Scottish Emigrants, Indentured Servants, and Slaves

The following is from Scottish Emigration to Colonial America, 1607-1785 by David Dobson (p. 29-30). The author is explaining the early political and social conditions that led many to leave Scotland. More well known are the Irish emigrants because of their later large numbers, but the Scottish played a major role in the conflicts and changes at the time.

“Emigration seems to have received a fresh impetus around 1631 for reasons that are unclear. In Scotland, although there was more immediate access to Ireland, some were considering the possibility of New England. A letter from John Kerr in Prestonpans to a correpsondent in London indicates that religious intolerance was a factor: “For there be many . . . that inclyne to that countrie [New England], if so be that the persecution by the prelates continue, I mean not so much of ministers that are abused, as near 60 young men that are of rare gifts who cannot get a lawful entry into the ministry also divese professions of some good means that labor to keep themselves undefyled.” The religious policies of the Stuarts had encouraged, if not enforced, emigration to the plantations. As early as 1619 Archbishop Spotswood had threatened nonconformists, or dissident ministers in the neighborhood of Edinburgh, with loss of their stipend and even banishment to America. The Civil War, which in its aftermath led to the mass deportation of Scottish prisoners of war, attracted American colonists, who gave active support to the king or to Parliament. Cromwell received the active support of a number of New Englanders while the king tended to receive support from Virginia and the West Indies. Among those who returned to fight for Charles I was David Munro of Katewell, who had emigrated from Scotland to Virginia during 1641; he served as an officer in the Scots army that invaded England in support of the king in 1648. He was captured after the Battle of Preston in 1648, transported back to Virginia, and disposed of as an indentured servant. The practice of banishing political, religius, and criminal undesirables had long neen established and American soon became one of their destinations. As early as 1618 the king proposed to banish “notorious lewd livers” on the borders of England and Scotland “to Virginia or other remote colony.” The practice of banishment to the plantations as a punishment was to be fully utilized later in the seventeenth century and throughout the eighteenth century. Among the Edinburgh records there is reference to an attempt by a merchant to recruit emigrants for Virginia: “21 July 1647. Ordaines proclamation be sound of drum to pass throw this brugh and liberties thairof at the desire of David Pebles marchand to invite such sort of persones, men and women, as he can agrie upon guid conditiones to goes with him to Virginia and make ane plantaion thair.” Peebles evidently succeeded in recruiting immigrants for his plantation in Virginia, he is later recorded with his family and sixteen indentured servants settled on an 833-acre land grant at Powell’s Creek south of the James River in Virginia in 1650.”

David Peebles is one of my ancestors.

My father’s maternal grandmother was born a Peebles, and he used to visit her in Mississippi. That family line, after settling in Virginia, would head down to the Deep South and then end up in Texas, which is where my great grandmother was born, as was my grandmother. Some of the Peebles clan were slave owners until the American Civil War. In my direct family line, I was able to find at least one record of 19th century slave ownership, from the 1830 census for Wiley Peebles, the generational halfway point between David Peebles and myself.

It’s interesting to see the description from the passage above. I previously had come across a record showing David Peebles had brought a bunch of people with him as dependents. I figured they were probably slaves, but it turns out that they were indentured servants. I suppose slavery was not yet as common as it would later become, considering slavery as an institution had only been legally formalized about three decades before. Plus, indentured servants were probably cheaper and easier to attain, at least for a person living In Scotland surrounded by landless peasants and other desperate people who wanted to escape to the New World.

The reason for indentured servants, and increasingly later slaves, went beyond just having workers for a plantation. The law was set up at the time such that the more dependents one brought (family members, indentured servants, and slaves) the more acres of land would be granted by the local government. In the early colonial era, prospective plantation owners needed to gather enough dependents in order to get the land needed to make a plantation possible. This is how the rich and powerful ended up with most of the best land in places like Virginia.

Still, that doesn’t disprove that he might have owned slaves as well. In her book An American Heritage Story, Gloria Peoples-Elam offers this enticing detail (Kindle Locations 398-400):

“Another very interesting entry into the journal is the following: “Capt David Peiblis is hereby tolerated and permitted to reteine and keep an Indian according to the rules and prescriptions of the Law in that Case provided.” Apparently, Captain Peebles had an Indian as a slave or a worker.”

He was sometimes referred to as a captain. He led a militia in at least one battle with a Native American tribe, maybe the Mohawks. It is surmised by some that he received an injury during the fight because he stops showing up much in the records. His being “permitted to reteine and keep an Indian” probably doesn’t indicate a relationship of freedom and friendship. Slavery wasn’t an uncommon fate early on for captured Native Americans.

Even indentured servitude wasn’t necessarily better. I’ve read before that in the early colonial era, most people didn’t survive to see the end of their indentured service, for the conditions weren’t conducive to health. It might be unsurprising that seeking escape wasn’t limited to slaves (or captive natives). Here is another example from the Peebles’ household, although following David Peeble’s death. In speaking about his wife, who had taken over the responsibilities of the family, Peoples-Elam says that,”She was exempted from tax on “two persons escaped”— indentured servants who had run away” (Kindle Locations 443-444). Those two persons apparently weren’t feeling happy, contented, and optimistic about their situation.

My ancestor, David Peebles, obviously had been a man of means and well-respected in the community, often finding himself in positions of authority. Even before Virginia, he either had great wealth, owned a lot of property to be sold, or had connections to borrow money. When he sought indentured servants for his plantation, that would have required a lot of money to pay for the passage, feeding, and housing of all those people—while also supporting a family. There were many wealthier British emigrants at the time, as the instability and violence during that era gave good reasons for people to flee.

The evidence apparently is even stronger than what I initially realized, at least to the degree that his father’s position implies something about his own position, a fair assumption to make a time when so much was inherited. Peoples-Elam writes that (Kindle Locations 261-268):

“By 1636, the name of David Peebles appears and is listed as “lawful son of Robert Peebles, decd., Burgess of Dundee in 1538.” This was the beginning of the direct ancestry that can be definitely traced back to Scotland.

“As a Burgess of Dundee, Sir Robert was a representative of a burgh or borough, which is a corporate or chartered town in Scotland. He would have been called a Vassal to the Crown. That meant that in times of the feudal system of Scotland this was a person holding lands under the obligation to render military service or its equivalent to his superior. This is shown by the fact that royal charters and Acts of Parliament were addressed or referred to as burgesses. Toward the Crown the burgess had the duties of helping to guard the burgh, of serving with the king’s army when called upon and of paying royal taxation. The latter would not have been the best part of being a burgess but to hold that distinction was necessary.”

A vassal to the Crown is a fairly high position. It would offer many things: wealth, land, authority, power, influence, connections, political franchise, etc. It was the propertied class (just below titled aristocracy) at a time when few had property, as property ownership was determined by the feudal order. As such, his father would have had been part of the upper classes, not part of the far reaches of ruling elite but still with significant position at least at the local level. So, when David Peebles refers to himself as a merchant (marchand), he might have meant something far beyond a mere businessman, trader, craftsmen, or farmer.

