Sunday, April 03, 2016

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2016, April 3: Slave patrols and ... "false consciousness"?

I've always been kind of fascinated about the notion of plagiarizing from oneself. I understand that there are some sensible reasons for such a thing to be regulated by law, such as when an author gives up the commercial rights to a written or musical composition. Others can be more of a gray area. Did a writer provide a "unique product"? Does a songwriter's song sound too much like an earlier song of hers to which someone else has the rights?

I notice Digby Parton is careful to cite her earlier posts as quotations, rather than just using the text in a new post.

I'm kind of split on it, myself, for this blog.

The reason I mention it is that one of the things I've discussed here in various posts is "slave patrols" in the slave states. And I want to write about it some more without completely repeating myself.

One post devoted completely to the slave patrols is Confederate "Heritage" Month 2012, April 15: Slave patrols, the Ku Klux Klan and present-day white racism 04/15/2012. Another is Confederate "Heritage" Month 2012, April 16: More on slave patrols 04/16/2012.

In Confederate "Heritage" Month, April 28: Convincing non-slaveowning whites to fight for the Slave Power 04/28/2013, I wrote about how the planter class used slave patrols as one key institution in a broader political strategy of giving whites generally a sense of having a stake in the slave system. That is an aspect of the slave patrols that is not only historically important but relates to the actual functioning of white racism in the US today.

Debates over gun proliferation in recent years have focused at times on the motivating impulse for the Second Amendment, the second half of which is currently idolized by the Republican Party. The first part about a "well regulted militia"? Not so much. And here I'm going to plagiarize myself a bit from things I've written earlier on this blog, not just in the posts linked above.

The Second Amendment to the US Constitution was placed there primarily at the insistence of Southern states that required white male citizens to participate in slave patrols, whose purpose was to catch runaway slaves and generally to terrorize the black population, both slave and free, to discourage revolts. And more generally to promote fear and subservience among African-Americans.

The slave patrols were posses in which non-slaveowning whites were compelled to participate that searched for blacks who were not on plantations. Planatations had their own plantation patrols, as well. The slave patrols were often vehicles of arbitrary abuse. They were also a key social institution by which the slaveowners won the support of non-slaveholders for the Peculiar Institution. The slave patrols gave free whites who might be inclined to political and/or violent anger against wealthy slaveowners the opportunity to vent their anger on vulnerable blacks, slave and free. And that's a key reason that participation was mandatory.

The fear of slave revolts was widespread and ingrained into daily life in the South prior to the Civil War. It was accompanied by periodic panics over them, most of which existed only the in the fevered, guilty imaginations of white people. Though slave resistance and the occasional slave revolt really did occur, too. John Brown fanned those fears with his plan to set up a guerrilla army in the South to free slaves in the years immediately before the Civil War.

The slave patrols were instruments of state terror against slaves and any whites who might attempt to assist escaping slaves. They were also a direct precursor of Reconstruction-era terrorist organizations of which the Ku Klux Klan is the most infamous. (There is also an argument that the slave patrols were the direct predecessors of present-day police departments; I haven't looked at that argument carefully enough to have an informed opinion on it.)

The existence of the slave patrols also means that it's not the case that non-slaveowning Southern whites had no direct prewar connection to enforcing slavery, claim that neo-Confederates routinely make. The patrols had unchallenged authority to stop and abuse any black person free or slave they saw out in public, whether or not the victim was authorized to be there. And they often did so. It was an effective way to create an emotional bond to the slave system even among non-slaveowners. Betram Wyatt-Brown has a good description of the slave patrols in his Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South (1982).

Conservative intellectuals like to sneer at Mean Libruls for supposedly talked down to Real Americans by accusing them of suffering from "false consciousness." White slaveowners in the antebellum South and the white non-slaveowners did make money off their black slaves. But whether we use the anathematized phrase or not, most white Southerners who supported the slave system were demonstratbly acting against their own interests. Because as Hinton Helper famously detailed at the time in ..., the slave system worked very much to the disadvantage of the Southern white common people, the big majority of whites. But the white non-slaveowners who were required to serve on slave patrols did get the sadistic satisfaction of pushing around unarmed blacks and the psychological satisfaction of feeling themselves part of a master race for doing so.

That attitude may have been self-defeatign. But it would be a mistake to dismiss it as entirely false. The psychological advantage they felt from white racism was real, then as it is today. Sigmund Freud's argument in The Future of An Illusion (1927) is very relevant to the psychological and social function of the slave patrols:

The narcissistic satisfaction provided by the cultural ideal is also among the forces which are successful in combating the hostility to culture within the cultural unit. This satisfaction can be shared in not only by the favoured classes, which enjoy the benefits of the culture, but also by the suppressed ones, since the right to despise the people outside it compensates them for the wrongs they suffer within their own unit. No doubt one is a wretched plebeian, harassed by debts and military service; but, to make up for it, one is a Roman citizen, one has one's share in the task of ruling other nations and dictating their laws. This identification of the suppressed classes with the class who rules and exploits them is, however, only part of a larger whole. For, on the other hand, the suppressed classes can be emotionally attached to their masters; in spite of their hostility to them they may see in them their ideals; unless such relations of a fundamentally satisfying kind subsisted, it would be impossible to understand how a number of civilizations have survived so long in spite of the justifiable hostility of large human masses. [my emphasis]

Historically, the purpose of the Second Amendment was to guarantee that critics of slavery would be unable to block the use of "slave patrols" in which white citizens were required to patrol for slaves who were somehow breaking the rules. It was a key institution in the slave South for gaining political and psychological commitment among nonslaveholders for the Peculiar Institution.

Thom Hartmann writes in The Second Amendment was Ratified to Preserve Slavery 01/16/2013:

In the beginning, there were the militias. In the South, they were also called the "slave patrols," and they were regulated by the states.

In Georgia, for example, a generation before the American Revolution, laws were passed in 1755 and 1757 that required all plantation owners or their male white employees to be members of the Georgia Militia, and for those armed militia members to make monthly inspections of the quarters of all slaves in the state. The law defined which counties had which armed militias and even required armed militia members to keep a keen eye out for slaves who may be planning uprisings.

As Dr. Carl T. Bogus wrote for the University of California Law Review in 1998, "The Georgia statutes required patrols, under the direction of commissioned militia officers, to examine every plantation each month and authorized them to search 'all Negro Houses for offensive Weapons and Ammunition' and to apprehend and give twenty lashes to any slave found outside plantation grounds."

It's the answer to the question raised by the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained when he asks, "Why don't they just rise up and kill the whites?" If the movie were real, it would have been a purely rhetorical question, because every southerner of the era knew the simple answer: Well regulated militias kept the slaves in chains.
The slave patrols and their historical function shows us a way that the institution of slavery affects US politics and society in visible ways still.

See also:

Robert Bateman, Hey Oregon "Militia": Here's the History Lesson You Missed Esquire Politics Blog 01/17/2016

Digby Parton, What were the founders really afraid of? Hullabaloo 01/17/2013