country’s future as a future without slavery. And these leaders that he met with were people who mostly were tied to the black church community, but people who also had ties to abolitionists, to people who were active in the other kinds of issues around the country. So that really was kind of a turning point. And since that point, there has been a considerable amount of effort on the part of African Americans to negotiate and to meet with and to lobby not only in Congress, but the president themself.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the buildings, these iconic structures that kids, adults go to in Washington, D.C., to honor this country—the White House, the Capitol. Who built it?

CLARENCE LUSANE: This is really important, because I think there may be some sense, more generally, that Washington owned slaves and Jefferson owned slaves, but I think there’s a general ignorance about the role of people who were enslaved in actually building the nation’s capital. In 1790, after the country was founded, the Congress passed legislation to build a capital. Washington, D.C., did not exist. And so, there was a decision that land that was ceded from Maryland and from Virginia would become the nation’s capital, and it had to be built, and it would take 10 years. This is why Washington spent all of his presidency either in New York or in Pennsylvania. But to build Washington, D.C., you needed labor. And George Washington, who was more or less in charge of the project, initially wanted labor to come from Europe, but it was very, very difficult to get people to come all the way over on these really harsh trips to work in basically a jungle. So they basically relied on enslaved labor, which meant cutting down trees, moving rocks, digging holes—you know, all of the harsh, harsh labor that had to be done literally to clear the area. But it also included skilled labor, people who were carpenters and plasterers. We know for a fact that both at the White House and—the building that became the White House and the U.S. Capitol, there were at least five highly skilled carpenters who worked for years to build those two buildings.

And again, this needs to be acknowledged, because it reflects that ongoing contradiction, what President Obama talked about with President Hollande, of this conflict between the principles of equality and democracy, and the reality of slavery. Now, in the Capitol a few years ago, there were two plaques that were put up to honor or to acknowledge the people who were enslaved that built the Capitol. One is on the House side, and one is on the Senate side in the Rotunda. And in Philadelphia, at the pavilion where the Liberty Bell exists, the new Liberty Bell Pavilion was actually built over the old house where—or the land where George Washington lived when he was president. There is also a plaque there that acknowledges the people who were enslaved to Washington during the time of his presidency. What we do not have yet, and it actually may happen, is something in the White House that will have that kind of acknowledgment.

AMY GOODMAN: Final comment, Clarence Lusane, about what you think we should understand on this Presidents’ Day? And take it all the way—you write about Teddy Roosevelt.

CLARENCE LUSANE: Yeah, I think that the most important thing is to understand that there is a long and rich history of African Americans in the White House long before President Obama. And all of that history tells us a great deal, I think, about the current situation we face, where we continue to see racial disparities and racial discrimination pretty much across the board. The story you did earlier about the shootings in Florida, for example, I think, in part, reflect an unawareness of this history and the degree to which the country still has not acknowledged and reconciled this past. A year ago, I went with students to Rwanda, and we visited a great—a large number of memorials. And it became so clear to me that the degree to which the country acknowledges its past in an honest and straightforward way goes a long way towards healing and reconciliation. It doesn’t necessarily end up with all the justice that needs to be happening, but it certainly is a first step, that acknowledgment and recognition of your history becomes really important.

AMY GOODMAN: Thanks so much for being with us, author of The Black History of the White House . We’ll link to your piece, “Missing from Presidents’ Day: The People They Enslaved” at democracynow.org. Clarence Lusane is also a professor at American University. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.

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