Saturday, May 16, 2015

The US Civil War Coverage of 1865 from Great Britian

From the archives of The Economist (UK), "The fall of Richmond and its effect upon English commerce," Our [The UK Economist] coverage of the end of America's civil war, on 22 April 1865 -- United States -- THE fall of Richmond is one of the most striking events of modern history. On the one side the great hopes of the Confederates, their equally great efforts, the sympathy they have gained in Europe: on the other side, the undaunted courage of the Federals, their refusal to admit, even to their imagination, the possibility of real failure,—their accumulating power, which for many weeks past has seemed to concentrate like a gathering cloud about the capital of their enemies, give to the real event the intense but melancholy interest that belongs to the catastrophe of a tragedy. It is impossible not to feel a sympathy with the Confederates. There is an attraction in vanquished gallantry which appeals to the good side of human nature. But every Englishman at least will feel a kind of personal sympathy with the victory of the Federals.

They have won, as an Englishman would have won, by obstinacy. They would not admit the possibility of real defeat; they did not know that they were beaten; or, to speak more accurately, they knew that though they seemed to be beaten they were not: they felt that they had in them latent elements of conclusive vigour which, in the end, they should bring out, though they were awkward and slow in so doing. We may alter, perhaps, to suit this event, the terms which, in one of the greatest specimens of English narrative, the great English historian describes on a memorable occasion the conduct of Rome. "But there are moments when rashness is wisdom, and it may be that this was one of them; panic did not for a moment unnerve the iron courage of the American democracy, and their resolute will striving beyond. its present power created, as is the law of our nature, the power which it required."

But leaving history to deal in a becoming manner with the imaginative aspect of this great event, let us look at its present aspect in a business-like manner. The details of it are yet uncertain, and any conclusive judgment on minute results would be absurd. But, as far as we know, what does it amount to, and what will be its result?

It used to be said that Richmond was not essential to the Confederacy; that it was a nominal and accidental capital; that it was not even the original capital; that Virginia was but an outside State in a Confederacy with a vast interior; that even if this superficial outwork was lost, the war could be indefinitely protracted; that the fall of this exterior fortification would have scarcely affected the resistance of the provinces, upon which everything depended, And at the outset of the war when these words were used, they were doubtless substantially true. Subsequent events have in many respects confirmed them, and have in few tended to contradict them.

But now the case is altered. The loss of an outer fortification does not impair the resisting faculty, when it is lost early in the day—when its defenders have not spent upon it the resources which are needful to defend the citadel. It still appears to be true, that if sometime since when the Confederacy, had three armies unbroken—when no hostile army had penetrated their interior—when their organisation was as yet intact, its Government had retired from Richmond, the war would not have ceased on the evacuation. The task of pursuing three armies retiring in a vast and friendly country by converging lines would certainly have been difficult, and might not have been successful. Loose bodies of insurgents, if such there were, would then have had large armies upon which to support their accessory operations. But now the Confederacy have no such armies. What Lee may have saved, what Johnston may still command, we do not know; but we may say without fear that they are incalculably less than the armies of the Confederacy a year ago, that they cannot maintain as compact bodies even a defensive and retiring conflict with the eager armies of the North.

But without organised armies, can the Confederates be defended by loose insurgents and guerilla warfare, acting alone and without support? We believe that history affords no countenance to such an idea. A guerilla warfare requires the aid either of disciplined forces or of inaccessible territory. The history of the Spanish war shows conclusively that the guerilla resistance of the nation would have been useless without the regular resistance of the English army under the Duke of Wellington; the Spaniards enabled him to effect more with fewer troops, but they did little themselves. A territory like Arabia, a mountain chain like the Caucasus, can be defended by a few bodies of men with little discipline as well as by many more with discipline. Nature does so much that any sort of human force is sufficient to complete it. But the territory of the Confederacy though vast is penetrable: it is not a fortress, it is only a battlefield : it is a country in which a martial population, aided by effective armies, may well resist an invading enemy; but it is also a country from which even the most martial population may be brushed off with ease by diffused and disciplined forces.

Even under the most favourable circumstances a guerilla warfare by a nation of slaveowners must have unusual difficulties. The slaves cannot be relied on as a native peasantry can be relied on. It is said that Sherman on his march through Georgia always had good information regularly brought by negroes. We do not vouch for this as a fact, but it illustrates our meaning as an example. It is impossible that the existence of a slave class, which is not a part of the nation, which requires to be kept down by the nation, should not always be an impediment to the rising of the nation; and especially so in this case, when the invading army proclaims liberty to those slaves. We cannot expect a protracted guerilla resistance from a nation which has neither an inaccessible territory, nor a regular army, nor an attached peasant population.

But if the Confederacy cannot long defend itself, if the civil war must soon come to an end, what will be its effect on us? The war itself disturbed as much in its origin and much by its continuance, will it also disturb us much by its cessation?

It is undeniable that the fall of Richmond, such as we have ascertained it to be, would have been of disastrous consequences to several branches of English commerce if it had happened six months ago. When cotton and its substitutes were weakly held at extravagant prices, the sudden occurrence of so great a catastrophe must have caused of itself many failures. So many slow and steady agencies all tending to produce a fall of price were then operating, that the addition of a single one of a striking nature might have produced lamentable results. A great panic in one class of articles would in a sensitive stale of the commercial world have produced a semi-panic in other articles. But now the case is different. Prices have greatly fallen. Whether they may have reached their lowest point exactly may lie argued, but they have fallen so low that no great further drop is possible or likely. Many weak holders have been cleared away, and the nominal price in consequence is firmer and more real than the nominal price of six months since. The peculiar circumstances affecting cotton, we explained in an elaborate article last week. We showed that even on the assumption that "the civil war in America must be near its close," there was no ground for thinking that cotton would experience a further fall, but rather a probability that the present fall had been too great and too sudden to be permanent. In fact, as so often happens, the effect of the defeat of the South has been discounted; the result of the expectation has been as great, if not greater, than the result of the event.

There is another circumstance of great importance. The world is getting "short of clothes," and especially of good clothes. When the war broke out great stores of cotton goods were found to be lying in warehouses at Manchester and elsewhere, and many persons were eager to raise the common cry of over-production: they fancied there was something anomalous and out of place in so vast an accumulation. But Mr Cobden, with that real perception of the facts of commerce which characterised his mind, immediately said, "No, there is no unnecessary accumulation, except in one or two particular markets, as India and China, and in other exceptional cases; we have not more goods on hand than we ought to have." In reality, a very considerable accumulation of stored manufactures is an attendant condition, an inevitable consequence, of the present vast and delicate division of labour. When everybody is working for everybody, everybody is injured by the mischances of everybody. An English middle class consumer is fed and clothed by an immense multiplicity of labourers; their numbers are considerable, and they are of several kinds. If any one important species of these labourers is impeded, we risk the loss of some article of prime necessity. But we insure against it. We keep a stock of each durable article so considerable that we have much to last for a long time, even if the means of producing it have by some casualty suddenly stopped. Some people say the world ought always to have "two years' stock" of clothes on hand, and now we bare nothing like it.,_Richmond_and_Petersburg_Railroad_Bridge,_across_the_James,_Ruins_of._-_NARA_-_533361.jpg

The effect of this will be very remarkable. When the American war broke out we had two years' stock on hand, and we lived on that till other sources of supply were opened and made effectual. The existence of that supply insured us then; its non-existence will insure us now. As we return to a usual and normal state of things, we shall tend to recur to our regular and habitual accumulation. We have not only now to clothe the world—we have to clothe it and something more. We have to make up our stock; to again create the guarantee fund, which shall insure us against any new calamities—against some deprivation of supply as sudden and as unlikely as an American civil war would have seemed five years ago. At that time any one who had prophesied the actual history of those five years would have been deemed a lunatic: our stored resources saved us then, and we must store them up again now to use them in like manner.

