Sunday, September 20, 2015

"The Half" Is Finally Being Told

 " TRULY, SON, THE HALF HAS NEVER BEEN TOLD.": Former slave Lorenzo Ivy to Claude Anderson, an African-American master's student at Hampton University, who is interviewing him as part of SLAVE NARRATIVE PROGRAM of the WORKS PROGRESS ADMINISTRATION IN 1936.

To this day, it still has not. it still has not. For the other half is the story of how slavery changed, and moved, and grew over time. Lorenzo Ivy's time, and that of his parents and grandparents. In the span of a single lifetime, the South grew from a narrow strip of worn-out tobacco plantations to a continental cotton empire, and the United States grew into a modern, industrial, and capitalist economy. Until the Civil War, the most important American innovations were ways to make slavery ever more profitable. Through forced migration and torture, slave owners extracted continual increases in efficiency from enslaved African  Americans. Thus the United States seized control of the world market for cotton, the key raw material of the Industrial Revolution, and became a wealthy nation with global influence. Entrepreneurial enslavers moved more then a million enslaved people that survivors of the slave trade from Africa had built in the South and in the West to vast territories that were seized also by force from their Native American inhabitants. From 1783, the end of the American Revolution, to 1861, the number of slaves in the U.S. increased five times over, and all this expansion produced a powerful nation. For white enslavers were able to force enslaved African Americans to pick cotton more efficiently than free people. Their practices rapidly transformed the southern states into the dominant force in the global cotton market, and cotton was the key raw material during the first century of the industrial revolution. The returns from cotton monopoly powered the modernization of the American economy, and by the time of the Civil War, the United States had become the second nation to undergo large-scale industrialization. In fact, slavery's expansion shaped every crucial expansion of the economy and politics of the new nation --not only increasing its power and size, but also, eventually, dividing United States politics, differentiating regional identities and interests, and helping make the Civil War possible... The idea that  commodification and suffering and forced labor is what made the United States powerful and rich is not an idea that people are happy to hear. Yet it is the truth, and the truth was half the story that survived, mostly in the custodianship of those who survived slavery's expansion. Forced migration had shaped their lives and also shaped what they thought about their lives and the wider history in which they were enmeshed. Even as they struggled to stay alive in the midst of disruption, they created ways to talk about this half untold. But what survivors experienced, analyzed, and named was a slavery that did not fit the comfortable boxes into which other Americans have been trying to fit it ever since it ended.

The above paragraph encapsulates the driving thesis of one of the most intellectually stimulating and emotional riveting books that I have ever had the great fortune to read: The Half Has Never Been told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books, 2114). It is easier for me to conceptualize his thesis as two separate, arguments, but, in their real world operation, they are inextricably intertwined. The first is the inescapable conclusion that the Plantation Economy was the engine that drove the nation's industrialization, financialization, and modernization. The Civil War, in his interpretation was not a clash between two incompatible paradigms, but rather a quarrel over how the proceeds should be apportioned, and whether the Plantation Economy, with its total reliance on slave labor, would be allowed to expand farther into the new western territories. The second is that slave labor was not an aberration in a modernizing world, but a dynamic and expanding component, precisely because it was more "efficient" than free labor. That assumes, of course, that you did not need your workforce to function as consumers, as well as producers. He argues that, in the one instance when planters from the North tried to pay free labor a fair wage on the Carolina Sea Islands, "half the cotton was rotting in the fields--cotton that could have been picked only at whip-driven speed."  The same held true when masters tried to utilize laborers from the cotton fields on  the factory floor. It was also true if you did not scruple about subjecting your workforce to beatings, torture, maiming, mutilation, and homicide. The minions of the "lords of the lash" would always have bested those of the "lords of the loom."

With profound apologies to Professor Baptist, I will endeavor to provide you with an outline and a chronology in which to understand his narrative. Slavery was legal and ubiquitous throughout all 13 colonies at the time of the American Revolution, but it was far more vital in those whose economies were based on growing tobacco--Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Maryland, and Delaware. As the colonies morphed into states and wrote their respective constitutions, each debated the issue of slavery. The other 7--New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire--provided for its gradual abolition. In some, the process of emancipation was so "gradual" that they still had elderly slaves living there at the advent of the Civil War. Those who were emancipated were generally sentened to the lowest rungs on the socioeconomic ladder. All of them instituted de facto segregation in employment, housing, education, and politics, which persisted well into the 20th century. A substantial portion of white Northerners experienced measurable increases in the standard of living by investing in cotton--and slaves, all the while chastising Southerners for providing them with the source of their good fortune. The movement to abolish slavery proceeded at a glacial pace, if at all. Both Baptist and historian Ira Berlin insist that such movements "were not the charitable work of respectable white people, or not mainly that." It was, instead, "made possible by the constant discomfort inflicted upon middle-class white society by black activists."

