Thursday, April 20, 2017

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2017, April 20: Guessing at white attitudes about slavery in 1820 and afterwards

Measuring public opinion in the present day is often challenging. When we're looking at 1820, the year of the Missouri Compromise, it's far more different. Because there was nothing like the public opinion polls of today being done. I mean, access to telephones wasn't exactly the same back then. (Yes, that's a joke. The telephone device we know was patented by of Alexander Graham Bell in 1876. Although the ever-informative Britannica Online notes, "The word telephone, from the Greek roots tēle, “far,” and phonē, “sound,” was applied as early as the late 17th century to the string telephone familiar to children, and it was later used to refer to the megaphone and the speaking tube.")

And measuring something like racial attitudes is especially tricky even for today's pollsters. One of the innovations of the famous Authoritarian Personality project directed by Max Horkheimer int he 1940s is that it used indirect questions to get at prejudices that many people would not consider respectable to express openly. After the 2016 Presidential election in the US, we've had a whole new round of discussion about the significance of white racism in politics. See, for instance, Thomas Wood, Racism motivated Trump voters more than authoritarianism Washington Post Monkey Cage Blog 04/17/2017. And the response from Digby Parton included in Did racism or a longing for authoritarian leadership elect Donald Trump? The right answer is both Salon 04/18/2017.

I've stressed in this year's series of Confederate "Heritage" Month posts the ways in which white opposition to slavery could be combined with disdain and/or hatred toward black people, even free blacks. I've relied heavily on the carefully constructed arguments on that point by historian William Freehling. And I've stressed that form of antislavery sentiment because of the particular role arguments about Northern white racism play in the neo-Confederate pseudohistorical analysis.

But what the attitudes of ordinary whites were and in what proportion and intensities has to be estimated by elections, positions taking by elected officials, legislative enactments touching on race-related issues, statements in newspapers, pamphlets and books, recorded sermons by clergy, etc. If those measurement are less than precise in 2017, making them in retrospect to 1820 involves even more estimation and inference.

One of the most famous and influential antebellum antislavery books was The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It (1857) by Hinton Helper (1829-1909). But Helper himself had overtly racist attitudes toward black people, which he publicly expressed after the Civil War. Helper served as US Consul to Argentina 1861-1866, a period which overlapped the Argentine Presidency of Bartolomé Mitre (1861-68). Helper married an Argentine woman. David Brown reports in Southern Outcast: Hinton Rowan Helper and the Impending Crisis of the South (2006) that three months after his wedding 1863, he wrote in a letter eventually transmitted to the US Secretary of State William Seward in which he addressed his wife's background. "Although his bride was a Buenos Aires native, she came from 'pure Spanish descent.' helper suggested a strong contrast between the 'pure descent' of upper-class Argentines with that of what he believed was the less worthy Creole background of the masses, highlighting the significance of blood lines in his assessment of personal character." Creole was used to refer to people of Spanish descent but born in a Latin American country. In the racial hierarchies inherited from Spanish colonial days, Spaniards from Spain were considered the more "pure" racial group, with native-born people of full Spanish descent considered the next down in the racial hierarchy.

Hinton Helper (1829-1909)

J.J. Cardoso provides an illustrative description of Helper's racial attitudes in "Hinton Rowan Helper as a Racist in the Abolitionist Camp," Journal of Negro History 55:4 (Oct 1970):

Helper never became an "uncompromising abolitionist" of the Wendell Phillips genre. He was, in fact, a colonizer in a technical sense and a racist in a real one. As a child of the predominantly non-slaveholding class of whites living in the Piedmont frontier of North Carolina, Helper's bias against slavery was indigeonus to his anti-Negro thinking. There was no room in his South or in his United States for the black man. The spectre of emancipated blacks living and associating equally in white America in pursuit of the American dream frightened and angered him. Both publicly and privately he dedicated himself to proscription of the Negro from white society. Helper's yeomen sensibilities rebelled against the idea of abolitionists encouraging the bondsmen to join in common revolution to bring about emancipation, and he divorced himself from any plan concerning racial equality. For Helper the blacks were inert chattel to be freed and removed. He reiterated the principles set forth in his book [Impending Crisis], principles which called for the southern slaveowners either to renounce the institution or to suffer the result of having it taken from them. His program was devoid of any comprehension of the all-inclusive and pervasive nature of slavery. The destruction of slavery and the removal of the Negro, for Helper, meant the creation of a truly democratic white southern society. He relied on the naive hope that middling, non-slaveholding whites would vote slavery out of existence. [my emphasis]
In an ironic twist, "Oddly, Helper's notoriety and personal association with abolitionists caused his name to be associated with [John] Brown's raid" on Harper's Ferry in 1859.

He goes on to observe that Helper's "racial attitudes perhaps epitomized those of Northern free-soilers, middling and poor southern non-slaveholders, and even Lincoln himself in 1860."

No comments: