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American Slavery

The early history of the United States as commonly portrayed appears to be mythical, with the Founding Fathers seeking a limited government that would ensure liberty for all. The Declaration of Independence contains:

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

In practice, these words were rather meaningless as at the time of the document slaves made up about 1/6 of the population of the colonies. The first census was conducted in 1790 and it found over 17% of Americans were slaves.

Ned and Constance Sublette recently (2016) published an important book about the history of America slavery: The American slave coast: a history of the slave-breeding industry. I discovered that my early education had clearly missed critical details about that time of American history. Slavery wasn't just about cheap labor for farming in the Southern colonies (which was apparently the main point emphasized in my early education). Slavery actually dominated American politics and the American economy until the Civil War when slavery was finally abolished. I highly recommend the book; I will make a few observations below with reference to 'the book' (a point made in the book The American Slave Coast) whereas other comments are my opinion. The book contains many testimonies by slaves, by slave owners or traders, or by people involved with the slave owners to validate the claims being made.

The book introduced a new term for me: the capitalized womb. The book notes 'No less than any other form of capitalism, American slavery capitalism was premised on continual expansion. The growth of the Southern economy was tied directly to the productivity of the capitalized womb, a term we use to refer to the way enslaved women's bodies functioned as the essential production engine of the slave-breeding economy, which in turn fueled a global economy that processed slave-grown cotton into mass-produced cloth.'

Possessing slaves involves absolute power for the owner over his property. Abuse was rife. As there was a clear market for the young people being created, enslaved women could be assigned to enslaved men by the slave owners or impregnated by white men having access to them.

There are many other authors who have investigate both slavery and our Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson is quite notable being a President as well as a slave owner. Jefferson wrote a letter in 1820 saying "I consider a woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man on the farm. What she produces is an addition to the capital, while his labors disappear in mere consumption." A work by Henry Wiencek titled 'Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slave' noted "In the 1780s and 1790s the astounding total of 143 children were born into Jefferson’s possession."

Slavery drove the Southern economy. Slaves were used as collateral for a loan; even if some slaves would die over a term inevitably new births would replace them. If a crop was insufficient one year the slave owner could sell off some number of slaves to meet his debts. The wealth of a slave owner was typically measured by the number of slaves. Slaves worked the land for crops but they did not improve it so land values did not increase to the extent slave values did. The book notes for that time from the Declaration until the end of the Civil War slave values were increasing rather steadily, with some slight dips for various reasons. The main reason for the increases was the additional slave states joining the country created a wider market for slave sales; as new slaves were not being shipped in from Africa the demand for the slaves being sold by those Southern slave owners increased. The book suggests this was one of the primary motivations for adding slave states not free states - the new markets increased the wealth of the slave owners. The South's slave population of nearly 4 million in 1860 (many more than counted in that first census of 1790) was valued at $4 billion dollars at the time, or about $100 billion in 2010 dollars.

Wikipedia notes most of the initial Presidents owned slaves: all but the two named Adams in the first 12. Four of the first five Presidents were from Virginia, the state with the most slaves; this has been called the Virginia dynasty.

It wasn't until Lincoln that the slavery issue would truly be addressed. He had no choice simply because a number of states seceded before he took office, and several attacks on union armies forced him to take action. The book reveals a number of Southern leaders expected a rather quick surrender by the North.

Not only was the daily existence traumatic for slaves, it was also dangerous for them during their transport. A study in 2010 cited in the book estimated 10.7 million Africans arrived alive to the Americas (which I read as the Western Hemisphere) out of 12.5 million that embarked, a loss of 1.8 million dead at sea. As the gathering of slaves in Africa was done by warring tribes being paid by the slave traders typically involved capturing the best candidates and killing the rest of that small tribe, the book speculates the slave trade might have killed or enslaved 25 million Africans. These typical losses in 'property' during shipment were easily justified by the substantial profits gained by the transporters. There were times in the early 19th Century when demand was sufficient after African slaves had been banned a transporter could pay to construct a new ship, transport the slaves (losing those who died during the voyage), then destroy the ship that was evidence of the illegal act, and still make a profit.