Another interesting thing is the specific historical context.

Virginia was settled by a fair number of Royalists, supporters of the Crown. They were often referred to as Cavaliers because of courtly fashion (the term cavalier being related to cavalry and chivalry, from Old French chevalier). The term was used as a general label for courtiers and Royalists, but some of them were Norman-descended aristocracy from southern England (and those that weren’t sought to style themselves as such). David Peebles, however, was Scottish. Some Scottish did fight for the Crown, but I don’t know if this included my ancestor and his kin. Scottish Royalists were typically Highlanders, whereas David Peebles was apparently from the Borders (although it might be noted that the Cavaliers didn’t have a high opinion of any of the Scottish—see Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil War by John Stubbs; also see Soldiers and Strangers: An Ethnic History of the English Civil War by Mark Stoyle, as reviewed by R.C. RichardsonEnglish chauvinist prejudices were rampant. An English officer in 1639 devoted several lines to a litany of hostile adjectives that describe “the scurvy, filthy, dirty, nasty, lousy, itchy, scabby, shitten, stinking, slovenly, snotty-nosed, villainous, barbarous, beastial, false, lying, roguish, devilish” Scots.). The fact that my ancestor immigrated to Virginia and was easily assimilated into the social order does seem to imply that he likely had some association with the Royalist cause.

In support of this conclusion, I noticed that David Peebles put his notice up for emigrants a month after the king was captured by the New Model Army. He arrived in Virginia the same year King Charles I was executed, which was a year before Cromwell occupied Peebles, Scotland (just south of Edinburgh); that was the year directly following the execution of Charles I. Interestingly, in the American colonies (according to Enclyclopedia Virginia), “by 1650, most Virginia Puritans had left the colony for Maryland or Massachusetts.” So, the Cromwell supporters, Roundheads, were leaving Virginia just as those like David Peebles were arriving. Virginia was first settled by Puritans, but it would become seen as Royalist stronghold, not that it ever played a direct role in the English Civil War, as it remained officially neutral in the colony’s government seeking to encourage free trade with all sides.

I’d point out that Peebles, Scotland was an old royal burgh and resort. The people of the area may have felt particular loyalty to the former Scottish king, James VI, who became the king of England, James I (he would sometimes meet in Peebles in his official role). Many Scottish came into conflict with English rule, but that wasn’t true for all, as ethnic nationalism wasn’t fully formed yet. The Scottish didn’t see themselves as a single people at that time. Britain was a diverse place with no clear separation between Scotland and England. King James I died in 1625 and I’m not sure how the memory of his rule would have influenced loyalties during the English Civil War(s), in terms of the broader War of the Three Kingdoms.

Anyway, in its having taken root in Virginia where David Peebles’ plantation was located, Cavalier culture would be held up later on as what defined the American South, even though few Southerners were of Anglo-Norman ancestry. It was an aristocratic value system and social order: strict social hierarchy, privilege of white male landowners, noblesse oblige, and culture of honor. It was an echo of the old chivalric code of feudalism, an image of ancient nobility. It was what the plantation owners modeled themselves after and it became a collective identity among many Southerners in defining the South as a region with a culture that was supposedly unique and coherent, although in reality this was more of an invention. Even the Southern dialect didn’t fully develop until the commingling of Southerners in the Confederate Army. Here is a brief synopsis of the background (from Enclyclopedia Virginia):

“Having initially resisted England’s Commonwealth regime, and having reinstalled a former royal governor of its own accord, Virginia was in an excellent position to plead its loyalty to the king after the Restoration. Indeed, the colony even gained a reputation as a Royalist stronghold—a reputation some Virginians cultivated by exaggerating the number of Royalist officers, or Cavaliers, who migrated to the colony after 1648, and claiming that most Virginians were descended from the English aristocracy. While a number of Royalists—including members of the Washington, Randolph, Carter, and Lee families—sought refuge in Virginia, most remained in England or settled in Europe. And most immigrants to Virginia in the seventeenth century were indentured servants, not English gentry. Regardless, the Cavalier myth—perpetuated by romantic, nostalgic depictions of Virginia plantation life in literature and historical studies—took hold in Virginia and persisted throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Some scholars view the Lost Cause interpretation of the American Civil War (1861–1865) as an extension of the Cavalier myth.”

I’m sure that many of my ancestors on the Peebles line took the Cavalier identity seriously, especially during and in the decades prior to the Civil War, in which some of them fought.

In Britain, aristocracy took root along with feudalism. With the land enclosures, the desperate and impoverished landless peasants often became indentured servants, sometimes on plantations (the first attempt of the colonization project being the Ulster Plantation in Ireland, where many Scots-Irish ended up, although I’m not sure how much indentured servitude was used at that point). It was essentially a revamped form of feudalism. That then led to slavery which was an even better balance between the new capitalist plutocracy and the old feudalist social order, without any of the Commons stuff to get in the way.

In such a society, minorities and the poor had few rights, freedoms, and protections. Prior to slavery, indentured servants were the lowest of the low in a society where that could mean being beaten, tortured, raped, or worked to death. An indentured servant was literally worth less than a slave, for they were simply disposable labor. The master of an indentured servant couldn’t even make money by selling off the children.

Indentured servitude was useful during that transitional era, as cheap labor but more importantly for social control. Slavery served the same purpose after the ending of indenture, as it was used to maintain not just the color line but also class hierarchy. In its being rooted in feudalism, it offered the sense of an unchanging stable order. What always was would always be, so it seemed to many before it all came to an end. In defending slavery, they were fighting for an entire worldview and way of life.

In Virginia, a Civil War battle happened on a Peebles farm (and, at an earlier time in Virginia, Nat Turner’s rebellion led to the killing of a slave overseer by the name of Peebles). I would note that my Peebles family was in Texas during the Civil War. That was the area where slavery lasted the longest, as it took a while for slaves there to hear of the news that they had been freed. Once that news had arrived, that would have been the end of an era for the Southern lines of the David Peebles descendants in America.

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Gilded Age: Heyday of Laissez-Faire Capitalism

From Slavery to the Cooperative Commonwealth: Labor and Republican
Liberty in the Nineteenth Century
Alex Gourevitch
Introduction, pp. 3-

On November 26, the Journal printed a letter describing the Knights’ defiance of the “many companies of State militia, with their Gattling [sic] guns,” who were attempting to force the striking workers back to the fields. Little did the Journal’s editors know that by the time they had printed that letter the Louisiana state militia had broken the strike and corralled thousands of strikers into the town of Thibodaux, where a state district judge promptly placed them all under martial law. State militia then withdrew, intentionally leaving the town to a group of white citizen-vigilantes called the “Peace and Order Committee,” who happened to have been organized by the same judge that declared martial law. Upon meeting resistance from the penned in strikers, the white vigilantes unleashed a three-day torrent of killing, from November 21 to November 23, on the unarmed cane-workers and their families. “No credible official count of the victims of the Thibodaux massacre was ever made,” writes one historian, but “bodies continued to turn up in shallow graves outside of town for weeks to come.” 12 Precise body counts were beside the point. The question of who ruled town and country, plantation and courthouse, had been answered. As a mother of two white vigilantes put it, “I think this will settle the question of who is to rule[,] the nigger or the white man? For the next 50 years . . .” 13 A few months later, the Knights continued to organize in parts of Louisiana and elsewhere in the South, but the slaughter at Thibodaux put strict limits on the black worker’s struggle for economic independence and equal rights in the South. Farming a plantation “on the co-operative plan” was not even a dream deferred; it was easy to forget it had ever been a possible world the cane cutters might live in. The Knights, meanwhile, were soon reduced to an historical footnote.