And this additional demand will gradually carry off an additional supply—especially if, as is likely, the clothes made with cheap material be better than the clothes made with dear material. There will be a capital demand for cotton and other goods, if once it is understood that the end is attained, that the bottom is reached, that the trader nearest the consumer—the small shopkeeper—had better supply himself at once. The small shops of the world are now only half supplied; if they once take to supplying themselves, the demand will be great.

As far, therefore, as the producing power of America is concerned, we do not think its revival, even if it should occur very rapidly, would derange our market, or affect us except beneficially. Nor, as far as its consuming power is concerned, can we cannot expect much from the conclusion of the war. Some sanguine persons fancy that we shall at once have a vast trade with the United States the moment they are reunited—the moment the war stops. But there is no ground for so thinking either as respects the South or the North. Some additional trade with both, of course, there will be, but not enough to affect Lombard street—to alter the demand for the capital of England. First, as to the North, its tariff cripples to an incredible extent all commerce with it. It has been spending largely and recklessly. It has been borrowing largely and recklessly. It has been misusing its currency. The repentance after these errors will be a time of strait and difficulty, and though under good management its splendid national resources are quite sufficient to cope with this difficulty, yet the difficulty is real and considerable. The additional immediate trade which we shall have with the North will not be of the first magnitude—will not affect the money market.

Nor will the trade with the South. The South is disorganised, and must long be disorganised. What the fate of its peculiar civilisation may be we cannot yet say, for there are no data, and any conclusion is only "one guess among many," one notion a little better perhaps than others, but without any solid ground of evidence. But so much is evident that great changes are in store for the South,—that it must pass through a social revolution,—that during the revolution it will not buy as it used to buy,—that after the revolution tastes will have changed, and it will not buy what it used to buy.

On the whole, therefore, the conclusion is, that though the catastrophe of the American war seems likely to happen more suddenly and more strikingly than could have been expected, yet its principal effect will have been already anticipated, and it will have less influence on prices and transactions than many events of less considerable magnitude. (source: The UK Economist)

River of Dark Dreams: The Mississippi Valley Cotton Kingdom

From the Wall Street Journal Bookshelf,  "When the South Was Flat: The brutal "slave-ocracy" along the Mississippi was far more integrated with the global economy than is often suggested," by Mark M. Smith, on 22 February 2013  -- Observers today speak breathlessly about the global economy and the flatness of the world's financial system as if those were recent trends. Such observations are at least a couple of centuries too late.

In the decades leading up to the American Civil War, the Mississippi Valley grew increasingly flat, physically as well as financially. Slaves there cut down a lot of trees. "Whole forests were literally dragged out by the roots," recalled one bondman. In the process of this radical deforestation, slaveholders literally flattened their world and, in a practical sense, accelerated a process of cotton production and capital accumulation that thoroughly embedded them in the transatlantic economy. The arduous work that slaves performed on the region's plantations, the cotton they grew and the capital they helped planters generate were intimately connected to the cotton traders (called "factors") in New Orleans, the merchant houses of New York and Liverpool, and the textile mills of Britain. As the planters surveyed their world from the banks of the mighty Mississippi, they understood fully their place in this Atlantic arc and began to dream of new connections, especially with Cuba and Nicaragua, links they hoped would secure the future of their slaveholding society.,204,203,200_.jpg 
River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom; By Walter Johnson

It was not supposed to happen this way. The Louisiana Purchase, all 828,000 square miles of it acquired in 1803 for a piddling $15 million, was supposed to protect and project liberty. Thomas Jefferson envisioned an empire populated with self-sufficient, non-commercial white men. In their stead, as Walter Johnson, a professor of history at Harvard University, shows in "River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom," came an exceptionally rapacious slaveocracy, which dominated the region's political economy and subordinated freedom to the irresistible imperatives of a robust, thriving and relentlessly exploitative system.

The Mississippi Valley (which runs through parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri) emerged, Mr. Johnson writes, as the "credit-importing, cotton-exporting leading edge of the global economy of the nineteenth century." A rabidly speculative spirit drove the process, and the flush times of the 1830s gave rise to booms in the region's powerful economic triptych: cotton, land and slaves. Into this maelstrom of unabashed acquisitiveness stepped the speculators: the land grabbers, the merchants, the slave traders. Riverboat operators also figured prominently, with steamboats able to move considerable freight upriver, melting away barriers of time and space. By the eve of the Civil War, steamboats carried over $200 million of trade, mainly in cotton, and were a leading sector in the region's economy.

In Mr. Johnson's telling, the antebellum Mississippi Valley is an unexpectedly modern place, more technologically advanced than the mills of Massachusetts or Manchester and certainly just as connected to and driven by the dictates of the world economy. The technology powering steamboats, for example, was new, designed to overcome the river's mighty flow, pushing goods and people upstream at an impressive if not always safe speed. The textile mills of the North and Britain, by contrast, still relied on an ancient, riparian technology, one hostage to the force of gravity. As Mr. Johnson notes: "A mere handful of the steamboats docked along the levee in New Orleans on any given day could have run the entire factory at Lowell."

A great deal of the capital underwriting this technology came directly from the North and Britain. New Orleans bankers managed the circulation of Northern and British capital in the region. With that capital, planters bought slaves, the human capital to cultivate cotton. The slave traders—there were as many as 20 establishments in New Orleans in the antebellum period whose sole business was the buying and selling of bondpeople—thus completed the dismal if highly profitable circuit in capital and labor.

The forces underwriting the region's feverish economic development were also making it a place where uncertainty prevailed. Numerous slaves in the Mississippi Valley were engaged in fomenting insurrection—hundreds of them, armed with axes and shovels, marched on New Orleans in 1811—or resisting the exploitation of their labor by running away or by taking from their masters the food and drink usually denied them. Paper currency could not always be trusted (it was frequently unbacked, and bills of exchange were often far removed from the original issuer). Steamboat travel was highly dangerous, and on land or river, no one was entirely sure of the true character or, indeed, the race of those they encountered in this booming region (was that a light-skinned slave or a free white man?). There was an imprecise, speculative air. But things got done, impressively if sordidly. By 1840, Mr. Johnson writes, there were "more millionaires per capita in the Mississippi Valley than anywhere else in the United States."
Mr. Johnson's appreciation of the global and imperial aspirations of Mississippi Valley slaveholders helps us to make sense of the events leading up to the Civil War. These "full-throttle capitalists" were filled with expansionist zeal. Valley planters and politicians made dedicated efforts to overthrow Cuba's Spanish colonial government in the 1850s. They feared what might happen if the anti-slavery British gained control of Cuba. Emancipation there might inspire slave insurrections and even race wars in their own part of the world. More optimistically, they thought Cuba could be the key to further economic success, valley-style. "It is sufficient to look over the extensive valley of the Mississippi," wrote one supporter of annexation, "to understand that the natural direction of its growth, the point of connection of its prodigious European commerce and of its rational defense, is Cuba." So, too, with Nicaragua. If Cuba functioned as the imperial slaveholders' transatlantic connection, Nicaragua, at least in the conviction of William Walker (who invaded the country in 1855, proclaimed himself president and promptly reinstituted slavery), represented the slaveholders' ambitions to link to the Pacific. (Walker was overthrown by local troops and shot in Honduras in 1860 after another attempt to establish a colony.)

