Slavery and the Birth of US

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Source: theconsciouskid

“A lot of you often misuse the term African American when you actually mean Black!⁣ First, let’s get familiar with the term ‘diaspora’, which is used to refer to a group of people dispersed ALL OVER the globe.⁣ The Black Diaspora is HUGE. ⁣Black folks live, are born, and have their own children in many, many countries across the world.⁣ How did that come to be you ask?⁣ Well, SLAVERY.⁣

And contrary to what many Americans may assume, the majority of enslaved peoples were taken to continents outside of North America.⁣ In fact, of the estimated 11.2 million Africans kidnapped and put into slavery between 1502 and 1866, only 388,000 went to the United States. ⁣ The rest were mainly brought to the Carribean and Central + South America. ⁣

The term African American is typically applied to Black folks whose ancestors were forced into slavery in the United States. ⁣It’s a term that can be pretty exclusionary to the rest of the African diaspora: Afro-Latinx folks, folks from the Carribean, African immigrants to the States, among others.⁣ This is important to get right always, but especially in THIS moment. In a country like the US, blackness is viewed VERY uniformly. The nuances of where your family is from within the diaspora are often irrelevant to police officers committing acts of brutality. ⁣

Words have power!! Know their historical meaning and choose accordingly!”


Source: celisiastanton

  • Presentism
    • Idea that we shouldn’t judge the actions of people in the past using modern-day standards
      • “as if the white people of the past couldn’t quite grasp the idea of inhumanity and brutality until 1861” Michael Harriot
  • Presentism does not equal whitewashing!!!
    • Even if you believe our past doesn’t deserve judgment
      • Still need to accurately describe our past
      • Calling Jefferson a rapist is not presentism, but accurately telling our history
        • It’s the reader’s choice to judge or not

Table of Contents

Wealth Accumulated from Slavery

Humans as Chattel

Racist Reasons for American Revolutionary War

America as a Slavocracy

Reasons for US Slavery Expansion

Death after Liberation

Wealth Accumulated from Slavery

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Slavery ended in 1865 only 152 years ago.  The first African slaves arrived in the New World in the 1620s.  For 245 years white slave owners financially benefited and accumulated wealth from free labor.  Harper’s magazine estimated that slaves in the US did a quarter billion hours of free labor and it could require $97 trillion to pay for the hours of uncompensated work done during the slavery era.   These financial reparations do not include the cultural, psychological, sociological and family trauma, the continual  economic disadvantages and the continual discrimination black people experienced from slavery and post slavery oppression that can still be felt today.

  • Wealth accumulation
    • 245 years slave owners accumulated wealth from free labor
      • ¼ white Southerners owned slaves
      • Estimated billion hours of free labor
      • Harper’s magazine estimated US slaves did a quarter billion hours of free labor
        • $97 trillion to pay for the hours of uncompensated work done during the slavery era
    • Domestic Slave trade
      • Displaced/separated 1.2 million black men, women, and children for profit
  • White Economy from Slavery
    • Slave trade financed the industrial revolution and built Modern Europe and US
      • In the 7 cotton states, 1/3 of all white income was derived from slavery
      • By 1840, cotton produced by slave labor constituted 59% of the country’s exports
    • Support systems of slavery was its own economy bringing in tens of millions of dollars
      • Many people profited from governments, slave ship owners, slave traders, plantation owners, factory owners who processed the raw materials, factory workers, port towns, bankers, insurance companies, auctions, etc.
    • 1860, there were more millionaires per capita in Mississippi Valley than anywhere in country
    • “In 1860, slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America’s manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together. Slaves were the single largest financial asset of property in the entire American economy.” Yale historian David Blight

“Slavery was undeniably a font of phenomenal wealth. By the eve of the Civil War, the Mississippi Valley was home to more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the United States. Cotton grown and picked by enslaved workers was the nation’s most valuable export. The combined value of enslaved people exceeded that of all the railroads and factories in the nation. New Orleans boasted a denser concentration of banking capital than New York City. What made the cotton economy boom in the United States, and not in all the other far-flung parts of the world with climates and soil suitable to the crop, was our nation’s unflinching willingness to use violence on nonwhite people and to exert its will on seemingly endless supplies of land and labor. Given the choice between modernity and barbarism, prosperity and poverty, lawfulness and cruelty, democracy and totalitarianism, America chose all of the above.” Matthew Desmond, In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.

““Millions of enslaved people and their ancestors had built the enormous wealth of the United States; indeed, in 1860, 80 percent of the nation’s gross national product was tied to slavery. 19 Yet, in return for nearly 250 years of toil, African Americans had received nothing but rape, whippings, murder, the dismemberment of families, and forced subjugation, illiteracy, and abject poverty….

…While the president, and then his successor, Andrew Johnson, insisted that the past four years had been all about preserving the Union, the Confederacy operated under no such illusions. Confederate States of America (CSA) vice president Alexander H. Stephens remarked, “What did we go to war for, but to protect our property?” This was a war about slavery. About a region’s determination to keep millions of black people in bondage from generation to generation. Mississippi’s Articles of Secession stated unequivocally, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery… Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth.” In fact, two thirds of the wealthiest Americans at the time “lived in the slaveholding South.” Eighty-one percent of South Carolina’s wealth was directly tied to owning human beings. It is no wonder, then, that South Carolina was willing to do whatever it took, including firing the first shot in the bloodiest war in U.S. history, to be free from Washington, which had stopped the spread of slavery to the West, refused to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, and, with the admission of new free-soil states to the Union prior to 1861, set the numerical domination of the South in Congress.” Carol Anderson, White Rage

Yes! Magazine: A Nation Built on the Back of Slavery and Racism

  • Established white supremacy
    • Slave trade built/financed industrial Rev., Modern Europe, US
      • Ensure white supremacy founding principle in institutions like:
        • Colonialism, capitalism, democracy, laws, schools, property rights
      • Had to include white supremacy principles auch as
        • Racism, ethnic cleansing, enslavement, racial hierarchy, trauma, internalizations, dehumanization, stereotypes, white privilege
      • Even if a white person’s ancestry doesn’t go back to slaves
        • Still benefiting from institutionalize white supremacy exists today

Robin Diangelo, Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism

while white supremacy has shaped Western political thought for hundreds of years, it is rarely named. In this way, white supremacy is rendered invisible while other political systems—socialism, capitalism, fascism—are identified and studied. In fact, much of its power is drawn from its invisibility—the taken-for-granted aspects of white superiority that underwrite all other political and social contracts. White resistance to the term white supremacy prevents us from examining this system. If we can’t identify it, we can’t interrupt it.”

Black Perspectives: Beyond Romantic Advertisements:, Genealogy, and White Supremacy

In the past year, Ancestry changed its search engine to detach the history of slavery from basic genealogical inquiries. When searching for an individual’s name, stopped including results from the 1850 or 1860 United States Census Slave Schedules. This means that someone searching for ancestors might discover a wealthy progenitor with no record of the foundations of that wealth, making it all too easy to claim, as many privileged white American families do, that their individual family earned its fortunes outside of slavery despite the central role slavery had in shaping the nation’s politics, economics, culture, and society. Before this change occurred, subscribers would often have to face the uncomfortable fact that their family kept others enslaved. Indeed, my own family first discovered slaveholders in our lineage because of a rudimentary Ancestry search. Attempting that research today would hide this distressing (though important) aspect of my family’s history.

NY Times: In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.

…Those searching for reasons the American economy is uniquely severe and unbridled have found answers in many places (religion, politics, culture). But recently, historians have pointed persuasively to the gnatty fields of Georgia and Alabama, to the cotton houses and slave auction blocks, as the birthplace of America’s low-road approach to capitalism.

Slavery was undeniably a font of phenomenal wealth. By the eve of the Civil War, the Mississippi Valley was home to more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the United States. Cotton grown and picked by enslaved workers was the nation’s most valuable export. The combined value of enslaved people exceeded that of all the railroads and factories in the nation. New Orleans boasted a denser concentration of banking capital than New York City. What made the cotton economy boom in the United States, and not in all the other far-flung parts of the world with climates and soil suitable to the crop, was our nation’s unflinching willingness to use violence on nonwhite people and to exert its will on seemingly endless supplies of land and labor. Given the choice between modernity and barbarism, prosperity and poverty, lawfulness and cruelty, democracy and totalitarianism, America chose all of the above.

Women and children in a cotton field in the 1860s. J. H. Aylsworth, via the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Nearly two average American lifetimes (79 years) have passed since the end of slavery, only two. It is not surprising that we can still feel the looming presence of this institution, which helped turn a poor, fledgling nation into a financial colossus. The surprising bit has to do with the many eerily specific ways slavery can still be felt in our economic life. “American slavery is necessarily imprinted on the DNA of American capitalism,” write the historians Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman. The task now, they argue, is “cataloging the dominant and recessive traits” that have been passed down to us, tracing the unsettling and often unrecognized lines of descent by which America’s national sin is now being visited upon the third and fourth generations.

[Listen to an episode of the “1619” podcast with Matthew Desmond and Nikole Hannah-Jones about the economy that slavery built.]

They picked in long rows, bent bodies shuffling through cotton fields white in bloom. Men, women and children picked, using both hands to hurry the work. Some picked in Negro cloth, their raw product returning to them by way of New England mills. Some picked completely naked. Young children ran water across the humped rows, while overseers peered down from horses. Enslaved workers placed each cotton boll into a sack slung around their necks. Their haul would be weighed after the sunlight stalked away from the fields and, as the freedman Charles Ball recalled, you couldn’t “distinguish the weeds from the cotton plants.” If the haul came up light, enslaved workers were often whipped. “A short day’s work was always punished,” Ball wrote.

Cotton was to the 19th century what oil was to the 20th: among the world’s most widely traded commodities. Cotton is everywhere, in our clothes, hospitals, soap. Before the industrialization of cotton, people wore expensive clothes made of wool or linen and dressed their beds in furs or straw. Whoever mastered cotton could make a killing. But cotton needed land. A field could only tolerate a few straight years of the crop before its soil became depleted. Planters watched as acres that had initially produced 1,000 pounds of cotton yielded only 400 a few seasons later. The thirst for new farmland grew even more intense after the invention of the cotton gin in the early 1790s. Before the gin, enslaved workers grew more cotton than they could clean. The gin broke the bottleneck, making it possible to clean as much cotton as you could grow.

The United States solved its land shortage by expropriating millions of acres from Native Americans, often with military force, acquiring Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Florida. It then sold that land on the cheap — just $1.25 an acre in the early 1830s ($38 in today’s dollars) — to white settlers. Naturally, the first to cash in were the land speculators. Companies operating in Mississippi flipped land, selling it soon after purchase, commonly for double the price.

Enslaved workers felled trees by ax, burned the underbrush and leveled the earth for planting. “Whole forests were literally dragged out by the roots,” John Parker, an enslaved worker, remembered. A lush, twisted mass of vegetation was replaced by a single crop. An origin of American money exerting its will on the earth, spoiling the environment for profit, is found in the cotton plantation. Floods became bigger and more common. The lack of biodiversity exhausted the soil and, to quote the historian Walter Johnson, “rendered one of the richest agricultural regions of the earth dependent on upriver trade for food.”

As slave labor camps spread throughout the South, production surged. By 1831, the country was delivering nearly half the world’s raw cotton crop, with 350 million pounds picked that year. Just four years later, it harvested 500 million pounds. Southern white elites grew rich, as did their counterparts in the North, who erected textile mills to form, in the words of the Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, an “unhallowed alliance between the lords of the lash and the lords of the loom.” The large-scale cultivation of cotton hastened the invention of the factory, an institution that propelled the Industrial Revolution and changed the course of history. In 1810, there were 87,000 cotton spindles in America. Fifty years later, there were five million. Slavery, wrote one of its defenders in De Bow’s Review, a widely read agricultural magazine, was the “nursing mother of the prosperity of the North.” Cotton planters, millers and consumers were fashioning a new economy, one that was global in scope and required the movement of capital, labor and products across long distances. In other words, they were fashioning a capitalist economy. “The beating heart of this new system,” Beckert writes, “was slavery.”

Perhaps you’re reading this at work, maybe at a multinational corporation that runs like a soft-purring engine. You report to someone, and someone reports to you. Everything is tracked, recorded and analyzed, via vertical reporting systems, double-entry record-keeping and precise quantification. Data seems to hold sway over every operation. It feels like a cutting-edge approach to management, but many of these techniques that we now take for granted were developed by and for large plantations.

African-Americans preparing cotton for the gin at a plantation on Port Royal Island, S.C., in the 1860s. Timothy H. O’Sullivan, via the Library of Congress

When an accountant depreciates an asset to save on taxes or when a midlevel manager spends an afternoon filling in rows and columns on an Excel spreadsheet, they are repeating business procedures whose roots twist back to slave-labor camps. And yet, despite this, “slavery plays almost no role in histories of management,” notes the historian Caitlin Rosenthal in her book “Accounting for Slavery.” Since the 1977 publication of Alfred Chandler’s classic study, “The Visible Hand,” historians have tended to connect the development of modern business practices to the 19th-century railroad industry, viewing plantation slavery as precapitalistic, even primitive. It’s a more comforting origin story, one that protects the idea that America’s economic ascendancy developed not because of, but in spite of, millions of black people toiling on plantations. But management techniques used by 19th-century corporations were implemented during the previous century by plantation owners.

Planters aggressively expanded their operations to capitalize on economies of scale inherent to cotton growing, buying more enslaved workers, investing in large gins and presses and experimenting with different seed varieties. To do so, they developed complicated workplace hierarchies that combined a central office, made up of owners and lawyers in charge of capital allocation and long-term strategy, with several divisional units, responsible for different operations. Rosenthal writes of one plantation where the owner supervised a top lawyer, who supervised another lawyer, who supervised an overseer, who supervised three bookkeepers, who supervised 16 enslaved head drivers and specialists (like bricklayers), who supervised hundreds of enslaved workers. Everyone was accountable to someone else, and plantations pumped out not just cotton bales but volumes of data about how each bale was produced. This organizational form was very advanced for its time, displaying a level of hierarchal complexity equaled only by large government structures, like that of the British Royal Navy.

Like today’s titans of industry, planters understood that their profits climbed when they extracted maximum effort out of each worker. So they paid close attention to inputs and outputs by developing precise systems of record-keeping. Meticulous bookkeepers and overseers were just as important to the productivity of a slave-labor camp as field hands. Plantation entrepreneurs developed spreadsheets, like Thomas Affleck’s “Plantation Record and Account Book,” which ran into eight editions circulated until the Civil War. Affleck’s book was a one-stop-shop accounting manual, complete with rows and columns that tracked per-worker productivity. This book “was really at the cutting edge of the informational technologies available to businesses during this period,” Rosenthal told me. “I have never found anything remotely as complex as Affleck’s book for free labor.” Enslavers used the book to determine end-of-the-year balances, tallying expenses and revenues and noting the causes of their biggest gains and losses. They quantified capital costs on their land, tools and enslaved workforces, applying Affleck’s recommended interest rate. Perhaps most remarkable, they also developed ways to calculate depreciation, a breakthrough in modern management procedures, by assessing the market value of enslaved workers over their life spans. Values generally peaked between the prime ages of 20 and 40 but were individually adjusted up or down based on sex, strength and temperament: people reduced to data points.

This level of data analysis also allowed planters to anticipate rebellion. Tools were accounted for on a regular basis to make sure a large number of axes or other potential weapons didn’t suddenly go missing. “Never allow any slave to lock or unlock any door,” advised a Virginia enslaver in 1847. In this way, new bookkeeping techniques developed to maximize returns also helped to ensure that violence flowed in one direction, allowing a minority of whites to control a much larger group of enslaved black people. American planters never forgot what happened in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) in 1791, when enslaved workers took up arms and revolted. In fact, many white enslavers overthrown during the Haitian Revolution relocated to the United States and started over.

Overseers recorded each enslaved worker’s yield. Accountings took place not only after nightfall, when cotton baskets were weighed, but throughout the workday. In the words of a North Carolina planter, enslaved workers were to be “followed up from day break until dark.” Having hands line-pick in rows sometimes longer than five football fields allowed overseers to spot anyone lagging behind. The uniform layout of the land had a logic; a logic designed to dominate. Faster workers were placed at the head of the line, which encouraged those who followed to match the captain’s pace. When enslaved workers grew ill or old, or became pregnant, they were assigned to lighter tasks. One enslaver established a “sucklers gang” for nursing mothers, as well as a “measles gang,” which at once quarantined those struck by the virus and ensured that they did their part to contribute to the productivity machine. Bodies and tasks were aligned with rigorous exactitude. In trade magazines, owners swapped advice about the minutiae of planting, including slave diets and clothing as well as the kind of tone a master should use. In 1846, one Alabama planter advised his fellow enslavers to always give orders “in a mild tone, and try to leave the impression on the mind of the negro that what you say is the result of reflection.” The devil (and his profits) were in the details.

Further Readings

WBUR:  Without Slavery, Would The U.S. Be The Leading Economic Power?

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Humans as Chattel

The Atlantic slave trade: What too few textbooks told you – Anthony Hazard

“The massive and cruel engineering required to rip a million people from their homes, brutally drive them to new, disease-ridden places, and make them live in terror and hunger as they continually built and rebuilt a commodity-generating empire—this vanished in the story of a slavery that was supposedly focused primarily not on producing profit but on maintaining its status as a quasi-feudal elite, or producing modern ideas about race in order to maintain white unity and elite power. And once the violence of slavery was minimized, another voice could whisper, saying that African Americans, both before and after emancipation, were denied the rights of citizens because they would not fight for them.

All these assumptions lead to still more implications, ones that shape attitudes, identities, and debates about policy. If slavery was outside of US history, for instance-if indeed it was a drag and not a rocket booster to American economic growth-then slavery was not implicated in US growth, success, power, and wealth. Therefore none of the massive quantities of wealth and treasure piled by that economic growth is owed to African Americans. Ideas about slavery’s history determine the ways in which Americans hope to resolve the long contradiction between the claims of the United States to be a nation of freedom and opportunity, on the one hand, and, on the other, the unfreedom, the unequal treatment, and the opportunity denied that for most of American history have been the reality faced by people of African descent. Surely, if the worst thing about slavery was that it denied African Americans the liberal rights of the citizen, one must merely offer them the title of citizen-even elect one of them president—to make amends. Then the issue will be put to rest forever.

Slavery’s story gets told in ways that reinforce all these assumptions. Textbooks segregate twenty-five decades of enslavement into one chapter, painting a static picture. Millions of people each year visit plantation homes where guides blather on about furniture and silverware. As sites, such homes hide the real purpose of these places, which was to make African Americans toil under the hot sun for the profit of the rest of the world. All this is the “symbolic annihilation” of enslaved people, as two scholars of those weird places put it. Meanwhile, at other points we tell slavery’s story by heaping praise on those who escaped it through flight or death in rebellion, leaving the listener to wonder if those who didn’t flee or die somehow “accepted” slavery. And everyone who teaches about slavery knows a little dirty secret that reveals historians’ collective failure: many African-American students struggle with a sense of shame that most of their ancestors could not escape the suffering they experienced.” Edward Baptist: The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

  • The Transatlantic Slave Trade
    • Enslavement of over 12 million African men, women and children over 400 centuries
      • Estimated 5% made it to North America
      • At least 2 million Africans died from brutality, sickness, and suicide from the “Middle Passage” across the Atlantic
      • “Profit and loss also meant documenting the deaths of “black cattle” because it was bad for business. The vast slave ships that transported African people across the Atlantic were severely cramped. The journey could take up to 3 months. The space around each slave was coffin-like, consigning them to live among filth and bodily fluids. The dead and dying were thrown overboard for cash-flow reasons: insurance money could e collected for those slaves that died at sea.” Reni Eddo-Lodge – Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Racism
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Source: Brookes slave ship – One of the most enduring images from the evidence is the diagram of the Brookes slave ship, built in Liverpool in the 1780s and named after its owner and builder, James Brookes.  On three voyages between 1781 and 1785 the ship carried over 600 enslaved Africans on the middle passage from West Africa to the Caribbean; many died as a result of the terrible conditions on board.  One of those called to give evidence before the Privy Council was the ex-surgeon of the Brookes, Thomas Trotter. In 1788, an Act of Parliament was passed which limited the number of slaves that could be carried on a ship according to its tonnage. In the Brookes’s case the maximum number allowed was 454. Thomas Clarkson paid the artist James Phillips to make a drawing of Brookes. The print illustrates that even with 454 slaves packed on board, the overcrowding was still appalling.
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  • New World vs Old World Slavery
    • Old world slavery was usually non-hereditary, not based on race, and slaves we not considered property (chattel)
    • New world slavery laws, such as the US slave codes, dictated black people and their children were property indefinitely
    • “Black women’s reproductive systems were industrialized. Children born into slavery were the default property of slave owners, and this meant limitless labor at no extra cost. That reproduction was made all the easier by routine rape of African women slaves by white slave owners.” Reni Eddo-Lodge – Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Racism
  • Dehumanizing women was essential to Chattel Slavery
    • English law considered status (enslaved or free) of child based on father status
    • “Trashing English law, they (Virginia House of Burgesses in 1662) dusted off the Roman principle of partus sequitur ventrem, which held that “among tame and domestic animals, the brood belongs to the owner of the dam or mother. With this law in place, White enslavers could now reap financial reward from relations “upon a negro women.” Ibram Kendi, Stamped From the Beginning
  • Domestic Slave trade: Displacement and Family Separation
    • 1807, US outlaws importing slaves from the international slave trade at the same time:
      • Cotton gin invented (1793) significantly increasing productivity and slave demand for cotton industry
      • First Industrial Revolution (1760-1820) created domestic and international demand for raw cotton
      • The Louisiana Purchase (1803) and Indian Removal Act (1830) opened up land for cotton plantation
    • This blew up US domestic slave trade as slave value land demand increased and demand
      • Displaced and separated 1.2 million men, women, and children
      • Separated 1 in 5 marriages of all slaves
    • “A year after the Slave Trade Act (1807), a South Carolina court ruled that enslaved women had no legal claims on their children.” Ibram Kendi, Stamped From Beginning

The auction of a baby, from a slave narrative published in 1849

AAME: The Domestic Slave Trade

“The domestic slave trade within the United States did not begin, as is often assumed, with the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1807. It originated half a century earlier in the 1760s, and overlapped with the trade from Africa. It was extensive even between 1787 and 1807, a period in which more Africans were forced to these shores than in any two decades in North American history. The domestic trade continued into the 1860s and displaced some 1.2 million men, women, and children, the vast majority of whom were born in America.

At the cost of immense human suffering, this forced migration unlocked a great reservoir of labor and made possible the rapid expansion of the “Peculiar Institution.” The domestic slave trade brought misery, separating families and increasing the climate of insecurity in the community.

It also distributed the African-American population throughout the South in a migration that greatly surpassed in volume the transatlantic slave trade to North America.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates: The Case for Reparations
“Forced partings were common in the antebellum South. A slave in some parts of the region stood a 30% chance of being sold in his or her lifetime. 25% of interstate trades destroyed a first marriage and half of them destroyed a nuclear family…Here we find the roots of American wealth and democracy — in the for-profit destruction of the most important asset available to any people, the family.”

The Atlantic: The Myth of the Kindly General Lee

“The trauma of rupturing families lasted lifetimes for the enslaved—it was, as my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates described it, “a kind of murder.” After the war, thousands of the emancipated searched desperately for kin lost to the market for human flesh, fruitlessly for most. In Reconstruction, the historian Eric Foner quotes a Freedmen’s Bureau agent who notes of the emancipated, “in their eyes, the work of emancipation was incomplete until the families which had been dispersed by slavery were reunited.””

Slavery in the U.S., by the numbers

Ta-Nehisi Coates: The Case For Reparations

In 1860, the majority of people living in South Carolina and Mississippi, almost half of those living in Georgia, and about one-third of all Southerners were on the wrong side of Calhoun’s line (black). The state with the largest number of enslaved Americans was Virginia, where in certain counties some 70 percent of all people labored in chains. Nearly one-fourth of all white Southerners owned slaves, and upon their backs the economic basis of America—and much of the Atlantic world—was erected. In the seven cotton states, one-third of all white income was derived from slavery. By 1840, cotton produced by slave labor constituted 59 percent of the country’s exports. The web of this slave society extended north to the looms of New England, and across the Atlantic to Great Britain, where it powered a great economic transformation and altered the trajectory of world history. “Whoever says Industrial Revolution,” wrote the historian Eric J. Hobsbawm, “says cotton.”

The wealth accorded America by slavery was not just in what the slaves pulled from the land but in the slaves themselves. “In 1860, slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America’s manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together,” the Yale historian David W. Blight has noted. “Slaves were the single largest, by far, financial asset of property in the entire American economy.” The sale of these slaves—“in whose bodies that money congealed,” writes Walter Johnson, a Harvard historian—generated even more ancillary wealth. Loans were taken out for purchase, to be repaid with interest. Insurance policies were drafted against the untimely death of a slave and the loss of potential profits. Slave sales were taxed and notarized. The vending of the black body and the sundering of the black family became an economy unto themselves, estimated to have brought in tens of millions of dollars to antebellum America. In 1860 there were more millionaires per capita in the Mississippi Valley than anywhere else in the country.

Beneath the cold numbers lay lives divided. “I had a constant dread that Mrs. Moore, her mistress, would be in want of money and sell my dear wife,” a freedman wrote, reflecting on his time in slavery. “We constantly dreaded a final separation. Our affection for each was very strong, and this made us always apprehensive of a cruel parting.” Forced partings were common in the antebellum South. A slave in some parts of the region stood a 30 percent chance of being sold in his or her lifetime. Twenty-five percent of interstate trades destroyed a first marriage and half of them destroyed a nuclear family.

When the wife and children of Henry Brown, a slave in Richmond, Virginia, were to be sold away, Brown searched for a white master who might buy his wife and children to keep the family together. He failed. The next day, I stationed myself by the side of the road, along which the slaves, amounting to three hundred and fifty, were to pass. The purchaser of my wife was a Methodist minister, who was about starting for North Carolina. Pretty soon five waggon-loads of little children passed, and looking at the foremost one, what should I see but a little child, pointing its tiny hand towards me, exclaiming, “There’s my father; I knew he would come and bid me good-bye.” It was my eldest child! Soon the gang approached in which my wife was chained. I looked, and beheld her familiar face; but O, reader, that glance of agony! may God spare me ever again enduring the excruciating horror of that moment! She passed, and came near to where I stood. I seized hold of her hand, intending to bid her farewell; but words failed me; the gift of utterance had fled, and I remained speechless. I followed her for some distance, with her hand grasped in mine, as if to save her from her fate, but I could not speak, and I was obliged to turn away in silence.

