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The Grand Old Party in Context: 1854-2016?: (Part F)
Let's get right into it without preamble. We're trying to explain the Republican candidacy of Donald Trump, for President of the United States, by putting the GOP in historical context. We're trying to figure out how we got from "there" to "here."
"What ever happened to the 'Party of Lincoln,'?" as some on the center-left side of American politics moan. What I have been saying throughout and have attempted to prove, was that the "Party of Lincoln," as such, never existed.
Now, after the American Civil War (1861-1865), there was a brief period of Southern Reconstruction under Republican national authority, as you know. But the effort collapsed under sustained pressure of counter-progressive forces of Southern reaction, epitomized by the Ku Klux Klan, for example.
In many ways the South was so successful at swinging the pendulum the other way, that the Democratic President Woodrow Wilson (term: March 4, 1921 - March 4, 1921) happily screened in the White House, the D.W. Griffith film, The Birth of a Nation. As you know, this is a film that depicts the Klan as guardians of the virtue of white womanhood, protecting it from rapaciously predatory black men (played by white men in blackface, of course), and so on.
And of course, Wilson went on to segregate the federal government on the Jim Crow basis.
Let me say this...
Have you ever noticed that human beings tend to build new political, social, and economic institutions right atop old political, social, and economic institutions---without ever reevaluating the basic premises of the latter?
Have you ever noticed that?
Know what I mean jellybean?
What I mean is this: It seems to me the U.S. institution of slavery generated tremendous economic output, a level of productivity only physically possible through ultra-super exploitation. Such productivity is not possible if workers are treated like human beings.
You see, after 1865, nobody drew the curtain, came on stage and said: Look, folks. We have concluded the monstrous system of human chattel plantation slavery. Since we are a people renewed in the belief in the equality of all men, the question before us now is how to design an economic labor system that treats all human beings humanely. We have to work together to figure out what that looks like.
You see, that did not happen. Instead what happened was that the political and economic owners of capital expected the economy, under conditions of technically free labor, to render exactly the same level of output that had occurred under the monstrous conditions of slavery.
The result of this approach is that old practices haunt and distort the operations of the new institutions.
In U.S. economic history, what I'm talking about resulted in two distinct social phenomena. After the collapse of Reconstruction, there is no getting around the fact the South was allowed, either knowingly or unwittingly to reconstitute slavery itself, on an even more sadistic basis, if that was possible. But this time the slave labor was geared toward bringing the South's industrial infrastructure up to par with that of the North.
Of course I would never ask you to take my word for it. For further reading, you might consult Douglas A. Blackmon's Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to Word War II. I should also mention that, as he tells us in the introduction of his book, the project started with a long article he penned for the Wall Street Journal, which is not exactly a bastion for liberalism.
There is a major impediment to reimaging the economy on a humane basis: the belief held by many, even today, that perhaps slavery wasn't so bad!
I know, I know, its astonishing but true.
Exhibit A: Russell, Thaddeus. A Renegade History Of The United States. Free Press, 2010.
Mind you, this is a book I like in many ways. But its clear to see that Dr. Russell is not a specialist in the history of slavery in the United States of America.
Chapter Two of the book is titled: "The Freedom of Slavery."
I'm not kidding!
Incidentally, the following chapter, Chapter Three is titled: "The Slavery of Freedom." Seriously! It's like responding to the movement, Black Lives Matter! with a flippant, "All Lives Matter," slogan, which while certainly true, misses the point entirely in ways that need not detain us here.
The subtext of "The Slavery of Freedom" is that white people didn't have it all that good.
Again, I don't want you to take my word for it. The fun begins on the very first page of chapter two, where he commences a defense of blackface performances.
"Whites imitating blacks is America's oldest pastime," Dr. Russell writes. "It began on the decks of ships that brought the first slaves to the New World, where European crewmen gleefully joined the dances of their African hostages, and it continued on the plantations in the southern colonies, where masters and overseers were known to partake in the revelries in the slave quarters. But this curious phenomenon became a national obsession with the advent of steamboats and railroads in the early 1800s, when, for the first time, isolated white Americans from all over the country could easily travel south to see large numbers of black people in person.