The officially sanctioned mob violence at Thibodaux was one of many over the course of Southern history. In each case, a challenge to race-based class rule was met with vigilante justice in the name of white supremacy. In this case, however, it is worth noting that the Knights articulated their challenge in a specific, not well-remembered, language of freedom. From the abolition of slavery to the end of Reconstruction, many freed slaves sought more than legal recognition as equal citizens. They felt their liberation included the right not to have a master at all. They refused to work for former masters, even when offered a formal labor contract and wages. 14 Instead, when possible, they seized or settled land set aside for them and worked it individually or in joint “labor companies.” 15 Former slaves asserted their independence at all levels by organizing their own militias to protect their rights, by working their own property, by voting as they wished, and by holding local and national office. This radical moment of Reconstruction was quickly suppressed and the collapse of Reconstruction in 1877 spelled the end of any but the narrowest interpretation of what emancipation would mean. 16

When the Knights of Labor swept into Louisiana a decade later, they not only revived old hopes about self-organization and economic independence. They also integrated these regional aspirations of former slaves into a recast national ideology of republican freedom. The aforementioned hopeful parenthesis – “by January 1 we will be in good trim to lease ( on the co-operative plan) a good plantation” – speaks to this ideological shift. No doubt black laborers and local leaders heard echoes of the short-lived Reconstruction-era “labor companies” and black militias in this new language of self-directed “co-operative plans.” Their enemies certainly did. The Thibodaux Sentinel, a racist local paper hostile to the Knights’ organizing efforts, warned “against black self organization by trying to remind whites and blacks of what happened a generation earlier, in the days of black militias, and white vigilantism” and evoked “the old demons of violence and arson by ‘black banditti.’” 17 But former slaves were now also modern workers, and the Knights trumpeted the same emancipatory language throughout the nation, heralding “co-operation” as a solution to the problems facing wage-laborers everywhere. If their message carried special historical resonances in the South, the Knights added a new universalizing and solidaristic note.

This program of liberation through cooperative self-organization, articulated in the transracial language of making all workers into their own employers, scared northern industrialists just as much as Southern planters. In fact, if we see the Thibodaux massacre as just a Southern race story, then we run the risk of unintentionally and retrospectively ceding too much to the plantocracy and its attempts to control labor relations by transforming economic conflicts into questions of racial superiority. After all, wherever the Knights went and wherever their message of cooperation and independence took hold, they were met with violence not all that different from that of Southern vigilantes. Throughout the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s, the Knights faced private violence from employers and their hired guns, most notoriously the Pinkertons. The Pinkertons operated in legal grey zones, sometimes with outright legal sanction from the courts, and often in cooperation with National Guards or even Federal troops. In fact, on occasion it was the public violence of the state that was responsible for spectacular acts of legally sanctioned murder and coercion. 18 Labor reformers labeled this unholy alliance of the state with the “Pinkerton Armed Force,” its spies and “provocative agents,” as a kind of “Bonapartism in America,” threatening to turn “the free and independent Republic of the United States of America” into the “worm-eaten Empire of Napoleon the Third.” 19 Just as in Thibodaux, the lines between vigilante violence and legal coercion sometimes blurred into indistinction. What, then, was the idea of freedom that triggered such extreme responses?

The Knights of Labor represented the culmination of a radical, labor republican tradition. Their starting premise was that “there is an inevitable and irresistible conflict between the wage-system of labor and the republican system of government.” 20 Wage-labor was considered a form of dependent labor, different from chattel slavery, but still based on relations of mastery and subjection. Dependent labor was inconsistent with the economic independence that every republican citizen deserved. That is why, in the name of republican liberty, these Knights sought “to abolish as rapidly as possible, the wage system, substituting co-operation therefore.” 21 Here was the source of their “co-operative plan,” which they found as applicable to the cane fields of Louisiana as to the shoe factories of Massachusetts. 22 The Knights wrote the cooperative program into their official constitution, the Declaration of Principles of the Knights of Labor, and, at their peak, organized thousands of cooperatives across the country. 23 The cooperative ideal threatened Southern planters, Northern industrialists and Western railroad owners alike because it struck at the dominant industrial relations between employer and employee. Affording all workers shared ownership and management of an enterprise, whether a sugar plantation, newspaper press, or garment factory, was – according to the Knights – the only way to secure to everyone their social and economic independence. The abolition of slavery two decades earlier was but the first step in a broader project of eliminating all relations of mastery and subjection in economic life. Although these ideas had been around well before the Civil War, it was only the abolition of chattel slavery and the rise of industrial capitalism that allowed the republican critique of wage-labor to come forward as a unifying, national cause. As Ira Steward, a child of abolitionists and prominent post-war labor republican, wrote in 1873, “something of slavery still remains . . . something of freedom is yet to come.” 24

American Eyes On Cuba

Reading the below passage, I was reminded of the Cold War attitude and actions toward Cuba. This included the failed invasion and nuclear showdown during Kennedy’s administration.

There has been a longstanding antagonism between the US and Cuba. The US relationship to Cuba has involved paranoia, intrigue, and acquisitiveness. This has also involved conflict in both places, especially conflicts related to race and slavery, but also regional and partisan conflict in the US and class conflicts in Cuba.

The difference back then was that the feared superpower was the Spanish Empire, instead of the Soviet Union. Still, it was the same basic jostling for political power, imperial expansion, and military positioning.

* * *

The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War
By Leonard L. Richards
Kindle Locations 2109-2145

Upon arriving in Madrid, Soulé immediately alienated the Spanish government. He denounced the monarchy and cavorted openly with revolutionaries. He got into a duel with the French ambassador after one of the ambassador’s guests made a disparaging remark about Mrs. Soulé’s plunging neckline. For this affront the ambassador suffered a debilitating leg wound. From the outset, Soulé also made it clear that his mission was to acquire Cuba by hook or by crook. By this time, moreover, the Spanish, as well as every other European power, had heard that Quitman was raising troops to invade Cuba.