In a time when telecommunications were primitive and blacks lacked freedom of movement, the parting of black families was a kind of murder. Here we find the roots of American wealth and democracy—in the for-profit destruction of the most important asset available to any people, the family. The destruction was not incidental to America’s rise; it facilitated that rise. By erecting a slave society, America created the economic foundation for its great experiment in democracy. The labor strife that seeded Bacon’s rebellion was suppressed. America’s indispensable working class existed as property beyond the realm of politics, leaving white Americans free to trumpet their love of freedom and democratic values. Assessing antebellum democracy in Virginia, a visitor from England observed that the state’s natives “can profess an unbounded love of liberty and of democracy in consequence of the mass of the people, who in other countries might become mobs, being there nearly altogether composed of their own Negro slaves.”

Josh Tucker:Black History: A History of Permanent White Oppression, from 1619 to 2016

“The effect of slavery was, to a very large extent, the quite deliberate destruction of the black family. That is something that a community does not recover from easily — and as we shall see, recovering is something the white establishment in the years since the end of slavery has never given the black community the chance to do.”

Face2Face: The disturbing history of enslaved mothers forced to breastfeed white babies in the 1600s

Slave trade brought many advantages to western societies. The main duty of a slave was to work on plantations increasing productivity. Slaves often worked long tedious hours in the sun with no pay or reward for their hard labour. Their presence made traders and plantation owners more productive and made their living conditions very harsh.

After a while, the duties of slaves extended to domestic work and female slaves became of high value. In addition to their plantation duties, many female slaves were taken into the homes of their masters to serve their mistresses, cook, clean and wash for them. If a mistress had too many children, the domestic worker was made to help in caring for the child. After a while, female slaves were made to take the place of low-class women paid to breastfeed babies, a practice known as wet nursing.

By the 17th century, wet nursing by slaves had become very popular in Europe. The practice soon reached America through British settlers.

The practice was an excuse for many white mothers to avoid breastfeeding with hopes of maintaining their stature and avoiding the “messy” part of motherhood. The act was perceived as a self-demeaning and women who were seen breastfeeding were often thought of as uncultured, poor and often shunned. The practice became very popular when doctors of the time did all they could to prove that breastfeeding was an unhealthy act for women. It is believed that doctors were paid huge sums of money to write such reports.

The children of slaves grew healthy while many white families lost their children to ill health. This made many westerners force slave mothers to breastfeed their white children so that they could develop better and survive the early months of childhood.

By the 18th century, the trend had become very popular.

Once a slave mother had a child, she was quickly assigned to a white mistress and forced to breastfeed her white baby instead of her own.

Young and healthy slave women were also forced to breastfeed white babies after doctors discovered that the continuous sucking of a sexually active female breast could result in lactation.

While they breastfed white babies at the expense of theirs, slave mothers tried to keep their children alive by feeding them with concoctions they believed will be good substitutes for milk. They also gave cow milk and dirty water which were not suitable for babies health. This resulted in high deaths of babies of slaved throughout the slave trade.

At the peak of the forced wet nursing, slave traders often kidnapped newborn babies from their slave mothers. The pain in the breasts left these women with no choice but to breastfeed other babies who were often white. Some reluctant slaves were beaten and often milked like cows to feed white babies.

Slave mothers often kept the white babies in their homes until the child’s family felt it was time to take them back. Since the living conditions of the slaves were not the best, several white babies died. Speculating that slave mothers were killing the babies out of spite, they were later forced to move in with the family where they could be monitored

The enslaved wet nurses were rejected by their husbands especially after the death of their own child. Another consequence of the practice was slave masters and their sons having affairs with slave women resulting into increased births of mixed race babies.

The practice started to die down after slaves were slowly getting their freedom. Most of the wet nurses were saved by their families or lovers who bought their freedom for them.

A few African-American women continued wet nursing after slavery had been abolished. Though they were discouraged continuously, they did the job in secret and earned more than self-employed freed slaves and butlers. They were often called prostitutes or shameless women.

Wet nursing existed for many centuries dating as far back as the biblical days. However, in history, only slave mothers were forced into the act.

The New York Times’ 1619 Project

The 1619 Project is an ongoing project developed by The New York Times Magazine in 2019 with the goal of re-examining the legacy of slavery in the United States and timed for the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Africans in Virginia. It is an interactive project by Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter for The New York Times, with contributions by the paper’s writers, including essays on the history of different aspects of contemporary American life which the authors believe have “roots in slavery and its aftermath.”[1] It also includes poems, short fiction, and a photo essay.[2] Originally conceived of as a special issue for August 20, 2019, it was soon turned into a full-fledged project, including a special broadsheet section in the newspaper, live events, and a multi-episode podcast series

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Racist Reasons for American Revolutionary War

“The price of freedom from England was bondage for African slaves in America. America would be a slave nation.” Eleanor Holmes Norton

  • Typical causes taught about American Revolutionary war (1775–1783)
    • Harsh taxes to pay for the French and Indian War and a standing army
    • Some taxes were relatively small but there was a slippery slope fear
      • Taxation without representation
  • Protect slavery
    • Somerset Case (1772)
      • Declared slavery was unsupported by the common law in England freeing 15,000 slaves in England
        • Set the stage to end slavery in all English colonies by 1833 (1843 in India)
        • Caused many US slaves to challenge their bondage in court
    • “Repugnancy clauses”
      • British charters that created colonies which stated that Americans could not make legislation that was contrary to British laws
    • Before 1772 the Southern colonies were hesitant with supporting Northern colonies resistance to English rule
      • In 1774, at the First Continental Congress John Adams promised Southern leaders to support their right to maintain slavery
        • Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, Constitution all had wording to protect slavery
          • For example in early drafts of the Declaration of Independence “All men are born equally free and independent”
          • Changed by Jefferson to say “All men were created equal” to prevent the implication that slaves should be free.
        • The Southern States join the American Revolutionary shortly after

“Taxation might have taken some of their property; Somerset threatened to take it all.” Alfred and Ruth Blumrosen   Slave Nation: How Slavery United The Colonies And Sparked The American Revolution

  • Expand ethnic cleansing of Native Americans
    • To avoid border conflicts the British colonial gov initiated Proclamation of 1763 that restricted westward expansion
      • In Canada the 1763 proclamation is a fundamental document providing rights to self-government to First Nations tribes
      • US independence made the proclamation void here
    • First US law wasn’t constitution but Northwest Ordinance (2 months before)
      • Blueprint for colonizing “British protected” Native American land West of Appalachia
  • Independence also enabled:
    • Trail or Tears
    • Acquisition of territory in the West through the Louisiana Purchase
    • Mexican-American War
    • More ethnic cleansing and brutalities against Native Americans
  • Gave America’s white male minority more power
    • While excluding the vast majority of the country
    • Women, slaves, Natives, immigrants of color, etc

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“But the Constitution was also built from the timber of another bargain. In this one, major southern and northern power-brokers forced their more reluctant colleagues to consent to both the survival and the expansion of slavery. The first point of debate and compromise had been the issue of whether enslaved people should be counted in determining representation in the House. Representing Pennsylvania, Gouverneur Morris warned that this would encourage the slave trade from Africa, since the importing states would be rewarded with more clout in the national government. In the end, however, every northern state but one agreed that a slave could count as three-fifths of a person in allocating representation. The Three-Fifths Compromise affected not only the House, but also the presidency, since each state’s number of electoral votes was to be determined by adding two (for its senators) to its number of representatives in the House. One result was the South’s dominance of the presidency over the next seventy years. Four of the first five presidents would be Virginia slaveholders. Eight of the first dozen owned people.

Over the long run, those presidents helped to shape the nation’s policy of geographic and economic growth around the expansion of slavery.” Edward Baptist: The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

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Daily Kios: Was Slavery a Cause of the Revolutionary War? Yes.

“Reasons for the Revolutionary War, as typically taught in American schools:

• The American people were fiercely independent. They wanted to do things for themselves.  They didn’t want the British government, which was an ocean away, telling them how to live their lives.

• A combination of harsh taxes and the lack of an American voice in the British Parliament gave rise to the famous phrase “taxation without representation.”

• Americans started stockpiling guns and ammunition in violation of British laws. Their defense of such a stockpile led to the shots fired at Lexington and Concord and the beginning of the Revolutionary War.

On June 22, 1772, nearly a century before the slaves were freed in America, a British judge, with a single decision, brought about the conditions that would end slavery in England. His decision would have monumental consequences in the American colonies, leading up to the American Revolution, the Civil War, and beyond. Because of that ruling, history would forever be changed. This book is about that decision and the role of slavery in the founding of the United States

–  from Slave Nation: How Slavery United The Colonies And Sparked The American Revolution, by Alfred and Ruth Blumrosen  

Truth hurts. And this might be one of the more hurtful truths an American can learn: a major reason for the Revolutionary War was the protection of slavery.

That’s not something they teach in the schools. But our history lessons might look different in the future, if more people read the book Slave Nation: How Slavery United The Colonies And Sparked The American Revolution, by Alfred and Ruth Blumrosen.

The Blumrosens, former lawyers for the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice, have a background in equal employment law. Over the course of their careers, they developed an interest in the historical causes of America’s racial inequities. The result is this book, which applies a lawyer’s insight into what they show to be a disturbing aspect of American history.

The main point of their book is that the American colonists-particularly Southern colonists-were afraid that the British government would abolish slavery. And that this fear was a major reason for the colonists’ desire to break away from Great Britain.

Here’s the problem with the way the Revolutionary War is taught: much of the story about the War centers on the northern colonies, particularly Massachusetts, where pivotal events such as the Boston Tea Party and the Boston Massacre took place, and where the term “no taxation without representation” originated. And there’s no doubt that Massachusetts was a flashpoint in the coming war of independence.

But there were 13 original colonies, and the southern colonies had a unique interest of their own to worry about: protecting their “right” to keep slaves.

In June of 1772, the British courts issued judgement in what is called the Somerset Case. The case involved a runaway slave, James Somerset, who was the  “property” of Charles Stewart, a customs officer from Boston, Massachusetts. Stewart and Somerset came to England from America in 1769. During his time in England, Somerset was exposed to the free black community there, and was inspired to escape his master in late 1771.

Somerset’s escape was not successful; he was caught, and was to be sent (for sale?) to the British colony of Jamaica.  However, Somerset was defended and supported by abolitionists who went to court on his behalf, and prevented his being shipped to Jamaica. As noted in Wikipedia, “The lawyers… on behalf of Somerset… argued that while colonial laws might permit slavery, neither the common law of England nor any law made by Parliament recognized the existence of slavery, and slavery was therefore illegal.”

The Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, Lord Mansfield, said in his ruling:

..The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political; but only positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory: it’s so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from a decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.

Although the Somerset decision was binding in England, it was not the law of the land in the American colonies… yet. However, the charters from Britain that created the various colonies contained so-called “repugnancy clauses” which said that the Americans could not make legislation that was contrary to British laws. And in 1766, Britain passed the Declaratory Act which gave the British parliament power over “all cases whatsoever” involving American laws.

This made Southerners concerned, for two reasons. First, they were worried that American slaves would hear about the Somerset decision, and try to escape to England where they would be declared free per the decision’s precedent. But even more, they were worried that slavery in America was endangered, as explained in the book:

The possibility of a British rejection of slavery anywhere in the empire appalled the (southern) plantation owners… because slavery was a necessary underpinning of their prosperity. Slavery was the foundation of the economic and social environment that their leaders represented and protected.

The riches that flowed from slave ownership were threefold: the value of the slaves themselves, both as capital and as security for loans; the value of the product they produced, including more slaves; and the value of the land they cleared and planted.

Slavery in the southern colonies made white slave owners the wealthiest group on the mainland…

The importance of slavery to the southern colonists had its roots in the pre-Revolutionary period. As a result of a rebellion by poor whites in 1676, Virginia shifted its labor force from a mix of black slaves and white indentured servants to slaves alone.

Most whites owned one or two slaves, not the much larger numbers owned by the major planters. But these few slaves were crucial to their masters in easing the daily labor necessary for an agricultural existence. For example, owning slaves enabled white children to have some schooling, or enabled ill or disabled family members to bear lighter loads.

All of these considerations combined to make southern political lawyers anxious about their property in slaves that was threatened by the Somerset decision. Taxation might have taken some of their property; Somerset threatened to take it all.

The book goes on to tell how major decisions made by the Americans-such as the agreement to break from British rule, the wording of the Declaration of Independence, and the formulation of the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution-were all done in a manner that protected the right of the South to maintain slavery.

For example: in early drafts of the Declaration of Independence, the language that said “All men are born equally free and independent” was changed by Thomas Jefferson to “All men were created equal” to prevent the implication that slaves should be free.

In the end, though, the Revolutionary War did not prevent the conflict over slavery from coming to a head; it merely delayed it.

As the book notes, many in the North (and some Southerners, too) abhorred slavery, but compromises were made continually with the Southerners for the sake of unity. While much of the enmity toward slavery was based on religious and moral grounds, some of it was based on economics: many felt that slavery undercut the labor market for white men. Over time, anti-slavery sentiment grew to a boil.”

Zinn Education Project: Slave Nation: How Slavery United the Colonies & Sparked the American Revolution

“This carefully documented, chilling history presents a radically different view of the profound role that slavery played in the founding of the republic, from the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution through the creation of the Constitution. The book begins with a novel explanation about the impact of the Somerset Case on the founding of the republic.

In 1772, a judge sitting in the High Court in London declared slavery “so odious” that it could not exist at common law and set the conditions which would consequently result in the freedom of the 15,000 slaves living in England. This decision eventually reached America and terrified slaveholders in the collection of British colonies, subject to British law. The predominantly southern slave-owners feared that this decision would cause the emancipation of their slaves. It did result in some slaves freeing themselves.

To ensure the preservation of slavery, the southern colonies joined the northerners in their fight for “freedom” and their rebellion against England. In 1774, at the First Continental Congress John Adams promised southern leaders to support their right to maintain slavery. As Eleanor Holmes Norton explains in her introduction, “The price of freedom from England was bondage for African slaves in America. America would be a slave nation.”

Thomas Jefferson relied on this understanding when carefully crafting the stirring words of the Declaration of Independence. In 1787, about the time Benjamin Franklin proposed the first affirmative action plan, negotiations over a new Constitution ground to a halt until the southern states agreed to allow the prohibition of slavery north of the Ohio River. The resulting Northwest Ordinance created the largest slave-free area in the world. Slave Nation is a fascinating account of the role slavery played in the foundations of the United States that traces this process of negotiation through the adoption of Northwest Ordinance in 1787, and informs our understanding of later events including the Civil War and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. [Publisher’s description.]

Jeffrey Ostler: The Shameful Final Grievance of the Declaration of Independence

1. Abolition would have come faster without independence

The main reason the revolution was a mistake is that the British Empire, in all likelihood, would have abolished slavery earlier than the US did, and with less bloodshed.

Abolition in most of the British Empire occurred in 1834, following the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act. That left out India, but slavery was banned there, too, in 1843. In England itself, slavery was illegal at least going back to 1772. That’s decades earlier than the United States.

This alone is enough to make the case against the revolution. Decades less slavery is a massive humanitarian gain that almost certainly dominates whatever gains came to the colonists from independence.

The main benefit of the revolution to colonists was that it gave more political power to America’s white male minority. For the vast majority of the country — its women, slaves, American Indians — the difference between disenfranchisement in an independent America and disenfranchisement in a British-controlled colonial America was negligible. If anything, the latter would’ve been preferable, since at least women and minorities wouldn’t be singled out for disenfranchisement. From the vantage point of most of the country, who cares if white men had to suffer through what everyone else did for a while longer, especially if them doing so meant slaves gained decades of free life?

It’s true that had the US stayed, Britain would have had much more to gain from the continuance of slavery than it did without America. It controlled a number of dependencies with slave economies — notably Jamaica and other islands in the West Indies — but nothing on the scale of the American South. Adding that into the mix would’ve made abolition significantly more costly.

But the South’s political influence within the British Empire would have been vastly smaller than its influence in the early American republic. For one thing, the South, like all other British dependencies, lacked representation in Parliament. The Southern states were colonies, and their interests were discounted by the British government accordingly. But the South was also simply smaller as a chunk of the British Empire’s economy at the time than it was as a portion of America’s. The British crown had less to lose from the abolition of slavery than white elites in an independent America did.

The revolutionaries understood this. Indeed, a desire to preserve slavery helped fuel Southern support for the war. In 1775, after the war had begun in Massachusetts, the Earl of Dunmore, then governor of Virginia, offered the slaves of rebels freedom if they came and fought for the British cause. Eric Herschthal, a PhD student in history at Columbia, notes that the proclamation united white Virginians behind the rebel effort. He quotes Philip Fithian, who was traveling through Virginia when the proclamation was made, saying, “The Inhabitants of this Colony are deeply alarmed at this infernal Scheme. It seems to quicken all in Revolution to overpower him at any Risk.” Anger at Dunmore’s emancipation ran so deep that Thomas Jefferson included it as a grievance in a draft of the Declaration of Independence. That’s right: the declaration could’ve included “they’re conscripting our slaves” as a reason for independence.

For white slaveholders in the South, Simon Schama writes in Rough Crossings, his history of black loyalism during the Revolution, the war was “a revolution, first and foremost, mobilized to protect slavery.”

Slaves also understood that their odds of liberation were better under British rule than independence. Over the course of the war, about 100,000 African slaves escaped, died, or were killed, and tens of thousands enlisted in the British army, far more than joined the rebels. “Black Americans’ quest for liberty was mostly tied to fighting for the British — the side in the War for Independence that offered them freedom,” historian Gary Nash writes in The Forgotten Fifth, his history of African Americans in the revolution. At the end of the war, thousands who helped the British were evacuated to freedom in Nova Scotia, Jamaica, and England.

This is not to say the British were motivated by a desire to help slaves; of course they weren’t. But American slaves chose a side in the revolution, the side of the crown. They were no fools. They knew that independence meant more power for the plantation class that had enslaved them and that a British victory offered far greater prospects for freedom.

2. Independence was bad for Native Americans

Starting with the Proclamation of 1763, the British colonial government placed firm limits on westward settlement in the United States. It wasn’t motivated by an altruistic desire to keep American Indians from being subjugated or anything; it just wanted to avoid border conflicts.

But all the same, the policy enraged American settlers, who were appalled that the British would seem to side with Indians over white men. “The British government remained willing to conceive of Native Americans as subjects of the crown, similar to colonists,” Ethan Schmidt writes in Native Americans in the American Revolution. “American colonists … refused to see Indians as fellow subjects. Instead, they viewed them as obstacles in the way of their dreams of land ownership and trading wealth.” This view is reflected in the Declaration of Independence, which attacks King George III for backing “merciless Indian Savages.”

American independence made the proclamation void here. It’s not void in Canada — indeed, there the 1763 proclamation is viewed as a fundamental document providing rights to self-government to First Nations tribes. It’s mentioned explicitly in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Canada’s Bill of Rights), which protects “any rights or freedoms that have been recognized by the Royal Proclamation of October 7, 1763” for all aboriginal people. Historian Colin Calloway writes in The Scratch of a Pen: 1763 and the Transformation of North America that the proclamation “still forms the basis for dealings between Canada’s government and Canada’s First Nations.”

And, unsurprisingly, Canada didn’t see Indian wars and removals as large and sweeping as occurred in the US. They still committed horrible, indefensible crimes. Canada, under British rule and after, brutally mistreated aboriginal people, not least through government-inflicted famines and the state’s horrific seizure of children from their families so they could attend residential schools. But the country didn’t experience a westward expansion as violent and deadly as that pursued by the US government and settlers. Absent the revolution, Britain probably would’ve moved into Indian lands. But fewer people would have died.

Robert Lindneux

None of this is to minimize the extent of British and Canadian crimes against Natives. “It’s a hard case to make because even though I do think Canada’s treatment of Natives was better than the United States, it was still terrible,” the Canadian essayist Jeet Heer tells me in an email (Heer has also written a great case against American independence). “On the plus side for Canada: there were no outright genocides like the Trail of Tears (aside from the Beothuks of Newfoundland). The population statistics are telling: 1.4 million people of aboriginal descent in Canada as against 5.2 million in the USA. Given the fact that America is far more hospitable as an environment and has 10 times the non-aboriginal population, that’s telling.”

Independence also enabled acquisition of territory in the West through the Louisiana Purchase and the Mexican-American War. That ensured that America’s particularly rapacious brand of colonialism ensnared yet more native peoples. And while Mexico and France were no angels, what America brought was worse. Before the war, the Apache and Comanche were in frequent violent conflict with the Mexican government. But they were Mexican citizens. The US refused to make them American citizens for a century. And then, of course, it violently forced them into reservations, killing many in the process.

American Indians would have still, in all likelihood, faced violence and oppression absent American independence, just as First Nations people in Canada did. But American-scale ethnic cleansing wouldn’t have occurred. And like America’s slaves, American Indians knew this. Most tribes sided with the British or stayed neutral; only a small minority backed the rebels. Generally speaking, when a cause is opposed by the two most vulnerable groups in a society, it’s probably a bad idea. So it is with the cause of American independence.

3. America would have a better system of government if we’d stuck with Britain

Honestly, I think earlier abolition alone is enough to make the case against the revolution, and it combined with less-horrible treatment of American Indians is more than enough. But it’s worth taking a second to praise a less important but still significant consequence of the US sticking with Britain: we would’ve, in all likelihood, become a parliamentary democracy rather than a presidential one.

And parliamentary democracies are a lot, lot better than presidential ones. They’re significantly less likely to collapse into dictatorship because they don’t lead to irresolvable conflicts between, say, the president and the legislature. They lead to much less gridlock.

In the US, activists wanting to put a price on carbon emissions spent years trying to put together a coalition to make it happen, mobilizing sympathetic businesses and philanthropists and attempting to make bipartisan coalition — and they still failed to pass cap and trade, after millions of dollars and man hours. In the UK, the Conservative government decided it wanted a carbon tax. So there was a carbon tax. Just like that. Passing big, necessary legislation — in this case, legislation that’s literally necessary to save the planet — is a whole lot easier with parliaments than with presidential systems.

This is no trivial matter. Efficient passage of legislation has huge humanitarian consequences. It makes measures of planetary importance, like carbon taxes, easier to get through; they still face political pushback, of course — Australia’s tax got repealed, after all — but they can be enacted in the first place, which is far harder in the US system. And the efficiency of parliamentary systems enables larger social welfare programs that reduce inequality and improve life for poor citizens. Government spending in parliamentary countries is about 5 percent of GDP higher, after controlling for other factors, than in presidential countries. If you believe in redistribution, that’s very good news indeed.

The Westminister system of parliamentary democracy also benefits from weaker upper houses. The US is saddled with a Senate that gives Wyoming the same power as California, which has more than 66 times as many people. Worse, the Senate is equal in power to the lower, more representative house. Most countries following the British system have upper houses — only New Zealand was wise enough to abolish it — but they’re far, far weaker than their lower houses. The Canadian Senate and the House of Lords affect legislation only in rare cases. At most, they can hold things up a bit or force minor tweaks. They aren’t capable of obstruction anywhere near the level of the US Senate.

Finally, we’d still likely be a monarchy, under the rule of Elizabeth II, and constitutional monarchy is the best system of government known to man. Generally speaking, in a parliamentary system, you need a head of state who is not the prime minister to serve as a disinterested arbiter when there are disputes about how to form a government — say, if the largest party should be allowed to form a minority government or if smaller parties should be allowed to form a coalition, to name a recent example from Canada. That head of state is usually a figurehead president elected by the parliament (Germany, Italy) or the people (Ireland, Finland), or a monarch. And monarchs are better.

Monarchs are more effective than presidents precisely because they lack any semblance of legitimacy. It would be offensive for Queen Elizabeth or her representatives in Canada, New Zealand, etc. to meddle in domestic politics. Indeed, when the governor-general of Australia did so in 1975 it set off a constitutional crisis that made it clear such behavior would not be tolerated. But figurehead presidents have some degree of democratic legitimacy and are typically former politicians. That enables a greater rate of shenanigans — like when Italian President Giorgio Napolitano schemed, successfully, to remove Silvio Berlusconi as prime minister due at least in part to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s entreaties to do so.

Napolitano is the rule, rather than the exception. Oxford political scientists Petra Schleiter and Edward Morgan-Jones have found that presidents, whether elected indirectly by parliament or directly by the people, are likelier to allow governments to change without new elections than monarchs are. In other words, they’re likelier to change the government without any democratic input at all. Monarchy is, perhaps paradoxically, the more democratic option.

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America as a Slavocracy

“A slavocracy also known as a plantocracy, is a ruling class, political order or government composed of (or dominated by) slave owners and plantation owners.”Wikipedia

PBS: The 1619 Project details the legacy of slavery in America

  • Constitution of United States (1787)
    • Article I: enslaved people are 3/5s person (3/5 Compromise)
      • Gave South extra representation and Electoral College votes
      • Jefferson would have lost the election of 1800 if not for 3/5 Compromise
    • Prohibited outlawing Atlantic slave trade for 20 years
    • Fugitive Slave Clause required states to return runaway enslaved people
    • Of the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention
      • About 25 owned slaves
    • Abolitionist William Garrison claimed Constitution proslavery
      • Called it “a covenant with death and an agreement with Hell”
  • Naturalization Act of 1798
    • Stated only whites can be naturalized as citizens
      • Citizens have right to vote, own land, due process, juries, etc.
    • First time “white” in legal doc that states US national identity
  • Early US Census Classifications:
    • 1790 to 1850: White, Free People of Color, and Black

“American notions of race are the product of racism, not the other way around. We know this because we can see the formation of “race” in American law and policy” Ta-Nehisi Coates, How Racism Invented Race in America

Invisible White Supremacy and the Constitution

“although white supremacy has shaped Western political thought for hundreds of years, it is never named. In this way, white supremacy is rendered invisible while other political systems, socialism, capitalism, fascism, are identified and studied. In fact, much of white supremacy’s power is drawn from its invisibility, the taken-for-granted aspects that underwrite all other political and social contracts “ Robin Diangelo, White Fragilty

  • Despite being a nation founded on slavery
    • The constitution doesn’t mention race, white supremacy, slaves, slavery
    • First references to “race” and “color” occurs in the 15th Amendment ratified in 1870
    • The Constitution refers to slaves using three different formulations:
      • “other persons”
      • “such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit”
      • “person held to service or labor in one state under the laws thereof”
    • “Reading the original Constitution, a visitor from a foreign land would simply have no way of knowing that race-based slavery existed in America” David Azerrad, Heritage
  • White supremacy was covered up by other concepts
    • Property rights, capitalism, Democracy, manifest destiny, constitutional rights only for a few, etc.
  • White internalization of white supremacy
    • American institutions, culture and subconscious created a world where, without even thinking:
      • Normal and good was “white” and everything different and bad was “non-white”
        • Instead of defending white supremacy, white people could just defend “civility” and “decency”

“White supremacy is the unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today. You will not find this term in introductory, or even advanced, texts in political theory. … But though it covers more than two thousand years of Western political thought and runs the ostensible gamut of political systems, there will be no mention of the basic political system that has shaped the world for the past several hundred years. And this omission is not accidental.