"In the 1810s, soon after giant paddlewheel boats began carting passengers along the rivers that ran from Pittsburgh and Cincinnati to St. Louis, Memphis, through the Mississippi Delta, and all the way down to New Orleans, white entertainers imitating black songs and dances became a common sight on the streets of major cities. By the 1840s, when the curious could ride a train from New York City to Pittsburgh, then take steamboats to the cotton fields of Mississippi, whites all over America were acting black" (1).
And so and so forth.
But can you guess why this happened?
Dr. Russell tells us:
"Blackface minstrelsy is now often considered to be antiblack parody, and some of it certainly was, but scholars have recently begun to see the songs of Dan Emmett and many other performers in the genre as expressions of desire for the freedoms they saw in the culture of the slaves" (2).
And get this; '"Just as the minstrel stage held out the possibility that whites could be 'black' for a while but nonetheless white,' David Roediger, the leading historian of 'whiteness,' has written, 'it offered the possibilities that, via blackface, preindustrial joys could survive amidst industrial discipline,'" (3).
I'll just let that lie there without commentary.
But wait, there's more!
What I am about to quote is nothing less than disgraceful.
The year is 1937. The chronicler is a young white man called Henry Grant. Grant interviewed a gentlemen called Junius Quattlebaum for the New Deal ere Federal Writers' Project. Mr. Quattlebaum was a former slave.
This is what he is purported to have said:
"Well, sir, you want to talk to me 'bout them good old days back yonder in slavery time, does you? I call them good old days, 'cause I has never had as much since." Dr. Russell is claiming that this sentiment was typical of the 2300 ex-slaves interviewed (4).
In Dr. Russell's own words now: "Many did tell of whippings, sadistic overseers, loved ones being sold away, and of wishing to be free. But we must come to terms with the fact that a majority of ex-slaves who offered an evaluation of slavery---field hands and house slaves, men and women---had a positive view of the institution, and many unabashedly wished to return to their slave days" (5).
Quoting Mr. Quattlebaum again:
"I has worked harder since de war betwixt de North and de South than I ever worked under my marsters and missus" (6).
Dr. Russell again: "The plantation was certainly no paradise, but to many people who had experienced both slavery and freedom, the former was clearly preferable" (7).
Again, not being a specialist, Dr. Russell seems unaware that after the nominal end of slavery, per se, in the South, there was tenant farming, sharecropping, and convict leasing, which, as I said, was the reconstitution of slavery itself on a more sadistic basis.
Mr. Quattlebaum again;
"All de slaves worked pretty hard sometimes but never too hard" (8).
"Never too hard"? I can't help thinking that if such words actually came out of Junius Quattlebaum's mouth, he must have been "coached" in some way.
Dr. Russell goes on to quote Mary Frances Brown, a former slave from Marlboro County, South Carolina: "Dey were happy time back dere." and "Dem were de times to lib" (9).
Stay with me because I want you to get the full effect!
Thaddeus Russell writes:
"Contrary to what popular images of emancipation tell us, when given the opportunity to leave the plantation, most slaves stayed" (10).
Still quoting: "The quantitative historian Paul D. Escott tabulated all of the ex-slave interviews and found that 9.6 percent stayed with their master after freedom but were uncertain as to how long, 18.8 percent stayed for one to twelve months, 14.9 percent stayed for one to five years, and 22.1 percent stayed for more than five years. By contrast, only 9 percent left immediately after emancipation" (11).
Russell seems unaware that these liberated slaves, unable to read and write (by force of societal custom) weren't exactly facing a cornucopia of options. Furthermore, there were many states that simply did not allow free blacks to settle there.