In September 1853, the Spanish government responded. It appointed the Marqués de la Pezuela captain general of Cuba, a post that put him in command of both the military and the government, with orders to take steps to defend Cuba. In December he issued decrees that among other things cracked down on those illegally engaged in the slave trade and gave citizenship rights to blacks illegally imported before 1835. At the same time, he recruited free blacks into the militia. Coming from a government that had no interest in abolishing either slavery or the African slave trade, Pezuela’s policy of “Africanization” made it clear that he was willing, if necessary, to use black troops against Quitman’s invaders and against any Cuban planter who sympathized with them.

Pezuela’s policy was also risky. It sparked fears of slave rebellion throughout the white South and calls for reprisals. It also aroused militants in the Mississippi Delta. They wanted action quickly. In response, the Louisiana legislature demanded “decisive and energetic measures.” Quitman, however, was unwilling to move until he had three thousand men, one armed steamer, and $220,000 at his disposal.11

Meanwhile, the Pierce administration decided that it might be possible to purchase Cuba if firebrands like Quitman were temporarily restrained. On April 3, Secretary of State William L. Marcy sent new instructions to Soulé, authorizing him to purchase Cuba for up to $130 million. If Spain refused, Soulé was then to concern himself with the problem of how to “detach” Cuba from Spain.12 Eight weeks later, the administration announced that it would prosecute all men who violated U.S. neutrality laws. The New Orleans grand jury then required Quitman to post a $3,000 bond guaranteeing his adherence to the neutrality laws for the next nine months. In the interim, in Cuba, Pezuela arrested more than a hundred pro-American planters and put some to death. Later that same year, Pierce called Quitman to Washington and showed him evidence that Cuba was strongly defended.13

Meanwhile, in Madrid, Soulé had no luck trying to buy Cuba. So the Pierce administration decided to let him confer privately with the other ministers in Europe—James Buchanan at London and John Y. Mason at Paris—and decide if it was feasible to persuade Spain to sell Cuba to the United States. Meeting in Ostend in October 1854, the three diplomats put their names to a dispatch that came to be known as the Ostend Manifesto.

The dispatch was a bombshell. Written mainly by Soulé, it urged the United States to immediately buy Cuba at any price up to $120 million. It also proclaimed that if Spain refused to sell and if its possession of Cuba seriously endangered the “internal peace” of the slave states, then the United States would be justified in seizing Cuba “upon the very same principle that would justify an individual in tearing down the burning house of his neighbor if there were no other means of preventing the flames from destroying his own home.”14

News of this saber-rattling manifesto sent shock waves through the Northern wing of the Democratic Party. They had just suffered huge election losses that fall. They had entered the election holding ninety-three seats in the House. They now had only twenty-two.15 What, many asked, was the Pierce administration up to? Didn’t they realize that the “burning house” rhetoric would provide Horace Greeley’s New-York Tribune with even more ammunition to attack the party faithful? One Democratic newspaper after another thus distanced itself from the manifesto, even branding its authors “brigands” and “highwaymen.”The Pierce administration also ran for cover, disavowing the proposal and letting “the three wise men of Ostend” fend for themselves.16

That December, enraged by the reaction, Soulé resigned as minister to Spain. Several months later, in April 1855, Quitman gave back to the Cuban junta the powers it had bestowed upon him. No longer did either warrior have much hope of acquiring “the pearl of the Antilles” to offset the addition of California as a free state.

Union Membership, Free Labor, and the Legacy of Slavery.

I was just looking at an NPR piece on 50 Years Of Shrinking Union Membership, In One Map. It reminds me of a number of things.

I’ve made some correlations previously by looking at various mapped data. Where union membership has been historically strong and remained the strongest are where there has been high concentration of certain ancestral ethnicities. Two I’ve noted are German and Irish, which I relates to their higher rates of Catholicism and the attendant more community-oriented worldview.

I’ve often thought much about the Scots-Irish. Their influence can seem immense for various reasons, but it is hard to pinpoint what exactly is that influence. Some of the most violent organized labor strikes have been in Appalachia, the American cultural homeland of those with Scots-Irish ancestry. There is a militant fierceness to Scots-Irish culture of honor that can apply just as equally to vigilantism, family feuds, military enlistment, and labor activism.

It’s easy to forget, though, that those of Scots-Irish ancestry didn’t only settle in and become concentrated in Appalachia. All across the country, there is much overlap between their concentration and higher union membership rates.

This brings me to the forgotten connection between the Upper South and the Lower Midwest. Both regions have high union membership. I want to make a further connection, though. This is also the dual region of Abraham Lincoln’s upbringing. He spent his early life divided between Kentucky, Southern Indiana, and Illinois. The latter state, in particular, has become associated with Lincoln and is the heart of American union membership (which naturally brings to mind the words of Lincoln when he said, “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”).

This land of Lincoln was the contested region of American identity. It’s the border region of the Civil War. And nothing symbolizes that conflict more than slavery.

What stood out to me in NPR’s union membership map is this. The states that have had the lowest union membership rates, unsurprisingly, are those that had the highest enslaved human rates. The one state that has almost always had the lowest union membership rates is South Carolina, a place that for most of its history included a black majority.

It is predictable that the states with a history of disenfranchising blacks also have a history of disenfranchising whites. In general, those are highly unequal class-based societies where poverty rates are high and most people are disenfranchised. This doesn’t just impact the poor, but the entire society or community and the entire economy.

In a previous post, I quoted Nicholas Kristoff from his article, When Whites Just Don’t Get It, Part 4:

“Indeed, a wave of research over the last 20 years has documented the lingering effects of slavery in the United States and South America alike. For example, counties in America that had a higher proportion of slaves in 1860 are still more unequal today, according to a scholarly paper published in 2010. The authors called this a “persistent effect of slavery.”

“One reason seems to be that areas with slave labor were ruled for the benefit of elite plantation owners. Public schools, libraries and legal institutions lagged, holding back working-class whites as well as blacks.”

Union membership is just an indicator of the inequality that is present. It is also an indicator of a healthy, well-functioning social democracy. There is only ever freedom to the degree there is equality. Even the good life for the wealthiest is less good in a high inequality society, because the social problems caused can never be contained. They effect everyone. And those social problems are immense and diverse, from rising murder rates to worsening health issues, all of which also increase during Republican administrations when conservative polices set the tone for the nation.

Slavery is just an extreme form of inequality. Cultures and political systems don’t change quickly. We will be living with the consequences of slavery for a long time. The opposite of slavery is free labor which means workers who have greater control over their own lives. The labor movement is in essence a fight against the legacy of a country built on oppression. Class war has been continuously going on since the colonial era. It’s a class war that has mostly been waged by the wealthy and they have won most of the battles, but not all of them. Labor unions, for all their problems and limitations, are far better than the alternative in power at the moment.

We need to keep this in mind, at a time in our history when more blacks are in prison than were in slavery right before the Civil War and when mass incarceration is increasingly being used as a new form of forced labor. This is the context in which to understand dropping union membership rates, as poverty, inequality, and unemployment grows.

