Today there seems to be some controversy over monuments in the south that remember the Confederate States of America and it’s leaders. New Orleans recently took down a large monument near the middle of town. And there have been some suggestions by people in the news that others should follow. Before I go any further, let me say that I don’t believe that slavery was ever a good thing and segregation may have been even worse. But Condoleezza Rice recently said to the news media that the monuments should be left up as a reminder of what happened in history. (Rice was a former U.S. Secretary of state under President George W. Bush. She is also a black woman born in Birmingham, Alabama.) I agree with Ms. Rice, but unfortunately there are a lot of people who seem to believe that history started in 1860.
It started a long time before that. And if it’s true that “those who don’t know history are likely to repeat it”, then we should remember that history started longer than 160 years ago. Slavery was in our world a long time ago – for example in Biblical times, Jews were slaves in Egypt. H. G. Wells wrote a two-volume history of the world a few years ago. Although it was not too well-regarded by historians, he did point out correctly that all the people of the world did not develop at the same rate or at the same time. I thought this was accurate and useful to remember. All of us are capable of learning, but we don’t learn everything at the same time. In biblical times, one of the most advanced nations was probably Egypt. And there was a time when the most advanced nation was China, and today we use Arabic numbers which were developed in the Middle East and are superior to what the Roman’s used. In the sixteen or seventeen hundreds when the “new world” was discovered, the white Europeans were the most advanced and the most advanced have always had the upper hand. The people of the “New World” continents were not as advanced as the Europeans. Nor were the central and southern Africans. Slavery was not apparently considered a sin, so it was the White Europeans who started taking the black African Slaves to the New World. The World traders could take black slaves out of Africa without paying for them and sell them in the New World where settlers needed manual labor. In the U.S. a lot of these traders where seagoing traders out of the Northeast. In the early days, there were no laws against slavery and people in most states – North and South owned slaves. But the biggest market for slaves was in the South where the industry was farming.
In the 1800’s the world began to get a different perspective on the moral correctness of slave ownership. In South Africa, the British outlawed slavery in the early 1800’s. Doing so made enemies of the Dutch (Boers) who were the first ones into the country. They had migrated inland, become farmers, and were much more dependent on the slaves than the English. The Dutch had introduced slavery in 1657 – not using the people all ready in South Africa interestingly enough, but importing Negroid people from the areas further north. In 1795, the British arrived and took control but did not abolish slavery until 1833. The English, on the south coast were no doubt much less dependent on the slave labor, but slavery apparently didn’t bother them for the first 50 years that they were there. In 1869 the English moved inland to mine gold and diamonds and there was no segregation so the Boers had to compete with the Blacks and Coloureds for employment in the mines. When the National Party (primarily Boers?) came to power in 1948, the policy of Apartheid began. There were 3 races identified in that policy – white, black & colored. None of any the 3 races were allowed to integrate with each other. Apartheid might have been a lot worse in many ways than slavery for the blacks.
I did not realize until I heard a black CEO of the new Smithsonian Black Museum building speak a few weeks ago, that there were many more people moved as slaves from Africa to other countries in the “new world” than were moved to the U.S. But the 18th century saw almost all of these slaves freed – some peacefully, some not. But apparently most were peaceful.
In the U.S., most of the slave population was in the South, even though most of the importing of them from Africa was by trading sailors from the North. But in the North all of the states were allowed to decide when and how they would outlaw slavery. And I think it was all done peacefully. In the 1800’s the U.S. was adding new states as it spread west. In some of these there was controversy over whether or not they should allow slavery, but the decisions were left to them. These were treated as “States Rights Decisions” even though there was interference by people outside the states in trying to influence public opinion.
But by the mid 1800’s slavery was on the way out in acceptance by Europe and the Western World. There is a plaque in the yard of a hotel resort where we have stayed in Southwestern North Carolina to a man named Wade Hampton who it says was the “largest slave holder in the South, with over 4,000 slaves”. The slaves worked on his plantations in Louisiana and South Carolina, and he freed them before the outbreak of the Civil War in 1860. It also says that “General Hampton” advocated the “abolishment of slave ownership in a speech to the South Carolina legislature in 1860.” There are a few things that I have wondered about that the writing on the plaque doesn’t address. a) What happened to his plantations? Did he have to shut them down because the freed slaves all walked off? b) Did he start paying them wages? And, if so, did he start charging them money for the food and shelter he provided them?