The book introduced another new term for me: coffle. This was the forced march of slaves from their source to their destination at a pace of 20-25 miles a day, for five weeks or more, occasionally dropping dead in their tracks, transporting themselves at gunpoint, where they and all their descendants would be prisoners for life. The book notes 'Andrew Jackson is the only US president that we know of who personally drove a slave coffle.' He did this because of his concern he was being cheated on the money from the slave sales in Natchez. For various reasons Jackson and Jefferson, among all the presidents mentioned, appear the most noteworthy in this book.

This entire Southern economy, with people as property, was plainly driven by greed. Land owners would clear much more profit from their crops if no wages were incurred. The book reveals some discord for slave owners because the overseer might push the slaves harder to meet a crop milestone for that income but thereby causing death and misery of the slaves reducing that asset.

Congress could not be unaware of the treatment of slaves as Washington DC was a major slave trading city.

The book offered (for me) a new perspective on the reasons for the Second Amendment to the Constitution - the right to bear arms and a militia. The states with settlers to the West were armed to defend themselves from attack from the Native Americans so they would not give up those arms. The slave owners always had armed men to keep their slaves from causing any trouble; escapes and uprisings were common - to be expected given their cruel conditions. The slave states also had armed patrols that searched for and retrieved escaped slaves returning them to their owners. All these white men were certainly well armed and those states could not risk the loss of this aspect of their brutal slave economy.

Also, the far Southern states of Georgia and South Carolina were concerned with the threat of invasion from Spanish Florida (this land did not become part of America until later) but their militias or slave patrols could not be diverted to provide self defense so these states would rely on the 'American' national militia to defend their state from foreign attack. These states went to the Constitutional Convention hoping for a strong central government that would protect their private interests.

The book noted the importance of the 360-mile Erie Canal which opened in 1825 and enhanced the commerce of New England and Midwest by provided a new efficient trade route between inland and the major port in New York City. Private capital could not afford the project so New York state financed it, not by taxes, but by the toll receipts paid by those using the canal so the investors in these state bonds were easily paid back.  The canal construction employed some 9000 wage laborers, not slaves. From the book: 'This was what a non-slave economy could do. The political class of the South was dead set against this kind of project. It would be a bad precedent for the labor regime of slavery if the federal government paid large numbers of free people to work. They were rentiers, living off their capital, and their capital was also their labor. If anything was to be built in their territory, they wanted it built by slaves rented from them, and they certainly didn't want improvements elsewhere to be paid by taxes or tariffs on them.'

Slaves built the White House.

From the book: 'The South erected an informational firewall so that its alternate reality [about slavery] could not be disturbed. The censorship of mail it the South was general; suspect mail was routinely confiscated. People in the South could rely only on Southern sources to tell them of the supposed horrors that the abolitionists were planning for them.' After a sensational pamphlet was distributed in 1835 about a fictitious slave uprising, 'citizens formed extralegal vigilante groups that extracted confessions and lynched a dozen white men and an unknown number of black people.'

As I have noted elsewhere in this site is always a convenient political tool.

The book notes 'From the beginning of newspapers in America, the forced-servitude business was a steady part of their revenue stream. Newspapers acted as clearing houses for slave sales and runaway advertisements. '

The book notes 'The paradox of liberty versus slavery at the nation's birth is no paradox at all. Liberty was the right to property. Slaves were property. Liberty for slave owners meant slavery for slaves. Viewed from the slave owners' perspective liberty was slavery. It was made much easier by - indeed almost required - believing something that resonated with the Calvinist doctrine of predestination: those who were enslaved were those who were naturally inferior. God made them that way for a reason, and they were easy to visually identify.'

In 1836 Speaker of the House James Polk (later the 11th President) instituted a 'gag rule' (John Quincy Adams became very active against slavery) requiring nothing related to slavery could be introduced or discussed; this was reinstated every year until 1844.

An observer from Britain (around 1852) observed: "Persons are torn away from their residences and pursuits; sometimes 'tarred and feathered'; 'ridden upon rails,' or cruelly whipped; letters are opened at the Post Office; discussion about slavery is entirely prohibited under penalty of expulsion, with or without violence, from the country."

The important Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court was intentionally held back until after the inauguration of Buchanan in 1857, a very pro-slavery administration. The Chief Justice Taney wrote in the decision (from the book): "negroes could not be citizens, whether enslaved or free. They had no rights which the write man was bound to respect, and the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit." Such was American justice in the middle of the 19th Century.