Rather, it reflects the fact that standard textbooks and courses have for the most part been written and designed by whites, who take their racial privilege so much for granted that they do not even see it as political, as a form of domination. Ironically , the most important political system of recent global history, the system of domination by which white people have historically ruled over and, in certain important ways, continue to rule over nonwhite people, is not seen as a political system at all.” The Racial Contract, Charles W Mills

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Benjamin Franklin, scientist:
“Why increase the sons of Africa, by planting them in America, where we have so fair an opportunity, by excluding all blacks and tawnys, or increasing the lovely white and red?”

Thomas Jefferson, president:
“I advance it, therefore, as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race or made distinct by time or circumstance, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”

Abraham Lincoln, president:
“There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together … while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

Henry Berry, Virginia House of Representatives:
“We have, as far as possible closed, every avenue by which the light might enter the slave’s mind. If we could extinguish the capacity to see the light, our work would be complete. They would then be on the level of the beast of the fields, and we then should be safe.”

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Wilfred Codrington III: The Electoral College’s Racist Origins

More than two centuries after it was designed to empower southern white voters, the system continues to do just that.

Is a color-blind political system possible under our Constitution? If it is, the Supreme Court’s evisceration of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 did little to help matters. While black people in America today are not experiencing 1950s levels of voter suppression, efforts to keep them and other citizens from participating in elections began within 24 hours of the Shelby County v. Holder ruling and have only increased since then.

In Shelby County’s oral argument, Justice Antonin Scalia cautioned, “Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get them out through the normal political processes.” Ironically enough, there is some truth to an otherwise frighteningly numb claim. American elections have an acute history of racial entitlements—only they don’t privilege black Americans.

For centuries, white votes have gotten undue weight, as a result of innovations such as poll taxes and voter-ID laws and outright violence to discourage racial minorities from voting. (The point was obvious to anyone paying attention: As William F. Buckley argued in his essay “Why the South Must Prevail,” white Americans are “entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally,” anywhere they are outnumbered because they are part of “the advanced race.”) But America’s institutions boosted white political power in less obvious ways, too, and the nation’s oldest structural racial entitlement program is one of its most consequential: the Electoral College.

Commentators today tend to downplay the extent to which race and slavery contributed to the Framers’ creation of the Electoral College, in effect whitewashing history: Of the considerations that factored into the Framers’ calculus, race and slavery were perhaps the foremost.Of course, the Framers had a number of other reasons to engineer the Electoral College. Fearful that the president might fall victim to a host of civic vices—that he could become susceptible to corruption or cronyism, sow disunity, or exercise overreach—the men sought to constrain executive power consistent with constitutional principles such as federalism and checks and balances. The delegates to the Philadelphia convention had scant conception of the American presidency—the duties, powers, and limits of the office. But they did have a handful of ideas about the method for selecting the chief executive. When the idea of a popular vote was raised, they griped openly that it could result in too much democracy. With few objections, they quickly dispensed with the notion that the people might choose their leader.

But delegates from the slaveholding South had another rationale for opposing the direct election method, and they had no qualms about articulating it: Doing so would be to their disadvantage. Even James Madison, who professed a theoretical commitment to popular democracy, succumbed to the realities of the situation. The future president acknowledged that “the people at large was in his opinion the fittest” to select the chief executive. And yet, in the same breath, he captured the sentiment of the South in the most “diplomatic” terms:

There was one difficulty however of a serious nature attending an immediate choice by the people. The right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of the Negroes. The substitution of electors obviated this difficulty and seemed on the whole to be liable to fewest objections.

Behind Madison’s statement were the stark facts: The populations in the North and South were approximately equal, but roughly one-third of those living in the South were held in bondage. Because of its considerable, nonvoting slave population, that region would have less clout under a popular-vote system. The ultimate solution was an indirect method of choosing the president, one that could leverage the three-fifths compromise, the Faustian bargain they’d already made to determine how congressional seats would be apportioned. With about 93 percent of the country’s slaves toiling in just five southern states, that region was the undoubted beneficiary of the compromise, increasing the size of the South’s congressional delegation by 42 percent. When the time came to agree on a system for choosing the president, it was all too easy for the delegates to resort to the three-fifths compromise as the foundation. The peculiar system that emerged was the Electoral College.

Right from the get-go, the Electoral College has produced no shortage of lessons about the impact of racial entitlement in selecting the president. History buffs and Hamilton fans are aware that in its first major failure, the Electoral College produced a tie between Thomas Jefferson and his putative running mate, Aaron Burr. What’s less known about the election of 1800 is the way the Electoral College succeeded, which is to say that it operated as one might have expected, based on its embrace of the three-fifths compromise. The South’s baked-in advantages—the bonus electoral votes it received for maintaining slaves, all while not allowing those slaves to vote—made the difference in the election outcome. It gave the slaveholder Jefferson an edge over his opponent, the incumbent president and abolitionist John Adams. To quote Yale Law’s Akhil Reed Amar, the third president “metaphorically rode into the executive mansion on the backs of slaves.” That election continued an almost uninterrupted trend of southern slaveholders and their doughfaced sympathizers winning the White House that lasted until Abraham Lincoln’s victory in 1860.

In 1803, the Twelfth Amendment modified the Electoral College to prevent another Jefferson-Burr–type debacle. Six decades later, the Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery, thus ridding the South of its windfall electors. Nevertheless, the shoddy system continued to cleave the American democratic ideal along racial lines. In the 1876 presidential election, the Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular vote, but some electoral votes were in dispute, including those in—wait for it—Florida. An ad hoc commission of lawmakers and Supreme Court justices was empaneled to resolve the matter. Ultimately, they awarded the contested electoral votes to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, who had lost the popular vote. As a part of the agreement, known as the Compromise of 1877, the federal government removed the troops that were stationed in the South after the Civil War to maintain order and protect black voters.

The deal at once marked the end of the brief Reconstruction era, the redemption of the old South, and the birth of the Jim Crow regime. The decision to remove soldiers from the South led to the restoration of white supremacy in voting through the systematic disenfranchisement of black people, virtually accomplishing over the next eight decades what slavery had accomplished in the country’s first eight decades. And so the Electoral College’s misfire in 1876 helped ensure that Reconstruction would not remove the original stain of slavery so much as smear it onto the other parts of the Constitution’s fabric, and countenance the racialized patchwork democracy that endured until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

What’s clear is that, more than two centuries after it was designed to empower southern whites, the Electoral College continues to do just that. The current system has a distinct, adverse impact on black voters, diluting their political power. Because the concentration of black people is highest in the South, their preferred presidential candidate is virtually assured to lose their home states’ electoral votes. Despite black voting patterns to the contrary, five of the six states whose populations are 25 percent or more black have been reliably red in recent presidential elections. Three of those states have not voted for a Democrat in more than four decades. Under the Electoral College, black votes are submerged. It’s the precise reason for the success of the southern strategy. It’s precisely how, as Buckley might say, the South has prevailed.

Among the Electoral College’s supporters, the favorite rationalization is that without the advantage, politicians might disregard a large swath of the country’s voters, particularly those in small or geographically inconvenient states. Even if the claim were true, it’s hardly conceivable that switching to a popular-vote system would lead candidates to ignore more voters than they do under the current one. Three-quarters of Americans live in states where most of the major parties’ presidential candidates do not campaign.More important, this “voters will be ignored” rationale is morally indefensible. Awarding a numerical few voting “enhancements” to decide for the many amounts to a tyranny of the minority. Under any other circumstances, we would call an electoral system that weights some votes more than others a farce—which the Supreme Court, more or less, did in a series of landmark cases. Can you imagine a world in which the votes of black people were weighted more heavily because presidential candidates would otherwise ignore them, or, for that matter, any other reason? No. That would be a racial entitlement. What’s easier to imagine is the racial burdens the Electoral College continues to wreak on them.

Critics of the Electoral College are right to denounce it for handing victory to the loser of the popular vote twice in the past two decades. They are also correct to point out that it distorts our politics, including by encouraging presidential campaigns to concentrate their efforts in a few states that are not representative of the country at large. But the disempowerment of black voters needs to be added to that list of concerns, because it is core to what the Electoral College is and what it always has been.

The race-consciousness establishment—and retention—of the Electoral College has supported an entitlement program that our 21st-century democracy cannot justify. If people truly want ours to be a race-blind politics, they can start by plucking that strange, low-hanging fruit from the Constitution.

: Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. lack mericans have fought to make them true.

“…They (enslaved Black people) grew and picked the cotton that at the height of slavery was the nation’s most valuable commodity, accounting for half of all American exports and 66 percent of the world’s supply. They built the plantations of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, sprawling properties that today attract thousands of visitors from across the globe captivated by the history of the world’s greatest democracy. They laid the foundations of the White House and the Capitol, even placing with their unfree hands the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol dome. They lugged the heavy wooden tracks of the railroads that crisscrossed the South and that helped take the cotton they picked to the Northern textile mills, fueling the Industrial Revolution. They built vast fortunes for white people North and South — at one time, the second-richest man in the nation was a Rhode Island “slave trader.” Profits from black people’s stolen labor helped the young nation pay off its war debts and financed some of our most prestigious universities. It was the relentless buying, selling, insuring and financing of their bodies and the products of their labor that made Wall Street a thriving banking, insurance and trading sector and New York City the financial capital of the world…

… The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. Our Declaration of Independence, approved on July 4, 1776, proclaims that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst. “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” did not apply to fully one-fifth of the country.

Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves — black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights. Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans, our democracy today would most likely look very different — it might not be a democracy at all.

At the time, one-fifth of the population within the 13 colonies struggled under a brutal system of slavery unlike anything that had existed in the world before. Chattel slavery was not conditional but racial. It was heritable and permanent, not temporary, meaning generations of black people were born into it and passed their enslaved status onto their children. Enslaved people were not recognized as human beings but as property that could be mortgaged, traded, bought, sold, used as collateral, given as a gift and disposed of violently. Jefferson’s fellow white colonists knew that black people were human beings, but they created a network of laws and customs, astounding for both their precision and cruelty, that ensured that enslaved people would never be treated as such.

Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons some of the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery. By 1776, Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution that had reshaped the Western Hemisphere. In London, there were growing calls to abolish the slave trade. This would have upended the economy of the colonies, in both the North and the South. The wealth and prominence that allowed Jefferson, at just 33, and the other founding fathers to believe they could successfully break off from one of the mightiest empires in the world came from the dizzying profits generated by chattel slavery. In other words, we may never have revolted against Britain if some of the founders had not understood that slavery empowered them to do so; nor if they had not believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue. It is not incidental that 10 of this nation’s first 12 presidents were enslavers, and some might argue that this nation was founded not as a democracy but as a slavocracy.

There is no mention of slavery in the final Declaration of Independence. Similarly, 11 years later, when it came time to draft the Constitution, the framers carefully constructed a document that preserved and protected slavery without ever using the word. In the texts in which they were making the case for freedom to the world, they did not want to explicitly enshrine their hypocrisy, so they sought to hide it. The Constitution contains 84 clauses. Six deal directly with the enslaved and their enslavement, as the historian David Waldstreicher has written, and five more hold implications for slavery. The Constitution protected the “property” of those who enslaved black people, prohibited the federal government from intervening to end the importation of enslaved Africans for a term of 20 years, allowed Congress to mobilize the militia to put down insurrections by the enslaved and forced states that had outlawed slavery to turn over enslaved people who had run away seeking refuge. Like many others, the writer and abolitionist Samuel Bryan called out the deceit, saying of the Constitution, “The words are dark and ambiguous; such as no plain man of common sense would have used, [and] are evidently chosen to conceal from Europe, that in this enlightened country, the practice of slavery has its advocates among men in the highest stations.”

The Supreme Court enshrined this thinking in the law in its 1857 Dred Scott decision, ruling that black people, whether enslaved or free, came from a “slave” race. This made them inferior to white people and, therefore, incompatible with American democracy. Democracy was for citizens, and the “Negro race,” the court ruled, was “a separate class of persons,” which the founders had “not regarded as a portion of the people or citizens of the Government” and had “no rights which a white man was bound to respect.” This belief, that black people were not merely enslaved but were a slave race, became the root of the endemic racism that we still cannot purge from this nation to this day. If black people could not ever be citizens, if they were a caste apart from all other humans, then they did not require the rights bestowed by the Constitution, and the “we” in the “We the People” was not a lie…

… For the most part, black Americans fought back alone. Yet we never fought only for ourselves. The bloody freedom struggles of the civil rights movement laid the foundation for every other modern rights struggle. This nation’s white founders set up a decidedly undemocratic Constitution that excluded women, Native Americans and black people, and did not provide the vote or equality for most Americans. But the laws born out of black resistance guarantee the franchise for all and ban discrimination based not just on race but on gender, nationality, religion and ability. It was the civil rights movement that led to the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which upended the racist immigration quota system intended to keep this country white. Because of black Americans, black and brown immigrants from across the globe are able to come to the United States and live in a country in which legal discrimination is no longer allowed. It is a truly American irony that some Asian-Americans, among the groups able to immigrate to the United States because of the black civil rights struggle, are now suing universities to end programs designed to help the descendants of the enslaved.” Nikole Hannah-Jones “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.”

“The clash between the Times authors and their historian critics represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society. Was America founded as a slavocracy, and are current racial inequities the natural outgrowth of that? Or was America conceived in liberty, a nation haltingly redeeming itself through its founding principles? These are not simple questions to answer, because the nation’s pro-slavery and anti-slavery tendencies are so closely intertwined.” Adam Serwer: The Fight Over the 1619 Project Is Not About the Facts

VPM: Times’ Nikole Hannah-Jones Discusses Reframing Slavery And Black Ascension With 1619 Project

Nikole Hannah-Jones is The New York Times Magazine staff writer and 2017 MacArthur Genius Grant Fellow whose idea blossomed into the Times’ 1619 Project. The 1619 Project marks the 400th anniversary of enslaved Africans being brought to Virginia. It includes works by black reporters, novelists, poets, photographers, historians and artists, seeking to reframe American history by telling the truth about slavery.

Gabrielle Jones, digital editor with VPM News, talked with Hannah-Jones about the work that went into the project and what she hopes its legacy will be.

Answers have been edited for clarity.

Q: Why did you feel it was important to use this project to set the record straight as opposed to only retelling the history of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in English North America?

Nikole Hannah-Jones: I decided that we needed to address in this project commemorating the 400th anniversary not just the history, but to really reframe the way that we have thought about both ourselves as a nation and the role that black Americans have played. 

The way that we are taught about slavery is that it was a marginal institution, that it was largely an issue amongst backwards southerners, and that it has had very little impact on other aspects of our society. And, that the way the things we see in our society now have little to do with slavery and the anti black racism that around that. That’s just not true. And the reason why we have tried to marginalize slavery is because it is very uncomfortable, because it reveals that these lofty ideals on which our country was founded were actually not true at the time and that it took a very long time for them to even begin to be true. And, that black people have had to fight to make them be true.

So I really hoped that we could use the platform of The Times and this anniversary to kind of force us to confront the truth about our history and also to force us to acknowledge that truth in order that we might be able to do something about the lingering legacy.

Q: The project is so rich. What was behind the decision to have so many different types of content as opposed to just traditional news reporting?

Nikole Hannah-Jones: When I pitched this idea to dedicate an entire issue of the magazine just to looking at the legacy of slavery, I think that the editors at the magazine understood that: One, how often do you ever get the chance to examine the 400th anniversary of anything but also something that is so central. And I think we all just wanted to create something that was worthy of the topic and that was worthy of 400 years. And simply running a reported news story was just not going to give this history and this legacy the heft and the transformative power that we wanted it to have. So really it just kept growing bigger and bigger and bigger. 

And I think that just speaks a lot to my colleagues but also to the times that we’re in. We’re trying to understand why we’re still dealing with these issues of race and racism, and this is just a great way to help us to see our country for what it really is. 

What’s really important to me about the less conventional parts of the project, which are the literary pieces and the original artwork — every writer on those literary pieces is black and the artworks are all created by black artists. And that is also a story of black ascension. It is a story of the descendants who are here because of everything that our enslaved ancestors went through, and I think that is very powerful. 

And if you read the issue of the magazine, the entire issue is making an argument. And when you’re just doing a straight news story, you’re not making an argument. You’re just trying to present facts and hope that people will gain something from those facts. We wanted to do more than this. We wanted to make an argument and to really force people to think differently about something, and that’s something that you simply just can’t do in a straight forward news piece. 

Q: One of the pieces that stood out for me was a photo essay featuring four recent graduates of Howard University Law School who descended from enslaved Africans. In the piece, you work with genealogist Kenyatta D. Berry to share something about those graduates’ enslaved ancestors. How did the idea for this piece develop?

Nikole Hannah-Jones: This is one of my favorite parts of the project and we very intentionally ended the magazine on that piece. And the reason for that is: I was really concerned. So much of our history is a devastating history. It is a history of oppression and violence and so much of what you read in the magazine is readily laying out the systematic oppression that black people faced. But it was very important to me that we also highlight that we have survived and we have thrived and we have persevered. What our ancestors endured is not the sum of who we are as a people. So I decided that I would love if we could do a photo essay and I picked Howard University intentionally because it is such a symbol of black striving of black excellence. The law school in particular, because we’ve probably seen no other institution play as large a role in affording civil rights through the law as that institution. So it just seemed a really beautiful and poignant way to cap off this series by saying, look into the eyes of the descendants, we’re going to tell you a little bit about where their ancestors came from, and that despite everything we are, we are still here and we are still thriving.

Q: One big theme of the project is diving into the mythology of the founding fathers as these pillars of freedom and democracy. Why do you think this mythology persists despite the contradictions between the myth, our founding documents themselves and the fact that many of them enslaved people?

Nikole Hannah-Jones: I mean, that’s easy, right? We want to believe a certain thing about ourselves. We have a national memory and that national memory is that we are an exceptional nation built on the individual rights of men to speak about the truth, which is that the men who were writing these words owned other human beings and deprived one-fifth of the population of all rights and all liberties. It’s just a very inconvenient truth to our national narrative. It actually proved that that national narrative is a lie, and so we just don’t deal with it. 

You know, think about how you are taught about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. And if we mention at all that they were enslavers, it is as an aside and not central. But the truth is 10 of the first 12 presidents were enslavers, and that is significant. That matters. That is not incidental.

The reason that our founding fathers even had the wealth and the privilege and stature to believe that they could break-off from the most powerful empire in the world at that time, was because of the profits that they were getting from forced labor of enslaved people.

 So I think we just cannot deal with the inherent hypocrisy of our founding. It goes against every myth we want to believe about ourselves. We don’t want to acknowledge that we were just one of many slavocracies that existed in the new world, and that we had these lofty ideals that the founding fathers fully did not intend to be for large segments of the population. 

My argument is that they did set out ideals that could get us to be that exceptional country, but the only way to get there is to acknowledge that we are not and to try to fix the flaws that this nation was born with.

Q: Now here in Virginia, lots of tourists visit Jamestown near the site where the initial group of enslaved Africans was brought to English North America. For a long time, these places focused on the history of white colonists who lived there but not the enslaved and indentured Africans who enabled them to do things like found the world’s first representative democracy. How do you think visitors to these places can hold these institutions accountable?

Nikole Hannah-Jones: I think visitors have to ask questions. ‘Why aren’t we learning about this?’ ‘When are we going to talk about this part of history?’

We have to be able to just grapple with the truth and we need to really ask ourselves, why do we adhere to these myths? Why? Why are we so uncomfortable grappling with the truth. It is hard. It is much easier to tell this a lovely story of these freedom seeking colonists. It is much more complicated to talk about the ways that they oppress the rights and freedoms of others, but it is the truth. And if you’re going to be doing historical reenactments, if you’re going to be pretending that this is the place you go to learn history, then you have to be devoted to telling that history. Right?

Q: Media and journalism specifically have often failed in telling the truth about the role of black people in this country and the institutions that have been used to subjugate us. Was part of your idea for the project to take this opportunity to course-correct journalism as an institution in media as an institution?

Nikole Hannah-Jones: Absolutely. I am extremely aware that I am helping birth this project at The New York Times,  the paper of record. I am aware of The New York Times’ history and how it has covered black Americans and the racism that black Americans have faced. And I’m exceedingly aware that when historians 50 years from now, 100 years from now, want to understand our time, they will go to the paper of record. They will look in The New York Times and they will see this now. 

So I hope that other newsrooms will see that you can center marginalized people in a way that is dignified, and in a way that pushes back against their typical stereotypical narratives. And that is extremely rigorous, and that people will read that, and embrace it.

My inbox is just overwhelmed with emails from people who said, ‘I never knew any of this. I’ve never thought about this.’ And, I got a message from a white male, probably late forties, who said, ‘you have broken the bones of history and reset them.’ That’s profound work that we can do as journalists, but we have to be willing to do that work. And you can’t do that work if you don’t understand the history of your country yourselves and if you don’t understand the way that you continue to trade in those stereotypes, even as newsrooms. I think that that is profoundly important.

And the other thing I would add, is this also shows why having not just diverse newsrooms, but empowering your employees in those newsrooms to do big, bold and radical projects [is important]. So the first step is getting us in the door, but the second step then is allowing us to then do the big important work that we can. What I hope is other news leaders across the country will see the amount of resources the Times put into this, and the number of black journalists and writers and artists who worked on this, and maybe that will liberate them to do more of this type of work themselves.

Q: What do you hope is the legacy of the project once all the content has been released and on subsequent anniversaries?

Nikole Hannah-Jones: You know that’s an interesting question, because in general, some people call me pessimistic, I would say realistic about the ability of any work about racial injustice in this country to be transformative. But what I do hope, is for those who actually read it, who sit with it, that they just won’t be able to pretend that they don’t know what our country really is. And that if you understand where we came from, if you understand how that legacy still impacts [us], not just black Americans. 

There’s pieces in there about why we consume so much sugar…diabetes is affecting everyone. There’s piece in there about why we don’t have universal health care. We’re the only western industrialized nation without universal healthcare. That hurts white people too. I hope that those who read it will see that our fates as Americans really are intertwined. And that if we are honest about our history, then it will liberate us to correct our history, and maybe become the country that we can be.

So when I think about this project, I hope that it is something that when people read it, when they get it in their Sunday Times, they don’t throw this away. They share it, they take it out and teach it to their children. And that we can to the degree that The Times has an influence, that we can really just reframe the way that we have thought about black Americans who I argue, because of our circumstances, are actually the most American of all.

Q: What should people be on the lookout for as you release more and more content from the project?

Nikole Hannah-Jones: We are definitely having a big live event October 30 at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. We are going to be taking the magazine and doing different events across the country. We have curriculum at the Pulitzer Center that educators and parents, anyone can download if they want to understand how to teach this to children. We’re just gonna continue to publish additional works from across the newspaper. We really want to spend the rest of the year just continuing to educate and explore and prompt reflection. 

Adam Serwer: The Fight Over the 1619 Project Is Not About the Facts

The reaction to the project was not universally enthusiastic. Several weeks ago, the Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, who had criticized the 1619 Project’s “cynicism” in a lecture in November, began quietly circulating a letter objecting to the project, and some of Hannah-Jones’s work in particular. The letter acquired four signatories—James McPherson, Gordon Wood, Victoria Bynum, and James Oakes, all leading scholars in their field. They sent their letter to three top Times editors and the publisher, A. G. Sulzberger, on December 4. A version of that letter was published on Friday, along with a detailed rebuttal from Jake Silverstein, the editor of the Times Magazine.

The letter sent to the Times says, “We applaud all efforts to address the foundational centrality of slavery and racism to our history,” but then veers into harsh criticism of the 1619 Project. The letter refers to “matters of verifiable fact” that “cannot be described as interpretation or ‘framing’” and says the project reflected “a displacement of historical understanding by ideology.” Wilentz and his fellow signatories didn’t just dispute the Times Magazine’s interpretation of past events, but demanded corrections.

In the age of social-media invective, a strongly worded letter might not seem particularly significant. But given the stature of the historians involved, the letter is a serious challenge to the credibility of the 1619 Project, which has drawn its share not just of admirers but also critics.

Nevertheless, some historians who declined to sign the letter wondered whether the letter was intended less to resolve factual disputes than to discredit laymen who had challenged an interpretation of American national identity that is cherished by liberals and conservatives alike.

“I think had any of the scholars who signed the letter contacted me or contacted the Times with concerns [before sending the letter], we would’ve taken those concerns very seriously,” Hannah-Jones said. “And instead there was kind of a campaign to kind of get people to sign on to a letter that was attempting really to discredit the entire project without having had a conversation.”

Underlying each of the disagreements in the letter is not just a matter of historical fact but a conflict about whether Americans, from the Founders to the present day, are committed to the ideals they claim to revere. And while some of the critiques can be answered with historical fact, others are questions of interpretation grounded in perspective and experience.

In fact, the harshness of the Wilentz letter may obscure the extent to which its authors and the creators of the 1619 Project share a broad historical vision. Both sides agree, as many of the project’s right-wing critics do not, that slavery’s legacy still shapes American life—an argument that is less radical than it may appear at first glance. If you think anti-black racism still shapes American society, then you are in agreement with the thrust of the 1619 Project, though not necessarily with all of its individual arguments.

The clash between the Times authors and their historian critics represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society. Was America founded as a slavocracy, and are current racial inequities the natural outgrowth of that? Or was America conceived in liberty, a nation haltingly redeeming itself through its founding principles? These are not simple questions to answer, because the nation’s pro-slavery and anti-slavery tendencies are so closely intertwined.The letter is rooted in a vision of American history as a slow, uncertain march toward a more perfect union. The 1619 Project, and Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay in particular, offer a darker vision of the nation, in which Americans have made less progress than they think, and in which black people continue to struggle indefinitely for rights they may never fully realize. Inherent in that vision is a kind of pessimism, not about black struggle but about the sincerity and viability of white anti-racism. It is a harsh verdict, and one of the reasons the 1619 Project has provoked pointed criticism alongside praise.

Americans need to believe that, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, the arc of history bends toward justice. And they are rarely kind to those who question whether it does.

Most Americans still learn very little about the lives of the enslaved, or how the struggle over slavery shaped a young nation. Last year, the Southern Poverty Law Center found that few American high-school students know that slavery was the cause of the Civil War, that the Constitution protected slavery without explicitly mentioning it, or that ending slavery required a constitutional amendment.

“The biggest obstacle to teaching slavery effectively in America is the deep, abiding American need to conceive of and understand our history as ‘progress,’ as the story of a people and a nation that always sought the improvement of mankind, the advancement of liberty and justice, the broadening of pursuits of happiness for all,” the Yale historian David Blight wrote in the introduction to the report. “While there are many real threads to this story—about immigration, about our creeds and ideologies, and about race and emancipation and civil rights, there is also the broad, untidy underside.”