My guess is that if many of them left he would have to shut down his plantations because there was no other source of labor to keep them open. I would guess that they did not walk off because there were not going to be other jobs available and most were unskilled. Slavery was not “free help” as we are told today by much of our media, because the owners would be required to provide food, shelter, a medical assistance if they were to keep them working productively. So if he paid a wage to his “freed slaves”, did he also charge them for rent and food? And if he did charge them, was it less than or equal to what he paid them? (Their would have been no free market for either wages of unskilled farm works or the rent for the places they lived in.)
Nothing is ever as simple as it seems? Thomas Fleming has written a recent book titled A Disease in the Public Mind in which he gives an account of some of the things that led up to the civil war. He seems to think that war was inevitable because of things that people did and that much inflammatory rhetoric was published that included things that were not accurate or true. He also says that before the war, there were some skilled slaves, such as blacksmiths that ere allowed to work off the plantation for money which they could keep. He thinks that we would have freed the slaves in the south without the war. I think he makes a good case for that but who knows if and when it might have happened?
What do I think? I don’t think there is much balance or understanding in some of our public figures today or the media that has any respect for the complexity of history or what people thought they were or might be facing at the time. I believe that nothing (like this) is ever as simple as it seems. And much of the rhetoric today is not helpful. Fleming’s book title is a quote from U. S. President James Buchanan (The man is the office prior to Lincoln) about what he was hearing from people’s public comments. We have much better relationships when we put things in context and understand where people are coming from. We still may not agree with them but we understand better what the problems are.
So here is what I think:
- Slavery is bad. But the worst part was taking people from their homes, friends and relatives in Africa and, generally, that was not done by the plantation slave owners in the South.
- Slave ownership was not “free labor” because the plantation owners had to provide food and shelter, clothes, etc.
- Farm labor is not skilled labor and if the unskilled slaves were freed, other jobs would not be available. Thomas Jefferson thought that we should educate the slaves before we freed them. I think that was a good idea that never happened.
- Freeing the slaves would probably have happened without the war, but who knows how long it would have taken. The world that we lived in was no longer accepting slavery, so it almost surely would have happened at some point.
- Not all Southerners who fought for the South in the civil war were slave owners or even accepted slavery as OK. The Carolina plaque contained the title “General” (Hampton) so I assume he fought in the Confederate army.
- Other states had been allowed to solve their slavery problems themselves. The upset to the society and economy in the South was going to be much worse than in the North. Without the war and “reconstruction” we might have avoided segregation and be better off today. States rights were a “real issue” to many, if not most’ white people in the south. Even people who did not believe in slavery wanted to be able to solve the problem themselves, and results are usually better when people solve their own problems.
- Segregation was better than apartheid, but segregation did not really help the freed slaves. And some of the results of that are still with us today.
- I was told growing up in the South, that the worst thing that happened was not the war, but “reconstruction”. The people in the South were treated as criminals, and the “carpet baggers’ – with nothing to lose came in and tried to capitalize at the expense of the southerners and then go back home. It was also the opinion of many in the South that if Lincoln had not been killed, Reconstruction as it was done might not have happened.
- The southerner’s who owned slaves were kinder to their people than were the slave traders from the north who are kindly remembered and not thought of as evil.
- I agree with Condoleezza Rice that we should leave the monuments up as a reminder of history, but also because it is part of the past of the current southerners whose ancestors lived there and may not have ever owned slaves or thought they were fighting for anything other than their homeland. There is probably only one perfect person who lived in the world, and if we are going to condemn people for slavery, there is a lot of condemnation to go around in not only the Northern states of the USA, but also many in Western Europe and other parts of the new world. We need to remember history, but we should begin before 1860 and keep things in perspective. If we can do that, we’ll be much better off.