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Posts Tagged ‘Slavery’

The Peculiar Institution Expands: Slavery and the Constitution

We’re History  September 22, 2015
Women and Children Picking Cotton

Women and Children Picking Cotton.(Photo: Avery Research Center at the College of Charleston)

From the Editors…There is a currently a dust-up in political and historical forums over whether or not the Constitution sanctioned slavery or was an anti-slavery document. It is heated, and personal, and must, to many people, seem arcane. Who really cares, today, whether or not the Founding Fathers technically saw the nation as one based on slavery, when the reality was that the Constitution permitted the institution? Slavery existed before the American Revolution, it expanded afterward, and Americans had to fight a four-year war that cost more than $5 billion and 600,000 lives to end it.

So why does this issue matter so much?

It is really a fight about politics, and the nature of modern-day America.

Princeton professor Sean Wilentz launched the fight with an op-ed in the New York Times on September 16 shortly after Bernie Sanders said that the United States was “created…on racist principles.” Wilentz, a long-time Clinton supporter, vehemently disagreed. He insisted that the Constitution, which established the nation, was anti-slavery because it kept slavery a local, rather than a national, institution.

The larger question at stake in this argument is about whether or not America needs to address a history of inequality that is knit into the fabric of our society, or whether the problems we see today are largely policy issues that are not part of the nation’s fundamental make-up. This translates to politics because Sanders has been a more vocal supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement than Hillary Clinton has been. At a more general level, though, it is a fight about how to incorporate new voices into a discussion about America’s future.

We’re History believes the best way to address these questions is by looking at what, exactly, happened in the past. Today Professor Joshua D. Rothman from the University of Alabama explains how the Constitution encouraged the growth of slavery.


Critics of Sean Wilentz’s essay in the September 16 New York Times have rightfully noted that contrary to Wilentz’s claims, the Constitution quite clearly entrenched racial slavery in the national government and made it a national institution. The Constitution contained enough ambiguity to allow antislavery forces to maintain by the middle of the nineteenth century that the federal government could legitimately put slavery on the path toward extinction. But to make the case that the Constitution was nationally antislavery in intent in 1787 is to read history backwards from 1865.

Perhaps more significantly, such an argument makes American history in the years between the ratification of the Constitution and the outbreak of the Civil War difficult if not utterly impossible to understand. For if the Constitution was indeed, in Wilentz’s words, “based on a repudiation of the idea of a nation dedicated to the proposition of property in humans,” slavery never should have become an even more powerful force in American life after ratification than it had ever been before. If the Constitution was truly antislavery at a national level, the enslaved population that stood at around 700,000 in 1790 never should have increased nearly sixfold to roughly 4,000,000 people by 1860, at which point the United States had the largest enslaved population on the planet. The landscape of slavery and the number of people imprisoned on it in the United States expanded not because white southerners somehow conspired against the intentions of the framers, but because structurally and politically the Constitution encouraged it.

Some of the men involved in drafting the Constitution did believe that the institution of slavery was morally problematic and hoped that it would fade over time before effectively ending on its own. Given the declining Chesapeake tobacco economy of the late eighteenth century, it was not unreasonable to imagine that the compromises that made slavery part of the infrastructure of the national government were temporary expedients that would largely cease to matter within a generation or two. Even as some northern states began moving toward gradually emancipating their enslaved populations, however, no constitutional provision was ever made to nudge the nation as a whole in that direction, and in short order after ratification the burgeoning cotton economy of the southwest shattered the illusion that slavery might somehow simply disappear.

If any sense of urgency for moving against slavery at the national level ever really existed around the time of ratification, congressmen abandoned it quickly. In the late 1790s, Congress formally opened for settlement the Mississippi Territory, comprising what is now Mississippi and Alabama, and, after briefly debating alternatives that were within its power to enact, endorsed slavery’s legality there. The United States then acquired the massive Louisiana Territory in 1803. Here too lay an opportunity for the national government to demonstrate its commitment at least to restricting slavery’s growth if not to ending it. But no such commitment existed, and white settlers expanded slavery throughout the Southwest. In the region of the Mississippi Territory alone, the enslaved population increased from fewer than 4,000 people in 1800 to more than 180,000 by 1830.

To the extent that Congress used the Constitution to circumscribe slavery at all, it did so in ways that actually entrenched the institution and nurtured its growth. The Missouri Compromise of 1820, for example, drew a line across the Louisiana Purchase above which federal law banned slavery’s expansion. But it simultaneously recognized and affirmed federal support for slavery’s expansion below the line. Then Congress demonstrated its support for that expansion through its program of Indian removal that used federal money and military might to clear Native Americans off millions of acres of cotton land for white slaveholders to exploit.

Similarly, while Congress did enact legislation to abolish the transatlantic slave trade as soon as it was constitutionally permissible in 1808, it simultaneously gave national license for Americans to engage in the domestic slave trade that had been growing in the United States to feed white demands for labor in the cotton lands. The very same legislation that barred the importation of enslaved Africans for sale placed no restrictions on the sale of enslaved people across state lines. On the contrary, the law required only that ships transporting enslaved people from the failing tobacco fields of Maryland and Virginia to the thriving cotton and sugar regions of the Southwest had to document on their manifests that their cargo had lived in the United States by 1808. Congress thus had the explicit constitutional power to regulate interstate commerce, and at the very moment the minds of its members turned to the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade, they used that power to legitimize the domestic slave trade as an acceptable form of commercial exchange in the United States.

All of these developments had their greatest meaning in the places where slavery continued to exist in the nineteenth century, but all of them were national in significance. Cotton only grew in the South, but by the 1830s it was by far the nation’s most vital export. Slave-grown cotton made up more than half of everything the United States shipped overseas, and it fueled the early Industrial Revolution specifically and the evolution of American capitalism more generally. Enslaved people were traded only in the South, but the profits from their sales were shared nationally, and even internationally, as banks scattered across the United States and England provided the credit that facilitated the trade. In fact, during the 1820s and 1830s, the years when the trade was arguably at its most flourishing, that credit came directly from the federal government, with the Second Bank of the United States pouring millions in government funds into the Southwest.

Growing numbers of American antislavery activists understood that the profits of slavery accrued generally in the United States. As abolitionist Joshua Leavitt put it in 1840, the wealth produced by slavery was “the common plunder of the country.” And abolitionists understood equally well from whence the authority to carry out what Leavitt called “this general robbery” of the enslaved ultimately derived. One might make the case that the Constitution’s omission of the word “slavery” eventually helped enable that institution’s demise. But that linguistic squeamishness notwithstanding, only the fact that the Constitution confirmed the legitimacy of racial slavery can explain its explosive growth before the Civil War.


About the Author

Joshua D. Rothman

Joshua D. Rothman is Professor of History and Director of the Frances S. Summersell Center for the Study of the South at the University of Alabama. He is the author, most recently, of Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson (2012), and is currently working on a book about the slave traders Isaac Franklin, John Armfield, and Rice Ballard.

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Race to Nowhere

For over a century, black elites have pushed improved “race relations” instead of redistribution as the solution to inequality.

Jacobin  Issue 18 Summer 2015

“The Union as It Was. The Lost Cause, Worse than Slavery.” Illustration by Thomas Nast, 1874.

The new issue of Jacobin, commemorating the 150th anniversary of Union victory and emancipation, is out now.

When black progressives today think about the Civil War, they are often more struck by what didn’t happen than what did.

Michelle Alexander’s much-lauded The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is a case in point. Citing W. E. B. Du Bois’s lament that “former slaves had ‘a brief moment in the sun’ before they were returned to a status akin to slavery,” Alexander intimates that abolitionists failed to see that slavery was just one instance in a series of forms of “racialized social control” that not only have reappeared, but have also “evolved” and “become perfected, arguably more resilient to challenge, and thus capable of enduring for generations to come.”