Louisiana and Mississippi slaveholders were keen to reopen the African slave trade in the late 1850s, which, the thinking went, would allow more whites to own slaves and dilute the tensions from an emerging class of slaveless whites. (As slave prices spiked in the late antebellum period, fewer whites were able to move into the ranks of the small slaveholding class.) For the slaveholders and merchants of New Orleans and the Mississippi Valley, "the issues of Nicaragua and the Atlantic slave trade were more important than the question of Kansas (dismissed by many as a fight over a place where no real slaveholder would ever want to live anyway) and more important than what was happening in Congress."
The valley slaveholders do not fit the standard narrative of the coming of the Civil War, which tends to stress the centrality of expansion into western lands. Their sense of liberty was rooted less in expansion westward to places that seemed unlikely to support cotton culture and far more in efforts to repopulate the South with fresh slaves and to acquire territory outside of the United States where slavery would be more secure.

In this depiction, the coming of the Civil War assumes more of a regional flavor and less of a sectional one. Different imperatives operated in different regions of the South. Exporters of slaves in the upper South (roughly a million people were sold "down river" between 1820 and 1860) were reluctant to reopen the slave trade. Their overriding concern was maintaining their role as the South's exporter of slaves and, by extension, their own economic well-being. "Open the Slave Trade and what will our Negroes be worth?" asked one Virginia editor nervously.

Yet it is important to remember that Mr. Johnson is describing what did not happen rather than what did—what he calls "the history of alternative visions." The slave trade was not reopened, and expeditions in the Caribbean were largely bungled affairs involving relatively few people—more than half of whom, in the case of Walker's Nicaraguan adventure, were not from the valley or the South at all but were, rather, Northern adventurers. The fact that this particular vision of a pro-slavery future never came to pass only emphasizes that these same slaveholders did eventually secede and fight in a war, even if it was for what Mr. Johnson calls "a sort of lowest common dominator," a "politics of negation—of seceding from."

And more than the politics of negation may have linked the Mississippi Valley slaveholders with others elsewhere in the South. Pro-slavery political economists (whom Mr. Johnson examines in detail) were harsh critics of free wage labor and liberal capitalism, but so were the influential pro-slavery divines and theologians (whom Mr. Johnson slights). They saw liberal capitalism as a profound threat to the social hierarchy, which was rooted in self-serving claims about paternalism, the enduring value and desirability of organic social and economic relations, and the intimate connection between slaveholding society writ large and the integrity of individual, patriarchal white households. The arguments developed and circulated by the pro-slavery theologians resonated with slaveholders and non-slaveholders throughout the South.

Recognizing such features of Southern society, as well as acknowledging the tortured way in which paternalism braided together the lives of the enslaved and the enslavers, goes some way toward "unflattening" the world Mr. Johnson describes. Nonetheless, "River of Dark Dreams" is an important, arguably seminal, book. If sometimes dense, it is always trenchant and learned. And in highly compelling fashion, it helps us more fully appreciate how thoroughly the slaveholding South was part of the capitalist transatlantic world of the first half of the 19th century.  [source: The Wall Street Journal]

Between Slavery and Capitalism
Between Slavery and Capitalism: The Legacy of Emancipation in the American South; Martin Ruef

Princeton University Press  --  At the center of the upheavals brought by emancipation in the American South was the economic and social transition from slavery to modern capitalism. In Between Slavery and Capitalism, Martin Ruef examines how this institutional change affected individuals, organizations, and communities in the late nineteenth century, as blacks and whites alike learned to navigate the shoals between two different economic worlds. Analyzing trajectories among average Southerners, this is perhaps the most extensive sociological treatment of the transition from slavery since W.E.B. Du Bois's Black Reconstruction in America.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, uncertainty was a pervasive feature of life in the South, affecting the economic behavior and social status of former slaves, Freedmen's Bureau agents, planters, merchants, and politicians, among others. Emancipation brought fundamental questions: How should emancipated slaves be reimbursed in wage contracts? What occupations and class positions would be open to blacks and whites? What forms of agricultural tenure could persist? And what paths to economic growth would be viable? To understand the escalating uncertainty of the postbellum era, Ruef draws on a wide range of qualitative and quantitative data, including several thousand interviews with former slaves, letters, labor contracts, memoirs, survey responses, census records, and credit reports.

Through a resolutely comparative approach, Between Slavery and Capitalism identifies profound changes between the economic institutions of the Old and New South and sheds new light on how the legacy of emancipation continues to affect political discourse and race and class relations today.  (source: Princeton University Press)

Friday, April 17, 2015

New Orleans Slavery Exhibit At The Williams Research Center

As reported in the Insurance Journal, in an article entitled, "Insurance Policy Included in Harrowing New Orleans Slavery Exhibit," by John Pope, on 15 April 2015 -- The cool, soothing exhibit rooms at the Historic New Orleans Collection’s Williams Research Center are a stark contrast to what’s shown: every wall and exhibit case documents the horrors of slavery.

There are inventories and illustrations of the auction of human beings, as well as reward notices for the return of slaves who escaped from plantations. An 1821 insurance policy taken out by William Kenner, the plantation owner whose family gave its name to the East Jefferson municipality, covered a shipment of slaves for the voyage from Savannah, Georgia, to New Orleans.

An 1849 map shows more than 50 slave markets all around the city. An engraving depicts a slave auction in the rotunda of the St. Louis Hotel, which occupied the French Quarter site where the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel stands.

“Under this dome, in this atmosphere of grandeur, paintings, furniture, property and people were bought and sold,” said Erin Greenwald, the curator of “Purchased Lives: New Orleans and the Domestic Slave Trade,” on view at 410 Chartres St. through July 18. Admission is free.

“Slave auctions were on the list of must-see sights,” she said.

Because the St. Louis Hotel wasn’t demolished until 1916, the auction block not only stood for a half-century after emancipation but attracted people who posed next to it in what Greenwald described as “fetishization.”

The people who posed weren’t just tourists. Greenwald said a recently acquired postcard from 1914, destined for the exhibit once it was catalogued, shows a black woman who had been asked to stand on the block where she had been sold into slavery for $1,500.

“It is deeply, deeply creepy,” Greenwald said.

A ship’s manifest showing slaves bound for New Orleans includes Plat Hamilton, the slave name imposed on Solomon Northup after he was kidnapped and sold into bondage. His memoir, “12 Years a Slave,” was the basis of an Oscar-winning movie.

The exhibit also shows a page from the diary of the Marksville lawyer whom Northup’s family hired to sue for his freedom. On Jan. 4, 1853, three days after John Pamplin Waddill wrote that he had been hired, he said that Northup had been freed and that he had collected his fee: $50.

