The classic GOP response to removing statues of Confederate leaders or re-christening military bases named for Confederate officers is an exasperated, “What next? Scratch Ben Franklin off the $100 bill? Burn the Declaration of Independence?”
Their untenable point being, the Founding Fathers owned slaves; therefore, removing statues or re-naming bases is tantamount to demanding the obliteration of our nation’s entire history.
The insinuation embedded in this bogus argument is that as slavery is no longer legal in the United States, any issues directly or indirectly related to slavery are moot.
The false correlation is that we can’t 86 a statue of Robert E. Lee unless we also demolish the Jefferson Memorial. That changing the name of Fort Bragg obliges us to re-label the Washington Monument. That our approach to addressing one evil needs must be our approach to addressing them all.
The kernel of truth is the bit about the Founding Fathers. The landed gentry who ran the American Revolution and subsequently took charge of the newly-minted US of A were slave owners. Every one of ‘em.
The fundamental lie is that the ubiquitous commemorations of the Confederacy — the bases, vessels, educational institutions, parks, libraries, and people named in honor of Confederate big-wigs and victories, the Confederate anthems tagged as “traditional American music” that until very recently were taught to schoolchildren and played by marching bands nationwide, the statues, the memorial graveyards, the pro-Rebel stance of universally popular songs (The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down), the glorified “Lost Cause” slant of Civil War films and TV programs (Gone With the Wind, To Appomattox), the proudly displayed Confederate flags and proudly worn Johnny-Reb apparel — serve to preserve our nation’s history, when in fact, they serve to distort it.
The United States of America was born tainted by two race-related original sins: the genocide and subjugation of the continent’s indigenous peoples and the institution of slavery. In both cases, the sinning began well before the Founding Fathers founded squat. And in both cases, the sinning went on . . . well, it’s still going on. The trappings have changed, but the abuse, inequity, and oppression prevail.
Thanks to a journal entry by a British privateer who brought “20 and odd” Africans to what is now Hampton, Virginia and sold them for provisions, historians lit upon August 1619 as the birthdate of slavery in America. More astute historians note that captive Africans were likely in this hemisphere in the 1400s and present in regions of the future United States as early as 1526.
As to who brought the first enslaved Africans to America, the prime suspect is the guy who “discovered” it, Christopher Columbus (aka Cristoforo Colombo (Italian), Cristóbal Colón (Spanish), or (my choice) Cristòfer Colum (Catalan: click HERE if you’re curious). The quotes are there to point out that the Americas were inhabited because they’d already been discovered, that Leif Erikson’s voyages to Vinland preceded Columbus’ to the New World by about 500 years, and that Chris never set foot in North America. The land he claimed for Spain was La Isla Española — Hispaniola, now the Greater Antilles, home to both Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Though the 1490s timeline dovetails nicely with what is known about the origins of the European slave trade, experts are still debating whether or not the Africans that reached Hispaniola with Columbus were free men. Until proven otherwise, surely we should assume they were not. Is it likely that in 1492, a handful of free Africans would elect to help Spain — a nation that had been slave-raiding in Africa since 1441 — expand its global reach? Entertaining doubts about the status of these men perpetuates the myth of 1619, thereby minimizing the extent and duration of the Euro-American investment in the brutal business of human bondage.
Africans were forcibly transported to these shores long before the colonies were a thing. Slavery was initially integral to the survival of the first fragile settlements, later to the established colonies’ economic success. When the colonies broke from Britain, enslaved African-Americans fought on both sides of the Revolutionary War, trusting either in the Patriots’ egalitarian ideology or the Redcoats’ promises of freedom. While their valor did earn the surviving members of America’s first Black regiment the freedom they innately deserved, when the war was over, slavery was grandfathered into the new Republic without hesitation.
A few signers of the Declaration of Independence noticed the discrepancy between the humanitarian sentiments of their political philosophy (“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”) and the inhumane institution permeating the socio-political fabric of their daily lives.