What this narrative of unremitting bleakness overlooks is that the South chose armed rebellion in order to maintain political control over its system of labor — a system that enslaved blacks while impoverishing white agricultural and industrial laborers. From the standpoint of Southern planters and industrialists, the most terrifying prospect of emancipation was the possibility that laborers, black and white, would eschew elite guidance and wield political power in the form of the ballot and office-holding to further their own interests.

It came as no surprise, then, that when former slaves did begin to make this prospect a reality, Southern elites responded not only with violence and political fraud, but also with an intellectual campaign carried out in newspapers, journals, fiction, poetry, and historical writing to demonstrate the incapacity of blacks for self-government and the corruption that would ensue when the unlettered and inexperienced held the reins of power.

What is more surprising, if lesser known, is the role that many black elites (along with their sympathetic white counterparts) played in ratifying aspects of white reactionary thought toward the end of the nineteenth century. Some twenty-five years after Appomattox the fact that black men and unpropertied whites could vote made possible the rise of the Populist Movement, which directly challenged the economic order of the South by “proposing to substitute popular rule for the rule of capital.”

Black elites, whose political viability depended on their perceived legitimacy as “race leaders,” were disturbed by the reality of poor blacks acting politically without their guidance or sanction. And when the planter and industrial elite struck back against Populism with violence and disfranchisement — a backlash that tended to make all blacks, and not merely workers, its target — black elites sought to meliorate these effects by proposing a transformation — not of the economic basis of society, but rather of the black image in the white mind — to improve “race relations.”

Indeed for nearly 130 years, black elites in the United States have been offering up improved “race relations” rather then interracial workers alliances against capital as the primary solution to American inequality.

From the moment the Civil War ended, the question of what an American society without slavery would look like dominated political discussion. If the inaugural issue of the Nation magazine opined that“Nobody whose opinion is of any consequence, maintains any longer that [blacks’] claim to political equality is not a sound one,” the actual picture was more complicated.

While many black commentators and freedmen expected emancipation to usher black Americans fully and without restriction into the nation’s civic, social, and economic life, relatively few white Americans — even among those who abhorred slavery and championed the freedman’s political rights — felt similarly.

And while many Americans, black and white, celebrated the idea that the freedmen would now be able to join the ranks of wage laborers, few of either race saw this change as a significant step towards enhancing the political and economic power of workers generally against employers and landowners in the immediate aftermath of the war.

Recent commentary on the limits of emancipation has typically made much of the lack of racial egalitarianism within the Republican Party and even among abolitionists, seeing within this the seeds of subsequent political defeats.

On this account what made the Civil War and the Civil Rights victories of the 1960s something like “non-events” (and what could likewise undermine any success at ending mass incarceration) was the failure to, as Michelle Alexander puts it, “address . . . racial divisions and resentments,” which thereby allowed the next “system of racialized social control [to] emerge.”

In bringing slavery to an end the Civil War opened up contestation not only over the place that former slaves would have in American society, but also over the role that wage earners and women would play in a post-slavery political order.

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Egalitarian visions, however, were met by concerted forces that did not want the end of slavery to lead to the complete emancipation of wage laborers. That is, any newly won freedoms should not address the way that market coercion severely limited the capacity of working Americans to control their lives and destinies. And while this limitation would ultimately prove equally consequential for the subsequent history of social justice, it has often been hidden by the significant shadow cast by the narrative of American racism and white supremacy.

When John William De Forest, a former Union officer and Freedman’s Bureau administrator, published his 1867 novel Miss Ravenal’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty — which is perhaps the only significant novel about the Civil War written by an actual combatant — he sought, among other things, to champion a view that the “victory of the North is at bottom the triumph of laboring men living by their own industry, over non-laboring men who wanted to live by the industry of others.”

Steeped in the free labor ideology of the North, De Forest’s novel spliced a love story onto a realist account of the war in a way that reflected even as it sought to suppress tensions within the idea of free labor that had come to mark the difference between North and South.

In finally uniting the book’s hero Captain Edward Colburne of the Union army with erstwhile Southern sympathizer, Miss Lillie Ravenal, whom he has loved from the beginning of the novel, De Forest reveals that his view of the ideal free laborer was less the “propertyless proletarian” whose “freedom derived not from the ownership of productive property but from the unfettered sale of . . . labor power — itself a commodity — in a competitive market” than the “independent proprietor,” who had long been identified as being independent enough to secure the freedom of thought and action necessary for responsible citizenship.

We can see the inadequacy of wage labor in Colburne’s assessment of his economic situation after the war. Here we learn that “his salary as captain” had enabled him “to lay up next to nothing,” and that rising gold prices had diminished “the cash value” of what salary he did earn.

These dire prospects, however, do not turn out to be ultimately damning. Trained as a lawyer and in possession of a small inheritance from his dead father, Colburne, by partnering with a colleague, is able in short order to find himself “in possession of a promising if not an opulent business” and is ready to assume his role as head of household with the widowed Lillie Ravenal as his wife and her son as his stepson.

As the novel moves toward a full elaboration of its vision of free labor, it also leaves by the wayside the attempt by Lillie’s father, Dr Ravenal, to reconstruct black labor. Despite being born in South Carolina and having resided in New Orleans for twenty years, Dr Ravenal is a staunch Union man. At a moment when it appears that the Union forces have secured the area around New Orleans, Dr Ravenal determines to demonstrate the superiority of free labor to slave labor by eagerly taking charge of a plantation leased to him by the federal government. His responsibility, as he sees it, is not only economic, but also ideological and pedagogical. To be successful he must “produce not only a crop of corn and potatoes, but a race of intelligent, industrious and virtuous laborers.”

So, with lectures to the ex-slaves about the virtue of labor, sobriety, and the like, Dr Ravenal sets out to put black labor to work for wages. A Confederate counterattack cuts short his “grand experiment of freedman’s labor,” but not before the novel has had time enough to make clear its view that while reconstructing black labor may ultimately succeed, the effort will take time because the habits and attitudes ingrained by a history of enslavement will not disappear overnight.

Contrasting the realities of the South as he sees it to the “pure fiction” of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom, Dr Ravenal asserts, “There never was such a slave, and there never will be. A man educated under the degrading influences of bondage must always have some taint of uncommon grossness and lowness.” De Forest reiterated this vision in his reflections on his experience with Reconstruction in South Carolina, observing that “the Negro’s acquisition of property, and of those qualities which command the industry of others, will be slow. What better could be expected of a serf so lately manumitted?”

Undergirding De Forest’s vision of black freedmen gradually acquiring the skills and habits necessary to become prosperous cooperative laborers is what Eric Foner terms free labor’s belief that “a harmony of interests” defined the relation of capital to labor. The conditions necessary for capital to profit from its outlays were deemed to be those that were most conducive to the flourishing of labor. Class conflict could be imagined only in terms of deficiencies of character among the uncooperative.

Thus, despite their sympathies for the freedmen, black and white elites in the North generally embraced a view of the recently emancipated as a population in need of tutelage and leadership rather than as peers who had the capacity to present their own visions of social and economic life.

Black novelist, former abolitionist, and temperance advocate Frances E. W. Harper begins her 1892 novel, Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted, with depictions of illiterate and semi-literate black slaves debating among themselves the best course of action to take in response to the approaching Union army.

However, by the later chapters of that novel, as she seeks to validate genteel black leadership, a less flattering view of freed people emerges. In one instance Harper has one of her exemplary black characters respond to a claim in the newspaper that “colored women were becoming unfit to be servants for white people,” by concluding “that if they are not fit to be servants for white people, they are unfit to be mothers to their own children.”