“That’s an extraordinary document,” Greenwald said.

When Northup arrived in New Orleans, he had smallpox, Greenwald said, and was treated at Charity Hospital.
Treating slaves before they were sold was common, she said, adding that a Touro Infirmary patient register in the exhibit shows that about 45 percent of the hospital’s patients between 1855 and 1860 were slaves.

“They were trying to get their human property well so that they could sell them for a higher price,” Greenwald said. “They got a new set of clothes, they were fattened up, and they were made to exercise to build and tone muscles. They were given lessons on how to look lively so they didn’t look downcast or somber when buyers came in.”

In the exhibit are a livery coat for a slave who worked indoors, and a greatcoat, designed for outdoor work such as driving carriages, that Dr. William Newton Mercer provided for his slaves. The garments, with his family crest on silver and pewter buttons, came from Brooks Brothers.

Mercer had plantations in Mississippi and a New Orleans town house, which, Greenwald said, is now the Boston Club.

“If you were a resident of the city of New Orleans in the 1840s, you couldn’t go anywhere without encountering slavery,” she said. “It was just a part of life _ the cooks in hotels, the waiters in hotels, carters and draymen bringing goods back and forth, seamstresses and market women. All these people were people who were enslaved.”

There’s more to the exhibit than paperwork, pictures and garments. One case holds an iron collar, just big enough to encircle someone’s neck, with two tall prongs, each hanging a bell at ear level.

The 4-pound collar would be clamped onto a slave who had tried to escape. It’s “possibly the most viscerally disturbing object in the exhibition,” Greenwald said.

“It was worn 24/7,” she said. “Overseers and plantation owners would use them as a method of punishing and tracking runaway slaves because every time you move, the bell rings.”

Next to the collar is a classified advertisement asking the owners of a 20-year-old slave named William to take him home from the jail where he had been confined as an escapee.

“He is black and has a down look,” the advertisement reads. “When committed, he had around his neck an iron collar with three prongs extending upward; has many scars on his back and shoulders from the whip.”

While slavery was horrible, emancipation didn’t help much, aside from the fact that these men, women and children were no longer property, Greenwald said.

They had nothing, she said, and often had to work as tenant farmers on the land where they had been enslaved. A stereopticon slide in the exhibit shows people wearing rags and, with a few exceptions, barefoot.

Although the Freedmen’s Bureau was established in 1865 to help the formerly enslaved adjust to their new status, it provided no money to people who wanted to reconnect with families that had been torn apart by sales to different slave-owners.

Consequently, they resorted to placing classified advertisements seeking information. A wall is full of these heartbreaking appeals.

Jacob Stewart, who lived in Yazoo City, Miss., placed such an ad trying to find his mother, sister and brother. He hadn’t seen them since 1856, when he was sold in New Orleans.

There is no way to tell how many of these appeals were successful, Greenwald said, but she didn’t offer much hope.

“Some people found their families,” she said, “but the vast majority did not.” (source: Insurance Journal; Copyright 2015 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Monday, March 16, 2015

Freedom Summer in Mississippi 1964
As reviewed in the New York Times, "A Few Hot Months of Solidarity and Violence: ‘Freedom Summer’ on PBS Looks Back at 1964," by Mike Hale, on 23 June 2014  -- The PBS documentary “Freedom Summer” won’t make many lists of the top television programs of the year, but it’s hard to imagine two hours better spent in front of a screen.

It continues the filmmaker Stanley Nelson’s commemoration of crucial moments in the civil rights movement under the auspices of “American Experience,” which gives it its premiere Tuesday [June 2014]. Following his “Freedom Riders” in 2011, Mr. Nelson celebrates the 50th anniversary of what was known as the Mississippi Summer Project, another instance in which blacks and whites came together to battle racism.

Mr. Nelson works in the talking-heads-and-archival-film style of Ken Burns, but he uses the similar techniques to make films that are more alive, more propulsive, combining Mr. Burns’s Olympian authority with an insistent rhythm and a clear current of emotion. Staying within standard feature-film time limits, he tells big stories with coherent, seamless elegance.

Such is the case with “Freedom Summer,” a compressed, complex history of the campaign for voter registration and education in Mississippi led by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The film lays out the unbelievable realities of black life in the state and the slow progress of SNCC toward the decision to bus in around 1,000 volunteers, many of them white college students, to generate attention and force a change.

It’s an awe-inspiring story, but Mr. Nelson keeps his focus close up on the details of organization and crisis management, and he is resolutely cleareyed, dispelling any notions about romantic young firebrands boarding buses for adventure. Organizers speak of the care with which the student volunteers were chosen, and the many who were rejected; for the safety of everyone involved, the project needed people “as together as it was possible to be at 19.”

But there is romance and tremendous poignancy in the story, and Mr. Nelson evokes it quietly. Unlabeled cuts juxtapose black-and-white images of the young activists and residents and scenes of them now, talking about the greatest moment in their lives. Rita Schwerner, the widow of one of the three men murdered in the summer’s most notorious incident of violence, speaks calmly about her husband’s death.

And the film quotes from a letter that Andrew Goodman, another of the victims, wrote to his parents, reassuring them upon his arrival in Mississippi, not far from where he would die: “I have arrived safely in Meridian, Miss. This is a wonderful town, and the weather is fine.”  (source: The New York Times)

PBS American Experience: Freedom Summer

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Slave in the Dismal Swamp
The Slave in the Dismal Swamp
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In dark fens of the Dismal Swamp
The hunted Negro lay;
He saw the fire of the midnight camp,
And heard at times a horse's tramp
And a bloodhound's distant bay.

Where will-o'-the-wisps and glow-worms shine,
In bulrush and in brake;
Where waving mosses shroud the pine,
And the cedar grows, and the poisonous vine
Is spotted like the snake;

Where hardly a human foot could pass,
Or a human heart would dare,
On the quaking turf of the green morass
He crouched in the rank and tangled grass,
Like a wild beast in his lair.

A poor old slave, infirm and lame;
Great scars deformed his face;
On his forehead he bore the brand of shame,
And the rags, that hid his mangled frame,
Were the livery of disgrace.

All things above were bright and fair,
All things were glad and free;
Lithe squirrels darted here and there,
And wild birds filled the echoing air
With songs of Liberty!

On him alone was the doom of pain,
From the morning of his birth;
On him alone the curse of Cain
Fell, like a flail on the garnered grain,
And struck him to the earth!

[Source: Longfellow, H.W. (1866) The Complete Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Boston, Massachusetts: Ticknor & Fields]

Friday, February 27, 2015

Unholy: The Slaves Bible by David Charles Mills,204,203,200_.jpg
Unholy: The Slaves Bible by David Charles Mills

Watch David Charles Mills, author of "Unholy: The Slaves Bible," read excerpts from his book 14 October 2009 at the Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center at Vanderbilt University.

Mills book explores a relatively unknown work a more than 200-year-old Bible planned, prepared and published in London for the purpose of convincing slaves in the British West Indies that their status was ordained by God.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

An Account of Post Civil War Reconstruction

A Book review from the Providence Journal, “'The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era,' by Douglas R. Egerton," reviewed by Erik J. Chaput, 6 April 2014  --  In early October 1864, a convention of more than 140 African-Americans from 18 states met in Syracuse, N.Y., to discuss the future of American freedom. The convention was chaired by Frederick Douglass.