Anyone interested might take a glance at Part B of this series, to see what kinds of things state legislatures were up to, whereby they insulated white men from job competition from blacks, slave or free.
But in any event, Thaddeus Russell is claiming that "slaves not only worked with less intensity than free Americans, they also worked much less often. Economic historians have determined that on average, Northern farmers worked four hundred hours per year than did slaves" (12).
I simply can't believe this. In other words, the slaves were not diligent enough in fulfilling the terms of their oppression!
Then, two pages later Russell actually writes: "One consequence of whipping was the loss of untold numbers of man-hours" (13).
You know what this reminds me of? Remember when the torture scandals were making the news, when the George W. Bush administration was in the White House. Remember how it came out that one facet of the torture of accused terrorists was standing for many hours without a break, and so forth?
Remember what we heard of the response of then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld? He said that he stood at his desk all day, therefore he couldn't understand what the "detainees" were complaining about. Remember that?
Here's the grand finale of Dr. Russell's remarks:
"What these statistics and the wistful recollections of hundreds of ex-slaves point to is that slaves were able to create the culture so envied by whites not despite slavery, but because of it" (14).
As I say, I can't believe this! In this day and age!
But then again, that just goes to show how successful was the so-called "Southernization" of American politics and culture.
Thaddeus Russell is actually saying that slavery allowed blacks to create a more vibrant culture, under slavery, than they would have if they had been free.
But do you see what I'm getting at now? Do you see why it is so hard to envision a more humane economy in the face of professional scholars saying that slavery wasn't so bad? And if slavery wasn't so bad, there is no need to rethink its underlying expectations, is there?
I said that there were two consequences of building American capitalism right atop American slavery, without rethinking the expectations generated by the latter.
- As I said, the re-enslavement of the black population in the South.
- What I call the re-enslavement of the white working class, roughly from the 1870s to the 1930s
Here are the final words we'll entertain from Dr. Russell:
"And no group in world history worked more than industrial workers in the nineteenth-century United States. For the unlucky souls who found themselves in the first American factories, the typical workday was fourteen hours, the typical workweek was six days, and putting in more than one hundred hours in a week was not at all uncommon" (15).
What we're doing
We are looking for the twin ideology to the (slavery wasn't so bad) notion. Oh, here it is...
Dr. Russell again: "Many shiftless slaves were sold by masters who could no longer afford their inefficiency" (16).
In other words: If slaves were sold away from their families, it was their own fault for being so "shiftless" and "inefficient."
Russell: "Indeed, in an era when the vast majority of free Americans lived on family farms, were born to their employers---their fathers---and were morally prohibited from leaving their jobs, it is entirely reasonable to argue that slaves possessed more occupational mobility than the average free American" (17).
We might as well argue, today, that desperate, undocumented Mexican migrant workers have more "occupational mobility" then native-born American citizens.
And finally: "Economic historians have determined that on average, Northern farmers worked four hundred more hours per year than did slaves" (18). Dr. Russell is talking about white Northern farmers, you understand.
So, it turns out that white Northern farmers worked harder than black slaves.
I'll say this for Dr. Russell, he doesn't give an inch. He doesn't even concede that the black slaves might have endured more sadistic physical torture. I want to quote a fairly long passage.
In this passage I will quote, Dr. Russell seems to be conflating two different social phenomena, which should be understood separately.
Ready? Hold on!
"Abraham Lincoln's father beat him with fists and a horsewhip. Most significantly, none of these men believed that their treatment was abnormal. The historian Elizabeth Pleck has found fifty-eight diaries and autobiographies of free white people who were born before 1850 that recount instances of physical punishment. These were children of merchants, plantation owners, ministers, farmers, lawyers, craftsmen, and schoolteachers, in the North and South" (19).
While this child abuse (as we would call it today) is unfortunate, the children were under no other authority than their parents. They were not subject to institutional bondage as the slaves were, which makes the use of the words "free white people" and "physical punishment" in this connection a misleading characterization of the situation.