Facing Shared Trauma and Seeking Hope

I came across this nugget of inconvenient truth:

“Indeed, a wave of research over the last 20 years has documented the lingering effects of slavery in the United States and South America alike. For example, counties in America that had a higher proportion of slaves in 1860 are still more unequal today, according to a scholarly paper published in 2010. The authors called this a “persistent effect of slavery.”

“One reason seems to be that areas with slave labor were ruled for the benefit of elite plantation owners. Public schools, libraries and legal institutions lagged, holding back working-class whites as well as blacks.”

This is from The New York Times. It is Part 4 of a series by Nicholas Kristoff, “When Whites Just Don’t Get It”.

It brought back to mind a few similar examples of this type of historical effect. A short while ago, an intriguing book was published that included this topic. It is The Invisible History of the Human Race by Christine Kenneally. I learned of the book from a book review by David Dobbs, also in The New York Times. I have since read it and I must admit it is one of the best books I’ve read recently, right up there with Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. I appreciated what the author accomplished for similar reasons as with Alexander’s book, telling data in support of keen insight.

The data is overwhelming. The way Kenneally brings it all together makes you feel the full weight of history. Institutions and social orders, cultures and social capital, injustices and traumas, they can and often do persist over centuries. This what people mean when they speak of oppression. They don’t just mean a single generation who loses opportunities of betterment. It’s not just about individuals, but entire societies. It continues to impact the descendants for as long as the social conditions sustain it. This is the moral obligation we face. The actions we take now will echo into the distant future. We choose whether to continue systems and cultures of oppression or to end them. Every generation makes that choice, century after century.

The past is never just past. This is particularly true with trauma. It is hard to forget large-scale atrocities that leave deep imprints. Societies can be forever changed. Kenneally mentions an anthropologist who, during the 1990s, stayed with an African tribe in an area that had high rates of enslavement. The memory of slavery was still apart of their experience. Many of them could point to the homes of people who lost family members to slavery. And sometimes they could even name the people who had sold them into slavery, sometimes members of the same family committed the act (“Almost 20 percent of slaves had been betrayed by people to whom they were close.” Kindle Location 2304). These people couldn’t forget.

There are many enduring effects to this. One of these is easier to think about. It is the resulting economic problems. This relates to the example I began with. Areas that experienced slavery and the slave trade in centuries past still have problems with underdevelopment, poverty, and inequality. Some might dismiss this as simply being a continuation of what came before, that these places always were bad off. That is a too convenient excuse and also false (Kindle Locations 2295-2302):

“In order to find a connection between slavery and modern economies, Nunn asked if the differences in economic well-being today could be explained by differences that existed before the slave trade. Were the countries that were already poor the same countries that were more engaged in the slave trade? In fact, Nunn found the opposite : Regions that lost the most people to slavery had once been among the best-developed economies and best-organized states on the continent, with central governments, national currencies, and established trade networks. It was the states that were least developed and had higher degrees of violence and hostility at the time of the slave trade that were better able to repel slavers and not suffer the long-term effects of the trade.

“Could the relationship between modern poverty and historical slavery be explained by the subsequent effects of colonialism or by the natural resources possessed by a country? Nunn found that although those factors appeared to have an effect, neither was as powerful. It was slavery that mattered, and it mattered greatly.”

Another enduring effect connects to that. As has been observed by many, economic development along with wealth and equality seem to be intrinsic qualities of a culture of trust (see Fukuyama’s Trust). Kenneally writes (Kindle Locations 2327-2352):

They began with the intuition that trust could be a channel through which slavery still affects modern economies. But their goal was to find evidence for it. Of course, trust is a crucial part of any economy: Societies must have some degree of trust in order to be able to trade. At the most basic level, if people don’t trust one another, they are less willing to take a chance in business, whether it involves a simple exchange of goods or a complicated contract. But no one in economics had ever tried to measure the relationships among history, trust, and the economy before. After all, trust was an element of culture, and “culture” was a vague, fuzzy concept. Nunn and Wantchekon defined it as simply as they could: Culture, for their purposes, was the rules of thumb people used to make decisions. Do I trust this person ? Do I distrust him? People from different cultures use different rules of thumb to make such determinations.

If trust is absent, a well functioning society becomes impossible. Some would argue that absence of trust can only be blamed on the local population, not outside forces, but the fact that these once were well functioning societies gives the lie to that claim. The point of causation is most clearly attributed to slavery itself. as shown in the author’s analysis (continuing from above):

“Building on Nunn’s finding that the countries that lost more of their populations to the slave trade over one hundred years ago were also the poorest today, Nunn and Wantchekon examined the Afrobarometer, a survey project that measures public attitudes to different aspects of African daily life, like democracy, employment, and the future of citizenship. It is comparable to a Gallup poll, and it includes seventeen countries. The researchers found that overall, people tended to have more trust in those who were closer to them— for example, friends over government officials. This was a universal pattern. But it was also the case that the groups that were most exposed to the slave trade over one hundred years ago were also the groups with the lowest levels of trust today. Modern Africans whose ancestors lost the most people to slavers distrusted not just their local government and other members of their ethnicity but also relatives and neighbors much more than Africans whose ancestors were not as exposed to the slave trade.

“Did the slave trade give rise to a culture of mistrust that was passed down from the slave era even to individuals who live in the same places today? There are good reasons to believe that it might have. For those who witnessed the ways an innocent bystander might be swept up by or somehow betrayed into the slave trade, it would have made more sense to distrust people, as a general rule. People who automatically distrusted others were probably more likely to do well, or at least to not be enslaved . Wariness would also have been a smart strategy to teach the next generation.

“There’s another way this terrible correlation could be interpreted: Perhaps the slave trade made people not less trusting but less trustworthy. Perhaps people weren’t trusted in countries like Benin because they didn’t deserve to be trusted. After all, chiefs turned on their own people, and families sent some of their own literally down the river. Was a culture of betrayal passed down as well as a culture of distrust? This could partially be the case. Nunn’s analysis reveals that ethnic groups and local governments in the regions that were most affected by the slave trade in the past are also least trusted today. People whose ancestors were more affected by the slave trade were more likely to report that they did not approve of their local councilors, who were corrupt and did not listen to constituents. As Nunn explained , it’s quite likely that this is an accurate assessment of the local councils in these areas. Nevertheless, when they controlled for this effect, there was still a significant amount of distrust in countries most affected by the slave trade— regardless of whether the object of trust was truly worthy.”

A culture of trust is easier to destroy than to re-create. Once trauma becomes society-wide dysfunction, healing those shared wounds will be a slow process. The reason for this is that it hits people at the most personal level, their social identities and relationships (Kindle Locations 2430-2444):

“It seemed that both families and social institutions matter but that the former is more powerful. The data suggested that a region might develop its own culture of distrust and that it could affect people who moved into that area, even if their ancestors had not been exposed to the historical event that destroyed trust in the first place. But if someone’s ancestors had significant exposure to the slave trade, then even if he moved away from the area where he was born to an area where there was no general culture of mistrust, he was still less likely to be trusting. Indeed, Nunn and Wantchekon found evidence that the inheritance of distrust within a family was twice as powerful as the distrust that is passed down in a community.