With the reelection of Abraham Lincoln secure, thanks in large part to the fall of Atlanta, the delegates turned to what postwar America would look like. They demanded the “complete abolition” of slavery and “political equality.” Shall “we toil with you to win the prize of free government, while you alone shall monopolize all its valued privileges?” asked the delegates of the war-torn country. In his magisterial new book, Douglas R. Egerton chronicles the Syracuse meeting, along with others that were organized throughout the South after the Civil War, in order “to establish a network of activism designed” to bring a reform agenda to the attention of Congress and a recalcitrant president.,204,203,200_.jpg

Egerton, the author of the definitive account of the election of 1860, “Year of Meteors,” has written the most important book on Reconstruction since the publication of Eric Foner’s 1988 classic, “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877.”

“The Wars of Reconstructions” tells the story of “black veterans, activists, ministers, assemblymen, registrars, poll workers, editors, and handful of dedicated white allies” who set out to make the decades after the Civil War the “most democratic” in the 19th century. They ultimately lost their fight due to the violence of white Southerners who were determined to restore the old order. Students of Rhode Island history will enjoy the treatment of Newport restaurateur George T. Downing, who helped to found the Colored National Labor Union.

Egerton provides a concise overview of the Freedmen’s Bureau, along with the American Missionary Association. The Freedmen’s Bureau was tapped with numerous tasks, including education and land distribution. Prior to 1865, no Southern state had a system of public education. As the editor of the “Anglo-African” newspaper wrote as early as November 1861, land owned by Southern slaveholders should be “immediately bestow[ed]” upon the “freedmen.”

The freedmen, however, did not find an ally in President Andrew Johnson, who took office after Lincoln was assassinated and serves as the villain in Egerton’s narrative. Johnson’s racist policies allowed white supremacists to commit “arson and murder,” along with targeted “assassinations” of reformers such as Octavius Catto.

Though often a tragic story, Egerton convincingly argues that Reconstruction was a progressive period, with many policies, even if they resembled a flickering flame, surviving on. As Egerton notes, “black literacy increased four hundred percent in the thirty-five years after Appomattox.” Black churches continued to grow. The black conventions continued to meet in the 1870s and ’80s. Pushed by the efforts of Congressman James O’Hara, a black Republican from North Carolina, African-Americans filed lawsuits against railroads that denied them access and sometimes won.

Clearly written, engaging, meticulously researched, and often moving, Egerton’s “The Wars of Reconstruction,” is simply a must-read for anyone looking to understand what is without a doubt the most misunderstood period in our nation’s history.

Erik J. Chaput teaches at Providence College and The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey. He is the author of “The People’s Martyr: Thomas Wilson Dorr and His 1842 Rhode Island Rebellion.”  (source: Providence Journal) 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Professor William Pettigrew: How to Place Slavery into British Identity

From Gresham College on 14 May 2014, "How to Place Slavery into British Identity," by Professor William Pettigrew, University of Kent -- In September 2013, at the G20 summit in St Petersburg, a rumour emerged of a Russian jibe about Britain. A Russian official was reported as dismissing Britain as a ‘small island that no one pays any attention to’. Thinking it a suitable response, David Cameron offered a menu of Britain’s historic achievements to bolster British national pride. Britain, so Cameron informed the audience of world leaders and diplomats, had invented sport, rid Europe of fascism, and abolished slavery and ought, therefore, to be taken more seriously as a nation. This certainly gathered some attention, but perhaps not in the way it was designed to.

British Prime Ministers of recent years have turned with remarkable consistency to the abolition of slavery as a prop for Britain’s self-defined greatness. Cameron’s predecessor, Gordon Brown, also privileged the abolition of slavery in a speech as Chancellor of the Exchequer at the Labour party conference in 2005. Rather than being a source of national distinctiveness as it was for Cameron, Brown used the abolition as an example of how great nations overcome internal challenges. For Brown, the abolition of slavery was proof that good could conquer evil, and that the British people and the state could overcome the Tory pessimists, who Brown called ‘reactionaries’, to build a brighter future.

It is hard to know where to start when pointing out the limitations of these observations. Let me start with four. First, the Russians, Britain is actually quite a big island as islands go and comes in at a respectable ninth in the world’s league table of islands listed by size. Second, the Russians are certainly the wrong nation to compete with when trying to monopolise responsibility for ridding Europe of fascism. Third, Britain cannot claim to be the pioneering and distinctive abolitionist nation – that honour belongs to Denmark. Fourth, much of the leadership of Britain’s abolitionist movement associated itself with the Tory party – a fact that Brown’s call to action against Tory reactionaries ignores.

More important for present purposes, in neither Brown’s nor Cameron’s account of Britain’s relationship to slavery do we hear anything about Britain’s perfecting of slave trading and slavery prior to the abolition. Nor do we hear anything of the distinctive role slavery played in generating political and economic capital in Britain. The English (then the British) were late starters in the slave trade, but became its supreme contributors during the trade’s eighteenth century zenith, transporting more slaves during that century – almost three million – than all of the rest of the European competition prior to abolition. Slavery plays a more important part than abolition in forging British distinctiveness. Indeed, slavery and Britishness enjoy an intimate and mutually formative relationship in the British national story that belies contemporary fixation with abolition. Isolating abolition from slavery in the context of national chest beating is therefore profoundly problematic.

Binding the abolition to British identity was a tactical aim of the abolitionists themselves. It helped gather a national constituency for their cause. But it involved the collective forgetting of the importance of Britishness and Britain to the development of slavery. The abolitionists’ distortion of history confirms that in the eighteenth and nineteenth as much as in the twenty-first centuries, politics has been the greatest enemy of balanced story telling about the past. Skilful politicians and master propagandists, the abolitionist set about writing a history of the political movement to end the slave trade almost as soon as the ink was dry on the royal assent to the statute to end the trade. Chief among these was Thomas Clarkson. Clarkson was a leading light of the abolition struggle and its most committed and energetic organiser. In 1808 Clarkson published: the History of the rise, progress, and accomplishment of the abolition of the African slave-trade by the British parliament. This history argued that the abolition was the achievement of a herculean political struggle and a disinterested, compassionate Christian morality. Such a narrative needed to depict slavery itself as a formidable foe. But slavery also needed to be amorphous, ubiquitous, anonymous, and primordial and its rise needed to be obscured from the story to protect the abolitionists’ aims as nation builders.

The abolitionists history of their own movement depicted the campaign in such a way therefore, as to redeem and re-invigorate Britain’s political system, its political institutions, and its empire as part of an upsurge of morally restorative evangelical fervor within British Christianity. It proved that Britain’s politics and religion could rise above greed and avarice to lead the world in a bold crusade against inhumanity. These accounts left out the central ways in which the development of slavery expressed distinctive features of Britishness. They skipped over the political aspects of the development of slavery and its relationship to the development of Britain. We have no political account of the development of the transatlantic slave trade or of slavery. Unlike the story of abolition, there is no corresponding “intentionalist” account describing the protagonists, analyzing the ideas, the disputes, the compromises—in short, the politics—that established Britain’s involvement in and later dominance of the transatlantic slave trade. Nor do we have an account of the ways in which British identity emerged cheek-by-jowl with slavery.