In conjunction with the Pulitzer Center, the Times has produced educational materials based on the 1619 Project for students—one of the reasons Wilentz told me he and his colleagues wrote the letter. But the materials are intended to enhance traditional curricula, not replace them. “I think that there is a misunderstanding that this curriculum is meant to replace all of U.S. history,” Silverstein told me. “It’s being used as supplementary material for teaching American history.” Given the state of American education on slavery, some kind of adjustment is sorely needed.

Published 400 years after the first Africans were brought to in Virginia, the project asked readers to consider “what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year.” The special issue of the Times Magazine included essays from the Princeton historian Kevin Kruse, who argued that sprawl in Atlanta is a consequence of segregation and white flight; the Times columnist Jamelle Bouie, who posited that American countermajoritarianism was shaped by pro-slavery politicians seeking to preserve the peculiar institution; and the journalist Linda Villarosa, who traced racist stereotypes about higher pain tolerance in black people from the 18th century to the present day. The articles that drew the most attention and criticism, though, were Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay chronicling black Americans’ struggle to “make democracy real” and the sociologist Matthew Desmond’s essay linking the crueler aspects of American capitalism to the labor practices that arose under slavery.The letter’s signatories recognize the problem the Times aimed to remedy, Wilentz told me. “Each of us, all of us, think that the idea of the 1619 Project is fantastic. I mean, it’s just urgently needed. The idea of bringing to light not only scholarship but all sorts of things that have to do with the centrality of slavery and of racism to American history is a wonderful idea,” he said. In a subsequent interview, he said, “Far from an attempt to discredit the 1619 Project, our letter is intended to help it.”

The letter disputes a passage in Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay, which lauds the contributions of black people to making America a full democracy and says that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery” as abolitionist sentiment began rising in Britain.

This argument is explosive. From abolition to the civil-rights movement, activists have reached back to the rhetoric and documents of the founding era to present their claims to equal citizenship as consonant with the American tradition. The Wilentz letter contends that the 1619 Project’s argument concedes too much to slavery’s defenders, likening it to South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun’s assertion that “there is not a word of truth” in the Declaration of Independence’s famous phrase that “all men are created equal.” Where Wilentz and his colleagues see the rising anti-slavery movement in the colonies and its influence on the Revolution as a radical break from millennia in which human slavery was accepted around the world, Hannah-Jones’ essay outlines how the ideology of white supremacy that sustained slavery still endures today.

“To teach children that the American Revolution was fought in part to secure slavery would be giving a fundamental misunderstanding not only of what the American Revolution was all about but what America stood for and has stood for since the Founding,” Wilentz told me. Anti-slavery ideology was a “very new thing in the world in the 18th century,” he said, and “there was more anti-slavery activity in the colonies than in Britain.”

Hannah-Jones hasn’t budged from her conviction that slavery helped fuel the Revolution. “I do still back up that claim,” she told me last week—before Silverstein’s rebuttal was published—although she says she phrased it too strongly in her essay, in a way that might mislead readers into thinking that support for slavery was universal. “I think someone reading that would assume that this was the case: all 13 colonies and most people involved. And I accept that criticism, for sure.” She said that as the 1619 Project is expanded into a history curriculum and published in book form, the text will be changed to make sure claims are properly contextualized.On this question, the critics of the 1619 Project are on firm ground. Although some southern slave owners likely were fighting the British to preserve slavery, as Silverstein writes in his rebuttal, the Revolution was kindled in New England, where prewar anti-slavery sentiment was strongest. Early patriots like James Otis, John Adams, and Thomas Paine were opposed to slavery, and the Revolution helped fuel abolitionism in the North.

Historians who are in neither Wilentz’s camp nor the 1619 Project’s say both have a point. “I do not agree that the American Revolution was just a slaveholders’ rebellion,” Manisha Sinha, a history professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition, told me.* “But also understand that the original Constitution did give some ironclad protections to slavery without mentioning it.”

The most radical thread in the 1619 Project is not its contention that slavery’s legacy continues to shape American institutions; it’s the authors’ pessimism that a majority of white people will abandon racism and work with black Americans toward a more perfect union. Every essay tracing racial injustice from slavery to the present day speaks to the endurance of racial caste. And it is this profound pessimism about white America that many of the 1619 Project’s critics find most galling.

Newt Gingrich called the 1619 Project a “lie,” arguing that “there were several hundred thousand white Americans who died in the Civil War in order to free the slaves.” In City Journal, the historian Allen Guelzo dismissed the Times Magazine project as a “conspiracy theory” developed from the “chair of ultimate cultural privilege in America, because in no human society has an enslaved people suddenly found itself vaulted into positions of such privilege, and with the consent—even the approbation—of those who were once the enslavers.” The conservative pundit Erick Erickson went so far as to accuse the Times of adopting “the Neo-Confederate world view” that the “South actually won the Civil War by weaving itself into the fabric of post war society so it can then discredit the entire American enterprise.” Erickson’s bizarre sleight of hand turns the 1619 Project’s criticism of ongoing racial injustice into a brief for white supremacy.

The project’s pessimism has drawn criticism from the left as well as the right. Hannah-Jones’s contention that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country” drew a rebuke from James Oakes, one of the Wilentz letter’s signatories. In an interview with the World Socialist Web Site, Oakes said, “The function of those tropes is to deny change over time … The worst thing about it is that it leads to political paralysis. It’s always been here. There’s nothing we can do to get out of it. If it’s the DNA, there’s nothing you can do. What do you do? Alter your DNA?”These are objections not to misstatements of historical fact, but to the argument that anti-black racism is a more intractable problem than most Americans are willing to admit. A major theme of the 1619 Project is that the progress that has been made has been fragile and reversible—and has been achieved in spite of the nation’s true founding principles, which are not the lofty ideals few Americans genuinely believe in. Chances are, what you think of the 1619 Project depends on whether you believe someone might reasonably come to such a despairing conclusion—whether you agree with it or not.

Wilentz reached out to a larger group of historians, but ultimately sent a letter signed by five historians who had publicly criticized the 1619 Project in interviews with the World Socialist Web Site. He told me that the idea of trying to rally a larger group was “misconceived,” citing the holiday season and the end of the semester, among other factors. (A different letter written by Wilentz, calling for the impeachment of President Donald Trump, quickly amassed hundreds of signatures last week.) The refusal of other historians to sign on, despite their misgivings about some claims made by the 1619 Project, speaks to a divide over whether the letter was focused on correcting specific factual inaccuracies or aimed at discrediting the project more broadly.Sinha saw an early version of the letter that was circulated among a larger group of historians. But, despite her disagreement with some of the assertions in the 1619 Project, she said she wouldn’t have signed it if she had been asked to. “There are legitimate critiques that one can engage in discussion with, but for them to just kind of dismiss the entire project in that manner, I thought, was really unwise,” she said. “It was a worthy thing to actually shine a light on a subject that the average person on the street doesn’t know much about.”

Although the letter writers deny that their objections are merely matters of “interpretation or ‘framing,’” the question of whether black Americans have fought their freedom struggles “largely alone,” as Hannah-Jones put it in her essay, is subject to vigorous debate. Viewed through the lens of major historical events—from anti-slavery Quakers organizing boycotts of goods produced through slave labor, to abolitionists springing fugitive slaves from prison, to union workers massing at the March on Washington—the struggle for black freedom has been an interracial struggle. Frederick Douglass had William Garrison; W. E. B. Du Bois had Moorfield Storey; Martin Luther King Jr. had Stanley Levison.

“The fight for black freedom is a universal fight; it’s a fight for everyone. In the end, it affected the fight for women’s rights—everything. That’s the glory of it,” Wilentz told me. “To minimize that in any way is, I think, bad for understanding the radical tradition in America.”

But looking back to the long stretches of night before the light of dawn broke—the centuries of slavery and the century of Jim Crow that followed—“largely alone” seems more than defensible. Douglass had Garrison, but the onetime Maryland slave had to go north to find him. The millions who continued to labor in bondage until 1865 struggled, survived, and resisted far from the welcoming arms of northern abolitionists.

“I think one would be very hard-pressed to look at the factual record from 1619 to the present of the black freedom movement and come away with any conclusion other than that most of the time, black people did not have a lot of allies in that movement,” Hannah-Jones told me. “It is not saying that black people only fought alone. It is saying that most of the time we did.”

Nell Irvin Painter, a professor emeritus of history at Princeton who was asked to sign the letter, had objected to the 1619 Project’s portrayal of the arrival of African laborers in 1619 as slaves. The 1619 Project was not history “as I would write it,” Painter told me. But she still declined to sign the Wilentz letter.

“I felt that if I signed on to that, I would be signing on to the white guy’s attack of something that has given a lot of black journalists and writers a chance to speak up in a really big way. So I support the 1619 Project as kind of a cultural event,” Painter said. “For Sean and his colleagues, true history is how they would write it. And I feel like he was asking me to choose sides, and my side is 1619’s side, not his side, in a world in which there are only those two sides.”

This was a recurrent theme among historians I spoke with who had seen the letter but declined to sign it. While they may have agreed with some of the factual objections in the letter or had other reservations of their own, several told me they thought the letter was an unnecessary escalation.

“The tone to me rather suggested a deep-seated concern about the project. And by that I mean the version of history the project offered. The deep-seated concern is that placing the enslavement of black people and white supremacy at the forefront of a project somehow diminishes American history,” Thavolia Glymph, a history professor at Duke who was asked to sign the letter, told me. “Maybe some of their factual criticisms are correct. But they’ve set a tone that makes it hard to deal with that.”

“I don’t think they think they’re trying to discredit the project,” Painter said. “They think they’re trying to fix the project, the way that only they know how.”

Historical interpretations are often contested, and those debates often reflect the perspective of the participants. To this day, the pro-Confederate “Lost Cause” intepretation of history shapes the mistaken perception that slavery was not the catalyst for the Civil War. For decades, a group of white historians known as the Dunning School, after the Columbia University historian William Archibald Dunning, portrayed Reconstruction as a tragic period of, in his words, the “scandalous misrule of the carpet-baggers and negroes,” brought on by the misguided enfranchisement of black men. As the historian Eric Foner has written, the Dunning School and its interpretation of Reconstruction helped provide moral and historical cover for the Jim Crow system.In Black Reconstruction in America, W. E. B. Du Bois challenged the consensus of “white historians” who “ascribed the faults and failures of Reconstruction to Negro ignorance and corruption,” and offered what is now considered a more reliable account of the era as an imperfect but noble effort to build a multiracial democracy in the South.

To Wilentz, the failures of earlier scholarship don’t illustrate the danger of a monochromatic group of historians writing about the American past, but rather the risk that ideologues can hijack the narrative. “[It was] when the southern racists took over the historical profession that things changed, and W. E. B. Du Bois fought a very, very courageous fight against all of that,” Wilentz told me. The Dunning School, he said, was “not a white point of view; it’s a southern, racist point of view.”

In the letter, Wilentz portrays the authors of the 1619 Project as ideologues as well. He implies—apparently based on a combative but ambiguous exchange between Hannah-Jones and the writer Wesley Yang on Twitter—that she had discounted objections raised by “white historians” since publication.

Hannah-Jones told me she was misinterpreted. “I rely heavily on the scholarship of historians no matter what race, and I would never discount the work of any historian because that person is white or any other race,” she told me. “I did respond to someone who was saying white scholars were afraid, and I think my point was that history is not objective. And that people who write history are not simply objective arbiters of facts, and that white scholars are no more objective than any other scholars, and that they can object to the framing and we can object to their framing as well.”

When I asked Wilentz about Hannah-Jones’s clarification, he was dismissive. “Fact and objectivity are the foundation of both honest journalism and honest history. And so to dismiss it, to say, ‘No, I’m not really talking about whites’—well, she did, and then she takes it back in those tweets and then says it’s about the inability of anybody to write objective history. That’s objectionable too,” Wilentz told me.

Both Du Bois and the Dunning School saw themselves as having reached the truth by objective means. But as a target of the Dunning School’s ideology, Du Bois understood the motives and blind spots of Dunning School scholars far better than they themselves did.“We shall never have a science of history until we have in our colleges men who regard the truth as more important than the defense of the white race,” Du Bois wrote, “and who will not deliberately encourage students to gather thesis material in order to support a prejudice or buttress a lie.”

The problem, as Du Bois argued, is that much of American history has been written by scholars offering ideological claims in place of rigorous historical analysis. But which claims are ideological, and which ones are objective, is not always easy to discern.

David Waldstreicher: The Hidden Stakes of the 1619 Controversy

Seeking to discredit those who wish to explain the persistence of racism, critics of the New York Times’s 1619 Project insist the facts don’t support its proslavery reading of the American Revolution. But they obscure a longstanding debate within the field of U.S. history over that very issue—distorting the full case that can be made for it.

Last August the New York Times Magazine released a special issue they called the 1619 Project, which uses the 400th anniversary of the arrival of “20 and odd” enslaved Africans in Virginia to recast the history of the United States as a story about slavery and its long afterlives. Stocked with good writing and armed with the latest scholarship, lead writer Nikole Hannah-Jones began with a frontal attack on the traditional notion of 1776 as the beginning of an American history of exceptional liberty. She ended her introduction with a soaring call to reconciliation and a new American identity. It was also impossible to miss the challenge that the project’s essays and poems posed to the conception of U.S. history as a tidy story of progress ever since the Revolution.

Though it rarely spills out into public view in quite the way it has recently, there is a longstanding debate within the academy over just how revolutionary the American Revolution really was.

The enthusiastic response to the 1619 Project exceeded even the expectations of the magazine. Tens of thousands of extra copies sold out immediately. Teachers announced plans to use the essays in schools, as the project’s designers had hoped. In response, rightwing magazines began to offer stinging rebukes. Some of the ruckus reprised debates about recent books on the antebellum South by historians such as Walter Johnson and Edward Baptist, who locate the roots of modern American capitalism within plantation slavery, setting the stage for the 1619 Project’s emphasis on disturbing continuities in the present.

Later, after this initial wave of critique, the World Socialist Web Site published an essay calling the project “racialist” and went on to publish rebukes in interviews with four prominent historians—Gordon Wood, James Oakes, James McPherson, and Victoria Bynum—while Sean Wilentz criticized the project in the New York Review of Books in November. A backlash built momentum, culminating in December with a letter from those five historians addressed to the Times Magazine’s editor-in-chief, Jake Silverstein. The magazine’s publication of this letter, along a response from Silverstein defending the project’s interpretations and the scholarship on which they were based, has triggered an ongoing roiling debate.

The letter writers had three main objections, all concerning passages in the project’s lead essay by Hannah-Jones—none of which concern the other line of controversy, especially among conservative commentators, about the relations between capitalism and slavery (coverage of the letter to the Times has monopolized the most recent discussion, leading that theme to drop out of the conversation). The first concerns her assertion that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery” and that “we may never have revolted against Britain . . . if [the founders] had not believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue.” The second concerns her depiction of Abraham Lincoln as not committed to black equality, and the third concerns her contention that across U.S. history, black people have “for the most part . . . fought alone” in their struggles for freedom.

These are perennial issues in the history of emancipation and civil rights. It is no coincidence, though, that the first claim, about the American Revolution, has proved the most controversial. This dispute reflects deep fault lines in the field of U.S. history over interpretations of the Revolution, particularly in terms of its relationship to slavery and the status of African Americans. Though it rarely spills out into public view in quite the way it has recently, there is a longstanding debate within the academy over just how revolutionary the American Revolution really was.

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Some historians, espousing what we might call the establishment view, insist that it is anachronistic to see slavery as central to our understanding of the decades-long revolutionary period. According to this view, the Revolution was in fact fundamentally antislavery, since it led to what Bernard Bailyn called in his 1967 study The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution a “contagion of liberty” that made it possible for Americans to think critically about ending the institution. Such accounts emphasize that various Northern states restricted the slave trade and began to institute gradual emancipation during and after the Revolutionary war, and that enslaved people used the ideals of equality voiced during the Revolution to press their own case for freedom. Although a civil war was fought over what the government could and could not do about slavery, these historians say, Lincoln and other members of the Republican Party envisioned a path to emancipation under the Constitution and made it happen.

According to the establishment view, the Revolution was in fact fundamentally antislavery, since it led to what Bernard Bailyn called a “contagion of liberty” that made it possible for Americans to think about ending the institution.

This is the accepted orthodoxy underwriting the contention, made in the letter sent to the Times, that it is just wrong—as well as bad politics—to tell schoolchildren that some or many or even any American revolutionaries fought to defend their property in slaves from a powerful imperial government. Hannah-Jones wrote that defending slavery was a primary motivation for independence in 1776, but the pushback from Wood and Wilentz was far more absolute. This was not surprising to academics who have followed the work of these historians. Wilentz argues in his latest book, No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding (2018), that the Constitution was antislavery in its essence and most of its subsequent workings, and has repeatedly gone out of his way to attack those who emphasize the proslavery politics of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Andrew Jackson. And for his part, Wood, a student of Bailyn, called talk of slavery and the Constitution in Staughton Lynd’s pathbreaking work “anachronistic” in his 1969 book The Creation of the American Republic and has never let up. According to his view, the founders belonged to a “premodern” society and didn’t talk or think about slavery or black people. In response to Silverstein’s response, he wrote, “I don’t know of any colonist who said that they wanted independence in order to preserve their slaves. No colonist expressed alarm that the mother country was out to abolish slavery in 1776.”

On the other side of this debate is a growing number of scholars—Woody Holton, Annette Gordon-Reed, Michael McDonnell, Gerald Horne, and myself, among others—who question the establishment view of the Revolution and the founders. These historians, most of them younger than Wood or Wilentz, see a multi-sided struggle in an American Revolution that was about colonizing and winning power and authority. They see slavery as more than a peripheral matter. They do not take for granted that the story is primarily one of uncovering the motives and beliefs of the founders. Their work has considerably undercut the glass-half-full version of the narrative, which sees the end of slavery as a long-term consequence of American idealism and independence.

In ambitious works that explore the “unknown” revolutions that contributed to the independence movement, for example, books such as Gary Nash’s The Unknown American Revolution (2005) and Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750–1804 (2016) have challenged Wood’s sunnier version of events. In their hands the story loses some of its traditional romance but gains a deeper sense of realism. Other scholars, such as Robert Parkinson in his book The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (2016), have shown just how concerned the revolutionaries were, in both the North and the South, with slaves as an internal enemy. Perhaps most important of all, newer histories show how Africans and their children themselves forced the issue onto the agenda of the revolutionaries and the empires competing for dominion, especially in wartime. If we were talking about any other revolution or civil war, we wouldn’t be surprised that enslaved people fought on both sides, depending on which side seemed more likely to improve their condition.

The resistance to this new scholarship by the deans of the establishment bears some similarities to the denunciations leveled at Charles Beard and the Progressive historians a hundred years ago when they began to develop the argument that perhaps the Constitution benefited the wealthy more than it helped ordinary (white) people. The newspaper editor—and later corrupt twenty-ninth president—Warren Harding heaped shame on Beard for desecrating the image of the Revolution. A few years later he started using the term “founding fathers” in his stump speeches. This time around, historians who emphasize slavery and reaction, including the reaction against antislavery, are accused by the doyens of U.S. history (and now a few of their somewhat younger successors, such as Wilentz) of being ideological purveyors of identity politics—as if Pulitzer and Bancroft prize–winning scholars such as Holton, Gordon-Reed, and Taylor are not, in fact, extending and enriching the field.

The split between these two camps is hinted at in Adam Serwer’s fine recap of the 1619 Project controversy for The Atlantic, “The Fight over the 1619 Project Is Not About the Facts,” published in late December as the debate was still heating up. Serwer writes:

The clash between the Times authors and their historian critics represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society. Was America founded as a slavocracy, and are current racial inequities the natural outgrowth of that? Or was America conceived in liberty, a nation haltingly redeeming itself through its founding principles?

What Serwer misses is that this is not simply a clash between the Times authors and a group of historians: it is also a pre-existing argument between historians themselves. (Wilentz, in his subsequent reply to Serwer in The Atlantic this week, tries to perform a magician’s act and render invisible the very existence of that debate, much as he ignores the scholarship when he is not mischaracterizing its substance.) The arguments made by the 1619 Project are largely based on the work of scholars such as Horne, Holton, Taylor, myself, and others (indeed, Hannah-Jones and Silverstein have acknowledged as much). By bringing the critical ideas of these scholars to a wide audience, the 1619 Project essentially drew back the curtain on a vital debate within the field of U.S. history. By responding with such force, critics of the project have helped define the contours of this debate. It is an important one for us to have, in part because this is an argument that goes all the way back to the founding itself.

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In the years leading up to the Revolution, the politics of slavery proved polarizing, and the most deeply committed patriots, including John Adams and Jefferson, sought to control it and usually to tamp it down. Their private papers amply demonstrate their knowledge that the enslavement of Africans was tyranny of the most extreme sort. But they mostly kept such thoughts to themselves and their antislavery friends abroad, saving their loudest protests for what they described as their own enslavement—by the British. This questionable rhetorical tactic met with mixed results. By 1767 American protesters who claimed that unfair taxes amounted to a form of enslavement were being called out for their hypocrisy, even by their friends. “Oh! ye sons of Liberty, pause a moment, give me your ear,” asked Boston merchant Nathan Appleton. “Is your conduct consistent? can you review our late struggles for liberty, and think of the slave-trade at the same time, and not blush?” He also mocked racial justifications for slavery: “Methinks were you an African, I could see you blush.” Ending slavery was the only way to “shew all the world, that we are true sons of Liberty.”.

A transatlantic battle of the pundits and politicians raged. Pioneering antislavery activist Granville Sharp quoted from ads for fugitive slaves in New York newspapers and opined that the colony deserved “the name of New Barbary, instead of New York.” Liberals such as colonial agent Benjamin Franklin were in the best position to justify those increasingly referred to on both sides of the Atlantic as “the Americans.” He wrote in London newspapers that slavery on the continent didn’t amount to much and was the fault of the English merchants who controlled the trade. Franklin also blamed the West Indies planters,whose lobbyists argued that simple racial inferiority explained slavery.

When Gordon Wood complains that no American founders said they were declaring independence in order to keep their slaves, he neglects the fact that most revolutionaries who tried to explain American protest were embarrassed about slavery. Long before anyone stated why they chose sides in ’76, they all learned that saying that they wanted to protect that property would have undermined their claims against the British by exposing them as hypocrites. It wasn’t a selling point in the pamphlet war; it was something to be defensive and quiet about.

That changed decisively in 1775, after Lord Dunmore, royal governor of Virginia, followed through on his threats to arm slaves—threats that had earlier been voiced on the floor of Parliament. Then suddenly the patriots spoke openly and often about slaves—as the enemy. No one ever had to say, “let’s rebel to keep our slaves” because they could say, and did say in Boston as well as in Virginia—at the very same time as the more famous battles of Lexington and Concord—let’s rebel because slaves are being armed against us. All this culminated in Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence, in which he penned a tortured, now often mocked paragraph that tried elaborately to suggest that the British were in league with “African corsairs” (slave traders) to make war against innocent Africans, who the British now were attempting to turn against the Americans.

Jefferson had tried out this blame of the British for the slave trade in his much-praised Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774); the hysterical, baldly hypocritical wartime version made it past Adams and Franklin on the Declaration committee, but not the Continental Congress, where, according to Jefferson in his memoirs, deep Southerners and New Englanders alike balked at the antislavery precedent that it would have set. (Franklin, however, had suggested adding that the King had “incited domestic insurrections among us” into the Declaration’s culminating complaint against the King for setting “the merciless Indian savages” against the colonists. The final Declaration of Independence, in other words, didn’t mention slavery explicitly, but the liberation of slaves by the British provides its ultimate justification.) To give the revolutionary ideology or movement all the credit for antislavery is essentially to echo without acknowledgment Franklin and Jefferson’s spin. It’s politics, and all the more dangerous when it claims to have all the “facts,” as Wilentz and Wood do.

Revolutions are measured by results as well as intentions, by effects as well as causes. And here too the record is mixed—in some regards the war only strengthened slavery, and in others it did indeed open new paths for dismantling it. Emancipation in the North was only conceivable with the revolutionary transfer of sovereignty to states that could, and in some cases quickly did, emancipate or legally permit voluntary emancipation. This development, along with the thirty to hundred thousand Africans who became free during the war years, created free black communities that ultimately formed the mainstay of an abolitionist movement that destabilized U.S. politics and inspired a slaveholders’ revolt and a civil war.

This is more than the proverbial butterfly’s wings—a lot more. It may not persuade us fully that the arc of history bends toward justice, but it should make it clear that the Revolution and the Civil War are fundamentally linked events. Both were civil wars. Both were nationalist revolts. Like most civil wars and especially those in the Americas, both precipitated the liberation of slaves, in a complicated dance of self-emancipation and contingent policy. Both led to reconstructions that reshaped constitutions. Much of the debate about how, and how much, to see slavery as a fundamental aspect of the founding, including the contention about how proslavery or antislavery the Constitution was or became, will be more satisfactorily addressed by thinking of the first century or so of United States history as two revolutions, two civil wars, two emancipations, two reconstructions, and a lot of not-so-great compromises.

But if results matter, numbers matter too. And the unavoidable fact is that in the American Revolution, slaveholders won the freedom to determine the future of slavery under a constitution that protected their interests in multiple, complicated, and especially political ways. The infamous Three-Fifths Clause, which counted three-fifths of “all other persons”—meaning the enslaved—for representation and taxation gave the South more power to shape all federal legislation as well as presidential elections. The Constitution of 1787 hardwired slavery into the political order, without ever mentioning the word “slavery.” This enabled the liberals of 1787 to walk away having not admitted there to be “property in man” but having done much that would prove to be worse.

What happened to African Americans forms not so much an exception as the revealing rule: that the Revolution had both radical and reactionary results.

With friends like these the enslaved hardly needed enemies. Quickly, systematically, the number of free people of African descent rose in the North and in Southern towns, but the number of enslaved in the United States increased far more. The domestic slave trade encouraged and facilitated by the new national market moved a million people from the Chesapeake and the coastal regions to the new cotton districts and actually un-domesticated slavery, making it worse than it already was. It is debatable whether any of that would have happened in anything like the way that it happened without the sovereignty and power that the Revolution and Constitution accorded to the master class, the ways it freed them from imperial or national oversight.

In short, the story of African Americans confirms both the radical and the conservative—even reactionary—nature and results of the American Revolution, and quite possibly more the latter than the former. This is true both because any revolution ought to be measured by its effects on working people, and because the freedom-loving Revolution was supposed to be about liberty and humanity, not just taxes or nation-making. Even if one insists that the paradox is nothing of the sort because in the end, liberty was about property and thus about slavery, the mixed results were inherent, not accidental. What happened to African Americans forms not so much an exception as the revealing rule: that the Revolution had both radical and reactionary results.