This character’s readiness to interpret the uncooperativeness of black domestics as indication of debility is of a piece with the novel’s larger attempt to present black labor as educable and not rebellious. As we learn from another of the novel’s admirable characters, “the Negro is not plotting in beer-salons against the peace and order of society. His fingers are not dripping with dynamite, neither is he spitting upon your flag, nor flaunting the red banner of anarchy in your face.”

These sentiments were echoed by black social reformer, Anna Julia Cooper, in her landmark 1892 work of cultural commentary, A Voice From the South, which famously asserted that it would only be when the black woman was able to enter into American society on terms of equality that true social justice would be achieved. While on Cooper’s account genteel black women should expect acceptance as full equals, laboring blacks were to be prized for racial qualities that guaranteed their capacity as tractable workers.

Cooper writes that the Negro’s “Instinct for law and order, his inborn respect for authority, his inaptitude for rioting and anarchy, his gentleness and cheerfulness as a laborer, and his deep-rooted faith in God will prove indispensable and invaluable elements in a nation menaced as America is by anarchy, socialism, communism, and skepticism poured in with all the jail birds from the continents of Europe and Asia.”

To be sure black workers were not often met with open arms by their white counterparts. And it was not always the case that black novelists assumed innate antagonism between black and white laborers. J. McHenry Jones’s 1896 novel, Hearts of Gold, depicts Welsh miners in a Southern town who, moved by their sense that convict labor “degraded” labor generally and by “a deep-seated hatred . . . against systematic cruelty,” harbor a black runaway from a convict labor camp and then march en masse to destroy the camp and liberate its inmates.

Nonetheless, the representational tendency to align black Southern labor with the interests of their employers also reflected the continued commitment of black elites to the idea “that a community of equal men could be created by allying labor (blacks) and capital to produce material progress and enlightenment,” rather than by allying black laborers with their white counterparts. Instead of building the political power of labor, they called for building the integrity and esteem of the black race.

But whether these representations of black and white labor were disparaging or laudatory, what connected them was that they were, in some way or another, a response to the rise of the Southern Alliance in the 1880s, which was followed by the emergence of the Populist Party in the 1890s.

More to the point, according to Judith Stein, the Southern Alliance was paralleled by and helped fuel the Colored Farmers Alliance, which grew to encompass more than a million black farmers by the early 1890s. While in many cases the political organization of black farm laborers strengthened the hand of black political elites in seeking concessions from white industrialists and landowners, the efficacy of these alliances also challenged the ability of these elites to set the terms and goals of black political activity.

Black elites had sought to assure whites in both the South and the North that black political participation was consistent with the idea of rule by the “best” men of society. In principle then, if not always in fact, the stance of black political elites placed them at odds with the idea that relatively uneducated laborers could wield political power effectively. Thus, in novel after novel produced by the black political class, writers inserted scenes where unschooled black laborers pleaded for the leadership and guidance of their black genteel betters.

Of course, the most egregious disparager of interracial labor alliances against capital was Booker T. Washington, the founder of the Tuskegee Institute. Indeed, historian Michael Rudolph West has credited Washington with inventing “race relations.” Washington’s 1901 autobiography, Up From Slavery, attributed Southern labor unrest to the interference of “professional labour agitators” who had their eyes on the savings of thrifty workers and goaded them into going out on strikes that would leave them “worse off at the end.”

Washington’s rise as a political force in the South coincided with the rise of Populism. The ability of Populists to mount successful political challenges to Southern Democrats depended on the votes of black Alliance members.

It was their awareness of this fact that drove white industrialists and planters in the 1890s to secure the dominance of the Democratic Party by pursuing across-the-board disfranchisement of blacks as well as many poor whites. Jim Crow America was the result of a successful counterrevolution against an interracial labor threat — a counterrevolution aided and abetted by the rise of Bookerism and the Tuskegee Machine.

What Tuskegee represented as an institution, and what Up From Slavery testified to as a program, was the idea that the problem of the South was not primarily a problem of who held political power, but rather one of determining how best to incorporate a despised caste into the social and economic fabric of the nation. In the place of political transformation Washington offered up race relations, with Tuskegee positioned to provide an army of “trained men and women to confront the militancy of an industrial proletariat.”

Viewed against the rise of Populism one can see that the Civil War, by granting blacks political rights, set the stage for what would become one of the most profound challenges to capital in the history of the United States. That the Populist challenge was defeated does not diminish its significance. And given that it was only after the defeat of Populism that disfranchisement and Jim Crow were able to succeed suggests the potential instructiveness of that history for the present moment, a history that does not attest simply to the periodic reemergence of white supremacy across time as Alexander and so many others have alleged.

Rather, if racialized forms of exclusion tend to rise in the wake of successful efforts by industrial and financial interests to undermine the political power of labor, to make our primary task that of addressing “racial divisions and resentments,” as Alexander calls for, risks giving pride of place to a new era of race relations, and not the broader vision of social justice that she describes at the end of The New Jim Crow.

Then, as now, the most reliable path to a progressive politics that produces true justice and human rights is that which begins with building the political power of workers. It is this proposition that has often made elite opponents of white supremacy — both black and white — deeply uncomfortable.

Kenneth W. Warren is a professor of English at the University of Chicago. His most recent book is What Was African American Literature?

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Our Forgotten Labor Revolution

After the Civil War, workers struggled to make wage labor go the way of chattel slavery.

Slaves shown working in the sweet potato fields on the Hopkinson plantation, located on Edisto Island, SC.

Slaves shown working in the sweet potato fields on the Hopkinson plantation, located on Edisto Island, SC

The new issue of Jacobin, commemorating the 150th anniversary of Union victory and emancipation, is out now.

The Founding, the Civil War, the New Deal. The holy trinity of the American political tradition.

In the beginning was the word, the sacred text celebrating the end of arbitrary colonial government and the creation of a constitutional republic. Then there was the redemptive war, a punishment for the original sin of slavery and whose reward was the Union reborn. The new United States declared the primacy of the national state, declared free labor the foundation of its economy, and established national citizenship. Finally, the third deed put a human face on the capitalism that the Civil War unleashed.

This, anyhow, is how the standard undergraduate syllabus is arranged. It is how publishing houses organize their books; it is how the typical historical survey punctuates the American story. To be sure, other moments, like the Civil Rights Movement and the Reagan revolution get honorable mentions.

But they receive their meaning primarily as decorative fabric stretched across the tripartite scaffolding: the Founding, the Civil War, the New Deal. We are supposed to believe that there is nothing to remember in those historical voids. If we go looking, all that we will discover is a series of errors, like Jim Crow, that we have since corrected.

How then to think about the fall of 1887, when a small group of labor organizers connected to the Knights of Labor, started agitating among sugar cane workers deep in the Louisiana bayou?

In August, the Knights started talking to the mostly black cane-cutters who were now working for their former slave masters. They promised higher wages, an end to payment in “scrip” rather than money, and even the hope of running a plantation “on the co-operative plan” instead of under the thumb of a boss. By September thousands had joined the Knights, by October they were ready to stop working if the local planters refused to raise wages, by the first of November they were on strike.

Three weeks later they were slaughtered. With the aid of a judge and state militia leader, white vigilantes disarmed the strikers, corralled them into the town of Thibodaux, Louisiana and unleashed a three-day orgy of violence. “No credible official count of the victims of the Thibodaux massacre was ever made,” writes historian Rebecca Scott, but “bodies continued to turn up in shallow graves outside of town for weeks to come.”

Precise body counts were beside the point. The question of who ruled town and country, plantation and courthouse, had been answered. As a mother of two white vigilantes put it, “I think this will settle the question of who is to rule, the nigger or the white man? For the next fifty years. . . .”