I offer you that account today. I do so not to downplay the admirable achievements of the abolitionists, but to qualify and challenge some of the ways in which abolition has been used as the purest expression of British identity. I also hope to show how slavery – broadly conceived – has a central explanatory role to play in the formulation of British identity throughout the centuries. This explains why slavery and freedom have been such important polarities for the British experience. Both slavery and the British have been mutually constitutive in a number of ignored or misunderstood ways. You need only listen to James Thomson’s Rule Britannia to appreciate how a national concern with being enslaved helped bind the British people together at precisely the same time (the early eighteenth century) as they were shipping more enslaved Africans across the Atlantic than any of their European rivals. For Thomson and for many others in this period – slavery provided a capacious metaphor to dramatize the contingency of national freedom. This freedom was not the fig leaf to obscure the embarrassing brutality of the nation’s involvement in slave trading on an unprecedented scale. It was - in multiple ways - the explanation for that scale and the cause of that brutality.

In telling this story, I hope to suggest that making the abolition of slavery the foundation stone of multi-cultural, multi-racial British identity, is therefore untenable bearing in mind how central slavery has been to the development of British identity, the British economy, British industry, and British politics. You might say that perfecting the slave trade makes Britain’s abolition all the more remarkable and laudable and a worthy platform for national pride. That view might be arguable if two things are true: first, if the hallmarks of British identity were not connected to the perfection of the trade and second: if the injustices of historic and modern slavery were not apparent in Britain at the present time. These criteria are not satisfied. For British freedom created the slave trade, as we shall see, and Britain is a multiracial society in which pockets of racial discrimination remain and in which human trafficking is rearing its ugly head again.
Sure enough, neither the coffee break at the G20 summit nor the labour party conference, are the best places to do justice to all the intricacies of Britain’s long and complex relationship with slavery. And detailed accounts of the horrors of slavery make unlikely resources for triumphal, rousing national narratives. But history (and the history of slavery especially) is too important to the present and future to be a pick and mix from which to select the inspirational at the expense of the very real lessons taught by history’s more depressing moments. If politicians are going to base national appeals on historic examples, they must do so in such a way that is sensitive to the contemporary ramifications of those histories.

Slavery is in one sense an historic problem. But it has an inherent connection with one of the main tasks which politicians expect history to perform – the formation of group (and especially national) identity. Slavery has occurred in most historical periods and all societies up to abolition and is sadly escalating around the world at the present time. You find slavery where and when three criteria are satisfied: first, where you find the prospect of material gain deriving from not paying people for their labour; second, where labour supplies are short, and third where there exists a population who are deemed to be culturally suitable for enslavement. The first of these two criteria can be satisfied in pretty much any time and place: people have always been motivated by material gain and the human population of the earth is not evenly scattered across its surface. The last of these criteria: cultural eligibility - is more historically contingent and has often been bound up with the determinants of national identity. The history of slavery is therefore conceptually similar to the history of identity formation. In the special case of Britain, cultural eligibility for slavery and national freedom are inextricably linked

Why is Britain a special case? To answer this we need to look into the distant British past. Slavery and freedom are elastic opposites that run very deep in the British experience. This depth helps to explain their continued political resonance and utility as props for British identity. Their vitality in British history has, I think, much to do with the frequency of conquest early in British history and the frequency of conquering others later in our history. Some of the earliest descriptions of the British people depict them as defined by their enslavement (real and cultural) to the Roman Empire. For the Roman historian Tacitus, the British expressed their distinctiveness in their willingness to ape the cultural practices of their conquerors. In the process of submission to a larger, international, and imperial identity, the British people were born. As Tacitus saw it:

‘the Britons went astray into alluring vices: to the promenade, the bath, the well-appointed dinner table. The simple natives gave the name of 'culture' to this factor of their slavery.’

By the eleventh century, however, long after the decline of the Roman Empire, slavery within Europe had declined as an internal social structure and became the definition of what could only be done to religious outsiders. As such, freedom became associated with being Christian and, increasingly, with being European. Pope Gregory the VII set the scene for Urban II’s abolition of slavery within Christendom in the eleventh century. As such Europeans looked to the Eastern fringes of Europe – to the Slavic territories for new resources of slaves, - hence the word slave. And Europeans would often experience capture and sale into slavery by Barbary Muslim pirates or corsairs until the era of abolition. Being Christian and being European meant being free from slavery.

By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, historians depicted the Anglo-Saxon and then Norman conquests of Britain as enslavements of a native, free, Britain. The hope of emancipation through the legend of King Arthur was a device developed by Geoffrey of Monmouth and then co-opted by Gerald of Wales to resist the Norman encroachment upon Celtic peoples. The voice of the enslaved - and therefore instinctively free - British came from the Celtic peoples rather than from Saxon or Norman outsiders.

The switch from being a conquered enslaved people to becoming a conquering and free people presented an obvious challenge to slavery as a national metaphor. The conscious rebranding of the Norman rulers into a vernacular English in the thirteenth century came with attempts to blend the political traditions of the Norman and Anglo-Saxons. This involved revivifying (and inventing) pre-Norman and therefore ‘free’ political traditions and devices including the Common Law and establish new ones – like Magna Carta and Parliament - that expressed the free political traditions of the Anglo Saxons. Freedom began to have a constitutional definition. These processes occurred alongside the English conquest of Wales. The English constitution was tested and defined in the process of being exported to the peripheries of Britain. British freedom was therefore transmuted into English freedom as the English (who were actually Norman) conquered Britain. In the process of enslaving others, and not for the last time, the English would define themselves as free.

This tradition of the conquering constitutional freedom of a pre-Norman provenance was taken up in the fifteenth century by Sir John Fortescue. Fortescue came to associate a supposedly indigenous legal tradition –the English Common Law – with freedom and saw rival, reified continental legal codes like the Roman or Civil Law as badges of slavery. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, this nationalist rhetoric of slavery echoed through the reformation as Catholicism and European absolutism became joined in the English nation’s assessment of the causes of slavery. To be protestant was to be free and Catholic a slave. These distinctions mapped onto the constitutional and legal exceptionalisms of English freedom to allow John Locke to famously denounce slavery ‘as a vile and miserable state’ with reference to absolutist Catholic modes of government on the continent (at the same time, famously, as investing his own money in the Atlantic slave trade and writing slavery into the constitutions he authored for the English American colonies).

But just as slavery proper (as opposed to avoidance of slavery as a glue for national togetherness) retreated from Europe, it began to entrench in the Americas. The sixteenth and seventeenth century European penetration of the Americas initially intensified this confessional rhetoric of slavery as protestant nations claimed to develop less brutal societies in the Americas than their Catholic antecedents and associated the Spanish empires with the enslavement of indigenous peoples. The English Empire in Ireland and in the Americas would be, famously, empires of protestant liberty. But by the second half of the seventeenth century, the protestant alliance between the Dutch and English had fractured as economic competition in America and Asia intensified. Combined with population shortages in America and an expanding, labour-hungry economy at home, the English began to use enslaved Africans to people the American colonies. The home grown and long-established conception of a distinctively English liberty would now become conducive to enslavement on an unprecedented scale.