The issue of slavery was so contentious during the 1787 Constitutional Convention that it required several crucial compromises: 1) Counting slaves as three-fifths of free people for purposes of both taxation and representation; 2) Prohibiting the importation of slaves--but not until 1807, giving those who continued the practice an additional two decades to benefit. Even after 1807, slave-smuggling remained a lucrative--if nefarious--business; 3) all states agreed to extradite "fugitives from justice." <Guess who most of those were ?> The Northwest Ordinances, which predated the Constitution, prohibited slavery in what eventually became Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin. No provision for or against it was made for the remaining territory ceded by Britain in the 1783 Peace of Paris, but a fair number of slaveholders began to move their "property" into what eventually became Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. It was generally agreed that the Ohio River would constitute the boundary between slave and free territories.

Much of the history of the mid-19th century featured a series of "compromises" between those who wanted to extend slavery into each newly acquired chunk of real estate, and those who wanted to prohibit it in those lands "due west" of "free" territories. Probably the most important compromise of all was the mutual agreement there must be an equal number of free and slave states--and a corresponding parity of U.S. Senators. New states were only admitted in "pairs." The Louisiana Purchas of 1803 virtually doubled the size of the country, opening up a vast new arena in which to contest the extension of slavery. Equally portentous was the acquisition of the port of New Orleans, which allowed unimpeded access to the Gulf of Mexico--up and down the length of
the Mississippi River on both sides. In 1819, Missouri applied for admission to the Union as a slave state, threatening to upset the carefully constructed balance. But the Compromise of 1820 (more generally known as the Missouri Compromise) restored it by the admission of Maine as a free state, and by drawing an imaginary line of demarcation at 36 degrees, 30 minutes North Latitude throughout the entire Louisiana Purchase territory--prohibiting slavery north of it and permitting it south of the line. In the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819, Spain ceded all of Florida to the U.S., in return for the latter's agreement not to contest the former's claims southwest of the Mississippi.

As "luck" would have it, all of Mexico won its independence from Spain the following year, thus rendering the agreement moot--at least in American eyes. In a frantic effort to protect what was to become Texas from American expansion, the nascent Mexican government gave generous land grants to those settlers willing to swear a loyalty oath, convert to Catholicism, and leave their slaves behind. Large numbers of Americans (GTT quickly became the operant explanation for any departure from an American address) took up the offer, with some even marrying Mexican women and converting, but they also brought along their slaves. Together with those Mexicans seeking relief from the central government in Mexico City, they seceded and formed their own republic. (Contrary to popular belief, many "Texicans" were ethnically Mexicans.) The newly minted Texicans were seriously divided over maintaining independence versus annexation by the U.S.. That same issue started a firestorm in the U.S., between those who envisioned Texas as potentially one or more slave states, and those who proclaimed that annexation was a "slaveholders' plot" to take over the country. During the election campaign of 1844, Democratic presidential candidate James K. Polk's (who was James K. Polk ?) opponents sarcastically asked.) promised annexation; his election persuaded the "lame duck" Congress to do exactly that. The controversy over the southern boundary of Texas led to U.S. invasion of Mexico ( a one-term Congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln was one of those who disputed Polk's version). The overwhelming American victory led to the hotly-contested Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which Polk threatened to abrogate, but which also included Mexican cession of California, and parts of what became Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming. Polk had also pledged to annex the Oregon Territory, including even what became British Columbia (54/40 or Fight!). Another compromise--this one with Great Britain--established the U.S.-Canadian border at 49 degrees North Latitude.

The super-charged debate over the territories acquired from Mexico lasted four bitter years, until it was seemingly settled by yet another compromise, which its overly optimistic supporters dubbed "The Great Compromise." It consisted of five different bills, all passed on the same day in September, 1850.Texas surrendered its claim to New Mexico and the federal government agreed to assume the state's public debt. California was admitted to the Union as a free state. The slave trade was abolished in D.C., although slavery per se was continued. (Well, you couldn't expect slaveholding members of Congress to get along without their personal servants!)  The territories of Utah and New Mexico were officially declared "organized" under the rubric of "popular sovereignty, while the rest of the lands taken from Mexico were annexed "without reference to slavery." This was a classic case of "passing the buck," allowing both sides to heave a sigh of relief, albeit temporarily.

