Slavery in American history has come into vogue among those of much political enthusiasm but the intelligence of box turtles and little knowledge of the matter. I sometimes think that America should institute a system of public education, but apparently this is not going to happen. Anyway, a few thoughts of possible interest:
Whites didn’t enslave blacks. These were captured by black slave traders or bought as prisoners of war, and kept in slave pens on the African coast until slave ships bought them. This may seem a cheap debating point but is how the slave business actually worked.
The slave trade from point of sale on the African coast to the fields of Alabama and thereafter was hideous, very, very documentedly so. This should not need saying but apparently does. A competent overview of the commerce can be found in The Atlantic Slave Trade, by . A contemporary account is American Slavery As It Is,1839. Warning: it is nauseating. A well known and readable account, also contemporary, can be found in A Journal of Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839, by Fanny Kemble. Hundreds of others exist.
The current adolescent drumbeat for reparations to blacks for slavery is nonsensical since, as many have noted, it requires whites who never owned slaves to pay reparations to blacks who never were slaves. This is just stupid. I think the Africans who originally captured the slaves should pay reparations to American blacks, and to residents of cities burned by these. People whose forebears arrived in America after 1865 can’t possibly be blamed as neither, presumably, Yankee troops who are (absurdly, but never mind) thought to have fought to free the slaves.
The Atlantic slave trade was not especially American but engaged in by much of Europe–Portugal, Spain, England, Holland, with Jews, Christians, Catholics, and a few Quakers involved. Of the estimated eleven million slaves abducted from Africa (a highly imprecise figure, I suspect) many went to Latin America, Cuba, and the British West Indies, where treatment of them was savage.
In Mexico and further south, black slaves were used because the Indians, enslaved by the Spanish, proved less able to endure hard work in hot regions than were the blacks. Anyone who doubts the brutality of slavery as practiced by Europeans should visit the silver mines of Zacatecas in Mexico–I have–and check things out. Zacatecas also has a museum of instruments of torture used by the Catholic Church. It is nightmarish, sickening. Used by followers of Jesus, you understand.
In America the slave trade was a Northern, not a Southern, business, run out of New York, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. These states, not Mississippi, constructed the custom-designed slave ships with the chains built in and barely room for the prisoners to lie down. These states, when the slave trade was outlawed in America in 1808, smuggled slaves and continued supplying them to the British East Indian sugar plantations.
With Northern efficiency, the traders developed what is sometimes called the slave triangle. The ships stocked up on rum in America, and sailed to the Slave Coast. Here they exchanged rum, cloths, and other things for, on a large ship, as many as a thousand slaves. They then sailed for the sugar islands of the Caribbean, expecting perhaps twenty percent of the cargo to die on the way largely due to treatment I will not describe. On arrival they would exchange some slaves for molasses, and return to, say, New York. There they sold the molasses to distilleries to be made into rum. All of this was then repeated.
Apart from a few abolitionists, the North did not object to slavery. It was too profitable. Good families bought shares in slave ships as one might buy shares in Lockheed-Martin or Apple Computer. Northern banks financed the cotton plantations.
Northern participation in the trade, and Northern attitudes toward blacks, are covered well in Complicity, by three Northern reporters. (All books mentioned are on Amazon.) A quick read is Wikipedia’s account of the New York draft riots of 1863 in which northern workers, fearing competition from freed slaves, murdered and burned alive blacks.
Lincoln disliked slavery but, as he said repeatedly and clearly, did not want racial integration, did not believe blacks able to live among whites, did not want social equality, and most assuredly opposed intermarriage. He thought, and said many times, that blacks should be shipped back to Africa. Lincoln’s racial views would today make him an extreme White Supremacist.
His Emancipation Proclamation, going into effect on January 1, 1863 and now thought to have freed the slaves, didn’t. In it he conspicuously did not free slaves in the North, where he could have, and did proclaim the slaves free in the South, where the proclamation had no effect. It was a military measure, intended to inspire insurrection by Southern slaves. it didn’t.
The notion that Northern soldiers fought to free blacks is nonsensical. Soldiers typically are men of poor education and low social class unlikely to risk their lives to benefit people they hold in contempt and want nothing to do with, living in far-off parts. This is like saying that Marines in Vietnam, many of whom could not spell the country’s name were fighting to save from Communism, which they could not define, people they disliked (dinks, gooks, zipperheads, rice-propelled paddy maggots) and who often shot at them.
Finally, it is worth pondering how the world looked to a decent and well-meaning white Southerner in, say, 1850. Her name might be Rebecca Venable, living in Prince Edward County, Virginia, territory near that of Washington, Lee, and Jefferson, all of Cavalier Virginia. She is eighteen, has lived all her life on her father’s rural estate, and is accustomed to slavery. She has known nothing else. The house slaves are well treated and, while she knows that field hands are sometimes whipped, well, the minister says that blacks are the sons of Ham and can’t be civilized. Many of the white people she knows, all kindly, seem uneasy with slavery, but–what to do about it?
It was not an easy question. At the end of the Civil War, there were about four million slaves in America. Rebecca would not have known the number, but there were a great many blacks in Cavalier Virginia. If freed, what would they do? Where would they live? They couldn’t read, poor things. Sally would see nothing to contradict the universal view of those around her that they wouldn’t learn. She didn’t listen to NPR.
Where would Rebecca go if the slaves were freed? And her family? They would have no way of making a living. Though uneasy about slavery, Rebecca very humanly might think, well, maybe we should leave things as they are, and manumit in our wills. Many whites did this.
And finally, and important, Haiti. Rebecca would know that around the turn of the century the slaves of Haiti had revolted and killed the island’s whites in horrible ways. She would know that in 1831 the slave Nat Turner and other slaves had rebelled and killed whites unpleasantly–especially if one were a woman. In Southern minds it was not impossible, not at all, that such things might repeat all across the South. In fact they didn’t, but that they wouldn’t wasn’t obvious.
What would you, the reader, have done?