Saturday, July 25, 2020

Slavery and The Attempts to Rewrite Our History

3,941 statues have been removed, destroyed or vandalized since the death of George Floyd thus far. Their assault is interesting in that every attack is an attempt to bring about social change. This always includes the demonization of the past and either its eventual co-opting with a new identity or its utter removal. What is true in politics is often true in religion as well.

Old gods, goddesses, and sacred spaces were typically converted into demons, symbols of evil, or places to avoid by the new faith. Often traditions, such as the celebration of the equinoxes, were co-opted and given a new meaning; Easter and the use of painted eggs and rabbits (symbols of fertility) or Christmas and the evergreen tree and candles (rebirth and the hope for the return of Spring).

Sacred spaces such as springs or groves, dedicated to some ancient spirit, often for healing, were rededicated as symbols of the new religion by taking the popular god or goddess and rededicating them as a "saint"; sometimes with a slight name change to make it less obvious. The Bible's snake or serpent is portrayed as the incarnation of Satan and evil. However, that same snake had been the symbol of knowledge, wisdom, and protection by the Mesopotamian religion which had preceded it.

In politics, the removal of old symbols of power or status, such as the Nazi swastika (which itself was an much older symbol of good fortune and eternity) or the toppling of the Imperial Russian Romanov statues and symbols along with the destruction of Russian Orthodox Churches were the symbolic replacement of one system and what it represented with new symbols signifying new loyalties. It is the substitution of one set of values and traditions with another.

However, as in religion, former political symbols are often co-opted into a representation of evil (like the swastika, the fasces or the Confederate flag) just as individuals whose stances oppose the new system are routinely demonized regardless of the facts. This is especially true when viewing the past by the standards or morality of the present time rather than the historical perspective of their time.

For instance, a minority of people criticize America's Founding Fathers because most of them owned slaves (14 of the 21 Founding Fathers owned slaves at some point in their lives). However, they are judging these individuals from the advantage of over 200 years of change. They measure them by the values and morals of our time, not theirs. The majority of the Founding Fathers viewed slavery as abhorrent, often freeing what slaves they had (note too that most were inherited, not purchased).

The use of slaves was seen as essential to the economy, especially in the South, whose economy was highly labor intensive. We were also in the midst of a war with the most powerful nation on the planet at the time. We trying to create a new country. While many of the Founding Fathers called for the abolishment of slavery as an institution, it would have meant the utter collapse of the Southern colonies, whose support was critical (in fact, it was in the Southern colonies where the colonialists were having the most success against the British).

If the Northern colonies had insisted on an end to institutional slavery, as a few did, the rebellion would have failed. The colonies would have remained British. As for the institution of slavery, rather than ending the importation of slaves in 1808 or dissolving the institution itself in 1863 through Lincoln's "Emancipation Proclamation", it's highly likely that it would have continued (slavery formerly ended in the U.S. in 1865 with the adoption of the 13th Amendment). As it was, when the U.S. formally ended the importation of slaves in 1808, not quite 32 years after formally obtaining our independence, it effectively killed slave trade as a business in the West.

The British, through the Royal African Company among others, were the world's largest slave trading nation although more Arabs were actually engaged in the slave trade than the British due to their proximity while African tribal leaders remained the central purveyors of slaves, without whom there would have been no slaves to sell.

Thus, as a result of our 1808 prohibition, the British Government began purchasing the freedom of all slaves within the empire through the 1833 Slave Abolition Act using money it had borrowed. The debt was paid through taxes by the British people and wasn't paid off until 2015. It's something the United States should have done as well, but couldn't.

The result was the bloodiest war this nation has ever engaged in with an estimated 655,000 causalities. That's more than in any other war experienced by this country. The financial cost of the war, while hard to accurately determine, was estimated at about $7 billion dollars in 1860 dollars. That works out to be around $75 billion in 2008 dollars, when the last study was done. So, would it have been cheaper if Lincoln had purchased and freed all the slaves, assuming that would have even been possible?

According to the 1860 census, there were some 3,950,000 slaves in the United States at that time. About 30% of the population owned any slaves at all (the average was three). Ownership varied greatly from state to state but most Southerners owned none. Just 4% of slave owners were the wealthy plantation owners we typically think of. Slave value was based on age, gender, and skill level. Nevertheless, based on 1860 data, the average slave was worth about $800 back then.

Again, using 1860 dollars, that works out to be $2.7 billion dollars. In today's money, that's roughly $72 billion dollars or around $3 billion cheaper than the war itself, which doesn't take into consideration the lives impacted, the effect on the economy or subsequent cost of rebuilding after the war. It also doesn't include the social costs of Reconstruction or the divisions which still remain.