But it was the fifth bill--the Fugitive Slave Act--that proved to be incendiary!!! It mandated the return of runaway slaves and commissioned U.S. marshals to pursue and capture them in free states,  subject only to approval by the courts. It was the "fire bell ringing in the night" that Jefferson had predicted long before. Many Northerners vociferously condemned it, vowed to disobey it, and denounced such anti-slavery icons as Daniel Webster for urging its passage. (see Webster's Seventh of May Speech). Other reluctantly agreed, regarding it as the price to pay for California, the end of slave auctions in the nation's capital, and delaying the spread of slavery into the rest of the Mexican cession.  But the last was only a stop-gap measure; slaveholders were already beginning to infiltrate Utah and New Mexico. The brutal reality of federal marshals arresting runaways in Massachusetts and Wisconsin, however, provoked armed resistance, and made numerous converts to the abolitionist cause. The flames were fanned by the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the brain child of Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, who was regarded as the likely Democratic presidential candidate for 1860. The act divided the territory in twain, with the question of slavery left to "popular sovereignty." To accomplish this legerdemain, the 36/30 line of the Missouri Compromise was repealed. The resulting firestorm led to the proliferation of "anti-Nebraska" protest meetings , tore the Whigs asunder, giving birth to the nascent Republican Party, the outbreak of the bloody "Kansas Civil War," and John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry.

By the time of the 1860 elections, the majority of Northerners were adamantly opposed to any further expansion of slavery, the touchstone of the successful Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln. The new president, who received only 40 percent of the popular vote, but the necessary number of electoral votes, tried to temporize by declaring that his priority was the preservation of the Union, no matter what the ultimate fate of slavery. Douglas had expressed the same devotion to the Union, blissfully unaware that popular sovereignty made that impossible. Many died-in-the-wool abolitionists had abstained, seeing little difference between the two candidates. Many were in favor of the "colonization" of emancipated African Americans to Africa or the Caribbean, a solution that Lincoln himself seriously considered. Even at that late date, John Crittenden of Kentucky formed a group of 13 compromise-minded Senators who cobbled together an "omnibus" of six amendments and four resolutions they hoped would avoid secession. The most important amendment would have restored the Missouri Compromise line, thereby allowing slavery in Kansas, even though it was north of that demarcation. Their proposal would have made slavery perpetual--in direct contradiction to Lincoln's oft-repeated conviction that the nation could not exist "half free and half slave." The president responded that there could be "no compromise on the question of extending slavery. If there be, all our labor is lost, and ere, must be done again." It would also mean voiding the1860 election, deposing Lincoln, and rendering the nascent Republican Party stillborn. If the Crittenden compromise were adopted, Lincoln declared, "a year will not pass, till we shall have to take Cuba as a condition upon which they will stay in the Union." The Republicans in Congress reluctantly sided with Lincoln, although they offered to admit New Mexico as a slave state.

It is impossible to know for certain what would have transpired if the Southern states had not seized the initiative by seceding and expropriating Union property. Once they did so, Lincoln had no real alternative but to provision the soldiers at Fort Sumter, although he explicitly ruled out staging  any military action to rescue them. Some have even claimed that he planned it that way from the outset, but there is no substantial evidence to support such a stratagem. In any case, it was the secessionists who fired the first shot of the Civil War. In their conventions, Baptist pointedly observes, "the more enslaved people secession delegates owned, the more radical were their demands." Taking the high ground, Lincoln famously proclaimed "though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle ground and patriot grave---may yet swell the chorus of Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