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Where does all this leave us? We should view with a wary eye any accounts of the two U.S. revolutions that insist that only the emancipation, or only the hypocrisy, matters. In this we can follow two commentators on those revolutions, the enslaved New England poet Phillis Wheatley and the abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

We should view with a wary eye any accounts of the two U.S. revolutions that insist that only the emancipation, or only the hypocrisy, matters.

In the case of Wheatley, it has taken a long time for scholars to appreciate just how engaged she was in the linked revolutionary and slavery controversies. Indeed, she epitomizes the link because she herself advanced it. One of Wheatley’s first circulated poems celebrated the repeal of the Stamp Act. In October 1772, in a poem celebrating Lord Dartmouth’s ascent to Secretary of State for the colonies, Wheatley directly compared the critique of slavery to colonial protest: “Thus I deplore the Day, / When Britons weep beneath Tyrannic Sway.” (By “Britons” she meant Americans.) She wrote this poem to be hand delivered to Dartmouth by an English lobbyist, a canny diplomatic move that helped set in motion her trip to London to secure publication of her book of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773). Boston patriots had been afraid to touch her manuscript because they worried it would encourage attacks on patriot hypocrisy already common in England. In the book itself she downplayed to some degree the link she had made between herself, and criticisms of slavery and race thinking, to the colonial protest movement. Both patriots and Tories who read her book could ally the antislavery ethos she embodied and conveyed to their political outlook, implicitly as well as explicitly. Wheatley hedged her bets.

In a sense, the Revolution cut off Wheatley’s newfound British antislavery ties. So did her emancipation upon returning to Boston. Despite publishing poems celebrating the war effort, General Washington, and the prospects of the new nation, she was unable to get her proposed second volume into print, and she died penniless in 1784. Was she a victim of a racist, proslavery American Revolution? Yes, and no—or, more precisely, only if one shrinks the Revolution to the war. She had made her fame and her freedom in “the American Revolution.” She was hardly the only person to lose in Boston’s war-ravaged economy or the only public figure to die young for lack of work or patronage. To depict her as a victim of a lost (potentially more egalitarian) British-Atlantic world, as Mark Peterson has recently done in his rich history of Boston as an Atlantic “city-state,” is to miss or understate what she accomplished. She helped force the issue of the relationship between the American Revolution and the politics of slavery into public consciousness. She could hardly have done more: no one did. We can respect her choice of the patriot movement without presuming that she was uncritical of the results.

Similarly, Frederick Douglass has been cited as a severe critic of the republic, and of the founders’ hypocrisy. In 2019 his Fifth of July address from 1852 received more attention than ever, with its coruscating, and poetic, distancing of black Americans from white: “The Fourth of July is yours, not mine. . . . You may rejoice, I must mourn.” One hundred and seventy years ago, Douglass blasted his country for its original and lasting sins in the same kind of language that frames the 1619 Project.

It is all the more important to push back critically against the voices who would insist that the American Revolution and the Constitution were innocent of slavery—but also against the notion that they had no antislavery implications whatsoever.

But this is the same Douglass who had recently decided to cast his lot with an antislavery interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. How that came about is instructive, too. The blame game that Wilentz and others have sought to play on the 1619 Project’s journalists is as much about political strategy as it is about history, and it can be traced all the way back to the split among abolitionists in 1840. Garrisonian radicals insisted that the Constitution was a “covenant with death.” They also tied the struggle against slavery and for black citizenship to the plight of women. The liberals, by contrast—who went on to found antislavery political parties—saw these positions as divisive and strategically unsound. It might be fine for fashionably progressive circles in eastern cities, but it wouldn’t play well in Ohio. (Not coincidentally, Wilentz has been writing for years about such progressive-liberal splits, while consistently championing traditional Democratic Party politics—opposing first Barack Obama, then Bernie Sanders, and now anyone else who indulges “high-minded politics,” in the present or the past.)

Douglass himself had split with Garrison for a number of reasons, including a sense that he should be leading rather than following. Not coincidentally, he changed his mind about the Constitution and about abolitionists working with political parties. Some have thrown up their hands or criticized his seeming inconsistency, but there was a deep logic, as well as political savvy, here. It is the same understanding that Wheatley had: that to celebrate what was good and criticize what was lacking in the American Revolution were two sides of the same civic coin. Both were necessary for political reasons, but not least because both were true.

So it is all the more important to push back critically against the voices who would insist that the American Revolution and the Constitution were innocent of slavery—but also against the notion that they had no antislavery implications whatsoever. It remains important to question the myth that the founders never thought about slavery politically and that black people were not “central” actors of the period. Similarly, we should interrogate the debatable but equally problematic notion that no white person with power ever really meant that all men are created equal. The Revolution was a triumph and a tragedy precisely because it was an emancipation and a betrayal of its egalitarian potential. Denying the radicalism or the reaction against it is to deny that the American Revolution actually was a revolution.

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Revolutions must be measured by what they do for everyone. Because revolutions do concern and involve those at the bottom, they inspire backlashes. The fact that both radicals and reactionaries, not to mention the descendants of fighters both for liberty and for slavery, have had, and still have, a reasonable claim on the American Revolution explains a lot of what we are going though politically right now. What else can we expect in a republic built on slavery as well as on antislavery, and on the denial of both aspects of our past?

Racism is a product as well as a cause of our politics, starting with the American Revolution—and we should stop blaming those who wish to explain its persistence.

A bridge over the fault lines in the scholarship might be built by emphasizing both the proslavery and antislavery dimensions of the American Revolution and Constitution. This sort of understanding would also make better sense of the Civil War. But it would require us to see the American Revolution as more like other revolutions in history: filled with idealism, but also with selfish motives, and characterized by violent backlashes. Most of all, it would require us to accept that racism is a product as well as a cause of our politics, starting with the American Revolution, and that we should stop blaming those who wish to explain its persistence.

Leslie M Harris: I Helped Fact-Check the 1619 Project. The Times Ignored Me.

n August 19 of last year I listened in stunned silence as Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter for the New York Times, repeated an idea that I had vigorously argued against with her fact-checker: that the patriots fought the American Revolution in large part to preserve slavery in North America.

Hannah-Jones and I were on Georgia Public Radio to discuss the path-breaking New York Times 1619 Project, a major feature about the impact of slavery on American history, which she had spearheaded. The Times had just published the special 1619 edition of its magazine, which took its name from the year 20 Africans arrived in the colony of Virginia—a group believed to be the first enslaved Africans to arrive in British North America.

Weeks before, I had received an email from a New York Times research editor. Because I’m an historian of African American life and slavery, in New York, specifically, and the pre-Civil War era more generally, she wanted me to verify some statements for the project. At one point, she sent me this assertion: “One critical reason that the colonists declared their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery in the colonies, which had produced tremendous wealth. At the time there were growing calls to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire, which would have badly damaged the economies of colonies in both North and South.”

I vigorously disputed the claim. Although slavery was certainly an issue in the American Revolution, the protection of slavery was not one of the main reasons the 13 Colonies went to war.

The editor followed up with several questions probing the nature of slavery in the Colonial era, such as whether enslaved people were allowed to read, could legally marry, could congregate in groups of more than four, and could own, will or inherit property—the answers to which vary widely depending on the era and the colony. I explained these histories as best I could—with references to specific examples—but never heard back from her about how the information would be used.

Despite my advice, the Times published the incorrect statement about the American Revolution anyway, in Hannah-Jones’ introductory essay. In addition, the paper’s characterizations of slavery in early America reflected laws and practices more common in the antebellum era than in Colonial times, and did not accurately illustrate the varied experiences of the first generation of enslaved people that arrived in Virginia in 1619.

Both sets of inaccuracies worried me, but the Revolutionary War statement made me especially anxious. Overall, the 1619 Project is a much-needed corrective to the blindly celebratory histories that once dominated our understanding of the past—histories that wrongly suggested racism and slavery were not a central part of U.S. history. I was concerned that critics would use the overstated claim to discredit the entire undertaking. So far, that’s exactly what has happened.

The 1619 Project became one of the most talked-about journalistic achievements of the year—as it was intended to. The Times produced not just a magazine, but podcasts, a newspaper section, and even a curriculum designed to inject a new version of American history into schools. Now it’s back in circulation; the Times is promoting it again during journalistic awards season, and it’s already a finalist for the National Magazine Awards and rumored to be a strong Pulitzer contender.

But it has also become a lightning rod for critics, and that one sentence about the role of slavery in the founding of the United States has ended up at the center of a debate over the whole project. A letter signed by five academic historians claimed that the 1619 Project got some significant elements of the history wrong, including the claim that the Revolutionary War was fought to preserve slavery. They have demanded that the New York Times issue corrections on these points, which the paper has so far refused to do. For her part, Hannah-Jones has acknowledged that she overstated her argument about slavery and the Revolution in her essay, and that she plans to amend this argument for the book version of the project, under contract with Random House.

The criticism of the Times has emboldened some conservatives to assert that such “revisionist history” is flatout illegitimate. The right-wing publication The Federalist is extending the fight with a planned “1620 Project” about the anniversary of the Mayflower Landing at Plymouth Rock. (This plan is already inviting its own correction request, since Plymouth Rock is not actually the site of the Pilgrims’ first landing.) The project was even criticized on the floor of the U.S. Senate when, during the impeachment trial, President Donald Trump’s lawyer cited the historians’ letter to slam the project. Some observers, including at times Hannah-Jones herself, have framed the argument as evidence of a chasm between black and white scholars (the historians who signed the letter are all white), pitting a progressive history that centers on slavery and racism against a conservative history that downplays them.

But the debates playing out now on social media and in op-eds between supporters and detractors of the 1619 Project misrepresent both the historical record and the historical profession. The United States was not, in fact, founded to protect slavery—but the Times is right that slavery was central to its story. And the argument among historians, while real, is hardly black and white. Over the past half-century, important foundational work on the history and legacy of slavery has been done by a multiracial group of scholars who are committed to a broad understanding of U.S. history—one that centers on race without denying the roles of other influences or erasing the contributions of white elites. An accurate understanding of our history must present a comprehensive picture, and it’s by paying attention to these scholars that we’ll get there.

Here is the complicated picture of the Revolutionary era that the New York Times missed: White Southerners might have wanted to preserve slavery in their territory, but white Northerners were much more conflicted, with many opposing the ownership of enslaved people in the North even as they continued to benefit from investments in the slave trade and slave colonies. More importantly for Hannah-Jones’ argument, slavery in the Colonies faced no immediate threat from Great Britain, so colonists wouldn’t have needed to secede to protect it. It’s true that in 1772, the famous Somerset case ended slavery in England and Wales, but it had no impact on Britain’s Caribbean colonies, where the vast majority of black people enslaved by the British labored and died, or in the North American Colonies. It took 60 more years for the British government to finally end slavery in its Caribbean colonies, and when it happened, it was in part because a series of slave rebellions in the British Caribbean in the early 19th century made protecting slavery there an increasingly expensive proposition.

Far from being fought to preserve slavery, the Revolutionary War became a primary disrupter of slavery in the North American Colonies. Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation, a British military strategy designed to unsettle the Southern Colonies by inviting enslaved people to flee to British lines, propelled hundreds of enslaved people off plantations and turned some Southerners to the patriot side. It also led most of the 13 Colonies to arm and employ free and enslaved black people, with the promise of freedom to those who served in their armies. While neither side fully kept its promises, thousands of enslaved people were freed as a result of these policies.

The ideals gaining force during the Revolutionary era also inspired Northern states from Vermont to Pennsylvania to pass laws gradually ending slavery. These laws did not prescribe full and immediate emancipation: They freed the children of enslaved mothers only after the children served their mothers’ enslavers through their early 20s. Nor did they promise racial equality or full citizenship for African Americans—far from it. But black activism during the Revolutionary War and this era of emancipation led to the end of slavery earlier than prescribed in such laws. Enslaved black people negotiated with their owners to purchase their freedom, or simply ran away in the confused aftermath of war. And most Northern enslavers freed slaves ahead of the time mandated by law.

Among Northern—and even some Southern—white people, the push to end slavery during this time was real. The new nation almost faltered over the degree to which the Constitution supported the institution. In the end, Northern Colonies conceded a number of points to the protection of slavery on the federal level, even as the Constitution also pledged to end the trans-Atlantic slave trade by 1807—all without once using the word “slave.” The degree to which the document was intended to provide for the protection or the destruction of slavery was hotly contested in the antebellum era. While Frederick Douglass may have seen the Constitution as an anti-slavery document, both radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and pro-slavery ideologue John C. Calhoun saw it as written to support slavery. Abraham Lincoln was unable to use the Constitution as written to end slavery, either during his time in Congress or after his election to the presidency. The argument was settled through the Civil War, and by rewriting the Constitution with the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments.

The 1619 Project, in its claim that the Revolution was fought primarily to preserve slavery, doesn’t do justice to this history. Nor, however, does the five historians’ critical letter. In fact, the historians are just as misleading in simply asserting that Lincoln and Douglass agreed that the Constitution was a “glorious liberty document” without addressing how few other Americans agreed that the Constitution’s protections should be shared with African Americans. Gradual emancipation laws, as well as a range of state and local laws across the antebellum nation limiting black suffrage, property ownership, access to education and even residency in places like Ohio, Washington and California, together demonstrate that legally, the struggle for black equality almost always took a back seat to the oppressive imperatives of white supremacy. And racial violence against black people and against those few white people who supported ending slavery and supported black citizenship undergirded these inequalities—a pattern that continued well into the 20th century.

The five historians’ letter says it “applauds all efforts to address the enduring centrality of slavery and racism to our history.” The best-known of those letter-writers, however, built their careers on an older style of American history—one that largely ignored the new currents that had begun to bubble up among their contemporaries. By the time Gordon Wood and Sean Wilentz were publishing their first, highly acclaimed books on pre-Civil War America, in the early 1970s and mid-1980s, respectively, academic historians had begun, finally, to acknowledge African American history and slavery as a critical theme in American history. But Wood and Wilentz paid little attention to such matters in their first works on early America.

In Wood’s exhaustive and foundational The Creation of the American Republic (1969), which details the development of republican ideology in the new nation, there is only one index listing for “Negroes,” and none for slavery. In his first book, Chants Democratic (1984), Wilentz sought to explain how New York’s antebellum-era working class took up republican ideals, which had been used by some Founding Fathers to limit citizenship, and rewrote the tenets to include themselves as full-fledged citizens. Yet Wilentz’s work largely ignored issues of race and black workers, even though New York had the largest population of enslaved black people in the Colonial North, the second-largest population of free black people in the antebellum urban North, and was the site of the most violent race riots of the 19th century. As I wrote in my own 2003 book, Wilentz created “a white hegemony more powerful than that which existed” during the era he was studying.

In their subsequent works, Wilentz and Wood have continued to fall prey to the same either/or interpretation of the nation’s history: Either the nation is a radical instigator of freedom and liberty, or it is not. (The truth, obviously, is somewhere in between.) In The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1991), Wood acknowledges the new nation’s failure to end slavery, and even the brutality of some Founding Fathers who held people as property. But the facts of slave-owning are not presented as central to that time. While he discusses the Founders’ ability to eliminate other forms of hierarchy, Wood has no explanation for why they were unable to eliminate slavery; nor does he discuss how or why Northern states did so. Further, black people as historical actors shaping the ideas and lives of the Founders have no place in his work.

Wilentz has struggled publicly over how to understand the centrality of slavery to the nation’s founding era. In a 2015 op-ed, and more fully in his 2018 book No Property in Man, he argues that the Constitutional Convention specifically kept support for slavery defined as “property in man” out of the Constitution, a key distinction that the Founders believed would eventually allow for ending slavery in the nation. Such an argument obscures the degree to which many Founding Fathers returned to a support of Southern slavery as the revolutionary fervor waned; by the early 19th century, as only one example, Thomas Jefferson established the University of Virginia in part as a pro-slavery bulwark against Northern anti-slavery ideologies.

Fortunately, the works of Wood and Wilentz and others who underrepresent the centrality of slavery and African Americans to America’s history are only one strand of a vibrant scholarship on early America. Beginning in the last quarter of the 20th century, historians like Gary Nash, Ira Berlin and Alfred Young built on the earlier work of Carter G. Woodson, Benjamin Quarles, John Hope Franklin and others, writing histories of the Colonial and Revolutionary eras that included African Americans, slavery and race. A standout from this time is Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom, which addresses explicitly how the intertwined histories of Native American, African American and English residents of Virginia are foundational to understanding the ideas of freedom we still struggle with today. These works have much to teach us about history, and about how to study and present it in a way that is inclusive of our historical and present-day diversity as a nation. Just as importantly, these scholars and many others fostered new scholarship by mentoring a diverse group of thinkers within and beyond academia.

As a result, today there is a growing, multiracial group of historians who try to offer a complete picture of our past. Thanks to their efforts, we now know that slavery existed in all 13 Colonies. Scholars like Annette Gordon-Reed and Woody Holton have given us a deeper understanding of the ways in which leaders like Thomas Jefferson committed to new ideas of freedom even as they continued to be deeply committed to slavery. Thanks to Peter Wood, Sylvia Frey and Erica Armstrong Dunbar, to name only a few, we have more detailed knowledge of the ways in which black people fought for freedom before, during and after the Revolutionary era—and how, as the 1619 Project rightly points out, they challenged the patriots to live up to their own ideals of freedom for all—ideals that only fully began to be realized at the close of the Civil War, and have still not been fulfilled.

As someone who has spent much of my career as a historian working with museums, K-12 teachers and the media to make the history of slavery and race accessible to the general public, I know how important listening to and reading these kinds of histories is. It is easy to correct facts; it is much harder to correct a worldview that consistently ignores and distorts the role of African Americans and race in our history in order to present white people as all powerful and solely in possession to the keys of equality, freedom and democracy. At least that is the corrective history toward which the 1619 Project is moving, if imperfectly.

Further Readings

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Reasons for US Slavery Expansion

How Big Did US Slavery Get?

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“the accelerating curves of growth, would have been short-circuited if embryo industries had run out of cotton fiber. And that nearly happened. Before 1800, most of the fiber came from small-scale production in India, from the Caribbean, and from Brazil. The price of raw cotton was high, and it was likely to rise higher still, because the land and labor forces available for producing cotton were limited, and their productivity was low. High raw material costs constrained the expansion of the British textile industry…

…On May 19, 1815, four months after Jackson’s victory, New Orleans cotton entrepreneur William Kenner reported that “upwards of Thirty vessels were in the River” on the way to the city, because “Europe must, and will(,) have cotton for her manufacturers.” His Liverpool cotton brokers predicted that cotton prices “will not decline.” Before 1815 was half over, 65,000 cotton bales, made on slave labor camps in the woods along the Mississippi and its tributaries, arrived in New Orleans by flatboat. This was 25 percent of the total produced by the entire United States, and the land and dominion that southwestern slaveholders won in battles against the enslaved, against Native Americans, and against the British prepared them to launch even greater expansions in raw cotton production.”

In fact, the cotton supply was about to increase even more rapidly. By the time four more years had passed, and Rachel arrived in New Orleans, 60,000 more enslaved people had been shifted into Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama from the older South. By 1819, the rapid expansion of Mississippi Valley slave labor camps had enabled the United States to seize control of the world export market for cotton, the most crucial of early industrial commodities.

And cotton became the dominant driver of US economic growth. In 1802, cotton already accounted for 14 percent of the value of all US exports, but by 1820 it accounted for 42 percent—in an economy reliant on exports to acquire the goods and credit it needed for growth. New Orleans had become the pivot of economic expansion, “the point of union,” as one visitor wrote, between Europe and America, industry and frontier. Its proliferating newspaper columns were filled with long lists of ship landings and departures, ads for goods imported, brokers’ pleas for more cotton, offerings of commercial credit, and notices of bank directors’ meetings. Economic acceleration loomed-over Rachel in mountain ranges of cotton bales...

Yet the assumption that slavery would have ended is based on the idea that it was an inefficient form of labor that would soon be weeded out by economic realities. By 1860, this system had been growing for seventy years at a rate unprecedented in human history. It had broken its supposed limits again and again.Edward Baptist: The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

“…Slavery was undeniably a font of phenomenal wealth. By the eve of the Civil War, the Mississippi Valley was home to more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the United States. Cotton grown and picked by enslaved workers was the nation’s most valuable export. The combined value of enslaved people exceeded that of all the railroads and factories in the nation. New Orleans boasted a denser concentration of banking capital than New York City. What made the cotton economy boom in the United States, and not in all the other far-flung parts of the world with climates and soil suitable to the crop, was our nation’s unflinching willingness to use violence on nonwhite people and to exert its will on seemingly endless supplies of land and labor. Given the choice between modernity and barbarism, prosperity and poverty, lawfulness and cruelty, democracy and totalitarianism, America chose all of the above.”

… As slave labor camps spread throughout the South, production surged. By 1831, the country was delivering nearly half the world’s raw cotton crop, with 350 million pounds picked that year. Just four years later, it harvested 500 million pounds. Southern white elites grew rich, as did their counterparts in the North, who erected textile mills to form, in the words of the Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, an “unhallowed alliance between the lords of the lash and the lords of the loom.” The large-scale cultivation of cotton hastened the invention of the factory, an institution that propelled the Industrial Revolution and changed the course of history. In 1810, there were 87,000 cotton spindles in America. Fifty years later, there were five million. Slavery, wrote one of its defenders in De Bow’s Review, a widely read agricultural magazine, was the “nursing mother of the prosperity of the North.” Cotton planters, millers and consumers were fashioning a new economy, one that was global in scope and required the movement of capital, labor and products across long distances. In other words, they were fashioning a capitalist economy. “The beating heart of this new system,” Beckert writes, “was slavery.”…

… Cotton produced under slavery created a worldwide market that brought together the Old World and the New: the industrial textile mills of the Northern states and England, on the one hand, and the cotton plantations of the American South on the other. Textile mills in industrial centers like Lancashire, England, purchased a majority of cotton exports, which created worldwide trade hubs in London and New York where merchants could trade in, invest in, insure and speculate on the cotton—commodity market. Though trade in other commodities existed, it was cotton (and the earlier trade in slave-produced sugar from the Caribbean) that accelerated worldwide commercial markets in the 19th century, creating demand for innovative contracts, novel financial products and modern forms of insurance and credit.” Matthew Desmond, In order to understand the brutality of merican capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.

Further Readings

Louisiana Purchase, Indian Removal Act, and Cotton Gin

“The North American interior, on the other hand, had thousands of acres possible cotton fields, thousands for each one in the Caribbean. And the invention of the cotton gin in the early 1990s helped to uncork one of the bottlenecks to production by allowing the easy separation of cotton fiber from seeds. But even with the dramatic increase in the amount of cotton produced in South Carolina and Georgia that followed, and even with the growing labor force supplied by coffle-chains and marching feet, southeastern enslavers still were not close to meeting the world market’s growing demand for raw cotton. In hindsight, we see that the greater Mississippi Valley was the obvious answer...

…In two terms in office, Jackson had seen all his major goals fulfilled, and how a nation flooded by cotton and credit wallowed in economic high tide. On the crest of that boom, which enslavers and their political and financial allies themselves had engineered, rode triumphant the southwestern entrepreneurs in whose ranks Jackson was numbered. His administration’s enforcement of the 1830 Indian Removal Act had driven 60,000 of the cotton frontier’s original inhabitants across the Mississippi, opening 25 million acres (an area the size of Kentucky) for speculation and cotton production.”Edward Baptist: The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

“The United States solved its land shortage by expropriating millions of acres from Native Americans, often with military force, acquiring Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Florida. It then sold that land on the cheap — just $1.25 an acre in the early 1830s ($38 in today’s dollars) — to white settlers. Naturally, the first to cash in were the land speculators. Companies operating in Mississippi flipped land, selling it soon after purchase, commonly for double the price.” Matthew Desmond, In order to understand the brutality of merican capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.

“Slavery leapt out of the East and into the interior lands of the Old Southwest in the 1820s and 1830s. Cotton began to soar as the most lucrative product in the global marketplace just as the slaveholding societies of the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic were reaching limits in soil fertility. To land speculators, planters, ambitious settlers and Northern investors, the fertile lands to the west now looked irresistible.

The Native American nations that possessed the bulk of those lands stood in the way of this imagined progress. President Andrew Jackson, an enslaver from Tennessee famous for brutal “Indian” fighting in Georgia and Florida, swooped in on the side of fellow enslavers, championing the Indian Removal Act of 1830. When Congress passed the bill by a breathtakingly slim margin, Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws and Seminoles in the South as well as Potawatomis, Wyandots, Odawas, Delawares, Shawnees and Senecas in the Midwest were relocated to an uncharted space designated as Indian Territory (including present-day Oklahoma and Kansas). “Removal,” as the historian Claudio Saunt argues in a forthcoming book on the topic, was far too quiet a word to capture the violation of this mass “expulsion” of 80,000 people.

As new lands in the Old Southwest were pried open, white enslavers back east realized that their most profitable export was no longer tobacco or rice. A complex interstate slave trade became an industry of its own. This extractive system, together with enslavers moving west with human property, resulted in the relocation of approximately one million enslaved black people to a new region. The entrenched practice of buying, selling, owning, renting and mortgaging humans stretched into the American West along with the white settler-colonial population that now occupied former indigenous lands.

Slaveholding settlers who had pushed into Texas from the American South wanted to extend cotton agriculture and increase the numbers of white arrivals. “It was slavery that seemed to represent the soft underbelly of the Texas unrest,” the historian Steven Hahn asserts in “A Nation Without Borders.” Armed conflict between American-identified enslavers and a Mexican state that outlawed slavery in 1829 was among the causes of the Mexican-American War, which won for the United States much of the Southwest and California.

Texas became the West’s cotton slavery stronghold, with enslaved black people making up 30 percent of the state’s population in 1860. “Indian Territory” also held a large population of enslaved black people. Mormons, too, kept scores of enslaved laborers in Utah. The small number of black people who arrived in California, New Mexico and Oregon before midcentury usually came as property. Even as most Western states banned slavery in their new constitutions, individual enslavers held onto their property-in-people until the Civil War.

Enslaved men who had served in the Union Army were among the first wave of African-Americans to move west of their own free will. They served as soldiers, and together with wives and children they formed pocket communities in Montana, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. It is a painful paradox that the work of black soldiers centered on what the historian Quintard Taylor has called “settler protection” in his classic 1998 study of African-Americans in the West, “In Search of the Racial Frontier.” Even while bearing slavery’s scars, black men found themselves carrying out orders to secure white residents of Western towns, track down “outlaws” (many of whom were people of color), police the federally imposed boundaries of Indian reservations and quell labor strikes. “This small group of black men,” Taylor observes, “paid a dear price in their bid to earn the respect of the nation.” Tiya Miles: How Slavery Made Its Way West

Sugar Production

“The extraordinary mass commodification of sugar, its economic might and outsize impact on the American diet and health — was in any way foreordained, or even predictable, when Christopher Columbus made his second voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in 1493, bringing sugar-cane stalks with him from the Spanish Canary Islands. In Europe at that time, refined sugar was a luxury product, the backbreaking toil and dangerous labor required in its manufacture an insuperable barrier to production in anything approaching bulk. It seems reasonable to imagine that it might have remained so if it weren’t for the establishment of an enormous market in enslaved laborers who had no way to opt out of the treacherous work.

