Thursday, April 28, 2016

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2016, April 28:

"World history is not the ground of happiness. The periods of happiness are blank pages in it ..." - Hegel, Philosophy of History (German original: "Die Weltgeschichte ist nicht der Boden des Glücks. Die Perioden des Glücks sind leere Blätter in ihr ...")

I'm continuing here with the discussion of Peter Kolchin's in "Reexamining Southern Emancipation in Comparative Perspective" (Journal of Southern History 81:1 Feb 2015).

Comparing different historical events has a definite empirical aspect. Hopefully, similarities and differences will tell us something important about a particular process. Or it may not.

One comparison he makes is the role of war in ending slavery. While it is obvious in the case of the US Civil War, other cases don't present the same features:

... war frequently weakened slaveholding regimes. Tens of thousands of slaves had escaped from bondage during the American Revolution and the War of 1812, and in the northern states the War for Independence set in motion the eventual abolition of slavery, as did wars for independence in Cuba and much of the Spanish American mainland. The Napoleonic invasion was instrumental in bringing serfdom to an end in Prussia (although in the French Caribbean Napoleon appeared as a reenslaver of those freed by the French Revolution rather than as a liberator).

Usually, however, such wars led to the freedom of some slaves or paved the way for the future ending of bondage, rather than bringing about an immediate or general emancipation. Indeed, despite the enhanced opportunities for freedom provided by the American War for Independence, there were about twice as many slaves in the United States at the conclusion of the Revolutionary era (1800) as there had been at its onset (1770), and despite the massive disruption of slavery during the War of 1812, the censuses of 1810 and 1820 indicate that the enslaved population of the United States increased more than 29 percent during the intervening decade. Although the rebels in Cuba's Ten Years' War (1868-1878) increasingly championed abolition as well as independence, slavery survived in Cuba until 1886. Similarly, although Russia's defeat in the Crimean War helped convince high government officials that serfdom was keeping the country from developing its full military and economic potential and therefore needed to be abolished, the war itself freed almost no one.
He notes parenthetically, "The major exception to this pattern, of course, was the French colony of Saint Domingue, where the slaves engaged in a massive uprising the only successful slave revolution in modern history-and established the Republic of Haiti in 1804." We've looked at the Haitian Revolution several times this month and its relation to slavery and emancipation in the United States.

Kolchin argues that emancipation coming about in the process of a civil war set conditions for making the situation of the liberated slaves a more thoroughgoing formal liberation than in places where it took place by gradual emancipation: "these terms were simple and quintessentially American," he writes, "based upon the principle of republican citizenship."

The term "quintessentially American" has come to be like nails on the blackboard to me. Because it rings of American Exceptionalism. And it's often invoked to describe things that are not at all unique to America. Maybe even not intrinsically American, if even that term makes any sense.

But he explains what the means by the war situation and the terms of emancipation:

Two features of the American version are especially indicative of what would be the increasingly radical experiment that went by the name of Reconstruction. First of all, in contrast to emancipation in many other countries-Prussia, Austria, Russia, the British colonies, Cuba, Brazil, and much of the Spanish American mainland-as well as in most of the northern states after the American Revolution, emancipation in the South was immediate rather than gradually phased in over many years. Second, American emancipation was uncompensated, the only major example of uncompensated confiscation of private property in American history. In recent years, there has been debate over whether the descendants of former slaves should receive some sort of reparations for the suffering of their ancestors, but in the nineteenth century the debate was over whether the masters should receive financial compensation for the loss of their human property. In many other countries (even eventually in Haiti) they did, and as late as 1862 President Lincoln had held out the incentive of partial compensation in a futile effort to convince Confederate rebels to lay down their arms and to convince slaveholders in the loyal slaveholding states-Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri-to accept the freeing of their slaves. Military victory rendered such ideas obsolete, and the Fourteenth Amendment, among its many other provisions, explicitly invalidated both the Confederate war debt and "any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave." In short, although ending slavery in the southern United States was part of a broad historical process that produced similar features everywhere that it occurred, the specific terms of emancipation that were hammered out during Reconstruction went significantly further than those elsewhere in making citizens of former slaves.
Kolchin compares the post-emancipation situation of African-Americans mostly to that of freed Russian serfs, and shows that the immediate terms of emancipation were indeed more radical in the US.

However, he notes that in the US as well as Russia and Brazil and other countries, there was considerable post-emancipation disappointment among the freed peoples. This is the part that reminds me of Hegel's gloomy observation with which I open this post. Kolchin's descriptions of Reconstruction are important and, like all honest history writing, departs from the neo-Confederate/Lost Cause propaganda version:

The Reconstruction experiment lasted only a few years, of course,and some have seen it as a dismal failure. The process of overthrowing the Reconstruction governments and institutionalizing racial segregation cannot be detailed here, except to note that it involved massive doses of fraud, intimidation, and violence. Reconstruction governments fell at different times in different states, lasting longest in the Deep South, where black voters formed the largest percentage of the population, but were gone everywhere by 1877. In the 1880s and early 1890s conservative Democratic state governments chipped away at Reconstruction initiatives, slashing spending on black education and discouraging black political participation, before launching a more frontal assault on African Americans' civil and political rights at the turn of the twentieth century. An explosion of white racism, marked by a sharp rise in lynching, characterized the 1890s and early years of the twentieth century, and through various quasi-legal devices such as grandfather clauses, poll taxes, and white primaries the great majority of southern African Americans were effectively disenfranchised for more than half a century, in blatant violation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. After the heady days of Reconstruction, the former slaves experienced a deep sense of disappointment and disillusionment, as their early hope for the dawning of a new age faded before the reality of life in the era of Jim Crow.

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