Where does an event like this fit in our national history? Who were the Knights? What was their vision of society? What was the threat they posed?

These are questions we cannot answer by reference to the “holy trinity” narrative. That is because between Reconstruction and Jim Crow was a forgotten time in which the emancipation of slaves inspired a further movement to emancipate workers from the domination of the labor market. It was a moment of promise and of danger — the promise of freedom, the danger of challenges to class power.

If we want to understand our history, rather than just congratulate ourselves about it, we have to abandon the prevailing, comforting narrative of progress that carefully extrudes those moments that do not fit with America’s national image as a self-correcting liberal democracy.

Looking back at forgotten labor struggles is therefore not just an exercise in setting the record straight, it is an exercise in emancipating our own thinking from attempts to discipline and control it.Reconstruction and its aftermath is an especially fertile period because it is when the language of liberty began to take new form, but had not yet been thinned out into the libertarian discourses that we know today.

Union soldiers of the First Massachusetts Cavalry posed in front of plantation house on Edisto Island, South Carolina.

Union soldiers of the First Massachusetts Cavalry posed in front of plantation house on Edisto Island, South Carolina.

The Promise of Reconstruction

The Civil War saw the largest, uncompensated expropriation of property in American history: the abolition of slavery. Nullifying slave owners’ property in persons meant returning personhood to the slaves. It also extinguished roughly half the value of all Southern assets, which in today’s prices amounts to roughly $3 trillion.

This expropriation was followed by “Recon­struction,” a period of constitutional dictatorship maintained by the North’s military occupation of the South. The purpose of occupation was not only to ensure orderly return of the South to the Union, nor just to secure passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, but also to coercively guarantee the freedom of former slaves against those who would resist it.

There was no extending of economic, civil, and political rights to former slaves without a period of coercion against the ancien regime. When communists today propose such measures it is denounced as the most horrible violation of the democratic spirit and personal liberty. But here, at the heart of our own history, is forced expropriation of one class to emancipate another.

And there is more. Reconstruction inaugurated a struggle over how to define the freedom in whose name the North fought. Abolition was just the beginning. What followed was the question of emancipation.

This might sound odd: didn’t the Thirteenth through Fifteenth Amendments abolish slavery, establish due process, and guarantee national citizenship? That would have been news to former slaves. They had been famously promised, as a part of their emancipation, “forty acres and a mule.” And not just them. In fact, in the Morrill Land Grant and Homestead Acts of 1862, the state had affirmed the idea that a fully free citizen was someone who had access to a piece of land — some share of the means of production — so that they did not have to be dependent on another.

Lincoln himself had declared, prior to the war, that free labor was not the same as wage labor: “The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land, for himself; then labors on his own account another while . . . [This] is free labor.” The promise of American freedom was that everyone might enjoy this full independence.

More to the point, former slaves had learned that their emancipation was not something done to them but something they seized for themselves — they no longer had to ask for permission from a master. The connection between emancipation, independence, and self-assertion was found in the organization of black militias for the protection of civil rights, their seizure of land, and the working of this land individually or in self-directed labor companies.

Consider, for instance, these words from former slaves on Edisto Island, South Carolina, who occupied abandoned plantations and then were commanded, by a Freedmen’s Bureau commissioner, to return the land to former masters:

General we want Homestead’s; we were promised Homestead’s by the government . . . [without them] we are left in a more unpleasant condition than our former . . . we are at the mercy of those who are combined to prevent us from getting land enough to lay our Fathers bones upon.

Without land they were forced to work for former masters, or some other masters, for a pittance. To be formally free but possess no land was to find oneself “in a more unpleasant condition,” since in principle one might even find oneself homeless, in even more abject dependence on an employer. The promise of land, whether worked individually or collectively, was that one would no longer work under the arbitrary command of another.

Here was a possible meaning of Reconstruction: all forms of economic dependence are incompatible with free citizenship. In the name of freedom, being without property and dependent on employers was a condition that also had to be abolished. Free people had a right to some share of the means of production — be it land or some other productive property. They even had a right to take it from those who opposed this equal freedom.

One expropriation would follow another and, as those same former slaves put it, each should enjoy the protection of the state. What made such ideas so dangerous was that they were not exclusive to the South. Northerners who fought in the name of this freedom or who supported the Northern cause also believed they had a right to property, to a full and equal freedom.

It is not hard to see how such ideas could unify workers in the North and the South and turn Reconstruction into a radical project of reform, one wholly consistent with, even motivated by, American ideals of freedom. That is just what happened, but what did it look like? Here is where the Knights of Labor, who preserved the free labor ideals of Reconstruction well past its official conclusion, matter so much.

The Red Banditti

The Knights of Labor first formed in 1869 and grew, by the 1880s, into the first national labor association ever to organize unskilled black workers together with whites on a mass basis — an effort not meaningfully duplicated in the United States for another fifty years. Their founding documents said they had come together “for the purpose of organizing and directing the power of the industrial masses.”

Casting their concerns in a familiar, post–Civil War idiom, they asked, “Is there a workshop where obedience is not demanded — not to the difficulties or qualities of the labor to be performed — but to the caprice of he who pays the wages of his servants?” They called the new wage labor “wage slavery” and they wanted “to abolish as rapidly as possible, the wage system, substituting co-operation therefore.”

To advance their mission, the Knights established assemblies everywhere from the male-dominated mines of rural Pennsylvania to the mostly women-employing garment factories of New York to the railroads of Denver.

The Knights’ expansion into the American South began in 1886 at their general assembly meeting in Richmond, Virginia. In a conspicuous show of racial solidarity, a black worker named Frank Ferrell took the stage to introduce the Knights’ leader, Terence V. Powderly, before Powderly’s opening address. To defend his controversial decision to have a black Knight introduce him, Powderly wrote “in the field of labor and American citizenship we recognize no line of race, creed, politics or color.”

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After the general assembly the Knights spread throughout Southern states like South Carolina, Virginia, and Louisiana, setting up cooperatives, organizing local assemblies, and agitating for a new political order.

They enjoyed initial success in Louisiana. One district assembly in the Bayou region claimed 5,000 black members, more than forty local assemblies were spread across planter country, and the membership included some of the most influential local leaders from the headier days of Reconstruction. These were some of the same leaders who had served in politics, drilled self-defense militias, and organized labor companies in the 1870s, prior to the withdrawal of federal troops from the South.

A spirit of self-assertion not seen for over a decade blew through the cane fields. The plantocracy knew it. The Thibodaux Sentinel, a racist local paper hostile to the Knights’ organizing efforts, warned “against black self-organization by trying to remind whites and blacks of what happened a generation earlier, in the days of black militias, and white vigilantism” and evoked “the old demons of violence and arson by ‘black banditti’.”

But the Knights brushed aside these warnings. Just four hundred miles away, near Birmingham, Alabama, the Knights had already founded cooperative settlements, including a collectively managed iron foundry and cigar works. They hoped to reproduce such efforts in Louisiana, starting in the cane fields. If planters would not raise wages and pay in proper currency rather than useless scrip, the Knights were ready to call a strike. The planters refused and the workers struck.

But it was not to be. First the Louisiana state militia showed up, sporting the same Gatling guns that had, only a few decades before, been used for the first time in the North’s fight against the South. The militia broke the strike and forced thousands of defenseless strikers and their families into the town of Thibodaux, where a state district judge promptly placed them all under martial law. A group of white citizen-vigilantes called the “Peace and Order Committee,” organized by the same judge that had declared martial law, then took over and went on their three-day killing spree.

The Knights’ influence was broken. Farming a plantation “on the co-operative plan” was not even a dream deferred — it was easy to forget it had ever been possible for cane cutters.