Probably the most brilliant section of this incredibly brilliant book is the author's Afterword, pp. 401-420, titled "Corpse."  On pages 397 to 407, he carefully analyses the impact of the war on the  plantation hierarchy. It was not exactly "bottom rail on top," but it was certainly a mind-blowing reconfiguration. Believing that "King Cotton" would give them enough leverage to sway European powers to their cause, they stopped growing their precious staple crop, switching to the production of food for the Confederate armies. By early 1862, the volume of bales received at Liverpool fell to a mere three percent of 1860 levels. This sudden dearth of cotton on the world market, however, shockingly increased prices, rendering cotton from other production zones--West Africa, Egypt, and Brazil--price-competitive for the first time. Accordingly, the African slave trade directly to Egypt swelled from 5,000  in the 1850s to 20,000 by 1865. Simultaneously, the Confederacy lost control of its oldest and most productive region--the Carolina sea islands--as the Union Navy wrested control and the planters fled. The African Americans, who made up more than 90 percent of the remaining population, petitioned to convert plantation lands into small plots for their use, but policy makers had other ideas. As the 1862 crop neared fruition, the federal Treasury Department asserted authority over the abandoned lands and rented them out to Northern entrepreneurs, who reinstituted the plantation system, using the former slaves as "free", but cheap, labor. They claimed that they could produce the same amount of cotton 25 percent cheaper. <See discussion above> Neither new source of cotton production came even close to matching pre-war levels, rendering it scarce and high-priced on the world market. When the Union navy captured New Orleans in early 1862, "contrabands" fled from slave labor camps to Union-held forts west of the city. In April of that year, Congress appropriated $1,000,000 to buy freedom for the  3,000 slaves in D.C.. When Union forces "won" the bloodbath at Antietam in September, Lincoln secretly drafted the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in territories under Confederate control. On January 1, 1863, he went public with the proclamation that Baptist calls "important executive order ever issued by an American president." It did not free slaves in Union-occupied territory, in the 50 western counties of Virginia about to become West Virginia, and in southern Louisiana, where Northerners were planning to establish a "reconstructed" state government. Following Lincoln's example, a growing number of Union officers began to give runaways the choice of being returned to their place of origin or enlisting in the army. Most chose the latter.

Panicked slaveholders herded as many of their captives as possible to Texas, a practice called "refugeeing." Union occupiers tried to "scatter about" as many slaves as possible onto their plantations to do heavy labor.Meanwhile, Lincoln issued an order allowing African Americans to enlist in the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT). Over the next two years, according to Baptist, almost 200,000 --many of them former slaves--"did mighty things that defined the rest of their lives." In so doing, he fulfilled the prediction of Fredrick Douglass: "Let the black man get upon his person the brass letter U.S., a musket upon his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth, or under the earth, which can say that he has not earned the right of citizenship in the U.S.". Although the Confederacy was too weak to mount any major offensives in 1864 and 1865, the author charges, "it could still make the Union spill oceans of blood for every advance in Virginia, Tennessee. and Georgia." As the resolve of Northerners waned, volunteers declined, draft resistance increased, and a growing number began to favor a negotiated peace," which was "exactly what Jeff Davis and the Confederacy wanted." Under those constraints, Baptist boldly asserts, 200,000 African American soldiers "kept the faith and provided the spark needed to achieve victory." They "paid a collective heavy price--40,00 died in battle, and a similar number may have died in camps or in the chaos of the war-devastated South." They provided a crucial increment for a North that "was running out of soldiers." Their service in battle, he concludes, "had saved the nation."

In Baptist's view, Lincoln was "either the last casualty of the Civil War or the first of a long civil rights movement that is not yet over." Either way, it is clear that his assassination prevented  realization of the Reconstruction he envisioned in his second inaugural address, which the author calls ?the greatest speech ever given in the English language," one "that was itself a history of the half told." But his assassination also killed Lincoln plans for reconstruction, because his successor was" unfortunately an alcoholic racist bent on undermining emancipation." Andrew Johnson signaled southern whites that "they could build a new white supremacy that looked very much like the one that blacks had fought to end." In the elections of 1865, southern white voters made it glaringly obvious that they would not come to terms with black freedom. In Congressional elections that fall, "they sent a host of sullen Confederates back to Washington." At the same time, they worked in their state legislatures to keep the status of African Americans as close to slavery as possible. They enacted vagrancy laws to limit mobility, apprenticeship statutes binding young blacks to white families as captive labor, and threatened to reinstate "the law of the lash" in order to reinvigorate productivity. Incensed by whites who refused to accept the verdict of the war, a majority faction of "Radical" Republicans assumed control of Reconstruction. Overriding Johnson's objections, they refused to seat the newly elected members of Congress, while passing a series of bills taking the franchise away from ex-Confederate officers and officials. They extended the authority of occupying Union forces, and created the "Freedman's Bureau" to employ new systems of "free" labor. The Bureau sent agents to mediate between the land-owning, but cash-poor, planters and their former slaves. Although the latter wanted "40 Acres and a Mule" to practice subsistence agriculture, they remained landless. Neither white landowners nor federal policy-makers had any intention of allowing former slaves to become competitors. Instead, the Freedman's Bureau forced former slaves and former owners to sign and honor wage-labor contracts. Eventually, a compromise system of "sharecropping" and "tenant farming" emerged, in which blacks were given small plots for subsistence farming, in exchange for a percentage of the harvest.  Land owners and "country stores" advanced blacks seeds, goods, and utensils on credit, to be paid on "settling up day." Guess who kept the books? <As "Tennessee Ernie" Ford sang it in the 1950s, blacks and poor whites alike "owed their soul to the company store.">