For thousands of years, cane was a heavy and unwieldy crop that had to be cut by hand and immediately ground to release the juice inside, lest it spoil within a day or two. Even before harvest time, rows had to be dug, stalks planted and plentiful wood chopped as fuel for boiling the liquid and reducing it to crystals and molasses. From the earliest traces of cane domestication on the Pacific island of New Guinea 10,000 years ago to its island-hopping advance to ancient India in 350 B.C., sugar was locally consumed and very labor-intensive. It remained little more than an exotic spice, medicinal glaze or sweetener for elite palates.

It was the introduction of sugar slavery in the New World that changed everything. “The true Age of Sugar had begun — and it was doing more to reshape the world than any ruler, empire or war had ever done,” Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos write in their 2010 book, “Sugar Changed the World.” Over the four centuries that followed Columbus’s arrival, on the mainlands of Central and South America in Mexico, Guyana and Brazil as well as on the sugar islands of the West Indies — Cuba, Barbados and Jamaica, among others — countless indigenous lives were destroyed and nearly 11 million Africans were enslaved, just counting those who survived the Middle Passage.

“White gold” drove trade in goods and people, fueled the wealth of European nations and, for the British in particular, shored up the financing of their North American colonies. “There was direct trade among the colonies and between the colonies and Europe, but much of the Atlantic trade was triangular: enslaved people from Africa; sugar from the West Indies and Brazil; money and manufactures from Europe,” writes the Harvard historian Walter Johnson in his 1999 book, “Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market.” “People were traded along the bottom of the triangle; profits would stick at the top.”

Before French Jesuit priests planted the first cane stalk near Baronne Street in New Orleans in 1751, sugar was already a huge moneymaker in British New York. By the 1720s, one of every two ships in the city’s port was either arriving from or heading to the Caribbean, importing sugar and enslaved people and exporting flour, meat and shipbuilding supplies. The trade was so lucrative that Wall Street’s most impressive buildings were Trinity Church at one end, facing the Hudson River, and the five-story sugar warehouses on the other, close to the East River and near the busy slave market. New York’s enslaved population reached 20 percent, prompting the New York General Assembly in 1730 to issue a consolidated slave code, making it “unlawful for above three slaves” to meet on their own, and authorizing “each town” to employ “a common whipper for their slaves.”

In 1795, Étienne de Boré, a New Orleans sugar planter, granulated the first sugar crystals in the Louisiana Territory. With the advent of sugar processing locally, sugar plantations exploded up and down both banks of the Mississippi River. All of this was possible because of the abundantly rich alluvial soil, combined with the technical mastery of seasoned French and Spanish planters from around the cane-growing basin of the Gulf and the Caribbean — and because of the toil of thousands of enslaved people. More French planters and their enslaved expert sugar workers poured into Louisiana as Toussaint L’Ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines led a successful revolution to secure Haiti’s independence from France.

Within five decades, Louisiana planters were producing a quarter of the world’s cane-sugar supply. During her antebellum reign, Queen Sugar bested King Cotton locally, making Louisiana the second-richest state in per capita wealth. According to the historian Richard Follett, the state ranked third in banking capital behind New York and Massachusetts in 1840. The value of enslaved people alone represented tens of millions of dollars in capital that financed investments, loans and businesses. Much of that investment funneled back into the sugar mills, the “most industrialized sector of Southern agriculture,” Follett writes in his 2005 book, “Sugar Masters: Planters and Slaves in Louisiana’s Cane World 1820-1860.” No other agricultural region came close to the amount of capital investment in farming by the eve of the Civil War. In 1853, Representative Miles Taylor of Louisiana bragged that his state’s success was “without parallel in the United States, or indeed in the world in any branch of industry.”

The enslaved population soared, quadrupling over a 20-year period to 125,000 souls in the mid-19th century. New Orleans became the Walmart of people-selling. The number of enslaved labor crews doubled on sugar plantations. And in every sugar parish, black people outnumbered whites. These were some of the most skilled laborers, doing some of the most dangerous agricultural and industrial work in the United States.

In the mill, alongside adults, children toiled like factory workers with assembly-line precision and discipline under the constant threat of boiling hot kettles, open furnaces and grinding rollers. “All along the endless carrier are ranged slave children, whose business it is to place the cane upon it, when it is conveyed through the shed into the main building,” wrote Solomon Northup in “Twelve Years a Slave,” his 1853 memoir of being kidnapped and forced into slavery on Louisiana plantations.

To achieve the highest efficiency, as in the round-the-clock Domino refinery today, sugar houses operated night and day. “On cane plantations in sugar time, there is no distinction as to the days of the week,” Northup wrote. Fatigue might mean losing an arm to the grinding rollers or being flayed for failing to keep up. Resistance was often met with sadistic cruelty.

A formerly enslaved black woman named Mrs. Webb described a torture chamber used by her owner, Valsin Marmillion. “One of his cruelties was to place a disobedient slave, standing in a box, in which there were nails placed in such a manner that the poor creature was unable to move,” she told a W.P.A. interviewer in 1940. “He was powerless even to chase the flies, or sometimes ants crawling on some parts of his body.”

Louisiana led the nation in destroying the lives of black people in the name of economic efficiency. The historian Michael Tadman found that Louisiana sugar parishes had a pattern of “deaths exceeding births.” Backbreaking labor and “inadequate net nutrition meant that slaves working on sugar plantations were, compared with other working-age slaves in the United States, far less able to resist the common and life-threatening diseases of dirt and poverty,” wrote Tadman in a 2000 study published in the American Historical Review. Life expectancy was less like that on a cotton plantation and closer to that of a Jamaican cane field, where the most overworked and abused could drop dead after seven years.

Most of these stories of brutality, torture and premature death have never been told in classroom textbooks or historical museums. They have been refined and whitewashed in the mills and factories of Southern folklore: the romantic South, the Lost Cause, the popular “moonlight and magnolias” plantation tours so important to Louisiana’s agritourism today.

When I arrived at the Whitney Plantation Museum on a hot day in June, I mentioned to Ashley Rogers, 36, the museum’s executive director, that I had passed the Nelson Coleman Correctional Center about 15 miles back along the way. “You passed a dump and a prison on your way to a plantation,” she said. “These are not coincidences.”

The Whitney, which opened five years ago as the only sugar-slavery museum in the nation, rests squarely in a geography of human detritus. The museum tells of the everyday struggles and resistance of black people who didn’t lose their dignity even when they lost everything else. It sits on the west bank of the Mississippi at the northern edge of the St. John the Baptist Parish, home to dozens of once-thriving sugar plantations; Marmillion’s plantation and torture box were just a few miles down from Whitney.

The museum also sits across the river from the site of the German Coast uprising in 1811, one of the largest revolts of enslaved people in United States history. As many as 500 sugar rebels joined a liberation army heading toward New Orleans, only to be cut down by federal troops and local militia; no record of their actual plans survives. About a hundred were killed in battle or executed later, many with their heads severed and placed on pikes throughout the region. Based on historians’ estimates, the execution tally was nearly twice as high as the number in Nat Turner’s more famous 1831 rebellion. The revolt has been virtually redacted from the historical record. But not at Whitney. And yet tourists, Rogers said, sometimes admit to her, a white woman, that they are warned by hotel concierges and tour operators that Whitney is the one misrepresenting the past. “You are meant to empathize with the owners as their guests,” Rogers told me in her office. In Louisiana’s plantation tourism, she said, “the currency has been the distortion of the past.”

The landscape bears witness and corroborates Whitney’s version of history. Although the Coleman jail opened in 2001 and is named for an African-American sheriff’s deputy who died in the line of duty, Rogers connects it to a longer history of coerced labor, land theft and racial control after slavery. Sugar cane grows on farms all around the jail, but at the nearby Louisiana State Penitentiary, or Angola, prisoners grow it. Angola is the largest maximum-security prison by land mass in the nation. It opened in its current location in 1901 and took the name of one of the plantations that had occupied the land. Even today, incarcerated men harvest Angola’s cane, which is turned into syrup and sold on-site.

From slavery to freedom, many black Louisianans found that the crushing work of sugar cane remained mostly the same. Even with Reconstruction delivering civil rights for the first time, white planters continued to dominate landownership. Freedmen and freedwomen had little choice but to live in somebody’s old slave quarters. As new wage earners, they negotiated the best terms they could, signed labor contracts for up to a year and moved frequently from one plantation to another in search of a life whose daily rhythms beat differently than before. And yet, even compared with sharecropping on cotton plantations, Rogers said, “sugar plantations did a better job preserving racial hierarchy.” As a rule, the historian John C. Rodrigue writes, “plantation labor overshadowed black people’s lives in the sugar region until well into the 20th century.”” Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Sugar That Saturates the American Diet Has a Barbaric History as the “White Gold” That Fueled Slavery

Slave Mortgages

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“…There has not been a single person settling in this country who has anything of a capital who has not become wealthy in a few years,” claimed Virginia-born migrant John Campbell. He clearly suffered from the “Alabama Fever,” as people called it–the fervent belief that every white person who could get frontier land and put enslaved people to work making cotton would inevitably become rich. And it was credit that raised their temperature…

…These slaves cleared fields bought on spec, grew cotton to make interest payments and keep new loans flowing, and served as collateral besides. The dramatic increase in the ability of would-be entrepreneurs to borrow money had extended their right-handed reach across time and space, over mountains, and across seas…

…a paradoxical flood of lending to enslavers and cotton speculators, this time pumped through innovative banks that the entrepreneurs themselves controlled. The banks and their borrowers socialized all the risks on distant investors, the general white southern public, and, above all, enslaved people. The result was unprecedented growth. Even factoring in 1833’s Biddle-engineered recession, the economy expanded at an unprecedented rate: 6.6 percent per year between 1830 and 1837

Jackson still believed that gold and silver were the only real money and that banks were all scams. But if his precious-metal fetishism prevented him from admitting the role of pet banks in fueling rapid expansion, he did not object to taking credit for national prosperity. And just that morning, he had told representatives from the Republic of Texas that the United States was officially recognizing their independence. Observers believed this was the first step in uniting the fledgling slave owners’ nation to the much larger one to its east. So even wider fields beckoned, ripe for planting with the seeds of creative destruction. But actions have repercussions, and often not the ones for which the actors hope. Over the decade or so that followed 1836, enslavers’ overreach produced literal and figurative blood, pivoting the antebellum history of the United States in unexpected directions.

Seventeen years earlier, Connecticut-born Moses Austin had ridden from Missouri to San Antonio, which was then one of the easternmost towns in Mexico. Moses died not long afterward, but his son Stephen carried on the Austin scheme of helping Americans emigrate to the vast spaces west of Louisiana. Stephen recruited many southerners, some of whom brought slaves with them. Mexico had made emancipation its national policy, but Texas was many miles from Mexico City. Enslavers also connived to import several boatloads of Africans bought in Havana harbor (Atlantic slave traders brought more than 200,000 Africans to Cuba in the 1830s). By the end of 1835, almost 5,000 enslaved Africans and African Americans lived in Texas, making up 13 percent of the non-Indian population. After a half-hearted 1829 attempt to enforce its emancipation laws in Texas, the central government in Mexico City signaled in 1835 that this time it was serious about ending slavery. Texas enslavers began to arm themselves, and in October, shooting broke out between American settlers and Mexican soldiers.

In March 1836, a convention gathered at the town of Washington and declared Texas an independent republic. Although Texas rebels announced they were fighting for “Liberty in opposition to slavery,” it was southerners who financed and staffed the quest for independence. Rebel commissioners had already raised $300,000 from New Orleans entrepreneurs, and once…

…Yet since the debt-and-repudiation crisis of the early 1840s, enslaved people were no longer being fully tapped as collateral by world financial markets One untold story of US prosperity and global economic growth in the 1850s would be the creation of a new set of credit flows that used enslaved people’s bodies, lives, and hands as the basis for lending in the cotton economy and profit-sharing by investors outside of it. This new financial ecology replaced the chaos of the 1840s, which in turn had succeeded the credit structures of the 1830s. In the 1830s, the securitization of mortgages on enslaved people through the medium of bonds sold on distant financial markets by planter controlled, state-chartered banks had dominated and organized the flow of credit into the southwestern cotton frontier. The new system of the 1850s would finance massive new expansions in the southwestern United States while also allowing world capital markets to take advantage of the massive collateral held by enslavers. But this new system would not give enslavers what they had lost with the panics of 1837 and 1839, and with repudiation, and this was the control over the flow of credit and repayment that enslavers had once been able to exert…

…In the 1850s, the factor mediated between cotton producers and the world market, channeling credit and taking the immediate risk of lending. The factors themselves needed credit, and their financing came from New York hanks, such as Brown Brothers. Factors alone could not satisfy all the borrowing needed to generate a cotton crop that increased in total value 450 percent between 1840 and 1859. The lenders depended on personal relationships that allowed them to evaluate the creditworthiness of potential borrowers, so small-scale cotton producers were often kept on a short tether, when they could get tied in at all. Bigger planters and small-town merchants found that they could take their own incoming flow of credit from factors, repackage it, and pass it on at more capillary levels, thus making money from their own investments in other people’s enslavement of still other people.

Thus, silent by Philadelphia-based factor Washington Jackson became $2 lent by Natchez megaplanter Stephen Duncan to his neighbors. Repackagers usually demanded a mortgage on individual slaves as security, and as locally powerful residents, they were in a position to enforce this requirement. While slave mortgages had been made since the seventeenth century, they now became ubiquitous. During 1859, Louisiana enslavers raised $25.7 million, 75 percent of the value of cotton produced in the state that year, by mortgaging slaves.16

The world market’s willingness to lend reveals its continued faith in the long-term profitability of slavery. The new system of credit delivery was capillary, as opposed to the arterial system of the 1830s, and so defaults and other breaks in its flow were less catastrophic. It certainly profited lenders up and down the chain, even the little old ladies in Mayfair townhouses who let London men of business put their inheritances into the hands of other men of business. Passing through a chain of intermediaries, that money would E lent on a slave in Mississippi, usually generating 8 percent interest, the nest allowed in many states that had passed usury laws. The collateral of slaved bodies profited investors around the globe once again in the 1850…

…Now the factors’ capillary credit created demand, to which the domestic slave trade responded with a new business model. Unlike 1830s’ supertraders who owned enslaved hands from one end of the pipeline to the other, new players, such as Richmond’s Richard Dickinson, behaved more like consignment agents or commodities traders. Using the tools of faster communication—instant telegraph, or mail carried by rail-to gauge demand and supply, they held slaves in their jails for owners who wanted to sell, graded captives, provided clothes and insurance, found remote buyers, and put captives like Ben Slaughter on trains headed southwest. Sellers often waited until final sale to get their money, but they benefited from more predictable prices. Dickinson sent employees around the selling states to gather market data—“No.I women $1300 to 1350 and girls size of Margaret and Edmony $1025 to 1100…. [Slome think No. 1 men will go as high as $1600 to 1700.” He repackaged this data into regular price circulars, which he mailed to potential sellers and brokers across Virginia. The new pattern of trade reduced opportunities for arbitrage but didn’t require a single middle party to bear all the risk. Capital requirements for entry declined, and there was demand to fill. The price of an adult man in New Orleans climbed from $697 in 1850 to $1,451 in 1860. The reorganized Save trade moved about 70 percent of the decade’s 250,000 forced migrants.”

Rising prices, returning credit, and the efficiencies of the newest iteration of the domestic slave trade enabled wealthy cotton enslavers to expand their operations dramatically. US cotton production reached 4 million bales by 1859, an incredible testimony to the seemingly unlimited capacity of both the southern economy to increase its production, and the world economy to absorb it. Boyd and Ballard, who owned almost a dozen labor camps, did their share. On one of them near Natchez, Ballard owned a woman named Virginia. She wasn’t a girl, for she had a teenage daughter, and she began to call herself Boyd because Samuel carried on a relationship with her. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand why she carried on with “the old Man,” as she later called him. In the early 1850s, Boyd and Ballard were ending enslaved people to carve new labor camps out of the land they now ned on the heavily forested western shore of the Mississippi River: Elcho, Brushy Bayou, Pecan Grove, and Outpost in northeastern Louisiana, and Wagram in Arkansas. By 1855, a memo showing returns from only six of the partners’ ten camps recorded 3,319 bales made – 1.34 million pounds of clean ginned cotton.” Edward Baptist: The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

Matthew Desmond: In order to understand the brutality of merican capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.

“…Consider, for example, one of the most popular mainstream financial instruments: the mortgage. Enslaved people were used as collateral for mortgages centuries before the home mortgage became the defining characteristic of middle America. In colonial times, when land was not worth much and banks didn’t exist, most lending was based on human property. In the early 1700s, slaves were the dominant collateral in South Carolina. Many Americans were first exposed to the concept of a mortgage by trafficking in enslaved people, not real estate, and “the extension of mortgages to slave property helped fuel the development of American (and global) capitalism,” the historian Joshua Rothman told me.

Or consider a Wall Street financial instrument as modern-sounding as collateralized debt obligations (C.D.O.s), those ticking time bombs backed by inflated home prices in the 2000s. C.D.O.s were the grandchildren of mortgage-backed securities based on the inflated value of enslaved people sold in the 1820s and 1830s. Each product created massive fortunes for the few before blowing up the economy.

Enslavers were not the first ones to securitize assets and debts in America. The land companies that thrived during the late 1700s relied on this technique, for instance. But enslavers did make use of securities to such an enormous degree for their time, exposing stakeholders throughout the Western world to enough risk to compromise the world economy, that the historian Edward Baptist told me that this can be viewed as “a new moment in international capitalism, where you are seeing the development of a globalized financial market.” The novel thing about the 2008 foreclosure crisis was not the concept of foreclosing on a homeowner but foreclosing on millions of them. Similarly, what was new about securitizing enslaved people in the first half of the 19th century was not the concept of securitization itself but the crazed level of rash speculation on cotton that selling slave debt promoted.

As America’s cotton sector expanded, the value of enslaved workers soared. Between 1804 and 1860, the average price of men ages 21 to 38 sold in New Orleans grew to $1,200 from roughly $450. Because they couldn’t expand their cotton empires without more enslaved workers, ambitious planters needed to find a way to raise enough capital to purchase more hands. Enter the banks. The Second Bank of the United States, chartered in 1816, began investing heavily in cotton. In the early 1830s, the slaveholding Southwestern states took almost half the bank’s business. Around the same time, state-chartered banks began multiplying to such a degree that one historian called it an “orgy of bank-creation.”

An 1850 inventory of enslaved people from the Pleasant Hill Plantation in Mississippi. From Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, Louisiana State University Libraries, Baton Rouge, La.

When seeking loans, planters used enslaved people as collateral. Thomas Jefferson mortgaged 150 of his enslaved workers to build Monticello. People could be sold much more easily than land, and in multiple Southern states, more than eight in 10 mortgage-secured loans used enslaved people as full or partial collateral. As the historian Bonnie Martin has written, “slave owners worked their slaves financially, as well as physically from colonial days until emancipation” by mortgaging people to buy more people. Access to credit grew faster than Mississippi kudzu, leading one 1836 observer to remark that in cotton country “money, or what passed for money, was the only cheap thing to be had.”

Planters took on immense amounts of debt to finance their operations. Why wouldn’t they? The math worked out. A cotton plantation in the first decade of the 19th century could leverage their enslaved workers at 8 percent interest and record a return three times that. So leverage they did, sometimes volunteering the same enslaved workers for multiple mortgages. Banks lent with little restraint. By 1833, Mississippi banks had issued 20 times as much paper money as they had gold in their coffers. In several Southern counties, slave mortgages injected more capital into the economy than sales from the crops harvested by enslaved workers.

Global financial markets got in on the action. When Thomas Jefferson mortgaged his enslaved workers, it was a Dutch firm that put up the money. The Louisiana Purchase, which opened millions of acres to cotton production, was financed by Baring Brothers, the well-heeled British commercial bank. A majority of credit powering the American slave economy came from the London money market. Years after abolishing the African slave trade in 1807, Britain, and much of Europe along with it, was bankrolling slavery in the United States. To raise capital, state-chartered banks pooled debt generated by slave mortgages and repackaged it as bonds promising investors annual interest. During slavery’s boom time, banks did swift business in bonds, finding buyers in Hamburg and Amsterdam, in Boston and Philadelphia.

Some historians have claimed that the British abolition of the slave trade was a turning point in modernity, marked by the development of a new kind of moral consciousness when people began considering the suffering of others thousands of miles away. But perhaps all that changed was a growing need to scrub the blood of enslaved workers off American dollars, British pounds and French francs, a need that Western financial markets fast found a way to satisfy through the global trade in bank bonds. Here was a means to profit from slavery without getting your hands dirty. In fact, many investors may not have realized that their money was being used to buy and exploit people, just as many of us who are vested in multinational textile companies today are unaware that our money subsidizes a business that continues to rely on forced labor in countries like Uzbekistan and China and child workers in countries like India and Brazil. Call it irony, coincidence or maybe cause — historians haven’t settled the matter — but avenues to profit indirectly from slavery grew in popularity as the institution of slavery itself grew more unpopular. “I think they go together,” the historian Calvin Schermerhorn told me. “We care about fellow members of humanity, but what do we do when we want returns on an investment that depends on their bound labor?” he said. “Yes, there is a higher consciousness. But then it comes down to: Where do you get your cotton from?”

Banks issued tens of millions of dollars in loans on the assumption that rising cotton prices would go on forever. Speculation reached a fever pitch in the 1830s, as businessmen, planters and lawyers convinced themselves that they could amass real treasure by joining in a risky game that everyone seemed to be playing. If planters thought themselves invincible, able to bend the laws of finance to their will, it was most likely because they had been granted authority to bend the laws of nature to their will, to do with the land and the people who worked it as they pleased. Du Bois wrote: “The mere fact that a man could be, under the law, the actual master of the mind and body of human beings had to have disastrous effects. It tended to inflate the ego of most planters beyond all reason; they became arrogant, strutting, quarrelsome kinglets.” What are the laws of economics to those exercising godlike power over an entire people?

We know how these stories end. The American South rashly overproduced cotton thanks to an abundance of cheap land, labor and credit, consumer demand couldn’t keep up with supply, and prices fell. The value of cotton started to drop as early as 1834 before plunging like a bird winged in midflight, setting off the Panic of 1837. Investors and creditors called in their debts, but plantation owners were underwater. Mississippi planters owed the banks in New Orleans $33 million in a year their crops yielded only $10 million in revenue. They couldn’t simply liquidate their assets to raise the money. When the price of cotton tumbled, it pulled down the value of enslaved workers and land along with it. People bought for $2,000 were now selling for $60. Today, we would say the planters’ debt was “toxic.”

Because enslavers couldn’t repay their loans, the banks couldn’t make interest payments on their bonds. Shouts went up around the Western world, as investors began demanding that states raise taxes to keep their promises. After all, the bonds were backed by taxpayers. But after a swell of populist outrage, states decided not to squeeze the money out of every Southern family, coin by coin. But neither did they foreclose on defaulting plantation owners. If they tried, planters absconded to Texas (an independent republic at the time) with their treasure and enslaved work force. Furious bondholders mounted lawsuits and cashiers committed suicide, but the bankrupt states refused to pay their debts. Cotton slavery was too big to fail. The South chose to cut itself out of the global credit market, the hand that had fed cotton expansion, rather than hold planters and their banks accountable for their negligence and avarice.

Even academic historians, who from their very first graduate course are taught to shun presentism and accept history on its own terms, haven’t been able to resist drawing parallels between the Panic of 1837 and the 2008 financial crisis. All the ingredients are there: mystifying financial instruments that hide risk while connecting bankers, investors and families around the globe; fantastic profits amassed overnight; the normalization of speculation and breathless risk-taking; stacks of paper money printed on the myth that some institution (cotton, housing) is unshakable; considered and intentional exploitation of black people; and impunity for the profiteers when it all falls apart — the borrowers were bailed out after 1837, the banks after 2008.

During slavery, “Americans built a culture of speculation unique in its abandon,” writes the historian Joshua Rothman in his 2012 book, “Flush Times and Fever Dreams.” That culture would drive cotton production up to the Civil War, and it has been a defining characteristic of American capitalism ever since. It is the culture of acquiring wealth without work, growing at all costs and abusing the powerless. It is the culture that brought us the Panic of 1837, the stock-market crash of 1929 and the recession of 2008. It is the culture that has produced staggering inequality and undignified working conditions. If today America promotes a particular kind of low-road capitalism — a union-busting capitalism of poverty wages, gig jobs and normalized insecurity; a winner-take-all capitalism of stunning disparities not only permitting but awarding financial rule-bending; a racist capitalism that ignores the fact that slavery didn’t just deny black freedom but built white fortunes, originating the black-white wealth gap that annually grows wider — one reason is that American capitalism was founded on the lowest road there is.”

Kottke: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry in the United States

Because slaves were property, Southern slave owners could mortgage them to banks and then the banks could package the mortgages into bonds and sell the bonds to anyone anywhere in the world, even where slavery was illegal.

In the 1830s, powerful Southern slaveowners wanted to import capital into their states so they could buy more slaves. They came up with a new, two-part idea: mortgaging slaves; and then turning the mortgages into bonds that could be marketed all over the world.

First, American planters organized new banks, usually in new states like Mississippi and Louisiana. Drawing up lists of slaves for collateral, the planters then mortgaged them to the banks they had created, enabling themselves to buy additional slaves to expand cotton production. To provide capital for those loans, the banks sold bonds to investors from around the globe — London, New York, Amsterdam, Paris. The bond buyers, many of whom lived in countries where slavery was illegal, didn’t own individual slaves — just bonds backed by their value. Planters’ mortgage payments paid the interest and the principle on these bond payments. Enslaved human beings had been, in modern financial lingo, “securitized.”

Forbes: America’s First Bond Market Was Backed By Enslaved Human Beings

America’s first bond market was backed by a most macabre form of collateral: human beings, kidnapped from Africa and tortured into forced labor.

That would have been a useful thing to know when I started my journalism career as a news assistant on the Reuters bond markets desk back in 2001. But I have only learned it now, 18 years later, thanks to the New York Times’ breathtaking 1619 Project, led by Nicole Hannah-Jones.

A piece by Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond draws a direct and deeply compelling connection between today’s massive global market for bonds backed by everything from mortgages to lottery tickets to the U.S. economy’s slavery-founded beginnings.

“Enslaved people were used as collateral for mortgages centuries before the home mortgage became the defining characteristic of middle America,” Desmond writes. “In colonial times, when land was not worth much and banks didn’t exist, most lending was based on human property.”