"All the children in this group, born between 1750 and 1799 were hit with an object, usually a whip, and among those born between 1800 and 1850, 80 percent were struck with an instrument at least once. It was also common and considered appropriate as a means of training for craftsmen to beat the children and young adults who served them as apprentices" (20).
Well, at least here we're talking about physical abuse at the workplace.
"Among free whites, severe physical punishment, including death, at the hands of authorities was a common occurrence. During the colonial period, not only murder and rape but also arson, adultery, buggery, and witchcraft were punishable by death" (21).
Mind you, Dr. Russell is talking about the suffering of white people. While the above statement is true, we have to disaggregate it.
- First of all, if we are talking about England as the dominant founding colonial power in mainland North America, the we are talking about a "colonial period," before independence, of something like 1619-1776.
- Second, Russell seems to be talking about the prevailing criminal penalties for murder and rape, arson, adultery, buggery, and witchcraft.
- The "authorities" he speaks of would simply be the criminal justice system.
Russell actually makes that clear with the following lines:
"In eighteenth-century Virginia, a first conviction for hog stealing brought twenty-five lashes; the second offense was punished by two hours in the pillory, nailed by the ears. The third offense sent one to the gallows. In Massachusetts, first-time burglars were branded on the forehead with the letter B; second offenders were branded and whipped; a third offense made one 'incorrigible' and, therefore, subject to death. All of the colonies ordered whipping, branding, and other forms of bodily mutilation for crimes such as breaking the Sabbath, petty larceny, and sedition" (22).
It was a harsh criminal justice system alright. But it seems like the thing to do was to avoid: murder, rape, arson, hog stealing, adultery, buggery, witchcraft, burglary, breaking the Sabbath, petty larceny, and sedition.
"Laws in several colonies called for children over the age of sixteen who struck or cursed their parents to be punished with death, whipping, or imprisonment. Debtors and drunkards, and those simply suspected of criminal activity or moral degeneracy, were placed in stocks and public cages, where they were spit on, pelted with rocks, punched, and kicked by passersby. In the military, flogging was the standard punishment for drunkenness, swearing, and insubordination until the late nineteenth century" (23).
Here, Dr. Russell is trying, unsuccessfully, to draw an equivalency of suffering between free whites, as they interacted with the criminal justice system (which was, granted, certainly harsh by present-day standards) and the physical torture suffered by slaves worked to death to make profit for their masters.
Three words: apples and oranges.
So what do we have here?
Well, since slavery wasn't so bad (sarcasm) and many black ex-slaves recalled their involvement with the institution positively (sarcasm), some even wishing it were reinstated so as to spare them from a treacherous and uncertain freedom (sarcasm), then maybe the issue really didn't rise to the level of war between the North and South (sarcasm).
Maybe the Civil War really was just a war about state's rights, a fight over federalism versus local control (sarcasm). And if the Civil War was not about slavery, then the institution mustn't have been such a big deal (sarcasm).
And this means that efforts of activists to garner reparations on behalf of the descendants of the enslaved is utterly ridiculous since the slaves didn't work that hard anyway (sarcasm), which is why their owners often sold them away, due to their "inefficiency" and "shiftlessness" (sarcasm).
And on top of that, compensation-seeking blacks, if anything, would, by all rights, have to get in line behind the descendants of the white Northern farmers, who worked on average four hundred more hours per year than the black slaves---you know, according to economic historians (sarcasm).
Finally, "free whites" don't take a back seat to anybody, including black slaves, for the "severe physical punishment" they endured at the hands of "authorities" (sarcasm).
This is not as bad as holocaust denial but....
Thank you for reading!
1. Russell, Thaddeus. A Renegade History Of The United States. Free Press, 2010. 39
2. ibid, 40
4. ibid, 50
5. ibid, 50-51
6. ibid, 51
10. ibid, 53
12. ibid, 57
13. ibid, 61
14. ibid, 53
15. ibid, 57
19. ibid, 59