The British Slave Abolition Act occurred nearly three decades before the Civil War began in 1861 (the war almost began in the 1850's but was averted through the "Great Compromise"; cobbled together by triumvirate of Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C Calhoun). So, why didn't Lincoln simply use executive power to buy all the slaves?

In 1772, the British Chief Justice Lord William Mansfield ruled that slavery was inconsistent with English law. As a result, Britain began the legal process of ending slavery throughout the empire. In 1787, during the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, it was held that slavery was not a moral issue, but an economic one, thanks to the clout of powerful Southern delegates (notably South Carolina and Georgia). Attempts by various states to prohibit slavery were repeatedly overruled by lawyers for the powerful Board of Trade, located in London, which oversaw international trade.

It was during the convention that the infamous "three-fifths" clause was determined. It stated that slaves were worth only 3/5 of a person for taxation and representation purposes. This provided the legal framework for slavery to continue despite the desires of many delegates. It was also repeatedly emphasized by the Southern delegates that the purpose of the convention was the creation of a political union, not a moral one. Any "moral considerations" were to be left to the individual states. As an aside, let's remember too that the many of delegates, regardless of where they were from, wanted to create a relatively weak federal government which would have little power over the issues like slavery.

In addition, thanks in no small part to Eli Whitney's cotton gin, introduced in 1794, the South provided the economic resources for the emerging nation to compete on the world stage. "King Cotton" as it would become known went from producing 500,000 pounds in 1793 to 93 million pounds by 1810, representing half of all U.S. exports from 1820 to 1860 (it's worth noting that prior to the cotton gin, slavery, especially on a large scale, was dying due to the high cost).

Northern industrialists profited handsomely on Southern exports to the North, especially cotton, corn, wheat, tobacco, rice, and other warm climate crops, which were processed and sold overseas (most notably to Great Britain). There was every financial incentive for slavery, which was at the heart of the South's economic engine, to continue. Nevertheless, the slaves were freed.

As of 1865, about 88% of all blacks in America were slaves. Of the remaining 12%, they were either freed black men and women, mostly likely but not exclusively---living either in the industrial North or in Indian Territory out West. A small percentage were actually slave owners themselves (as hard as that is to believe). There are approximately 37,144,530 non-Hispanic blacks currently living in America (while the overall black population in the U.S. is on the decline--currently second behind Hispanics---the largest growth is from Hispanic blacks from places like Brazil and the Caribbean islands).

The best estimate among historians and sociologists is that about 60% of all non-Hispanic blacks can trace their ancestry to a slave living in America at some point prior to 1865. For most people their slave era ancestor was somewhere between six and eight generations ago. So, it's worth noting that at seven generations for instance, for every 254 people live today, they share one common ancestor. Thus, around 254 blacks today share a single black slave ancestor. If we were to award reparations (which I am strongly opposed to), is that the formula we should use? Just a thought.

So, what was Lincoln's plan for all the freed slaves? Early on, Abraham Lincoln repeatedly stated that he didn't want to get involved in the slavery issue, and would leave it alone for the time being if it meant preserving the union. It wasn't until 1862/63 that his position changed. He knew he had to cut the legs from under the South's economic engine, and that meant ending slavery. It should be noted that his famous Emancipation Proclamation applied exclusively to the states which had left the union to form the independent Confederate States of America. Thus, technically, it had no legal standing in any of the Confederates States and Lincoln knew it.

Although Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, before he could start taking any concrete steps regarding the disposition of the former slaves, it appears that the "Great Emancipator" as he would come to be known subscribed to the notion of "colonization". Specifically, it meant relocating former slaves to Latin America, the Caribbean , or to the newly created nation of Liberia. Liberia was formed in 1820 by former slaves, most of whom came from the U.S.

In 1861, Lincoln has initially asked Congress for funds to do just that. However, Congress declined, citing the expense. From that point forward, Lincoln began to solicit funds wherever he could to help with this project. It should be pointed out, that Lincoln strictly favored voluntary colonization and not its forcible relocation of anyone. It's interesting to contemplate what American would have been like had Lincoln lived and been able to move forward on his plan isn't it?

There are many facets of slavery to consider. It did not originate in America and the Founding Fathers did what they could given the political, social and economic realities of their time while fighting a war against the most powerful nation on the planet. Lincoln too was constrained by the economic, social and political realities of his age not to mention a divided nation at war.

Today, there are many misguided individuals and groups attempting to assign blame where it doesn't exist. They are attempting to judge these individuals through the lenses of the 21st Century. They are, in effect, trying to rewrite history to fit a narrative which has little to nothing to do with actual history. We've witnessed a great many changes since 1776, 1787, or even 1865. The great majority of them for good, especially for minorities. Few minorities from history can say that.

Slavery in the Constitutional Convention

Founding Fathers and Slaveholders

Facing facts About Lincoln and his views on slavery

A List of statues across the U.S. toppled, vandalized, or officially removed amid protests

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