“This accords well with our personal intuitions about families: The people who raise us shape us, intentionally or unintentionally. The people who raise us were likewise shaped by the people who raised them, and so on. Similarly, the way we treat other people, even our offspring, is shaped by the way we were shaped. This is not to say that our peers don’t affect our attitudes, nor does it mean that the society in which we choose to live doesn’t contribute as well. Obviously, the older we get, the more we develop the ability to shape ourselves. Family history doesn’t necessarily determine who we become, but this body of work suggests that the effect of a family may be so powerful that it can be replicated down through many generations, over and over through hundreds of years. It’s no wonder that so many people choose to study the distant histories of their families to understand how they work today . If genealogists believe there isn’t enough in their daily lives or their culture that sufficiently explains who they are— either to others or to themselves— it may be because they are right.

“In fact, the legacy of a family may be so powerful that it will not only last over extraordinary periods of time but extend over great distances as well.”

In regards to slavery in the United States, this last insight may point to an even further problem.

Africans who weren’t enslaved lost family members and had their functioning societies destroyed, but they maintained their family structures and cultural traditions. This did offer a pathway of transmission for trauma. At the same time, it also offered a certain kind of social stability. These people remember who they are and where they came from. They don’t suffer historical amnesia, as do many Americans. Trauma remembered allows for the opportunity of healing.

African-Americans, on the other hand, didn’t just lose their freedom. They lost everything. They lost their communities, traditions, and every other aspect of their social identities. Once enslaved and brought to America, they sought to rebuild the social bonds that had been lost. However, the slave system and the racial order that was built on it continually destroyed those social bonds or at the very least made it a challenge to maintain them over the generations. Slave families were regularly separated and this enforced instability continued for centuries, for longer than African-Americans have known freedom. They weren’t allowed the extended kinship ties that were traditional in Africa nor were they even allowed to develop dependable nuclear families.

If families are a major factor in passing on culture, what happens when a culture of oppression has been forced onto an entire people such that the foundations of family are undermined? African-Americans adapted to this challenge. Once free, they created new social bonds that could help them face the nearly insurmountable odds set against them. After slavery, the ruling white society continued to send black men off to other forms of unfreedom, from prisons to chain gangs. Their communities were ghettoized and racialized social control kept them trapped in poverty. So, they turned to the people around them and developed extended social networks (see Carol Stack’s All Our Kin; also see The Myth of Weak and Broken Black Families).

This source of strength, within their inheritance of injustice and oppression, is not to be dismissed. These communities still struggle against the legacy of slavery. Bigotry still lives on and racial bias remains institutionalized. Yet these people aren’t mere victims to be pitied. Just imagine what they might accomplish if they were ever allowed to heal from centuries of shared trauma.

Part of the reason so many African-Americans left the South was because they hoped to leave behind the very oppressive social orders that had kept them down for so long. If not for the mass exodus to the northern states, the civil rights movement may never have happened. They had to escape the persistent culture of poverty and inequality. By changing their environments, they were able to begin to see new possibilities and organize around new visions. Now many of their descendants are returning to the South for jobs and cheaper housing. This could in turn transform that old Southern society built on slavery, and so transform all of American society that has been complicit in the continuing racial order.

I’m not sure what specific hopes this offers, but there is a potential there. Some things persist over centuries while other things become transformed. Positive changes only ever happen when entire systems are shifted toward a new balance. One thing that seems clear to me is that this country is in the middle of a shift, whatever that might entail. Remembering the past lights the path toward a different future. That future will be determined by the choices we make now. What kind of world will we leave for the generations that follow after us?

If You Think Democracy Is Bad, You Should See Libertarianism

I differ from mainstream liberals in having some libertarian inclinations. I don’t think I’m extraordinarily unusual in this. I live in a liberal town and know other liberals that think more like me.

The reason I’m so inclined is simple. I like democracy. It appears that democracy has failed on the large-scale. The only successful examples of democracy are on the small-scale. Hence, libertarianism of a leftist variety.

That said, I wouldn’t identify as a libertarian. Not because I don’t like the label. I couldn’t care less about the label. The real point for me is the principles I hold. In principle, I’m indifferent to the argument of big versus small government. I suspect big government might be a necessary evil.

For example, there is good reason few minorities are libertarians. Colonial African slaves had to choose between Britain and America. It was no easy choice. Few of them were thinking about grand changes. They were simply seeking the best hope available to them. If they chose to fight on one side or the other, it was a very personal decision. They were more fighting for their individual freedom than they were fighting for some ideal of a free society.

It was very concrete and direct. They just wanted to be able to live their own lives and be left alone. That is freedom in the most basic sense.

Since that era, their descendents have continuouslly fought for ever greater freedoms. Yet most of the battles continued to be for very basic freedoms. And most of the battles have been fought at the local level. But almost every victory they had at the local level was reversed by local whites, almost everything they built at the local level was destroyed by local whites.

Conservatives complain about what they see as minorities love of big government. It’s not that they love big government. It’s just that they’ve learned from hard-fought experience that the only lasting change for the good they’ve gained has come from forcing change at the level of big governmment and so forcing local small governments to comply.

Black history demonstrates the failure of libertarianism. An even greater failure than democracy.

Libertarian rhetoric is a white privilege and also a class privilege. There is a reason most libertarians are wealthier whites. They already have their basic rights and freedoms protected, more than anyone else in society.

Minorities aren’t stupid. They see this privilege for what it is.

What Is An Imperial Subject To Do?

US is an empire. Yet few Americans know it or will admit to it.

We are unique in history. Previous empires proudly declared their status as empires, sometimes making it a part of their official titles. But I suspect most Americans would be ashamed if they discovered or were forced to face the truth.

When you call the US an empire, most Americans get defensive. We can’t even publicly acknowledge that the US is a corporatist police state.

For our entire history, the American people haven’t been able to decide whether we should be an empire or not. That was a major argument during the country’s founding and in the early decades of national politics. It became an even more central debate following the Civil War when expansionism went into full gear. The Native Americans had no doubts about America being an empire.

I’m not sure any other country has struggled so much with their collective desire for imperialism. It doesn’t just bother us that we are an empire, but the fact that we like being an empire. It comes with great benefits and it just plain feels good to be part of something so powerful.

So, why all the guilt and shame about what we are? Why not just admit it and embrace it? Maybe some public honesty would be a good thing.

It’s a strange thing living in an empire. I didn’t grow up knowing this fact. It never occurred to me until I was an adult. Empires were something one learned about in history class. They were in the past. The US was a democracy or, if you prefer, a republic.

It is hard to come to terms with this. What is an imperial subject to do? No one asked me if I wanted an empire, but here we all are.

I was thinking about it because of an article I read about another empire.

