Monday, April 09, 2018

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2018, April 9: The two paths on slavry

Annette Gordon-Reed writes about the radical difference between the Confederate model and political outlook and that of the Union in "America's Original Sin: Slavery and the Legacy of White Supremacy" Foreign Affairs 1:2018. She gives a lot of weight to the infamous "cornerstone" speech by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens in 1861:
The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically.... Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error.

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery-subordination to the superior race - is his natural and normal condition.
As she describes and as I've touched on in this series of posts, in the late eighteenth century, it was widely assumed among the national leadership, including slaveowners like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, that slavery would slowly fade out out of existence. As Gordon-Reed puts it, "Members of the revolutionary generation often cast that institution as a necessary evil that would eventually die of its own accord, and they made their peace with it to hold together the new nation. The document they fought over and signed in."

As she reminds us, the original 13 colonies "all, to one degree or another, allowed slavery." But the Northern states abolished slavery, one after the other, and slavery became a characteristic Southern institution. And, thanks in no small part to the cotton gin, slavery turned out to be economically more durable than most anyone had expected in 1789. And two major and conflicting trends of thought on slavery and freedom grew over the decades out of the commons ideas and traditions of the Revolution and the Constitution.

She characterizes the Confederate outlook this way: "If members of the revolutionary generation presented themselves as
opponents of a doomed system and, in Jeffersons case, cast baleful views of race as mere 'suspicions,' their Confederate grandchildren voiced their full-throated support for slavery as a perpetual institution, based on their openly expressed belief in black inferiority."

As the contrast between the extreme racial ideology by which the slaveowners justified their "peculiar institution" became more obvious, it became more clear that the country could develop into a more democratic republic, or they could become a slave republic. But it was a choice between two radically different directions.

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