There was a problem, though. The English initially relied on a state-sponsored monopolistic corporation – the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa – to develop the nation’s slave trade. Founded in 1660 (and renamed as the Royal African Company in 1672), this organisation helped to marginalise the Dutch and Portuguese in the slave trade. The company would become the largest human trafficking organisation during the period of the trade – shipping almost 150,000 enslaved Africans mostly to Barbados during the 1670s and 80s. From its headquarters on Leadenhall Street in the heart of the City of London, it managed a vast capital stock, a network of international trading posts around the Atlantic world, importing gold – to be minted into Guineas stamped with the profile of Charles II, redwood die for the British army uniforms, and ivory for English cutlery, and shipping large numbers of enslaved Africans to the new world. It did so as a national public utility with the support of the state, royal family, and the Royal Navy. But as a monopoly supported by the Crown and not the people, it appeared to offend aspects of the emerging English national identity I have been talking about: the right to trade, the portability of national birth rights and the indigenous constitutional traditions of old. Earlier in the century, this version of Englishness had targeted and executed Charles I. In the 1680s it began to turn on the company itself. The Royal African Company became the victim of a political campaign that used as its banner a distinctively British conception of freedom. This campaign succeeded in escalating the British slave trade to new greatly enlarged capacities. It did so on behalf of national freedom.

This public campaign, known at the time as the Africa Trade debates lasted from 1689 to 1712. The results of the campaign clarified important features of Britishness but also provided the foundation for British slave trading supremacy. The formation of the British nation state in 1707 became embroiled in it. The Scots decided to join with England because of the failure of their own slave trading company and to enjoy access to England’s greatest public good – its enslaving empire overseas. The Scots therefore railed against a monopolistic organisation of the trade in England alongside many thousands of English men and women. By 1712, the African Company’s monopoly was dead in the water. Britain’s transatlantic slave trade had become supreme in capacity, increasing by three hundred per cent as a result of the deregulation. Its centre of gravity had shifted away from London and towards the provincial outports of Bristol and Liverpool. And the destinations for the slaves had shifted northwards from the Caribbean to mainland America, while embarkation points for the enslaved shifted West and South from the company’s heartlands at Cape Coast in modern day Ghana.

In these political disputes between the African Company and the independent slave traders – who were a motley crew of provincials, colonists, London grandees, and Huguenot social climbers, - an old version of Englishness was buttressed and Britishness itself – emergent alongside these debates – was forged. It is worth examining some of these connexions between the formation of Britishness and the development of slavery in greater depth. What was at stake in the debate? How did slavery depend on Britishness? How did these debates about slavery assist in the formulation of what it meant to be British? Answers to these questions can be discerned through examinations of the ways in which these debates about slavery disputed the following: first, the meaning of the national interest, second, the workings of the English constitution and the common law, and third, the role of parliament. All of these have been celebrated as distinctive features of Britishness at the time and since.

Both sides in the debates disagreed about the best way to manage the slave trade. But they agreed that it represented a national project of critical importance and expressed cherished British values. Both sides sought to satisfy the national interest. But differed on what that meant. For the African Company the national interest was the interest of the British state. For the independent slave traders, it was the interest of the British population at large. As such, the slave trade developed as the result of a national, popular will. And the British erected the slave system as part of a national project to eclipse their European rivals. In this, they succeeded.

The English constitution supported slave trade expansion. In the spring of 1689, during the constitutional shifts of the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’, a leading barrister in the court of King’s Bench, Bartholomew Shower, made a successful argument in favour of slave trade expansion before the famous liberal judge, Sir John Holt. Shower placed great importance upon the right of parliament to regulate the trade and viewed parliamentary approval as expressive of national consent. Shower formulated a common law manifesto for independent slave trading. In so doing he fastened a basic ingredient of national identity to the establishment of the slave trade. Shower explained why the parliamentary management of the trade was preferable to management by the monarchical company: “Each subject’s vote is included in whatsoever is there done: an Act of Parliament hath the consent of many men, both past, present, and to come”, he explained. English common law, as a result, “distinguishes between bondmen, whose estates are at their lord’s will and pleasure, and freemen, whose property none can invade, charge, or take away, but by their own consent.” Free from slavery themselves, so Shower reasoned, the English were protected in their right to develop their property in other human beings.

There it was: the full scale, supreme British slave trade was the result of a national constitutional propensity for freedom. Without their consent, Englishmen could not be deprived of their freedom to prosper from slavery. The future of the slave trade would hinge on the will of the British majority. The right to trade in slaves, then, became equivalent with such sacred British rights as the right to political representation and the right to habeas corpus. A free trade in the enslaved became emblematic of the liberties of the people. Slave trade escalation, despite what abolitionists like Granville Sharp later claimed about the Common Law’s inherent antagonism to slavery, proved instrumental to the huge expansion of slavery.

Such arguments routinely appeared in Parliament, which became the great national institutional support for the expanded slave trade (as it would later be for the abolition and emancipation of slaves). The company’s opponents formed a highly effective lobby that marshaled more petitions, developed a more appealing ideology that celebrated the role of the public’s consent in deregulating the slave trade. They implemented a political strategy that reflected the effects that constitutional change had brought to the mechanics of regulating overseas trade especially Parliament’s monopoly over the state’s regulation of the national economy. These slave trade ‘escalationists’ also made use of the recently freed press by gathering the support of public opinion in their quest for a nationally constituted slave trade. They celebrated the right of the outports throughout Britain to participate in the slave trade to prevent the African Company from engrossing slave trading in London. They looked forward to a time when all social classes could enjoy the benefits of slave trading and not just the privileged plutocrats of the company. Here again, they connected an expanded slave trade to national need and to jingoistic conceptions of national birthrights.
With supreme irony to our eyes, the campaign to liberalize the slave trade became a cause that championed British freedom over slavery. To rally their cause, slave traders celebrated the right to trade as an inherent feature of the national character. One wrote, “Freedoms of trade . . . [are] the fundamental point of English liberty.” More than a third of the parliamentary petitions seeking to deregulate the slave trade referred to the desire to have the trade “freed” or to the inherent right to “freedom” of trade. Independent slave traders depicted trading monopolies – like that of the Royal African Company, as a result, as stains on the national character. Without any appreciation of the irony of the language, one pamphlet asserted that monopolies are “the Badges of a slavish People. . . . If this so beneficial a Trade was but freed from that Nest of Drones, the African Company, and Industry left at liberty farther to improve it, the Nation would quickly be convinced that nothing hitherto but an English Freedom has been wanting to extend the Trade.” Few lobbies examined and used the connections between these various expressions of freedom at the beginning of the eighteenth century more than the slave traders. Fewer still deployed arguments for freedom with such sophistication to achieve an enlargement of unfreedom on this scale.

All this appears replete with perverse irony to us. Only in the remit of national interest could such contradictions be sustained. It took the continued pressures of national jealousy to translate contradiction into hypocrisy and rebuild British identity around a freedom that could be extended to the enslaved Africans themselves for the first time. Half a century after the Africa trade debates, in the 1760s, an independence movement developed among the elite of the British American colonies – many of who were slave owners - including Thomas Jefferson – the author of the Declaration of Independence and George Washington, as well as James Madison – the father of the slavery-sustaining US constitution. These men and others like them characterized what the British Empire did to the Americans as a form of slavery. This inconsistency did not go unnoticed by perspicacious English observers – of whom few were more clear-sighted than Samuel Johnson: “Why is it we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroe slaves’, he famously quipped.