He adds that “many Americans were first exposed to the concept of a mortgage by trafficking in enslaved people, not real estate.”

The degree of deadly “sophistication” in this ruthless system was a testament to its premeditated and organized nature. This was already a globalized, if all-too-primitive, financial system.

“Global financial markets got in on the action,” Desmond says. “When Thomas Jefferson mortgaged his enslaved workers, it was a Dutch firm that put up the collateral. […] Most of the credit “powering the American slave economy came from the London money market.”

Now, why would any of this mind-blowing history been useful when I was reporting on financial markets in the early 2000s? For starters, it would have made me a better human being.

More to the point, as Desmond notes, some of the same mechanics were at work then as underpinned the slave-based economy.

“Consider a Wall Street instrument as modern sounding as collateralized debt obligations or CDOs, those ticking time bombs backed by inflated home prices in the 2000s,” he writes. “CDOs were the grandchildren of mortgage backed securities based on the value of enslaved people in the 1820s and 1830s.”

The similarity doesn’t end there: “Each product created massive fortunes for the few before blowing up the economy.”

Put another way, today’s mighty bond market, a formidable force on Wall Street and in world affairs, was born quite literally of human bondage.

Every trader should know that. So should every student of finance. Alas, we are not there yet.

Elizabeth Caldwell: The Financial Frontier: Slave Mortgaging and the Creation of the Deep South


Security in Slaves:

Finance and Frontier Development

Violet and her son Jack would remember June 2, 1831 as a grim day. In front of the courtroom steps in Iberville, Louisiana, the two were placed atop an auction block to be sold to the highest bidder—or, as they likely feared, to the two highest bidders.1 Upon the death of their owner, the slaves were listed for sale in the local newspapers, on broadsides plastered throughout the town, and announced at the town’s meeting places. The executors of Samuel Neal’s will were anxious to resolve the estate and to ensure that the deceased’s wife, Honorine, and young daughter, Elizabeth, would have adequate provisions. With slave prices high on the southwestern frontier, Violet and Jack were sure to bring a good deal of cash for the widow and orphan of the planter household as well as Samuel’s other heirs. As the auction proceeded, the two played their parts well and successfully caught the attention of Jean Maillant. For $800, the bidder received the enslaved pair, who were transferred from their plantation and surrounding network of friends and relations.

Anticipating a payment of $800, however, Neal’s executors would not receive the full sum for at least a year. Instead of an outright sale, Maillant negotiated a mortgage agreement with the estate’s administrators. For one-third of the purchase price, Maillant would take possession of the two slaves. In order to secure the remaining debt on this human property, the slaves themselves would serve as collateral. In the event that Maillant defaulted on the loan, the original owners could seize the slaves and resell them, hopefully at an equal or higher price, while keeping the original down payment.

In the slaveholding economy of the southern United States, mortgaging agreements like Maillant’s were vital. With little cash on hand, planters and smaller farmers relied on access to credit to pay for agricultural supplies, household goods, and other staple items for themselves and their families. Yet men did not limit their credit purchases to seed or new clothing for the children. Credit was also used to make larger capital investments, such as farm implements, land, and slaves themselves. In order to make these debts more secure, men collateralized their most valuable assets, much like home mortgages in the modern era. Unlike homes, however, slaves held unique characteristics that differentiated them from other forms of property. As historian Walter Johnson has termed the “chattel principle,” slaves could be converted into cash through sale in the slave market.3 In addition to their liquidity, slaves were mobile assets who could be sold in markets where demand for them was highest. Moreover, women of a childbearing age were particularly valuable based on their ability to reproduce.4 As highly prized property, slaves underwrote the antebellum South’s credit economy, and at times, they even served as the security for their own purchase. As owners leveraged slaves’ bodies in order to sustain their plantations, enslaved individuals financed the very system that perpetuated their bondage.

By the time of Violet and her son’s sale in 1831, slavery was entrenched in the economy of the young United States. Although debate raged over slavery’s westward expansion, the raw materials produced in the slaveholding South were essential to industrial development in the North. Shipments of cotton and sugar to England and other nations across the Atlantic further integrated the southern United States, and slavery, into a global economy. By 1840, the South grew more than 60 percent of the world’s cotton, which was shipped not only to New England and Britain but also to Russia and industrializing parts of continental Europe.5 Rather than giving way to a more efficient system of production or retarding the development of international capitalism, American slavery fostered frontier development in the South, industrial growth in the North, and modern finance across the Atlantic.

With the chance to take part in the Deep South’s boomtown economy, men continued to invest in the human capital that made the region’s economic system so profitable. While the planter elite represented only a small portion of southerners, other classes were also invested in the institution.7 The expansion of slavery into Louisiana, Texas, and other states in the southern frontier gave non-slaveholding whites new prospects for slave-backed wealth. The distribution of newly acquired land by the federal government and the growing flexibility of credit meant that slaveholding seemed like a less-distant dream for many men in the Deep South.8

Following the United States’ victory over Britain in the War of 1812, men from near and far, including recent European immigrants, made their way to the southern frontier, hoping to make their visions of wealth into reality.9 Amidst the vast wilderness, frontiersmen set out to convert their new tracts of land into fields of cotton or other cash crops that might bring them a fortune. Yet the transformation of this forested and marshy land was not simply the product of pioneer labor. In order to hew plantations from the backcountry of Alabama or the banks of the Mississippi River, landowners utilized enslaved men and women. In some cases, settler families carried their enslaved property with them on a journey that might take over a year to plan and undertake.10 For others, purchasing slaves in the western territories presented the better option.

Due to the United States’ embargo on the transatlantic slave trade in 1808, however, men and women arriving in ships from West Africa could not meet the rising demand for slaves in the frontier states. In its place, a domestic slave trade arose in the early nineteenth century. A waning need for slave labor in the Upper South meant that owners were willing to ship their valuable property southwestward to the new center of American commercial agriculture. For slaveholders in states like Virginia, for instance, the interregional slave trade offered an important opportunity for greater economic gain. Between 1820 and 1860, approximately 875,000 slaves were transported through the domestic slave trade to the western frontier. The massive transportation of slaves—which some scholars have referred to as the “second middle passage”—transformed the geography of American slavery and shifted its center from the Atlantic seaboard to the lower southern interior.11

As men moved westward, credit was central to their economic success. Like slaveholders in the Upper South as well as factory owners or merchants in the North, settlers in the Southwest relied on loans to finance their speculative ventures and the day-to-day operations of their plantations, whether purchasing shoes for their slaves, seed for the coming season, or new tracts of land. This system of credit, however, was not standardized as it is today. For elite planters, local merchants, known as factors, provided the loans necessary for cotton production, usually “advances” on the next season’s crop which factors would sell on commission into the Atlantic market.12 Through more casual arrangements, smaller farmers might borrow from neighbors, while local storekeepers or merchants would supply provisions on easy credit, with terms recorded in a ledgerbook rather than formalized in a note.13 These lending networks extended beyond the local, connecting southern planters to northern businessmen, bankers, manufacturers, merchants, and ultimately, financial institutions in England. As cotton or other crops were produced on a plantation, it took a series of negotiations and financial transactions to turn this slave-produced product into cash for the original slaveholding planter. After brokering cotton from the town in which it was produced to nearby cities, a commission merchant would then continue to negotiate the crop’s sale in larger regional cities and ultimately its sale to northern or overseas locations. Throughout this lengthy process, planters prepared for the upcoming season without a precise knowledge of the cash that their previous harvest had brought in. Nevertheless, they continued to borrow money on the expected value of their past, present, and future crops, assuming that cotton prices would only rise.14

In the antebellum United States, lending was risky. Credit networks extended over great geographic expanses, and loans remained unpaid for long periods of time. Moreover, as the United States took on a greater percentage of global production of cotton throughout the 1830s and sugar following the Haitian Revolution, the increasing returns on these cash crops pushed planters to make riskier investments.15 In order to increase the chances that they would recuperate loaned money, creditors relied on a variety of security mechanisms. In addition to mortgages, which assigned a specific piece of property as security for a loan, debtors relied on friends or family to co-sign loans.16 Confessions of judgment gave creditors the ability to foreclose on all of a debtor’s property in the case of default.17

Whether or not a creditor used legal instruments to secure his loans, slaves themselves were often the most crucial factor for ensuring the repayment of debt. Without men and women to cultivate the land and to produce products to be sold in the market, planters’ loans would never be paid off. Yet it was not only the long hours of deforesting, planting, and harvesting that made slaves so essential to this financial system. In the context of a precarious financial system, the importance of slaves as a form of property was particularly evident. Viewed in this light, owners could gain wealth—or repay debts—not only by extracting greater labor from their enslaved men and women but also, as historian Bonnie Martin has argued, by pledging and selling their human property, essentially working them both physically and financially.18

As a highly valuable form of property, slaves were essential assets, invariably listed alongside household furniture or tracts of land as security for loans. In estate inventories, slaves almost always made up a family’s most valuable assets.19 As Robin Einhorn has argued, tax codes also reflected the exceptional wealth stored in slaves, with virtually every southern legislature choosing to discount assessments on human property that would otherwise dwarf all other taxable assets in value.20 Moreover, slaves’ mobility made them a particularly desirable form of collateral for lenders. While the value of a tract of land was completely dependent on the local market, slaves could be auctioned locally, transported to the regional market, or even sold into the domestic slave trade, where prevailing prices in Natchez and New Orleans set the value of slaves in places as remote as Maryland and Delaware.

The creditors and debtors featured in this study both benefitted from the collateralization of slaves. Whether they were neighboring slaveholders, elite planters, or local merchants, creditors preferred slaves for the exceptional value that they embodied as laborers and products marketed on auction blocks throughout the South. By collateralizing their human property, debtors entered the world of speculation more easily. If they were savvy managers of their financial portfolios, planters not only could benefit from the cotton that their slaves produced but could also leverage this human property to access more land and slaves. Frequently, slaveholders even pledged the same human property to multiple creditors at once. Securitizing slaves brought these men one step closer to the fortunes that had originally driven them westward.21

In her recent work on slave mortgaging, Bonnie Martin argues that this financial practice was “slavery’s invisible engine.” By offering a slave as security, men were able to able to purchase a slave, piece of land or other plantation product without having cash to pay off the entire purchase price initially. In addition to expanding the potential number of borrowers as well as the rate of slave acquisition, mortgaging allowed slaveholders to maintain their workforce in the fields even as the same enslaved men and women were worked financially. In other words, without necessarily exploiting a slave’s labor in the field and without having to sell a slave outright, slaveholders could nonetheless reap tremendous financial benefit as the owners of human property. As Martin shows in her study of more than 8,000 mortgages made after the American Revolution, 41% included slaves as collateral and accounted for 63% of the capital generated.22

Specifically, Martin identifies two kinds of mortgages that placed slaves at their center. Purchase-money mortgages allowed men to buy a slave or slaves without paying in full. Like mortgages made on homes today, these agreements stipulated a payment plan and required that the slaves being purchased serve as collateral for the loan. Until the loan and its interest were paid in full, the original owner kept the title to the slaves. Through equity loans, men were able to collateralize slaves that they already owned in exchange for loans from wealthy neighbors or merchants. As slaves’ bodies were mortgaged, these men and women—and the financial value that they embodied—accelerated the flow of credit, giving planters cash without relinquishing their full property rights.23

Despite the value of slaves, mortgaging was not perfect insurance for repayment. The emerging laws of chattel mortgages in the antebellum United States came amidst broader legal transformations in contract law. Although debtors and creditors had certain legal rights that were regularly upheld in court throughout the 1700s, legal historian Thomas Morris writes that there was no body of mortgage law that specifically addressed chattel.24 As he writes, “chattel mortgage law, then, was in gestation.”25 With this legal murkiness, courts worked to differentiate between mortgages and other conditional sales, in which the purchaser traditionally took possession of the asset at the time of the negotiation. In an era of poorly written contracts and fraudulent money lenders, courts walked a fine line between protecting vulnerable debtors and upholding the emerging will theory of contract, which was a legal cornerstone of the emergent market capitalism in the 1800s.26

Even when mortgages were straightforward, creditors were not always able to lay claim to the property they were due. Because it was difficult to determine who held the actual title to a slave, creditors often agreed to make loans that were backed by previously pledged slaves. In some instances, the debtor could then determine which creditor would be the beneficiary of his assets’ sale.27 Moving beyond the jurisdiction of the court or death could also make collateralized slaves unredeemable. Because mortgages only bound specific pieces of property to the repayment of a loan, the disappearance of that asset—which was especially probable with mobile pieces of property—would make the mortgage no longer binding.28

Although the law of chattel mortgages was still in development, the majority of cases brought to court in the early nineteenth century were not criminal but civil cases, a large portion of which concerned debt.29 By the 1840s, courts were a crucial aspect of credit transactions, argues historian Thomas Russell. Through simple paperwork, creditors could initiate a legal process for judgment of a debtor—essentially a call for the sheriff to seize the debtor’s property—if he failed to repay the lender.30 While mortgages did not put all of a debtor’s property on the line, it is clear that the law and its implementation was important for creditor-debtor relations in the postrevolutionary period. However, the laws that determined the shape of these relationships remained contested in the period. Whether or not the law would protect collateralized property from creditors was a matter of debate well into the nineteenth century.

In a labor and financial system that was built on commodified bodies, risk was inherent. Though debtors and creditors took on different forms of risk through mortgaging, each needed protection from the fluctuations of the market as well as the health or price of their human assets. Toward this end, those who stood to benefit from the exploitation of slaves worked to stabilize this system. As Robin Einhorn argues, “if property rights have enjoyed unusual sanctity in the United States, it may be because this nation was founded in a political situation in which the owners of one very significant form of property thought their holdings were insecure.” In order to preserve the institution of slavery in the United States, slaveholders “consistently demanded antidemocratic protections for property rights they thought would be vulnerable in regimes based on majority rule.”31

Changes in property law and slave mortgaging in the southern United States add support to Einhorn’s thesis. As participants in the frontier’s speculative economy repeatedly leveraged their slaves and sunk themselves into deeper and deeper debt, southwestern legislatures passed married women’s property laws and new inheritance statues that would shield certain property from seizure by angry creditors. By protecting a portion of men’s property for the sake of his family’s well-being, the state subsidized highly risky economic ventures. Men could continue to leverage this protected property in the hopes of striking it rich without taking on the full risk of their loans. Spurred by their ties to a highly volatile, flexible, and lucrative form of property, the Southwest states passed legislation that perpetuated speculative investments and contributed to the rise of a slave-backed economy in this region. Central to westward expansion was a slaveholding regime that kept millions in bondage.

Even amidst the legal contestation and transformation of the antebellum years, lenders were more likely to be repaid for loans backed by slaves than those with no assets attached as collateral. Nevertheless, the credit-based economy of the United States could never escape the incredibly vulnerable and volatile commodities that it was built upon. Planters frequently overleveraged their slaves, who underwrote both the production and finance of cash crops. As the Panic of 1837 would demonstrate, securing ten loans with one slave, who was worth one-fifth of the total debt, was far from a sound financial gambit. Yet it was not only the financial practices that made this economic system so precarious. As slaveholders sought to maximize their profit, they extracted slaves’ physical labor through the mobilization of violence and neglected the health of their bondsmen and bondswomen. Not surprisingly, illness and death were common to this system. Moreover, slaves themselves challenged the system that kept them in bondage. As Walter Johnson and other social historians have shown, the commodification of men and women could never be fully carried out.32 From feigning sickness to stopping work to running away, slaves resisted their exploitation….

Domestic Slave Trade

“…During boom times like these, southwestern buyers were more interested in extracting value now than in the long-term accumulations healthy childbirth and well-fed childhoods represented. Woman who was alone would waste none of her labor on children. And men were universally sold without family members. So were many children…From 1815 to 1820, in fact, New Orleans saw 2,646 sales of children under the age of thirteen, of whom 1,001 were sold separately from any family member. Their average age was nine. Many were younger-some much younger.

Brothers broken apart, mothers taken from daughters and vice versa-all were easier to move, to “be anything made of,” individual units ready to come to hand in entrepreneurial dreams. To make the parents into mere individuals, children were left back in the Chesapeake to be reared by grandparents and aunts and uncles. So African-American households back East paid the cost of increasing right-handed power in the southwestern United States…” Edward Baptist: The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

Increase Production Through Torture

“…The kind of slavery that Ball was encountering and that was emerging on the frontiers of the early nineteenth-century South was inherently new. For centuries, slavery in the New World had expanded by a process of extension: adding new slaves, clearing new fields from the next sugar island. The southwestern frontier was expanding in part-via a similar strategy, though on an unprecedented geographic scale: it was not an island, but a subcontinent’s rich interior stripped from its inhabitants. And not mere battalions, but whole armies of slaves were being moved to new soil. By 1820, whites had already transported more than 200,000 enslaved people to the South’s new frontiers in the years since 1790 (see Table 1.1).

What made this forced migration truly different was that it led to continuous increases in productivity per person–what economists call “efficiency.” The two ways out of the Malthusian trap were either to incorporate more “ghost acres”—land outside of industrializing core regions like Britain or, soon, the northeastern United States-or to create systematic increases in efficiency of production. The first slavery had not yielded continuous improvements in labor productivity. On the nineteenth-century cotton frontier, however, enslavers extracted more production from each enslaved person every year.

The source of this ever-rising productivity wasn’t a machine like the ones that were crucial to the textile mills. In fact, you could say that the business end of the new cotton technology was a whip…

…Yet in the fields past the magnolia grove, the dynamic of right-handed domination and left-handed resistance, a struggle as old as the Pyramids, was changing. Something profoundly new was happening. Enslavers were finding ways to turn the left hand against the enslaved. Entrepreneurs redirected lefthanded power by measuring work, implementing continuous surveillance of labor, and calibrating time and torture. All of this repeatedly accomplished enslavers’ ongoing goal of forcing enslaved people to invent, over and over, ways to make their own labor more efficient and profitable for their owners.

New techniques that extracted ever-greater cotton efficiency radically changed the experience of enslaved people like Charles Ball and the 1 million who followed him into the cotton fields. But they also transformed the world beyond the fields. The amount of cotton the South grew increased almost every single year from 1800, when enslaved African Americans made 1.4 million pounds of cotton, to 1860, when they harvested almost 2 billion pounds. Eighty percent of all the cotton grown in the United States was exported across the Atlantic, almost all of it to Britain. Cotton was the most important raw material of the industrial revolution that created our modern world economy. By 1820, the ability of enslaved people in southwestern frontier fields to produce more cotton of a higher quality for less drove most other producing regions out of the world market. Enslaved African Americans were the world’s most efficient producers of cotton. And they got more efficient every year, which is why the real price of the most important raw material of the industrial revolution declined by 1860 to 25 percent of its 1790 cost, even as demand for it increased by 500 percent (see Table 4.1). Cotton also drove US expansion, enabling the young country to grow from a narrow coastal belt into a vast, powerful nation with the fastest-growing economy in the world. Between the 1790s and 1820, the United States acquired a near-monopoly on the world’s most widely traded commodity, and after 1820, cotton accounted for a majority of all US exports. And all of the transformations that spun from these facts depended on changes inflicted on the left hand.Edward Baptist: The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

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“The best-known innovation in the history of cotton production, as every high-school history student knows, is the cotton gin. It allowed enslavers to clean as much cotton for market as they could grow and harvest. As far as most historians have been concerned, the gin is where the study of innovation in the production of cotton ends—at least until the invention of the mechanical cotton picker in the 1930s, which ended the sharecropping regime. But here is the question historians should have asked: Once enslavers had the cotton gin, how then did enslavers produce (or have produced, by other hands) as much as the gin could clean? For once the gin shattered the processing bottleneck, other limits on production and expansion were cast into new relief. For instance, one constraint was the amount of cheap, fertile land. Another was the lack of labor on the frontier. So enslaver-generals took land from Indians, enslaver-politicians convinced Congress to let slavery expand, and enslaverentrepreneurs created new ways to finance and transport and commodify “hands.” And, given a finite number of captives in their own control, entrepreneurs created a complex of labor control practices that enslaved people called “the pushing system.” This system increased the number of acres each captive was supposed to cultivate. As of 1805, enslavers like Hampton figured that each “hand” could tend and keep free of weeds five acres of cotton per year. Half a century later, that rule of thumb had increased to ten acres “to the hand…

…And perhaps most conclusively, after the Civil War, when many cotton planters would pay pickers by the pound at the end of a day’s work, free labor motivated by a wage did not produce the same amount of cotton per hour of picking as slave labor had.35

What enslavers used was a system of measurement and negative incentives. Actually, one should avoid such euphemisms. Enslavers used measurement to calibrate torture in order to force cotton pickers to figure out how to increase their own productivity and thus push through the picking bottleneck. The continuous process of innovation thus generated was the ultimate cause of the massive increase in the production of high-quality, cheap cotton: an absolutely necessary increase if the Western world was to burst out of the 10,000-year Malthusian cycle of agriculture. This system confounds our expectations, because, like abolitionists, we want to believe that the free labor system is not only more moral than systems of coercion, but more efficient…

…In front of the cotton-shed, he would learn the secret that made hands pick cotton like machines.

In a semicircle outside the “stand,” the open shed that sheltered the gin, Ball and the others put their baskets down. They waited while drivers hung each basket by its handles on a “steelyard,” a balance-beam scale that measured their day’s picking. The overseer called out the weight and then chalked the numbers by the picker’s name on his slate. Ball had thirty-eight pounds—at least ten less than most of the other men, even though they were not as strong with the axe or as swift with the hoe. Yet some, and some women and teenagers who had also picked more than Ball, were being taken to the patch of ground where Lydia had been beaten.

Twenty years after Ball’s first day of picking, Israel Campbell went through his own first season at a Mississippi slave labor camp. Try as he might, Campbell could pick no more than ninety pounds between first light and full dark. But the planter, “Belfer,” had told the young man that his daily minimum was one hundred pounds—and that on this day he would “have as many lashes as there were pounds short” in the “draft of cotton” recorded beside the name “Israel” on the Irish-born overseer’s slate. (A “draft” was a check that paid off a debt, in the commercial lingo of the time.) On the hardpacked earth of Belfer’s cotton yard, between the rough-hewn timbers of the gin stand and the packing screw that squashed cleaned cotton into bales, a kind of accounting took place. It used slate and chalk, balance beam, and one more tool as well. And as Campbell brought his cotton up in the growing darkness, he knew that his weight left him with a negative balance. Desperate to avoid a reckoning, he set his basket down and silently slipped behind the other slaves lining up outside the circle of torchlight where the Irishman was weighing baskets. He went to hide in the hut where the slaves did their cooking. But just a few moments later, the door opened, and looming backlit on the threshold stood Belfer-lantern in one hand, four stakes and the bullwhip in the other: “Well, Israel, is that you?” The Irishman had weighed Campbell’s basket. The account was negative. “I will settle with you now,” Belfer said.38

We can find this system of accounting, experienced by Campbell and Ball, reported again and again by people who were moved to the southwestern cotton fields…

…For many southwestern whites, whipping was a gateway form of violence that led to bizarrely creative levels of sadism. In the sources that document the expansion of cotton production, you can find at one point or another almost every product sold in New Orleans stores converted into an instrument of torture: carpenters’ tools, chains, cotton presses, hackles, handsaws, hoe handles, irons for branding livestock, nails, pokers, smoothing irons, singletrees, steelyards, tongs. Every modern method of torture was used at one time or another: sexual humiliation, mutilation, electric shocks, solitary confinement in “stress positions,” burning, even waterboarding. And descriptions of runaways posted by enslavers were festooned with descriptions of scars, burns, mutilations, brands, and wounds. Yet even slave owners’ more “irrational” forms of torture could have “rational” outcomes. As ex-slave Henry Gowens pointed out, wild assaults “cramp[ed] down [the] minds” of their targets (if they survived) and other witnesses, who now acted as much like hands as they could.7

We don’t usually see torture as a factor of production. Economics teachers don’t put it on the chalkboard as a variable in a graph (“T” stands for torture, one component of “S,” or supply). But here is something that may help reveal how crucial systematized torture was to the industrial revolution, and thus the birth of the modern world…

…Hard forced labor multiplied US cotton production to 130 times its 1800 level by 1860. Slave labor camps were more efficient producers of revenue than free farms in the North…

…Often the lessees’ agenda went beyond profit alone. For example, there was the group of Vermont entrepreneurs who assured the Treasury that their “New England skill and energy” could “direct these persons [to] grow cotton 25% cheaper when employed by fair wages than when compelled to do it as slaves.” Thus they could prove that enslavers not only were politically imperialistic, destroying the rights of other white people, but also had operated an inefficient, backward system. Indeed, they believed, “so faforable [sic] an opportunity to prove this will probably not occur again for ages.” Should $6 per month prove insufficient motivation to convince newly liberated African Americans to enter the cotton wage-labor market, instead of growing corn and yams to eat, the New Englanders also asked permission to use “the ball and chain” to enforce “authority.”

The experiment didn’t work, at least not on the terms of northern plantation lessees. They signed contracts to pay workers by the month, only to find that at the end of 1862, half of the cotton was rotting in the fields—cotton that could have been picked only at whip-driven speed. Unwilling to admit that wage labor might not be as efficient in all cases as slave, some experimented with paying pickers by the pound, withholding monthly wages until the end of the harvest, or haranguing the workers–telling them that if they failed to work well, “I shall report them to Massa Lincoln as too lazy to be free.” ” Edward Baptist: The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

“They picked in long rows, bent bodies shuffling through cotton fields white in bloom. Men, women and children picked, using both hands to hurry the work. Some picked in Negro cloth, their raw product returning to them by way of New England mills. Some picked completely naked. Young children ran water across the humped rows, while overseers peered down from horses. Enslaved workers placed each cotton boll into a sack slung around their necks. Their haul would be weighed after the sunlight stalked away from the fields and, as the freedman Charles Ball recalled, you couldn’t “distinguish the weeds from the cotton plants.” If the haul came up light, enslaved workers were often whipped. “A short day’s work was always punished,” Ball wrote…

… Cotton was to the 19th century what oil was to the 20th: among the world’s most widely traded commodities. Cotton is everywhere, in our clothes, hospitals, soap. Before the industrialization of cotton, people wore expensive clothes made of wool or linen and dressed their beds in furs or straw. Whoever mastered cotton could make a killing. But cotton needed land. A field could only tolerate a few straight years of the crop before its soil became depleted. Planters watched as acres that had initially produced 1,000 pounds of cotton yielded only 400 a few seasons later. The thirst for new farmland grew even more intense after the invention of the cotton gin in the early 1790s. Before the gin, enslaved workers grew more cotton than they could clean. The gin broke the bottleneck, making it possible to clean as much cotton as you could grow…

… During the 60 years leading up to the Civil War, the daily amount of cotton picked per enslaved worker increased 2.3 percent a year. That means that in 1862, the average enslaved fieldworker picked not 25 percent or 50 percent as much but 400 percent as much cotton than his or her counterpart did in 1801…

… The cotton plantation was America’s first big business, and the nation’s first corporate Big Brother was the overseer. And behind every cold calculation, every rational fine-tuning of the system, violence lurked. Plantation owners used a combination of incentives and punishments to squeeze as much as possible out of enslaved workers. Some beaten workers passed out from the pain and woke up vomiting. Some “danced” or “trembled” with every hit. An 1829 first-person account from Alabama recorded an overseer’s shoving the faces of women he thought had picked too slow into their cotton baskets and opening up their backs. To the historian Edward Baptist, before the Civil War, Americans “lived in an economy whose bottom gear was torture.”