The Congressional "Radicals" also made ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments a condition for "readmission" to the Union (from which they had supposedly never had the power to secede in the first place). With occupying Union soldiers policing, many Southern states "enjoyed" the closest thing to "real" elections prior to the Civil Rights era of the 1960s. Naturally, that meant that a fair number of African Americans were elected to local, state, and national offices--for a while at least!  To many observers, Reconstruction "seemed like it might produce a radically transformed South," one that also looked a lot like that portrayed by today's revisionist historians, such as Foner , Franklin, Weisberger, and Stampp. <See my previous post "A New Look At Reconstruction.>

Battered by the severe economic depression of 1873-1877, and exhausted from several decades of trying to deal with reality, a majority of whites lost their enthusiasm for remaking society. The final blow came in the bitterly disputed presidential election of 1876, in which Democrat Samuel J. Tilden seemingly bested Republican Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio. Except that Tilden was an electoral vote short, with the 20 tallies of three southern states as yet uncertified. In an attempt to resolve the issue, Congress empowered a committee composed of 8 Republicans and 7 Democrats After weeks of acrimonious debates, that august body approved what became known as the "Compromise of 1877." The Republicans accepted "home rule" for the remaining southern states, in exchange for Hayes election. The "winner"' removed all federal troops from the South, while newly elected "Redeemer" state legislatures disenfranchised virtually all African Americans, as well as "many of the less reliable whites." Their methods included the poll tax, the literacy rest, the "grandfather clause," and "multiple ballot boxes." Above all, they resorted to intimidation, rape, violence, lynching, and other assorted form of murder. Stealing one election after another, they substituted the Democratic "Solid South" for real political competition.

Redeemer legislatures imposed legal segregation--better known as "Jim Crow"--on every aspect of life. Freed from the "tyranny" of  military occupation, the KKK and myriad other terrorists engaged in systematic mayhem. The erected statues of Confederate "heroes" in most public spaces, memorialized ant-bellum days in every conceivable media <Who could resist "Birth of a Nation" or "Gone With the Wind"?>, and wrote ersatz histories that portrayed slavery as a  "benign" and "states rights" as the sole cause of secession. <As Eric Foner has observed, those "historians have a lot to answer for.">

But, as Baptist clearly documents, this new white empire proved more self-destructive and less profitable than its predecessor. Although the redeemers promised a "New South," they were severely constrained by "two post-slavery realities." One was that no un-enslaved human being could possibly perform hard labor "at the breakneck, soul-searing pace of the whipping machine." The number of bales did not even reach their 1859 peak until 1875, despite a significant increase in the number of "hands." Many enslaved people could pick well over 200 lbs. a day in the 1850s; their great-grandchildren ere unable to harvest 120. Many white "yeoman' farmers," impoverished by war and unable to pay either taxes or debts, lost their land and became sharecroppers or tenants themselves. Because of the political and economic isolation necessary to maintain white supremacy, the entire region sunk into a subordinate, colonial-like status. It did not have enough capital--"whether of the financial or well-educated human kind." Thus by the 1930s, a lifetime after the Civil War, the majority of blacks and white alike "were poor and worked on farms--often farms they did not own."

The last ten pages of the book are a masterpiece of penetrating historical analysis combined with passionate conviction. He begins on page 411; "But the body of African Americans, stretched and chained again, the body whose tongue and spirit and blood had developed alongside slavery's expansion was still alive....Day after day, year after year, the half untold was told, and in the tomb the body stirred" and ends on page 419: And somewhere--not far from Danville--law students three generations removed from slavery's expansion were still alive, huddled, planning the next move against Jim Crow and lynching." Those pages are quite simply the most enlightening and powerful summary of its topic that I have ever read, far beyond my limited ability to summarize or paraphrase.



1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this summary of the book -- as well as an introduction to and encouragement to read what sounds like a very important text.