We had our Native American genocide and slavery. The Belgians aren’t as famous for imperialism, but they had their own imperial project in Congo. King Leopold II of Belgium created a slave society where millions were killed. He gets forgotten by Western history because he only killed dark-skinned people. If you want to be a truly great evil leader in the minds of Westerners, you have to kill white people like Hitler did. Only white people count and are counted.

“When we learn about Africa, we learn about a caricatured Egypt, about the HIV epidemic (but never its causes), about the surface level effects of the slave trade, and maybe about South African Apartheid (the effects of which, we are taught, are now long, long over). We also see lots of pictures of starving children on Christian Ministry commercials, we see safaris on animal shows, and we see pictures of deserts in films and movies. But we don’t learn about the Great African War or Leopold’s Reign of Terror during the Congolese Genocide. Nor do we learn about what the United States has done in Iraq and Afghanistan, killing millions of people through bombs, sanctions, disease, and starvation. Body counts are important. And the United States Government doesn’t count Afghan, Iraqi, or Congolese people.”

It was the part thrown in about the US that I wanted to share. I knew our actions were horrific, but I hadn’t realized they were that horrific. If killing millions of innocent foreigners around the world through invasions, occupations, bombings, etc doesn’t an empire make, then what does?

I doubt most people know such basic facts as these. One of the privileges of being an imperial subject is that you can choose to remain ignorant of the consequences. The people of Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t so lucky. It will take generations for them to forget the trauma of being the target of US imperialism.

Who Is To Blame?

Identity politics too often distracts from the real issues and can even make problems worse. My focus is as much on the victimization cycle as on the victims and victimizers. The victimization cycle puts into context and so offers a larger vantage point.

All of us humans all over are caught up in a globally-connected system of victimization. That isn’t to say all suffer equally, but it is to say we all are equally fucked in the long term on a shared planet with limited resources. What goes around comes around.

I’ve been arguing with one racist guy who keeps saying that American blacks are more violent. I can argue with that on one level by pointing out that whites are more likely to be child molesters, school shooters, bombers, serial killers, etc. But that misses a bigger issue. Why is the entire American society violent? Why is the world in general such a violent place? Why are the wealthiest countries so war-mongering? Why are so many of the post-colonial countries troubled by near endless internal conflict?

Limiting our view to the US, blacks do commit high rates of homicides, although most of their victims are also blacks. It is violence within a community. But how did so many poor black communities become so violent? Before someone committed murder, they were a kid being raised in a particular environment in a particular society. Some thing shaped them.

We know what some of those factors are. We also know that most victimizers were once victims themselves. If we looked at most people arrested for violent crime, we’d probably most often find a personal history of violent victimization: friends, neighbors, and family members murdered; police targeting and brutality; systemic and institutional racism; oppressive poverty and economic hopelessness; et cetera.

We can extend this argument to Native Americans. Native American communities also have high rates of violent crime that goes hand in hand with being the victims of large-scale violence across recent centuries.

As far as that goes, this argument also applies to poor white communities such as in the rural South, specifically Appalachia. They also have high rates of violent crime. All poor communities in this country have high rates of social problems, especially in places of high economic inequality.

Most Americans forget that the raw numbers of poor whites is massive. There are more whites on welfare than any other race. Some of these populations have been in a permanent state of poverty for centuries or longer, going back to the British Isles and Europe.

Race becomes a proxy for class. We talk about the problems of poor blacks when we really mean the problems of poor people, the problems of poverty and economic inequality, which goes hand in hand with historically oppressed groups, even though oppressed in vastly different ways.

Here is my main point:

Every victim has a victimizer. And likely most victimizers were once victims. You can keep going back and back. Where you stop as the original source of victimization can be arbitrary or else ideologically biased.

To focus on those in power: Who is to blame for the world’s present system of imperialism? The first empires who invented this social order? The later empires that introduced it to new populations such as into tribal Europe? The even later empires that turned it into colonialism? Can anyone today take responsibility for the past, whether imperialism forced onto Native Americans or imperialism forced onto earlier Europeans?

Instead of blame, who will take responsibility? What does it even mean to take responsibility for problems so far beyond any individual, for cycles of victimization that extend across centuries and millennia?

Us versus them mentalities are how authoritarian social orders maintain their power. Even many people who fight imperialism and oppression end up internalizing the dysfunction. This is why so many revolutions fail and end up with authoritarian states, sometimes worse than what came before.

All I know is that the world is a lot more complex and a lot more fucked up than most people want to admit. The world is complex. Humans are complex. It is impossible to put people into neat little boxes. We all have immense potential, for both good and evil. That is what many people are afraid to confront, the immense potential that lurks within.

Authoritarians couldn’t get away with most of what they do if not for all those complicit, including among the victimized groups. Take for example the history of blacks. The slave trade was dependent on Africans selling other Africans into slavery, not unusually people selling their neighbors or even family members in hope of saving themselves. Later on, many blacks who, after being freed following the Civil War, became Indian fighters and in doing so violently and genocidally promoted US imperial expansion across the continent.

Both poor whites and poor blacks have been willing participants in American power. These disadvantaged people have always been the majority of the soldiers who fight the wars for the rich and powerful. That is the power of nationalism, of patriotism and propaganda. Even the rich end up buying the rhetoric they use to manipulate others for their minds get warped by the same basic media that warps the minds of all of us. We are all stuck in the same reality tunnel, unable to see beyond it.

If not blame, how is responsibility to be taken? Who will take the first step?

Ask A Cow What It Is To Be Free

Capitalism has its origins in a word meaning “head”. It is the same origin as for cattle and chattel.

Cattle was the earliest major form of movable property. This is the precedent for capital as fungible wealth, that which can be transferred elsewhere, removed and reinvested.

This is also why capitalism and chattel slavery have the same basic starting point. Feudal peasants in essence belonged to the land as part of the an unmovable property, whereas chattel slaves were like cattle that could be moved and/or sold independent of anything else.

In a capitalist society, the opposite of the capitalist is the slave. This is why the original offer in freeing slaves was supposed to be to give them forty acres and a mule. This simultaneously would have made them propertied citizens and capitalists. This is also why, in the end, it didn’t happen. It was one thing to end their overt slavery, but to make them genuine equals in this capitalist society was going too far.

Capitalism isn’t fundamentally about economics. It is about power. Cattle is a cow whose wild ancestors were once free to roam. The same goes for a chattel slave or a wage slave, workers whose ancestors were once free to roam, once free to work for themselves.

No one is free to roam in capitalism, though. And working for oneself is becoming ever more meaningless in an age of globalization. The Commons was privatized centuries ago. There is no where to be free for the system of control is now complete. There is no escape, no undiscovered and unclaimed place to seek out.

That was the first step in creating capitalism as we know it. Before capitalism, the Commons belonged to the People and the People belonged to the Commons. It isn’t accidental that the idea of privately owning land evolved as a legal concept in accordance with ownership of humans as slaves.