The officially sanctioned mob violence at Thibodaux was one of many such instances over the course of Southern history. In each instance, a challenge to race-based class rule was met with vigilante justice in the name of white supremacy.

In this case, however, it is worth recalling that the Knights articulated their challenge in a specific, usually overlooked, language of freedom. This was that same conception of liberty that led former slaves during Reconstruction to refuse to work for former masters, even when offered a formal labor contract and wages. It was the same idea of emancipation that motivated them to seize land and work it in “labor companies,” to organize their own militias, to vote as they wished, to hold local and national office. This radical moment of Reconstruction was momentarily suppressed and its end appeared to spell the defeat of any but the narrowest interpretation of what emancipation would mean.

When the Knights of Labor swept into Louisiana speaking the language of freedom, they not only revived old hopes for self-organization and economic independence, but also integrated these regional aspirations of former slaves into a recast national ideology of republican freedom.

Former slaves were now modern workers and the Knights trumpeted the same emancipatory language throughout the nation, heralding “co-operation” as a solution to the problems facing wage laborers everywhere. They sought a reconstruction not just of the South but of the entire country.

This program of liberation through cooperative self-organization, articulated in the trans-racial language of making all workers into their own bosses, scared Northern industrialists just as much as Southern planters. Indeed, if we see the Thibodaux massacre only as a story of Southern racism, we run the risk of unintentionally and retrospectively ceding too much to the planter class and its attempts to control labor relations by transforming economic conflicts into questions of racial superiority.

After all, wherever the Knights went and wherever their message of cooperation and independence took hold they were met with a violence not all that different from that of Louisiana’s “Peace and Order Committee.” Throughout the 1870s, ’80s, and ’90s, the Knights faced violence from employers and their hired guns, most notoriously the Pinkertons. The Pinkertons operated in legal grey zones, sometimes with outright legal sanction from the courts, and often in cooperation with the police, state militia, and federal troops.

Indeed, on occasion it was the public violence of the state that was responsible for spectacular acts of legally sanctioned murder and coercion. Perhaps the most famous was the Haymarket incident in Chicago, in May 1886, when workers and police died during marches for an eight-hour working day.

But even before Haymarket, in Chicago no less than the bayou, capitalist overlords had been baying for blood. “Load Your Guns, They Will Be Needed Tomorrow to Shoot Communists,” read oneChicago Times headline from 1875, responding to a possible demonstration of socialists and reformers against the city’s half-hearted efforts to address poverty. Republican Chicago was a hotbed of bourgeois financing of labor repression. In 1877, a business group called the Citizens Association responded to strike riots by raising $28,000, which they used to buy rifles, cannons, cavalry equipment, and a Gatling gun.

In 1886, after the famous Haymarket incident, an organization of Chicago’s wealthiest businessmen raised $300,000 in private donations to buy land and equipment for a fort and an armory located near the city. In Haymarket, and numerous other strikes, capital got what it paid for.

Labor reformers labeled this unholy alliance of the state with capital, its private guards, spies and “provocative agents,” a kind of “Bonapartism in America,” threatening to turn “the free and independent Republic of the United States of America” into the “worm-eaten Empire of Napoleon the Third.” Just as in Thibodaux, the lines between vigilante violence and legal coercion blurred into a haze.

What, then, was the idea of freedom that triggered such extreme responses? It was nothing less than the promise of the Civil War itself. Or, put more precisely, it was a particular interpretation of the ideal of republican liberty that free-labor abolitionists so frequently invoked before and during the Civil War. It was the ideal that all citizens should live in an economy in which they determine their fate rather than find themselves subject to the arbitrary will of another.

The language the Knights used was shot through with the antislavery ideal. William H. Seward’s famous abolitionist line that there is an “irrepressible conflict” between Northern freedom and Southern slavery was echoed in the Knights’ own slogan that “there is an inevitable and irresistible conflict between the wage-system of labor and the republican system of government.” Whether Southern agricultural worker, Northern shoemaker, or Western switchman, wage-laborers were propertyless and therefore dependent, seeking the same kind of freedom as the freed slaves of Edisto Island.

Here was the source of their “co-operative plan,” which they found equally applicable to the cane fields of Louisiana or the shoe factories of Massachusetts. The Knights wrote the cooperative program into their official constitution, the Declaration of Principles of the Knights of Labor, and, at their peak, organized thousands of cooperatives across the country. This ideal threatened Southern planters, Northern industrialists, and Western railroad owners alike because it struck at the dominant industrial relations between employer and employee.

Affording all workers shared ownership and management of an enterprise, whether a sugar plantation, newspaper press, or garment factory, was, according to the Knights, the only way to secure to everyone their social and economic independence.

While these ideas had been around well before the Civil War, it was only the abolition of chattel slavery and the rise of industrial capitalism that allowed the republican critique of wage labor to come forward as a unifying, national cause — one that had its roots deep in the critique of slavery itself. As Ira Steward, a child of abolitionists and prominent postwar labor republican, wrote in 1873, “something of slavery still remains . . . something of freedom is yet to come.”

Freedmen’s School. Edisto Island, South Carolina.

Freedmen’s School. Edisto Island, SC.

The Revolution Betrayed

Northern Republicans agreed to end Reconstruction of the South when the industrialists, merchants, and financiers that made up the heart of the party started to fear that workers were taking the promise of emancipation too seriously. A few of the most radical Republicans were won over to elements of labor reform, perhaps most famously Wendell Phillips. But by 1877, the bourgeois heart of the Republican Party was beating a different pulse.

Violent railroad strikes in 1873–74 foreshadowed the Great Strike of 1877, which not only paralyzed the country but briefly witnessed workers taking over St. Louis and running the railroads themselves — cooperatively, without bosses. They were quickly brought to heel by a mixture of armed guards, local police, and the newly reformed National Guard. Indeed, the National Guard was created out of the compromise of 1877, in which federal troops would no longer be allowed to enforce domestic law — as they did during Reconstruction — but with an exemption written in for cases of “insurrection,” namely, strikes.

Republicans had lost the heart for Reconstruction of the South because they were losing control of its meaning. The constitutional dictatorship that Northern leaders had imposed on the South had lost its charm, especially as freed slaves demanded redistribution of property, or, as in cases like Edisto Island, just seized that property themselves. Employers worried they now needed armed forces back home, to control workers, rather than bringing the former Confederacy to heel. Strikebreaking looked like a much better use for federal troops and state militia than helping redistribute property in the name of emancipation.

It was time to proclaim former slaves free, close up shop, and turn to making money.

Those former slave-owning planters now looked like less threatening, even useful, allies in the project of disciplining labor. And, in any case, for the Northern investors in US wartime debt, it was time to get freed blacks back onto plantations, picking cotton, so that it could be sold on international markets. After all, an influx of foreign exchange was needed to help put the dollar back on the gold standard, stabilize the currency, and allow them to cash in.

It was well and good to have freed the slaves but enough was enough. The limits of bourgeois universalism had been reached. It was time for Northern capitalists to make a deal, end Reconstruction, and get back to the business of making money.

Work Left Unfinished

Official Reconstruction might have been bargained away in the halls of Congress but, as the Knights of Labor reminds us, the ideals of Reconstruction had not been put to rest. Rather they had been nationalized and radicalized.

In fact, the Knights were not even the most dangerous of those who sought to extend the new freedom into the industrial economy. After all, they rejected revolutionary violence. Yet even their vision of an alternative future had to be suppressed. Their demand for an egalitarian economy, of nationalized public utilities like telegraphs and railroads, and built around producers’ cooperatives was still considered far too dangerous to the emerging capitalist order.

The radicalization of the promise of freedom was not only why Reconstruction had to be ended but why a certain memory of that period has had to endure.

