Joel B. Levine MD
For those of us that desire to know what really happened, to be humbled by getting as close to truth as diligence permits , the muse of history beckons. When pursued with dispassion, rummaging into days and people , as they were, bends time to our will. By reading widely we find that being wrong is balm for the intellectual soul. Being wrong is progress, being dead wrong is just as good as it gets.
In todays’ culture some imagine that there is a binary ( right or wrong ) history. Things are visible or things hidden for a purpose. A “ selected” history, however, limits knowledge and diminishes the learner. Soon, there is the corruption of “ my history” becomes better, more sanctified than “yours”. Revisionist history is a conjurers trick and feels all the more shallow when the slight of thought is eventually revealed.
The 1619 Project is a good example. I am sure that much in it is factually correct but it imagines itself to be revelatory. It postures that the available history of slavery is both incorrect and written for a nefarious purpose. This is myopic but serves as a good example of the mischief of using one truth to deny the existence of another truth.
If there was one thematic core to American history, it was the tension between those for and against the institution of slavery. The tension began at the Founding , peaked at the 1850 Compromise and exploded in Kansas and Missouri. It was not that the entire country favored slavery but that our unique form of governance, a federated republic, was predicated on the necessity for compromise.
Very early on, soon after 1810, the concern emerged as how to maintain an intact union of disparate States. An early idea, both vigorously proposed and rejected was nullification. By this method, States, by vote, could simply opt out of obeying a law but remain in the Union. When it failed, the only options left ,when there was intense disagreement, was secession or legislative compromise.
Preserving the Union was championed by politicians of both North and South. After the Mexican War, a particularly flagrant example of US “manifest destiny,” our geographic expansion was so great that the “ slavery” extremes began to dominate and diminish the viability of compromise.
No rational person today would defend the immorality of slavery. In its time, however, only the abolitionists, few yet fervent and largely in New England and Northern Illinois , made this argument. For others , the motive or degree of malice was much less predictable. Even those who rejected slavery on ethical grounds did not favor social integration but recolonization to Africa, particularly Libera. This was widely supported in the North and , for part of his life, Lincoln held a similar view. Some Southern “ owners’ were actually a bit more magnanimous, hardly by our standards, yet notable for its time.
For example,Jefferson Davis, later President of the Confederacy, established at his Mississippi Plantation, a Robert Owen’s inspired Utopian Socialism with slaves as workers of equal value. Even more surprising was the status of some 250,000 freed slaves in the South. Many lived in cities, were in trades and business, and some become plantation owners with their own slave workers.
Prior to the Civil War, cotton became 60% of the nation’s GDP. In Britain, over 40% of its labor forces worked in textile fed by Southern cotton. To get cotton to England, ships traversed the “ triangle,” from the South, to England , to Africa, and back to the US, via the New York harbor. This route incurred a 40% tariff at Sandy Hook at its entrance. This penalty on Southern cotton ships, when coupled with virtually no cotton mills in the South ( all in New England ), put enormous pressure on the South for a change. For some , this was a dominant issue. To be sure, exporting slavery to the rest of the country was a core business and a proper argument is made by those who condemn the South for this fact alone.
The actual break point, however, was the failure of the Compromise of 1850, initiated by Henry Clay and realized by Steven Douglas. The Bill was to limit Slavery’s reach into the expanding US landmass at the compromise of the return of the fugitive slave. As abhorrent as this sounds, even the esteemed Daniel Webster accepted the Compromise as a Constitutional agreement to be enforced. This led to castigation in his beloved Boston and his denouement as the great progressive orator of his day. As much as he personally hated slavery, he chose to preserve the Union.
History is and must be a totality of ideas and events. Slavery was a terrible fact of its time and argued, in that time, with even more vitriol than today. Aside from the fervent abolitionists, the dilemma for many was to make this “necessity,” less onerous and / or more contained.
A telling example was Pierpont Bacon, a slave owner in the North. He was a farmer and had Southern slaves as field hands. Thought exceedingly parsimonious , he astonished by bequeathing all of his money to establishing the Bacon Academy. The Bacon Board was mandated to provide an equal education to Whites, Blacks, and women. Though separate buildings were used, the education was so renowned that both children of slaves and plantation owners flocked to Colchester, CT.
So many stories and so many surprises. Slavery was contested from the first, It had advocates to the shame of our history. It also had those who resisted. It was, finally, at the State convention in South Carolina that pro-secession voices sealed the nations’ fate. This was largely due to the “ fire eater” oratory of two men, William Yancy and Robert Rhett. If not for these two, our history may well have been different. This was duly noted by Margaret Mitchell by naming the lead and charismatic character in “ Gone With The Wind” , Rhett Butler.
History is so much fun, the best mystery you can find. Misusing it demeans the past and surely misinforms the present.