It so bothered them, indeed, they sometimes jotted down how bothered they were in their private journals. They weren’t bothered enough to free their slaves, of course. Except kinda-sorta George Washington, who arranged for a portion of his 300+ slaves to be released from their forced servitude . . . when he was dead. Better than making them accompany him to the after-life to wait upon him there, I suppose. Progress?
The Founding Fathers’ slightly-pricked consciences also inspired them to go to great lengths to obfuscate the existence of slavery in the new nation’s official paperwork. The words slave/slaves never appear in the Constitution. In their place are the euphemisms “other persons,” “such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit,” and “person held to service or labor in one state, under the laws thereof.”
It’s fashionable — predominantly among historians and Constitutional scholars of the white persuasion — to believe the framers’ deliberate ambiguity stemmed from their hope and awareness that slavery would someday be passé in America. For me, claiming they kept things vague in order to keep the Constitution relevant in more enlightened times gives them way too much credit for Nostradamus-like prescience. My money says they used elusive language to dodge the moral imperative of condemning an evil they weren’t about to give up. Scads of people abhor Amazon’s unjust business practices, yet shop Amazon all the time because it’s cheap and convenient. Not on a moral par with owning other human beings, granted. But as rationalizations go, it’s the same deal.
Alluding to slavery instead of naming it did nothing to improve the lives of the enslaved. Obscuring the obvious did, however, provide the government a loophole through which it could officially tolerate and regulate the institution without overtly sanctioning it. As to whether the infamous three-fifths clause proves slaves were viewed as property or as human beings with a limited wealth-producing capacity, the debate still rages. (Article I, Section 3: “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”)
Today’s amended Constitution is far less racist, but that’s nothing to boast about. Even using the overly-generous 1619 metric, it took 251 years and a Civil War to make slavery illegal (Thirteenth Amendment), make former slaves citizens (Fourteenth Amendment), and ensure those citizens the right to vote (Fifteenth Amendment).
The slave trade was abolished in 1807; again, nothing to boast about. The ban only applied to international trade and the importation of new slaves. By then, the North’s reliance on slavery had diminished, but the South’s was greater than ever, thanks to the burgeoning cotton industry. Even so, the bill garnered support from several Southern congressmen. With a self-sustaining slave population of more than 4 million (children born to slaves were born into slavery), America had no need for imports. To the contrary, for slave-owners, the ban was a welcome opportunity to increase the substantial profits they were already making in the domestic slave trade by eliminating the international competition.
The divergence between the North’s and South’s motivations for ratifying the Act Prohibiting the Importation of Slaves was a harbinger of deeper divisions to come. But what we forget, what our history books gloss over, what white America can’t wrap its denial-rigged brain around is that before slavery split the nation apart, it was the glue that held it together.
Slaves built the Capitol in the North and taught Southern farmers how to cultivate rice. Technological innovations that helped catapult America into the Industrial Age, like the grain reaper, were invented by slaves, though their masters received all the patents and credit. Slaves managed America’s households and raised her children. Slaves were the heart, soul, and backbone of the maritime industry; without the enslaved riggers, pilots, mariners, shipwrights, lightermen, coopers, caulkers, sailmakers, and boatmen, loading, unloading, and transporting goods within the US or abroad would have been nigh-on impossible.
America’s white-washed antebellum narrative epically fails at painting an authentically colorful picture of our nation’s early days. Consequently, white-America’s collective memory has amnesia when it comes to recalling the two slaves (whose names are lost to posterity) (and a woman, btw — Catherine Greene) who were instrumental in the invention of the cotton gin, or Ben York, William Clark’s slave since childhood, who was an integral part of the Lewis & Clark’s Expedition, or James Bowie’s and Stephen Austin’s slaves who lived (3 of them) or died at the Alamo . . .
Ironically, it’s the GOP that remembers slavery was endemic to colonial America and the American Republic for 2½ centuries . . . but only when it’s striking a blow for the Confederate cause by defending its extant symbols.
What’s that? The Civil War ended in 1865? The Confederate States of America was defeated? There is no “Confederate cause”?
Oh, I beg to differ. Or I will, next time, in The Cold Civil War – Part II: WHISTLING DIXIE.