Emancipation had to be understood as abolition, abolition had to be understood as the end of just slavery, and Reconstruction had to be told as a purely Southern question. These days, the dominant story about the Civil War and Reconstruction is so powerful that some dismiss the very idea of freedom as conservative, or at least “bourgeois.” But it is worth remembering that Reconstruction ended not because freedom had been achieved but because it started to become dangerous.

The quest for independence had transcended the abolition of slavery and become a call for self-organization and the redistribution of property. One expropriation threatened to follow another. A proper reconstruction of America meant that the majority should seize its freedom, through its own efforts, by turning the economy into a reflection of the democratic ideal. That is not just an ideal worth remembering but one worth recovering.

Reconstruction matters because it is dangerous.

Alex Gourevitch is an assistant professor of political science at Brown University and the author of From Slavery To the Cooperative Commonwealth: Labor and Republican Liberty in the Nineteenth Century.

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Why Are So Many Distraught to Learn that Slavery Was the Cause of the Civil War? 

HNN   July 19, 2015

We would all like to be able to believe stories and events that we have heard throughout our life. Regardless of where we acquire them, no one likes to feel as though they need to fact check. In history as well as other disciplines, the need to corroborate the narrative is simply a given. We refer to this study as historiography. Essentially the examination of not just the history, but who is telling the history. Who are the individuals, are they objective in recording the events, and do they have biases that would alter what we would otherwise take as truth? More importantly, it is an excellent life lesson, being able to be critical in a constructive manner. In other words, not being gullible.

I always begin the semester by showing my classes a clip of Ron Paul giving a lecture on the origins of the Civil War. To sum up this lengthy talk, he is advocating that the Civil War was fought solely based on state’s rights issues, little to do with slavery. That being said, today nearly all scholars would argue that this belief is a complete fallacy. The catalyst for the Civil War was one hundred percent based on the issue of slavery, more specifically the expansion of such. However, the more imperative issue I try to convey to my students is who wrote such a narrative that made its way into our country’s story and there became taken as truth?

The answer is actually surprisingly simple, the losers. There was a massive campaign throughout the South, years following the Civil War, to illustrate the South did not fight for such an institution, but for individual rights. The comparison of the South to our Founding Father’s similar fight during the American Revolution is a noteworthy example. Of course, over time this becomes even more deeply engrained, even making its way into the textbooks.

Why? Because who in the middle of the twentieth century wanted to admit great grandpa fought for something other than an honorable and admirable ideology. Ron Paul would be the product of this faulty narrative being taught in school and he would then go on to proliferate that same message. An individual who did not study the American Civil War in depth, would potentially take what a well thought of leader such as Ron Paul said simply as the truth, without hesitation.

It is normal and expected to trust individuals whom we admire or appear to be knowledgeable on a topic. There are countless times I find myself falling into this same trap. Whether it is our banker, our politicians, or others, history teaches us that a society that flourishes questions what has always been accepted as reality. Therefore we enable modifications to the status quo and perhaps affect positive change.

South Carolina recently signed a bill to remove the Confederate flag from their capitol. Despite the arguments of a loss of history to some degree, we could argue questioning the meaning of a Confederate flag flying above a government institution in the twenty-first century leads us to be more sensitive to race relations and equality in a progressive nation. Regardless of whether we agree or disagree with the flag’s removal is irrelevant. The significance is to applaud the idea that we are being constructively critical, questioning what our ideology as a society may be lacking, and possibly teaching our younger generations to follow suit in the world they will be creatimg.

Dale Schlundt holds a Master’s Degree in Adult Education with a concentration in American History from the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is currently an Adjunct Professor for Palo Alto College and Northwest Vista College. Dale has two new books available, Tracking Life’s Lessons: Through Experiences, History, and a Little Interpretation and Education Decoded (A Collection of My Writings) now available on Amazon.

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On Wall Street: Slavery Lost, Found, and Remembered

HNN   July 7, 2015

Related Link The Rise of Wall Street

Rememory is a word the Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison used for historical events that have been lost and recovered.

On June 27, 2015 an original building was remembered. A plaque commemorating the slave market that stood in New York City on the East River at Wall Street was planted in the soil, erected at the site of the original building.

A Brooklyn councilman, community leaders, activist students and other New Yorkers contributed to making the city aware of its past. The mayor and his wife gave a speech at the dedication and an award-winning poet recited a poem to lost colonial-era ancestors and history, but none of these events were enough. So much more has to be done to recognize the contributions of people who passed through the slave market.

The plaque marking the site on Wall Street between Pearl and Water Streets was proposed by Brooklyn writer, artist and activist, Christopher Cobb. The language for the plaque was crafted by the New York City Parks Department and the City’s Landmark Preservation Commission, with assistance from Christopher Moore, former director of the Schomburg Center for Black Culture, the research branch of the New York Public Library in Harlem. Many people contributed directly and indirectly.

The plaque is important because when we lose a landmark, one such as the slave market, an image we can see at the Skyscraper Museum on Battery Place in New York City, it may be lost to history. When we lose a landmark we cannot see, smell and touch, it is necessary to create a truthful, dramatic experience that tells the story. Rememory. The artist, Kara Walker, created a dramatic installation in the sugar monument at the Domino Sugar Factory on New York’s East River in Brooklyn. Authors Sven Beckert, Eric Foner, Edward E. Baptist, Anne Farrow-Joel Lang-Jenifer Frank, and Michelle Alexander and others retold stories of wealth and growth in the western world in their recent books about slavery.

For years, I wrote about the slave market and other monuments in New York. But what struck me was the timing of the installation of the plaque, given what happened in Charleston, South Carolina when nine black people were struck down by a white supremacist in a domestic terrorist attack in their church at a Bible study group. President Barack Obama closed his eulogy to the struck down minister, Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the eight others, by leading not only the congregation, the city and the state but also the nation and the world in an inspirational rendition of “Amazing Grace.” But that tribute too was only a beginning. There is so much about American history that so many are unaware of.

Among the surprising commentaries surrounding the devastating event in Charleston was a television interview with a spokesman for a Confederate group, former Georgia congressman in the U.S. House of Representative and an actor on the Dukes of Hazard TV show. He said this about American slavery: “Slavery, it ain’t like it was a Southern sin. It was a national American sin. It built Wall Street and the American economy.”

So what did he mean? Let us reflect on what is said on the newly installed plaque, called, “New York’s Municipal Slave Market”:

On Wall Street, between Pearl and Water Streets, a market that auctioned enslaved people of African ancestry was established by a Common Council law on November 30, 1711. This slave market was in use until 1762. Slave owners wanting to hire out their enslaved workers, which included people of Native American ancestry, as day laborers, also had to do so at that location. In 1726 the structure was renamed The Meal Market because corn, grain and meal – crucial ingredients to the Colonial diet – were also exclusively traded there.

Slavery was introduced to Manhattan in 1626. By the mid-18th century approximately one in five people living in New York was enslaved and almost half of Manhattan households included at least one slave. Although New York State abolished slavery in 1827, complete abolition came only in 1841 when the State of New York abolished the right of non-residents to have slaves in the state for up to nine months. However, the use of slave labor elsewhere for the production of raw materials such as sugar and cotton was essential to the economy of New York both before and after the Civil War. Slaves also cleared forest land for the construction of Broadway and were among the workers that built the wall that Wall Street is named for and helped build the first Trinity Church. Within months of the market’s construction, New York’s first slave uprising occurred a few blocks away on Maiden Lane, led by enslaved people from the Coromatee and Pawpaw peoples of Ghana.