There is some comfort, I think, in attributing the sheer brutality of slavery to dumb racism. We imagine pain being inflicted somewhat at random, doled out by the stereotypical white overseer, free but poor. But a good many overseers weren’t allowed to whip at will. Punishments were authorized by the higher-ups. It was not so much the rage of the poor white Southerner but the greed of the rich white planter that drove the lash. The violence was neither arbitrary nor gratuitous. It was rational, capitalistic, all part of the plantation’s design. “Each individual having a stated number of pounds of cotton to pick,” a formerly enslaved worker, Henry Watson, wrote in 1848, “the deficit of which was made up by as many lashes being applied to the poor slave’s back.” Because overseers closely monitored enslaved workers’ picking abilities, they assigned each worker a unique quota. Falling short of that quota could get you beaten, but overshooting your target could bring misery the next day, because the master might respond by raising your picking rate.

Profits from heightened productivity were harnessed through the anguish of the enslaved. This was why the fastest cotton pickers were often whipped the most. It was why punishments rose and fell with global market fluctuations. Speaking of cotton in 1854, the fugitive slave John Brown remembered, “When the price rises in the English market, the poor slaves immediately feel the effects, for they are harder driven, and the whip is kept more constantly going.” Unrestrained capitalism holds no monopoly on violence, but in making possible the pursuit of near limitless personal fortunes, often at someone else’s expense, it does put a cash value on our moral commitments.” Matthew Desmond, In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.

Mass Rape and Slave Breeding Industries

“the legal right to rape one’s human property could shape not only purchases of slaves but the broader behavior of entrepeneurs in the southwestern markets. For from the beginning of slavery in the Americas, if not before, white men had believed that when it came to enslaved women, purchase promised reward. Male enslavers justified themselves by saying that African-American women were more sexual, less moral, less beautiful, less delicate. Such claims allegedly excused rape, the rejection of children, the sale of lovers, and the practice of forcing black women to labor in jobs for which white women were ostensibly too delicate.

Thomas Jefferson admitted that unchecked power twisted white men’s characters: “The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances.” We don’t know whether Jefferson thought his morals depraved when he fathered his first child with an enslaved teenager named Sally Hemings. And we can imagine reasons for his desire. Perhaps she looked something like his dead wife, who was, after all, Sally’s half-sister. Jefferson left no words about his transactions with Hemings. But a document from another white man raised in the slave colonies of the eighteenth-century British Empire reveals more openly the intimate connections between white men’s sexual and financial desires” Edward Baptist: The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

Kottke: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry in the United States

The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry by Ned & Constance Sublette is a book which offers an alternate view of slavery in the United States. Instead of treating slavery as a source of unpaid labor, as it is typically understood, they focus on the ownership aspect: people as property, merchandise, collateral, and capital. From a review of the book at Pacific Standard:

In fact, most American slaves were not kidnapped on another continent. Though over 12.7 million Africans were forced onto ships to the Western hemisphere, estimates only have 400,000-500,000 landing in present-day America. How then to account for the four million black slaves who were tilling fields in 1860? “The South,” the Sublettes write, “did not only produce tobacco, rice, sugar, and cotton as commodities for sale; it produced people.” Slavers called slave-breeding “natural increase,” but there was nothing natural about producing slaves; it took scientific management. Thomas Jefferson bragged to George Washington that the birth of black children was increasing Virginia’s capital stock by four percent annually.

Here is how the American slave-breeding industry worked, according to the Sublettes: Some states (most importantly Virginia) produced slaves as their main domestic crop. The price of slaves was anchored by industry in other states that consumed slaves in the production of rice and sugar, and constant territorial expansion. As long as the slave power continued to grow, breeders could literally bank on future demand and increasing prices. That made slaves not just a commodity, but the closest thing to money that white breeders had. It’s hard to quantify just how valuable people were as commodities, but the Sublettes try to convey it: By a conservative estimate, in 1860 the total value of American slaves was $4 billion, far more than the gold and silver then circulating nationally ($228.3 million, “most of it in the North,” the authors add), total currency ($435.4 million), and even the value of the South’s total farmland ($1.92 billion). Slaves were, to slavers, worth more than everything else they could imagine combined.

Just reading that turns my stomach. The Sublettes also recast the 1808 abolition of the transatlantic slave trade as trade protectionism.

Virginia slaveowners won a major victory when Thomas Jefferson’s 1808 prohibition of the African slave trade protected the domestic slave markets for slave-breeding.

I haven’t read the book, but I imagine they touched on the fact that by growing slave populations, southern states were literally manufacturing more political representation due to the Three-Fifths clause in the US Constitution. They bred more slaves to help politically safeguard the practice of slavery.

Update Because slaves were property, Southern slave owners could mortgage them to banks and then the banks could package the mortgages into bonds and sell the bonds to anyone anywhere in the world, even where slavery was illegal.

In the 1830s, powerful Southern slaveowners wanted to import capital into their states so they could buy more slaves. They came up with a new, two-part idea: mortgaging slaves; and then turning the mortgages into bonds that could be marketed all over the world.

First, American planters organized new banks, usually in new states like Mississippi and Louisiana. Drawing up lists of slaves for collateral, the planters then mortgaged them to the banks they had created, enabling themselves to buy additional slaves to expand cotton production. To provide capital for those loans, the banks sold bonds to investors from around the globe — London, New York, Amsterdam, Paris. The bond buyers, many of whom lived in countries where slavery was illegal, didn’t own individual slaves — just bonds backed by their value. Planters’ mortgage payments paid the interest and the principle on these bond payments. Enslaved human beings had been, in modern financial lingo, “securitized.”

Slave-backed securities. My stomach is turning again. (via @daveg)

Update Tyler Cowen read The American Slave Coast and listed a few things he learned from it.

2. President James Polk speculated in slaves, based on inside information he obtained from being President and shaping policy toward slaves and slave importation.

3. In the South there were slave “breeding farms,” where the number of women and children far outnumbered the number of men.

Update In his book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, Edward Baptist details how slavery played a central role in the making of the US economy.

As historian Edward Baptist reveals in The Half Has Never Been Told, slavery and its expansion were central to the evolution and modernization of our nation in the 18th and 19th centuries, catapulting the US into a modern, industrial and capitalist economy. In the span of a single lifetime, the South grew from a narrow coastal strip of worn-out tobacco plantations to a sub-continental cotton empire. By 1861 it had five times as many slaves as it had during the Revolution, and was producing two billion pounds of cotton a year. It was through slavery and slavery alone that the United States achieved a virtual monopoly on the production of cotton, the key raw material of the Industrial Revolution, and was transformed into a global power rivaled only by England.

William Spivey: America’s Breeding Farms: What History Books Never Told You

The Case of Elizabeth Key Grinstead, the First Freed Black Woman, Shows the Origin of Racism in the U.S.

One thing about the history of slavery in this country and in the Americas is always the conversation of not only what started it, but what sustained it. Slavery existed long before the transatlantic slave trade and still exists many forms today, but the specific way of how slavery was allowed to perpetuate in this country the way it did was tied to racism. But where did that racism come from?

In the podcast series “Seeing White” which deals with the construction of “whiteness” and the legal ways white people have benefited from their whiteness, they tackle this question.

In the third episode “Made in America (Seeing White, Part 3)” the host John Biewen speaks with Ibram Kendi author of Stamped from the Beginning and Nell Irvin Painter author of  The History of White People. They come to the conclusion that it was the legal system that created racism because the role of that black people were meant to serve in the Americas (free labor) could only sustain itself if they could prevent enslaved blacks from forming a union with indentured whites. Hence, slowly over time, the laws passed stripped blacks of their rights by using their race as a factor in the decisions. This is can be seen clearly in the case of Elizabeth Key Grinstead.

Born Elizabeth Key, she was the daughter of a white English man and a black slave mother. Her father was not only white, and therefore free, but he was a member of the Virginia legislative assembly, the House of Burgesses.

Elizabeth’s father, Thomas Key, was charged with fathering Elizabeth, which he at first denied, and as result he was brought to court to be forced to support her and arrange for apprenticeships so that she could learn skills. That was the protocol at the time for anyone seeing to get a “bastard” acknowledged. Thomas was forced to acknowledge Elizabeth as his natural daughter because there “were witnesses who testified to his paternity,” whatever that means, and she was baptized.

Before his death in 1636, Key put six-year-old Elizabeth in the custody of Humphrey Higginson by a nine-year indenture period, until she reached 15 and then would become free. However, Higginson took back his word and when he left to return to England, sold Elizabeth to John Mottram when she was ten years old.

Eventually, Elizabeth met and common law married another indentured servant named William Grinstead (you could not get legally married when you were indentured). Grinstead was knowledgeable in the law and was used by his owner, also Mottram, as his legal representative.

After Mottram died, Elizabeth and her son with William, John, were listed as Negroes by Mottram’s widow, making them part of the estate. Grinstead decided to sue the estate claiming Elizabeth was a free woman, who had served over 10 years past her indentured term and her son was also freeborn.

“They sued for her freedom on the basis that her father was free and also because by then, in the mid-1600s, she had become Christian. And in English common law, you cannot, the paternity or the status of a child derives from the father. And it was also against English common law to enslave a Christian.” (via Seeing White Episode 3)

Due to this, the colonial court ruled in her favor in 1655 and she was freed. Not only that but the Mottram estate had to pay Elizabeth in corn and clothes for the years lost. She and Grinstead married when his indenture ended 1656.

As a result of this, the in December 1662 the Virginia House of Burgesses passed a colonial law that introduced the principle of partus sequitur ventrum. It required that black women’s children’s freedom was decided by them, not by their father, which was a departure from the social status of a child being defined by the father. This freed white fathers from having to acknowledge or support their mixed-race children or freeing them.

The case of Elizabeth Key is important because it shows how American society changed its laws in order to facilitate slavery in this country. Changing the laws to change the way social status was determined was only done to ensure that white men were able to rape slave women without having to take any kind of responsibility, and it ensured that the cattle element of American slavery would be able to sustain itself after the slave trade itself ended. All of the responsibilities men as fathers were supposed to provide under English common law were denied to their mixed-race black children because it was disruptive to the system they were creating.

Elizabeth Key was the first black woman to bring a freedom suit and win. While the repercussions of her victory were tragic, it serves a reminder to me, that for black Americans, we have never been lesser. The enslavement was never about black people being “inferior” it was about capitalistic forces attempting to ensure their preservation in a population where whites did not have a simple majority. The racism that followed, the stereotypes about black people that persist to this day were invented for white people to convince themselves they were doing nothing wrong.

Not because it was true.”

“…scientists calculated that enslaved women in the United States contributed 1.5 times more to the modern-day gene pool of people of African descent than enslaved men. In the Latin Caribbean, they contributed 13 times more. In Northern South America, they contributed 17 times more.

What’s more, in the United States, European men contributed three times more to the modern-day gene pool of people of African descent than European women did. In the British Caribbean, they contributed 25 times more…

…In some regions in Latin America, the government enacted programs that brought men from Europe to father children with enslaved women in order to intentionally diminish the African gene pool.

The study illustrates how much physical and sexual violence were part of slavery — and how they are still built into our society, Dr. Nelson said. It confirms the “mistreatment, discrimination, sexual abuse, and violence that has persisted for generations,” she said, and that many people are protesting today.”

While the current trade war between Donald Trump and China keeps making the news. There’s another trade war guided by Thomas Jefferson we never heard about. That one led to protectionist pricing and massive exportation of what became Virginia’s greatest export, not tobacco but slaves.

“No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms within his own lands and tenements.”

“The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.”

Constitution of the United States; Article One; Section Nine

“I congratulate you, fellow-citizens, on the approach of the period at which you may interpose your authority constitutionally, to withdraw the citizens of the United States from all further participation in those violations of human rights which have been so long continued on the unoffending inhabitants of Africa, and which the morality, the reputation, and the best interests of our country, have long been eager to proscribe.

“I consider a woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man of the farm, what she produces is an addition to the capital, while his labors disappear in mere consumption.” Thomas Jefferson

Other Important Considerations from Edward Baptist: The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

Changing North

From the 1790s, the continually increasing productivity of enslaved hands had generated the most important raw material in the world economy at a constantly declining real price. This had made southern enslavers incredibly wealthy, and powerful, too. They were able to attract massive quantities of investment capital in the 1830s. Enslavers also exerted disproportionate influence over the national government, ensuring the creation and implementation of policies that benefited them. Yet the same work of hands that built a wealthy South enabled the free states to create the world’s second industrial revolution. This one began in the cotton mills of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. From the mills, the development of the northern economy spiraled outward to transform wider sectors. After the South’s economy grew into a bubble, and then exploded, the North recovered while the South floundered. And the main reason for the North’s quicker recovery was that northerners had reinvested profit generated from the backs of the enslaved in creating a diversified regional economy…

…As northern factories grew, employers could not hire enough workers. In response, European immigration to the North soared. One and a half million came to the United States in the 1840s alone. The Irish were the paradigm By 1845, 220,000 had already come in a decade not half over, and the second half saw 550,000 Irish refugees arrive in the United States, fleeing British oppression and a famine that killed millions. A few of the Irish went to New Orleans, whose levees and cotton presses offered plenty of opportunity for laborers. But although many came west in American ships that had been loaded with cotton bales on the way east, this was not an unfree migration. Now that Manhattan had achieved financial hegemony over the cotton trade, ships passing between Liverpool and New Orleans usually turned off their old direct course to stop in New York Harbor, and there the immigrants disembarked. Outside of the cotton ports, jobs were scarce for immigrants in the slave states during the 1840s, and they had no desire to compete with workers driven by the whipping-machine. The immigrants’ choice to move to the North had a significant demographic impact, raising the northern population from 7.1 million in 1830 to 10 million in 1840, and then to over 14 million by 1850. In the same period, the South grew much more slowly, from 5.7 million in 1830 to almost 9 million.

Immigration, the main source of the free states’ population growth, held down labor costs and created massive markets for consumer goods. Most immigrants began at the bottom rungs of northern society and economy, where they were canal-diggers, housemaids, or coal miners. But in the distribution of political representation, they each counted as 5/5 of a person, which meant increased northern power in the House of Representatives. The number of congressional representatives determined the number of electoral votes a state could cast in the presidential election, so reapportionment shaped the influence of states—and regions—in the executive branch as well. In 1820, 42 percent of the House members came from slave states. Along with southern equality in the Senate, enslavers had thus needed only a handful of free-state allies to block any proposal they did not like. But after the 1840 US Census, the number of slave-state representatives dropped below 40 percent. After 1850, free-state representatives would make up two-thirds of the House.” Edward Baptist: The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

John Brown

“IN MAY 1858, PROSLAVERY Kansans murdered five settlers outside their free-state settlement. John Brown responded with a raid into Missouri killing one enslaver and carrying off eleven enslaved people to Canada. Early the next year, Brown went to Boston and met with a group of wealthy abolitionists who admired his Kansas work. They included his backer Gerrit Smith, abolitionist Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the epitome of a Boston aristocrat…

…Brown was, Thoreau believed, “the first northern man whom the slaveholder has learned to respect.” Edward Baptist: The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism


“Ever since the end of the Civil War, Confederate apologists have put out the lie that the southern states seceded and southerners fought to defend an abstract constitutional principle of “states’ rights.” That falsehood attempts to sanitize the past. Every convention’s participants made it explicit: they were seceding because they thought secession would protect the future of slavery. Lincoln’s victory led Deep South slaveholders to claim that only secession could save the South from being “stripped,” as one Alabama editor, a former Douglas supporter, said, “of 25 hundred millions of slave property & to have loose among us 4,000,000 of freed blacks.”

From Missouri to Texas, from Wilmot through Kansas-Nebraska and Lecompton, political debates had been about whether or not slavery could expand, not whether or not the federal government would interfere with it in the states where it existed. But secessionists feared that they could not convince the non-slaveholding white southern majority to abandon the Union just to protect entrepreneurs’ access to future cotton frontiers. Instead, they proclaimed that by electing Republicans, the North had declared its commitment to “equality between the white and negro races,” as an emissary sent from the Mississippi convention told his Georgia counterparts.

Not only had the Republican Party declared its goal to be abolition, but it “now demand[s] … equality in the right of suffrage, equality in the honors and emoluments of office, equality in the social circle, equality in the right of matrimony.” Not only would emancipation mean that non-planters would lose the chance to move up in the world—a chance that ownership of even one slave could represent. Worse, the everyday distinctions that gave status to all whites, especially men, would vanish. Lincoln’s victory left only one choice. Secede, or your neighbor’s field “hand” will marry your daughter. Secede, or offer up your “wives and daughters to pollution and violation to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans.” Republican domination, the emissary concluded, meant a “saturnalia of blood,” “a war of extermination” that would lead to the destruction of the white people by “assassinations” and “amalgamation,” or rape.90

If racial fears led non-slaveholders to accept the proslavery argument, enslavers could continue to plan for slavery to resume its modernist, capitalist, entrepreneurial, creative, destructive, right-hand-empowering course of expansion. They could continue to deploy the apparatus of forced migration and slave trading that commodified black bodies, rhetorically breaking them into pieces for more profitable use by white people, and creating isolated and rapeable black women. Yet the rhetoric of fear makes one wonder if the speakers knew that common white men feared the South’s volatile, highly unequal, extractive, exploitative economy, and knew that without the safety net of racial privilege—and slavery was that net’s strongest cord—they would fall into complete poverty and degradation. Perhaps, too, the speakers’ horrors projected their own scrambled-together desires and anxieties about life in a migratory, expanding modern economy where fortunes were made and lost at a drop; the conflation of sexual force and political power; and the mixing of sexual pleasure with the use of enslaved bodies for making wealth.

While these arguments worked well enough in the seven cotton-focused states, non-slaveholder majorities in upper-South states stomped on the brakes. The February 4 election for a Virginia state convention produced Only 32 immediate secessionists out of 153 total delegates. Despite the com., hent of James Mason and others to Calhounite ideology, less wealthy, less cologically committed citizens of the Old Dominion were not ready. In the e month, the voters of Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, and North Carolina also rejected secession-at least for the time being.”Edward Baptist: The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

Post Slavery Economic Consequences

“because productivity was now declining instead of rising, and because of the political-economic isolation that the South’s white rulers inflicted upon their region in order to protect white power, the South sank into subordinate, colonial status within the national economy. Although many southerners wanted to develop a more diverse modern economy that went beyond cotton, for nearly a century after emancipation they failed to do so. Despite constant attempts to industrialize, the South could only offer natural resources and poverty-stricken laborers. It did not have enough local capital, whether of the financial or the well-educated human kind, and it could not develop it. Although a textile industry sprang up in the piedmont of the Carolinas and Virginia, and an iron and coal industry in Alabama, they offered mostly low-wage jobs. Non-textile industries suffered in the competition with more heavily capitalized northern industries, which literally rigged the rules—such as the price structures that corporations used to ensure that Pittsburgh’s steel would cost less than Birmingham’s. Extractive industries, including coal mining and timber, devastated the landscape and depended on workforces oppressed with shocking violence. The continued small size and poverty of the nonagricultural working class also limited urban and middle-class development. Thus, in the 1930s, a lifetime after the Civil War, the majority of both black and white southerners were poor and worked on farms-often farms that they did not own…

…From markets built on the labor and the bodies of enslaved people, and from the infrastructure laid down to ship the product in and out, came economic growth. But from this economic growth came not only wealth, but also political power in the councils of the nation. Poor white men insisted that they, too, should enjoy the psychic rewards of right-handed power on slavery’s frontier, and from that came temporary defeat for arrogant planters. Yet clever political entrepreneurs, most notably Andrew Jackson, turned assertively populist energies into the channels of political power, too. They created a new interregional political alliance that yielded decades more of compromise and that enabled the South to maintain its disproportionate power within the federal government…

…Through the booms and the crashes emerged a financial system that continuously catalyzed the development of US capitalism. By the 1840s, the United States had grown into both an empire and a world economic power–the second greatest industrial economy, in fact, in the world—all built on the back of cotton.

Dependence on cotton stretched far beyond North American shores. A world greedy for a slice of the whipping-machine’s super-profits had financed the occupation of the continent, and the forced migration of enslaved African Americans to the southwestern cotton fields helped to make the modern world economy possible. The steadily increasing productivity of hands on the cotton frontier kept cheap raw materials flowing to the world’s newest and most important industry, the cotton textile factories of Britain, Western Europe, and the North. Theft of days, years, labor, of the left hand’s creative secrets helped provide the escape velocity for the fledgling modern world to do what no other historical society had done before and pull away from the gravitational field of the Malthusian cul-de-sac. Slavery’s expansion was the driving force in US history between the framing of the Constitution and the beginning of the Civil War. It made the nation large and unified, and it made the South’s whites disproportionately powerful in that nation. Enslavers had turned right hand against left to achieve not only productivity but also power that few other dominant classes in human history had possessed…

…Meanwhile, the unbending anger of former Confederates against Reconstruction morphed into their grandchildren’s suspicion of the New Deal, and the insistence on the part of white southern Democrats that measures against the Depression could do nothing to alleviate black poverty or lessen white supremacy. Compared to their dominance of US politics through much of the antebellum period, and their ability to consume disproportionate quantities of the fruits of antebellum national economic growth, the postwar southern white upper class achieved only a truncated triumph. Yet white folks still kept the black folks who toiled for them in poverty, forcing African Americans to take the implicit and explicit insults of life in the Jim Crow South in silence, lest they die brutally at the hands of mobs with or without badges. No wonder so many African Americans saw no chance for freedom but to leave.

Still, there were things that for all their power, even the pre-Civil War enslavers themselves had not been able to control. They could create a system that seemed to reduce African Americans to body parts: feet walking like a chained machine, hands on the block and hands picking, minds and nervous systems yielding revenue, providing entertainment and pleasure…

…Through the cotton enslaved people made-cotton they were forced to make in an ever-more productive fashion-African Americans enriched almost all people in the world. Almost all people, but not themselves.

For what was done in the fields-specifically what was done to force enslaved people to create new ways to accelerate the pace of their own laborshaped what was possible in the factory, the bank, the marketplace, and the halls of state. Invisible new financial wires bound the bodies of enslaved people to the dreams and desires of those whose measuring eyes stared down men and women on the auction block and to those of investors around the world. Slavery rendered the United States powerful, its white citizens richer and more equal. “Edward Baptist: The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

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Death after Liberation

The Guardian: How the end of slavery led to starvation and death for millions of black Americans

In the brutal chaos that followed the civil war, life after emancipation was harsh and often short, new book argues

Hundreds of thousands of slaves freed during the American civil war died from disease and hunger after being liberated, according to a new book.

The analysis, by historian Jim Downs of Connecticut College, casts a shadow over one of the most celebrated narratives of American history, which sees the freeing of the slaves as a triumphant righting of the wrongs of a southern plantation system that kept millions of black Americans in chains.

But, as Downs shows in his book, Sick From Freedom, the reality of emancipation during the chaos of war and its bloody aftermath often fell brutally short of that positive image. Instead, freed slaves were often neglected by union soldiers or faced rampant disease, including horrific outbreaks of smallpox and cholera. Many of them simply starved to death.

After combing through obscure records, newspapers and journals Downs believes that about a quarter of the four million freed slaves either died or suffered from illness between 1862 and 1870. He writes in the book that it can be considered “the largest biological crisis of the 19th century” and yet it is one that has been little investigated by contemporary historians.

Downs believes much of that is because at the time of the civil war, which raged between 1861 and 1865 and pitted the unionist north against the confederate south, many people did not want to investigate the tragedy befalling the freed slaves. Many northerners were little more sympathetic than their southern opponents when it came to the health of the freed slaves and anti-slavery abolitionists feared the disaster would prove their critics right.

“In the 19th century people did not want to talk about it. Some did not care and abolitionists, when they saw so many freed people dying, feared that it proved true what some people said: that slaves were not able to exist on their own,” Downs told the Observer.

Downs’s book is full of terrible vignettes about the individual experiences of slave families who embraced their freedom from the brutal plantations on which they had been born or sold to. Many ended up in encampments called “contraband camps” that were often near union army bases. However, conditions were unsanitary and food supplies limited. Shockingly, some contraband camps were actually former slave pens, meaning newly freed people ended up being kept virtual prisoners back in the same cells that had previously held them. In many such camps disease and hunger led to countless deaths. Often the only way to leave the camp was to agree to go back to work on the very same plantations from which the slaves had recently escaped.

Treatment by union soldiers could also be brutal. Downs reconstructed the experiences of one freed slave, Joseph Miller, who had come with his wife and four children to a makeshift freed slave refugee camp within the union stronghold of Camp Nelson in Kentucky. In return for food and shelter for his family Miller joined the army. Yet union soldiers in 1864 still cleared the ex-slaves out of Camp Nelson, effectively abandoning them to scavenge in a war-ravaged and disease-ridden landscape. One of Miller’s young sons quickly sickened and died. Three weeks later, his wife and another son died. Ten days after that, his daughter perished too. Finally, his last surviving child also fell terminally ill. By early 1865 Miller himself was dead. For Downs such tales are heartbreaking. “So many of these people are dying of starvation and that is such a slow death,” he said.

Downs has collected numerous shocking accounts of the lives of freed slaves. He came across accounts of deplorable conditions in hospitals and refugee camps, where doctors often had racist theories about how black Americans reacted to disease. Things were so bad that one military official in Tennessee in 1865 wrote that former slaves were: “dying by scores – that sometimes 30 per day die and are carried out by wagonloads without coffins, and thrown promiscuously, like brutes, into a trench”.

So bad were the health problems suffered by freed slaves, and so high the death rates, that some observers of the time even wondered if they would all die out. One white religious leader in 1863 expected black Americans to vanish. “Like his brother the Indian of the forest, he must melt away and disappear forever from the midst of us,” the man wrote.

Such racial attitudes among northerners seem shocking, but Downs says they were common. Yet Downs believes that his book takes nothing away from the moral value of the emancipation.

Instead, he believes that acknowledging the terrible social cost born by the newly emancipated accentuates their heroism.

“This challenges the romantic narrative of emancipation. It was more complex and more nuanced than that. Freedom comes at a cost,” Downs said.

Further Reading

Daily Mail: ‘The end of slavery led to hunger and death for millions of black Americans’: Extraordinary claims in new book

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