The book offers this description of life at that time before the Civil War:


    "As slave catchers kidnapped free people for sale down South, even white people began to feel personally threatened; if, for example, a white man's daughter were to be denounced as a fugitive slave, the local lawmen would be required to deliver her to the marshal without so much as a hearing. With the Fugitive Slave Act compelling the deliverance of an accused slave to a slave catcher without due process, it seemed there might be no place where free labor didn't have to compete with slave labor. It seemed that if the Southerners got their way, all labor would be slave labor, whether black, white, or to use the then-current term, amalgamated."

There is so much more that could be excerpted from this book. I strongly recommend it. If we cannot learn from the mistakes made by humanity in the past then one can only expect to see them repeated again in the future. Treating people as property will never end well.

This description of society in the times of the Founding Fathers makes me wonder about the reasoning in anyone who actually believes in the concept of originalism as voiced by the late Justice Scalia. If slavery was so important to so many of the Founding Fathers I sincerely hope our justice system does not seek to interpret the laws for our current society in terms of that age when slavery was so prevalent.

Over the years a number of Christian leaders have claimed the United States were founded as a Christian nation. There have been many rebuttals to that claim. However the claim must still be reconciled with the fact the United States were founded with slavery an integral part of its economy and of its culture at the time, and certainly the the Constitution (and its Bill of Rights) did nothing to prevent its practice. Does the Christian God actually approve of the practice of slavery, especially as found in quite a few of the colonies?

I recall reading in libertarian literature the Civil War being characterized as primarily over states rights. That does not begin to describe the extent slavery was an integral part of America’s society and politics.

Unfortunately, slavery still exists in America. According to the Thirteenth Amendment slavery is allowed when used as a punishment for a crime. The United States has the highest prison population in the world.

That makes for an attractive resource for corporations. Not only are there many for-profit prisons, who made their profits on the large numbers of people in prison, but other companies use those people working at a very low 'legal' wage.

The entire American prison and justice system is a disaster.

Nearly half of those in federal prison are serving a sentence for drugs, which is usually a non-violent offense, often a victimless crime. There is the well known 'school to prison pipeline.' If a poor person is arrested and is unable to post bail, they might remain in jail for a very long time, waiting for the trial that is supposed to determine guilt. The justice system should put only those convicted of a crime into prison - innocent until proven guilty. Unfortunately many poor also end spending much time in jail before any conviction - innocent until proven indigent.

Perhaps all these people in prison can be discounted because they are a relatively small minority. However, when considering their raw numbers they should not be just ignored.

America has the national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner, sung before at every sporting event; its final verse ends with 'the land of the free and the home of the brave.' That describes a mythical America, not the real America.

Initially only the land owners were voters. The United States of America as established by our Founding Fathers had an explicit ruling class. I suppose we should be grateful that the American Revolution accomplished what it did, setting up a country with defined checks and balances - but which no longer function so well today. However the claim America is 'the exceptional nation' belies its history of injustice.

Perhaps the Constitution defines a framework to be admired by the world. However when considering how this governance has been practiced, America should not be considered such a 'city on a hill' to be emulated by others.  Our Republic was founded by and run by a ruling class made up of land owners (and a fair number of them slave owners). In the 21st Century, our Republic is again run by a ruling class of rich bankers and business executives. Initially everyone could not vote (certainly not women); officials were determined by that ruling class. Now everyone can vote but the electoral process is broken where the ruling class provides candidates for the voters to choose from (and electoral fraud is made made easier with electronic voting); the current Congress is dominated by corporatism where the ruling class (and their corporate lobbyists) determines the new legislation and regulations. This is rather like 2 centuries ago when the majority had little influence on their governance. The current economy is dominated by debt not production. So many are almost wage slaves, forced to take whatever low wages might be offered for one’s family to survive. The current concentration of the main media outlets into very few owners also means the ruling class controls the message received by the populace.

America, from its origins to the present, as the land of the free is a myth. Many are still free to pursue their dreams of happiness but opportunities are not so equitable and for most one’s basic human rights continue to be eroded and restricted.

created - July 2016
last change - 07/18/2016
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