The South Carolina terrorist said he chose Charleston, South Carolina because it is the most historic city in his state. He said he was out-of-his-mind when he read that at one point in history there were more Negroes in South Carolina than there were whites. It was no accident that he attacked one of the most historic religious institutions not only in the South but in America — the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), founded by enslaved, free and abolitionist African Americans, including Denmark Vesey, who rebelled against slavery in 1822.

We wonder what the terrorist would say if he read that at one point in Early American history, in 1650, the number of bondaged African Americans in New York was second only to the number in South Carolina, and in New York there were rebellions in 1712, 1741 and other years. So let’s review the words of the Wall Street plaque. Good people have to be aware of history because evil people are paying attention. (Maybe today someone will finally make the formerly enslaved abolitionist Denmark Vesey movie that filmmakers have been trying to make for so many years.)

My intimate knowledge of some of the ancestors in New York, having researched genealogy and combed the records for a book, is vivid. My maternal great-grandmother was Elizabeth Hunter of Jamaica. Governor Robert Hunter, British Royal Governor of the British Colonies in New York and New Jersey from 1710 to 1720, and Governor of the British Colony in Jamaica from 1727 to 1734 was her ancestor. The slave market was established under his watch. When Governor Robert Hunter was in New York, before he went to Jamaica, he was integrally involved in overseeing the monies used in the Colonies. He petitioned Queen Anne to have a smaller denomination of money for the merchants and their customers and decried what he called the “hard usage” of colonial African Americans.

I ignored Governor Hunter on our family tree, even after I found the genealogical records, but he resurfaced in my New York research when I researched entrepreneurial African American potters, and my Scottish and African American ancestors in Colonial New York. By hard usage, he and other colonials meant the use of free African Americans labor to transport the timbers that built ships, buildings and military forts in the city. The free laborers also built the businesses of the variety of entrepreneurs who owned them as enslaved people.

So view the plaque’s words, owners . . . hire out their enslaved workers. These and other slave owners were not average individuals; they were business people who hired out the humans they held in bondage. They not only pocketed the money their slaves earned and used the money to build a fortune, they also used the people’s free labor to build their own businesses. When President George Washington landed on the East River, a few blocks from the site of the former slave market where slavers still traded humans, he must have seen the hard usage. The Founding Fathers and Financial Founding Fathers owned slaves. They built the banks and created the nation’s currency. Enslaved people built the industries that built New York.

The banks were built on Wall Street during this era. In 2011, at a Wall Street festive gathering, a Financial Follies for financial reporters, BNY Mellon Bank taunted protesters outside in the Occupy Wall Street movement with a satirical promotional ad. The bank’s ad said: “We don’t mean to brag, but we’ve been Occupying Wall Street for 227 years.” Banks from Bank of America, J. P. Morgan Chase, Citibank, Wells Fargo, Mellon Bank and others had their roots in earlier banks on Wall Street during the slavery era.

So view the plaque’s words,the use of slave labor elsewhere for the production of raw materials such as sugar and cotton. The profits from sugar and slavery were not only produced elsewhere and used to build banks and businesses on Wall Street as the plaque says, but there were sugar mills at the edge of Wall Street. These New York merchants’ major commerce at the time was human cargo and sugar, imported from the Caribbean Islands. The sugar was stored in New York’s sugar houses owned by its leading families; sugar was refined in the refineries, and profitable liquor shipped to the other colonies and to Europe. A “Sugar House” stood on the south side of Liberty Street at Cedar Street, adjoining the Dutch Church, and another one stood one block north on Cortlandt Street in the 1700s. Liberty Street Sugar House was owned by Peter Livingstone, a merchant, and the adjoining one by John Van Cortlandt, a merchant. These and other names cover Manhattan, Bronx and Brooklyn. There were major sugar factories in Brooklyn, and that is why Kara Walker’s sugar installation is so significant.

Profits from sugar, cotton, slavery and slave ships created fortunes. Entrepreneurs who used free slave labor as “hard usage” were called merchant, sea captain, tavern owner, brewer, lawyer, minister, politician, governor, mayor, distiller, vintner, doctor, baker, shopkeeper, shipowner, silversmith, sailmaker, victualler, cordwainer, watchmaker, insurer. The whole insurance industry worldwide was started and built on slavery. Edward Lloyd started Lloyds in his storefront in London in 1688 when he posted the list of ships and took bets on which ones would survive. Insurance was a main business of the men who sat in the taverns on and surrounding Wall Street and who traded at the slave market. The American insurance industries from Aetna to Hartford have their roots in Wall Street-financed slavery.

This is the place where the economic, social and civic foundations of the nation originated. Tenant farmers from the Hudson Valley supplied the colonial city with produce at the Oswego Market on Broadway. The farmers protested the inequities and unequal treatment by one of New York’s largest landowners, Stephen Van Rensselaer IV, in 1845. The Stock Exchange at Wall and Broad Streets was formed in 1792, and there was already an Exchange, the first Exchange on the East River at Broad and Dock Streets, today’s Pearl Street. This is the site of the current slavery plaque. That site has been a trade location since the era of the Dutch and the British, when shipping and slavery were the world’s major commercial businesses.

The wealth that empowered the colonists to revolt against Britain during the American Revolutionary War came from the labor of people who cleared the forests, built roads. The governors bargained with the Mohawks and other Native Americans upstate, whose timbers were transported by slaves to the city.

View the plaque’s words,enslaved people from the Coromatee and Pawpaw peoples of Ghana. I have documented ancestors from the 1600s and 1700s who were Coromantees from Ghana, West Africa. I researched and traced how they survived, how they received the name, Coromantee. Koromantyn was the name of the village from which they came.

This plaque recently placed on Wall Street describes people who have deep roots not only in America, but also in the world.

Pearl Duncan has two upcoming books, one about the DNA roots of African American ancestors and another about colonial ships, Wall Street and New York and New Yorkers.

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American Independence and the Promise of Equality

 We´re History    July 6, 2015

How Slavery Honors Our Country's Flag

How Slavery Honors Our Country’s Flag. The Anti-Slavery Record, 1835(Photo: HathiTrust)

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Few words have been more important in the course of human history. This idea – that humans are innately equal and deserve liberty – is the founding idea of our nation. It marked a radical break in the world towards a new era of democratic thought. Today’s world is still very much informed by the poetry of our successful rebellion. For this fact alone, the Declaration of Independence deserves celebration and reverence. Yet every 4th of July also presents a problem to many Americans. How do you accept Jefferson’s famous words if you have yet to realize his promises of equality, if you continue to endure systemic injustices?

On July 5th, 1852 Frederick Douglass tried to answer that question while speaking before the Rochester Ladies Antislavery Society. The former slave had made a name for himself as a powerful orator and a passionate opponent of American slavery, so he was an obvious choice as the day’s speaker. Douglass embodied the promise of American liberty (though he had to survive, fight, and flee to achieve it), and would surely juxtapose the freedom and equality of the North to the wretched oppression of the South. At least that’s what the crowd anticipated. To the crowd’s shock, Douglass proceeded to deliver one of the harshest orations in his entire career, one which condemned every American who enjoyed freedom while others suffered in bondage. It is worth remembering for its brutal honesty.

Douglass began the speech with a sense of empathy, saying that he understood that colonists fought real oppression during the American Revolution. The Founding Fathers risked everything for a new nation, and for this alone, Americans should be proud, Douglass said. Yet for Douglass, there was a darker side to the Fourth. Every Independence Day felt like a cruel joke to the American slave:

Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us…. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?

Douglass continued his harsh critiques and condemned both the American government and well-meaning abolitionists for their lack of progress. For Douglass, the hypocrisy of the United States was too much:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy…. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

Finally, Douglass attacked the two pillars of the American ethos – religion and the Declaration of Independence – and argued that Americans had distorted and ignored these pillars for personal gain.