A generation earlier, during the debates about the best way to manage the slave trade, not a single commentator had complained that slave traders cited their freedom to enslave as a point of national interest. But once the colonists sought their own slave-owning nation state, the British began to respond by rebuilding their national image with reference to a purer, more sincere liberty – a freedom that actually meant freedom for all – and then set about using precisely the same nationalist political and constitutional motifs to campaign to end slavery as they had used to establish it. The abolitionist movement owes much to this attempt at national redefinition. In this way, slavery, so the late eighteenth century nationalist mantra went, was something that happened in America and had nothing to do with Britain. This was, of course, a profound lie. Throughout the eighteenth century (and beyond), enslaved Africans had come to generate huge wealth for Britain, had helped to expand the Royal navy, and established capital for that other great bond of the British experience – the industrial revolution. No other subject of the period featured in the British DNA - rhetorically, constitutionally, materially, as much as slavery.

The abolition statutes of the early nineteenth century were profound national achievements. But the ways in which the same determinants of British identity: constitutional, parliamentary, common law, free press, free trade, social mobility, military victory, - all connected to freedom – were deployed in developing the slave system as were enacted to dismantle it makes both freedom and abolitionism inadequate calling cards for the British people. But these events – slavery and its abolition – as well as Britain’s proud history of correcting social injustice – are too important to national integrity to suppress from the national story. Important features of our own time would be gravely obscured by such suppression. Of course, the story of Britain’s involvement in slavery did not end with abolition. The compensation payments to slave owners at the time of emancipation in the early 1830s, which amounted to twenty per cent of the national budget, set new standards of state largesse and also allowed the wealth that so many accrued from the exploitation of enslaved Africans to endure through the generations. The bureaucracy required to assist in the suppression of other nation’s slave trades did much to help in the institutional development of the Foreign Office. Abolition also came to play an important part in softening the image of a rapacious empire – especially as it developed its territorial holdings in Africa and India. Abolitionists also helped to promote the reputation of new alternative forms of exploitation at home and abroad as the factory system placed unprecedented social burdens on large proportions of the British people.

But the principal and more profoundly stubborn legacy of slavery is race. It was the creation of racial identities that justified the continued use of African peoples for enslavement by Europeans over almost four centuries. And abolition did remarkably little to end the racial prejudice that had been developed to justify the slave trade and slavery – either in America or Britain. The economic costs of being born black are considerable throughout many of the areas involved in slave trading in Europe and the Americas. Alongside the national amnesia about the role of freedom in establishing slavery, these are the principal challenges posed by the abolitionists’ legacy.

With this in mind, I’d like to end by bringing the last of the three immediate past Prime Ministers into my discussion. In a much-anticipated speech to the House of Commons that was designed to set the tone for the British government’s celebration of the bicentennial of the abolition statute in 2007, Tony Blair expressed “deep sorrow” about British involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. Blair famously stopped short of a full apology for slavery to avoid accepting official responsibility and opening up the British state to a claim for reparations. He deployed, however, a modicum of reflection to begin the long process of atonement. He wondered why it was that the slave trade emerged at a time when “the capitals of Europe and America championed the enlightenment of man.” Rather than confront this well-posed conundrum head on, however, Blair was quick to retreat into a familiar truism and rush to the defense of modernity: “Racism, not the rights of man, drove the horrors of the triangular trade.”

But was this the case? Racism was as much an effect of slavery as it was a cause. And modernity and the liberal political institutions and ideologies that define it belie this defense as we have seen – especially those features of modernity connected to British self-definition. The “rights of man,” or their more elastic substitute “freedom,” contributed much to the escalation of the slave trade. And these, as we have seen, operated in a distinctive way within the project to develop British national identity.

Britain escalated and expanded the slave trade and slavery in the name of British liberty. With each new year of the political campaign to expand the slave trade, British people, ideals, institutions, and identity became more and more inseparable from the desire to celebrate the trafficking of enslaved Africans. The campaign’s length, the number of people involved, the scale of petitioning, the number of pamphlets, justifications, arguments, and counterarguments that derived from the campaign provide enough information to show that British society, values, and venerated political institutions promoted slavery long before the abolitionists began to criticize it. As much as Prime Minister Blair would have wished to deny it in 2007, the development of the slave trade and the establishment of American slavery cannot be separated from the development of modern British society, its creeds, and its institutions. The hallmarks of modern British society—representative democracy, civil society, and individual interests—all bear the responsibility for slavery. In helping to expand slavery, British freedom has incurred a debt.

How can these acknowledgements of the selective national memory of slavery and the inconsistency of contemporary values help us reflect on a constructive view of the future? Freedom’s role in helping to end the slave trade and slavery is only the beginning of the long process of repaying freedom’s debt. That process continues and is not assisted by historically selective political celebrations of British identity that focus on the abolition of the slave trade. Placing freedom’s debt into the story of the emergence of modern liberal society represents another part of the continuing reconciliation and reckoning.

Understanding the selective application of liberty to slave traders, but not, until the late eighteenth century, to enslaved Africans, confirms the prevalence of what we would call racial thinking. It also offers a new means of connecting the intention to develop the slave trade and slavery to the precise workings of politics in this period and suggests ways to imagine how contemporary politicians ought to manage slavery’s legacy. The historic tendency for freedom to veneer the justification for victimising minorities and for democratic societies to bind themselves together by vilifying and often brutalising their national rivals ought also to be a pressing task for today’s politicians. Freedom is best rehabilitated from its racist history by confronting the racist legacies of slavery. The struggle to end racial inequality offers one of many pressing challenge for liberal institutions and ideas and represents the only way to establish the sincere appeal for ideas of liberty in the twenty first century – not only as a means to set the national historical record straight, not just as a matter of restorative justice, but also as a pressing requirement to do justice to the power and utility of such ideas into the future.
Dr William Pettigrew’s Freedom’s Debt : The Royal African Company and the Politices of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1672-1752.
Ideas serve different purposes in different historical contexts. But they – like states and like corporations - also have culpability across generations and ought to be invoked as processes that focus new movements to repair the contemporary damage their historic ancestors have caused. Politicians use history to build British identity. But triumphalist and misleading accounts of history prevent politics from forming an inspirational, hopeful bridge between the sins of the past and the restoration of the damaging legacies of those sins in the present. Freedom should be a part of British national pride, but before it can be so, it needs to pay the debt to the black victims of slavery by ensuring that racial discrimination has no part to play in British life. This is a contemporary political crusade for truth and reconciliation that is worthy of comparison with the abolitionists. The promotion and celebration of a multiracial, multicultural British future is surely the best celebrator of British identity on the international stage as the world continues to be beset by racial tension and ingrained prejudices of many other forms. It offers the chance for racial atonement as a step towards ending the significance of race in the world. As a contemporary work-in-progress rather than an incomplete and conflicted historic triumph, it also represents a better riposte to the Russian federation’s jibes about the British people than the one that David Cameron offered.  (source: Gresham College (UK) -- © Professor William Pettigrew, 2014, Transcript for "How to Place Slavery into British Identity")


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