The US was founded on the ideal of an enlightened aristocracy and a paternalistic plutocracy, the expectation that the country would be literally be ruled by the owners, i.e., the propertied class. Those who own themselves and own the land they live on are entitled to own the government and hence to own all who are governed. To be a capitalist isn’t merely to have fungible wealth, for more importantly it means to be an owner and to play the role of owner.

We live in a world where everything is owned, where everything (and everyone) has a price to be sold. To be employed is to sell ourselves into indentured servitude, even if only temporarily during specified periods of time. While working as wage slaves, we don’t own ourselves while on the clock. It isn’t just a legal agreement of selling part of our life by selling our time and body for someone else’s purposes. It is a profound psychological transaction, a giving up of freedom, an act that becomes a mindless habit, until we forget what freedom ever meant.

Capitalism is a particular form of social control. Capitalists are those with the capital and so those with the power to control. We the People are those being controlled, the cattle, the chattel.

The system allows us to sell our freedom, but offers no way to buy it back. We are born citizen-consumers, never having been given a choice. We are property of the corporatist state. To demand our freedom would mean theft. If enough people made this demand, it would be a revolt. And if that revolt were successful, it would be called a revolution.

Slavery and Capitalism

Slavery and capitalism. The twin pillars of American history. This pairing forces us to question exactly what we mean by capitalism.

Many argue that the South was originally pre-capitalist or at least had strong pre-capitalist traditions (see my post about the book The Mind of the Master Class). It is true that there were clear economic differences that led to regional conflicts. Also, it is true that pre-capitalist practices such as subsistence farming and bartering held out longer in many communities in the rural South. But all of this was contained in a larger capitalist system that dominated Anglo-American culture since the colonial era of the British Empire.

Here is something I wrote getting at some of this conflict within the US economy (Sin of the North, sin of the South):

The South had two agricultural traditions. They had the slave-based plantation model that came from Barbados and they had the yeoman subsistence model that came from the Scots-Irish. Both the plantation tobacco farming and the subsistence slash-and-burn ended up depleting the soil which wasn’t as rich to begin with.

This relates to an economic difference. Plantation farming and subsistence farming helped create an economy in the South that was less like modern capitalism. The plantation owners were so vastly wealthy that they didn’t build their own local industry, choosing instead to buy products shipped in from elsewhere. As an aside, the wealth of plantation owners wasn’t capitalist wealth (i.e., wasn’t fungible capital) because plantation owners tended to be heavily in debt as their wealth was invested in their land and their slaves. The subsistence farmers never harvested enough crops to make much in the way of profit, fungible or otherwise; and, as Joe Bageant points out, many of the small Southern farming communities were mostly cashless societies where people bartered and kept store tabs.

Modern industrialized capitalism was only strongly established in the South with Reconstruction following the Civil War. In being introduced, capitalism built upon the framework of the economic system already established in the South. This meant that capitalism incorporated the plantation mentality and the class-based rigidity. There were high rates of poverty and economic inequality in the Antebellum South and there are still high rates of poverty and economic inequality in the South today.

In one sense, you can blame the North for forcing modern industrialized capitalism onto the South. It’s possible that, if the South had successfully seceded, Southerners might have transitioned into a better kind of economic system… then again, maybe not. It’s not like capitalism wasn’t already beginning to gain footholds in the South prior to Reconstruction. It would be surprising if a Confederate South could have avoided capitalism’s ascent. Anyway, it wasn’t the North that forced onto the South a poverty-based, union-busting form of capitalism.

I just came across another book on this topic, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist. This author is making a stronger argument for the connection between slavery and capitalism. I’ve barely begun to read it, but I thought I’d present a passage from it that summarizes the case being made.

The following passage is from the introduction (Kindle Locations 173-220). It puts slavery not just in the context of classical liberal economics but also in the context of liberal society in general. It implicates liberalism, in the broad sense. Maybe this view would fit into Domenico Losurdo’s harsh criticism, Liberalism: A Counter-History. Of course, this ‘liberalism’ is pretty much a category including all post-Enlightenment ideologies, including American conservatism. It is liberalism as a pervasive social order, not a mere partisan ideology limited to a particular group.

Baptist questions about the true nature of freedom in a society with a long history of unfreedom. When we speak of free markets, what kind of freedom are we speaking of and whose freedom is it?

* * * *

The way that Americans remember slavery has changed dramatically since then. In tandem with widespread desegregation of public spaces and the assertion of black cultural power in the years between World War II and the 1990s came a new understanding of the experience of slavery. No longer did academic historians describe slavery as a school in which patient masters and mistresses trained irresponsible savages for futures of perpetual servitude. Slavery’s denial of rights now prefigured Jim Crow, while enslaved people’s resistance predicted the collective self-assertion that developed into first the civil rights movement and later, Black Power.

But perhaps the changes were not so great as they seemed on the surface. The focus on showing African Americans as assertive rebels, for instance, implied an uncomfortable corollary. If one should be impressed by those who rebelled, because they resisted, one should not be proud of those who did not. And there were very few rebellions in the history of slavery in the United States. Some scholars tried to backfill against this quandary by arguing that all African Americans together created a culture of resistance, especially in slave quarters and other spaces outside of white observation. Yet the insistence that assertive resistance undermined enslavers’ power, and a focus on the development of an independent black culture, led some to believe that enslaved people actually managed to prevent whites from successfully exploiting their labor. This idea, in turn, created a quasi-symmetry with post– Civil War plantation memoirs that portrayed gentle masters, who maintained slavery as a nonprofit endeavor aimed at civilizing Africans.

Thus, even after historians of the civil rights, Black Power, and multicultural eras rewrote segregationists ’ stories about gentlemen and belles and grateful darkies, historians were still telling the half that has ever been told. For some fundamental assumptions about the history of slavery and the history of the United States remain strangely unchanged. The first major assumption is that, as an economic system— a way of producing and trading commodities— American slavery was fundamentally different from the rest of the modern economy and separate from it. Stories about industrialization emphasize white immigrants and clever inventors, but they leave out cotton fields and slave labor. This perspective implies not only that slavery didn’t change, but that slavery and enslaved African Americans had little long-term influence on the rise of the United States during the nineteenth century, a period in which the nation went from being a minor European trading partner to becoming the world’s largest economy— one of the central stories of American history.

The second major assumption is that slavery in the United States was fundamentally in contradiction with the political and economic systems of the liberal republic, and that inevitably that contradiction would be resolved in favor of the free-labor North. Sooner or later, slavery would have ended by the operation of historical forces; thus, slavery is a story without suspense. And a story with a predetermined outcome isn’t a story at all.

Third, the worst thing about slavery as an experience, one is told, was that it denied enslaved African Americans the liberal rights and liberal subjectivity of modern citizens. It did those things as a matter of course, and as injustice, that denial ranks with the greatest in modern history. But slavery also killed people, in large numbers. From those who survived , it stole everything. Yet 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. 2 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.