Many of its most eloquent Divines…have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system…. For my part, I would say, welcome infidelity! welcome atheism! welcome anything! in preference to the gospel, as preached by those Divines! …You…are understood by the world to declare that you “hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; and are endowed by their Creator with certain in alienable rights; and that among these are, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and yet, you hold securely, in a bondage…a seventh part of the inhabitants of your country.

Douglass’s image of America is understandably bleak. He experienced this nation’s worst inequality and oppression, at a time when many Americans firmly believed that all men were not created equal and that some were endowed by the creator with misery and bondage. Douglass was right to be furious with an America that proclaimed the values of human liberty and equality while millions suffered through slavery and white supremacy. How then, do we understand the Declaration of Independence? Is it nothing more than a sham?

Douglass seems to have anticipated this question: “Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented, of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery.” Even Douglass, for all his anger and frustration, believed that there was hope for America, founded as it was with the promise of equality. He understood that any nation built on such a stark contradiction between rhetoric and reality would eventually have to choose a path. In our tumultuous history, we have often strayed from the path of equality. Thankfully, we have had leaders like Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to remind us of the unfulfilled promises set forth in that immortal Declaration. Today, once again, in that great tradition, Americans are grappling with the full meaning of the Declaration of Independence.

About the Author

Michael McLean

Michael McLean is a Ph.D. student at Boston College. He studies western Native American history through the lens of the environment and material realities. He is currently wondering if anyone has written the history of the toilet, which he contends would make a fantastic book.

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The Charleston Massacre and the Rape Myth of Reconstruction


Time Works Wonders

For That I Do Suspect The Lusty Moor Hath Leap’d Into My Seat.” Thomas Nast, 1870 (Photo: Library of Congress)

As Dylann Roof massacred nine people in cold blood after they studied the Bible together on Wednesday night at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, he told a church member who survived that he felt compelled to carry out the murders. “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country,” Roof said. “And you have to go.” We might take such a bizarre statement as a sign that this act of racial terrorism was also the act of a lunatic. But if Dylann Roof is deranged, his derangement is deeply steeped in a history of white supremacy that has long expressed the threat of black economic and political power in sexual terms.

Apologists for slavery often contended that people of African descent were by nature bestial, and that they would surely revert to a state of savagery without the discipline of enslavement. These fears continued to haunt the white southern imagination through the era of emancipation and Reconstruction, as terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan gained support from significant segments of the white southern populace in the late 1860s by claiming they acted as forces of law and order against hordes of black thieves and rapists intent on causing mayhem and despoiling white women. In truth, there were no waves of black crime during Reconstruction, and the Klan was little more than the paramilitary arm of the resurgent southern Democratic Party. The Klan existed to intimidate, brutalize, and murder economically ambitious and politically assertive black people and their allies, and its presence faded in the early 1870s as much because white Democrats had succeeded in retaking control of many southern state governments as because the federal government cracked down on the organization.

The unmistakable link between fears of black power and fears of the sexual violation of white women, however, not only outlasted Reconstruction but became an increasingly prominent element of white southern racial pathology as the nineteenth century progressed. Even the so-called Redemption of state governments by white Democrats could not entirely contain black political activism, and the chronically depressed southern economy produced masses of economically insecure white southerners who felt that black agricultural and industrial workers took too many of the region’s scarce resources, lacked proper deference to white people, and did just a bit too well for themselves. The widespread anxiety among white men that they would not be able to provide for their wives and children easily transformed into concerns that they would not be able to protect their wives and children. On the racially charged landscape of the post-emancipation South the logic of white supremacy called forth the violent response that it always did.

The phenomenon of lynching, which is America’s signature act of racial terror, began a noticeable rise in the 1880s and became epidemic by the turn of the twentieth century. And it was practically axiomatic in the minds of white southerners that such extralegal mob violence was necessary to clamp down on black sexual predators with designs on the bodies of white women. Even southern congressmen used such claims to defend lynchings. In the early 1920s, for example, Representative James Buchanan of Texas voiced his opposition to proposed federal anti-lynching legislation by denouncing “the damnable doctrine of social equality which excites the criminal sensualities of the criminal element of the Negro race and directly incites the diabolical crime of rape upon white women. Lynching follows as swift as lightning, and all the statutes of State and Nation cannot stop it.” Representative Thomas Upton Sisson of Mississippi agreed, asserting that white southern men “are going to protect our girls and womenfolk from these black brutes. When these black fiends keep their hands off the throats of the women of the South then lynching will stop.”

Such wildly racist delusions, not to mention the expressions of patriarchal control over white women, said far more about white men than they did about black men. Indeed, in light of the systematic rape of black women by white men dating back to the era of slavery, it takes no deep psychological insight to observe that the lurid horror of black rapists conjured by white southerners was more a matter of projection than of reality. The belief remained unshakable nonetheless, and those bold and courageous enough to observe that the threat of the black rapist was a myth placed themselves in tremendous danger. Most famously, when Tennessee journalist Ida B. Wells argued in the 1890s that most liaisons between white women and black men were consensual and that the specter of the black male rapist was a lie, a white mob destroyed the offices of her newspaper. Wells left the South altogether because she was sure she would be murdered.

The numbers of lynchings in the United States would eventually crest and then diminish over the course of the twentieth century, but the myth of the black rapist was a stubborn one to uproot. It was never far from the surface in white southern defenses of segregation during the Civil Rights Era, for instance, with the hostility to the prospect of integrated schools, swimming pools, and other public spaces often conveyed in terms of the idea that integration would mean “mongrelization,” as even black male children surely had their eyes on white girls. Wednesday’s attack in Charleston is plain evidence that the myth still thrives today, and that it is deadly.

What happened in Charleston is so rife with symbolism and so anchored in America’s racial past that it nearly leaves a person breathless. The shootings happened at a church that has long been the center of black activism in the state of South Carolina, in a city that was the heart of the mainland colonial transatlantic slave trade. That church is one that Denmark Vesey, who planned a thwarted slave rebellion, helped found in 1818, and that his son redesigned after whites burned the original building to the ground. The shootings happened one day after the 193rd anniversary of when Vesey’s rebellion would have transpired and two days before the Juneteenth holiday that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. The shooter proudly placed a license plate on the front of his car bearing the Confederate battle flag that flew at full staff in front of the statehouse in Columbia even the day after the atrocity.

One smaller and perhaps less-observed symbolic element, however, may be the most telling. Dylann Roof was captured and arrested in the town of Shelby, North Carolina, which is the birthplace of author Thomas Dixon. Dixon’s most famous work, entitled The Clansman, glorifies the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan and imagines the organization as having saved the white South from a fusion of white abolitionist and black southern political rule and from legions of former slaves set on raping white women. Dixon’s book, published in 1905, was a vicious and mendacious act of distorted historical revisionism. But it was a powerful one. Ten years later it served as the source material for D.W. Griffith’s pathbreaking film The Birth of a Nation. The film places the attempted rape of a white woman by a former slave at the very core of the story, and it shows Klansmen as the saviors of white civilization from an oppressive government that is trying to forcibly impose black equality. The movie nearly singlehandedly prompted a national revival of the Ku Klux Klan. And it was a film that white audiences lined up for months to watch. That was true not only in the South. It was true everywhere in the United States. Fifty years after the Civil War ended, white Americans largely agreed that the nation born out of its ashes was one that rightfully belonged only to them.

About the Author

Joshua D. Rothman

Joshua D. Rothman is Professor of History and Director of the Frances S. Summersell Center for the Study of the South at the University of Alabama. He is the author, most recently, of Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson (2012), and is currently working on a book about the slave traders Isaac Franklin, John Armfield, and Rice Ballard.

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