Saturday, December 10, 2016


Most of us whites think of slavery as history with no significant consequences today.  But slavery shaped America in ways most citizens are unconscious of with very definite impacts today.  Edward E Baptist has done a scholarly job of uncovering the real story.

Eight Presidents were slave owners helped by a Constitution that counted slaves as 3/5 of a person for the purpose of electing members to the House of Representatives which in turn gave slave states more leverage in the Electoral College. This is the same electoral college that has enabled Donald Trump to win the recent election, even though he trailed Hillary Clinton by well over 2 million votes.  Southerners forced the capital to move to newly created District of Columbia to be closer to them.

The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 is treated as a clever manoeuver by Thomas Jefferson, but it was more complicated.  In 1793 in the colony of St-Domingue the most successful of all slave revolts started.  Until 1799, under the leadership of Toussaint L'ouverture they fought off British infantry units. By 1800 Napoleon was in control of France and he wanted to restore monarchy.  He sent 50,000 soldiers to St-Dominque, better known as Haiti, but they too were defeated.  He had planned to send another army of 20,000 soldiers to take back New Orleans, but ended up diverting them to Haiti where they too were defeated.  To cut his losses he offered a bargain price for Louisiana.

Further to that, many French landowners, including sugar specialists migrated to New Orleans.  They brought some slaves with them, but wanted more.  Northerners had a delicate balance.  They did not want southern slave states to gain more political leverage, but some were invested in the slave trade.  The Mississippi Valley was now open to slavery.  Louisiana became a (slave) state in 1812.

The industrial Revolution really gained traction in northern England and the first significant product was cotton textiles. After the invention of a cotton gin in 1790 it unclogged a bottleneck in the process. They could sell as much as they could make and so they wanted more raw material.  America was expanding and had lots of land and cheap labour.  America by 1819 controlled the world's export market for cotton.

It is thought that machines are more efficient than manual labour, but in fact for quite a while human labour increased its efficiency faster than machines.  The secret was whips and violent calculated intimidation.  Just before the Civil War records were set for picking cotton and this became critical for economic growth.

Separation of families was seen as an economic decision.  Men were bought for particular needs, usually a wife not needed.  Women without children can work without their distraction.  Brothers and sisters were split as new buyers wanted one or the other, but not  both.  Men were called "boys" and whipped to humiliate them.  Men and women would form relationships and have them broken up and then form new relationships.  Thomas Jefferson once declared that separation from loved ones mattered little to the Africans.

Sex was a lure for many men buying female slaves.   Many women were bought for sex often being stripped at auctions.  Mulattos were one result.

Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans was also an Indian fighter and slave owner.  He pushed Indian tribes (about 50,000 individuals) off lands that allowed expansion of cotton and slave labour.  Texas belonged to Mexico, but American settlers moved in bringing slaves and after celebrated military actions were able to claim a large amount of land, in fact the third largest annexation in American history.  Slave owners saw this as a new opportunity.

Cuba, despite laws supposed to stop slave trade across the Atlantic imported 700,000.  Cuba became the biggest sugar producer in the world.  Southern slave owners were interested in Cuba as a source, but more to expand their leverage politically

Finance developed through the cotton trade.  English manufacturers needed material and farmers needed money to produce cotton.  Slaves were useful as collateral.  Bonds were sold to northern states and Europeans with in effect slaves being securitized.

The northern states developed manufacturing, stepping in with tariff protected cotton (England still did higher end textiles) and that led to supplying the south with such things as shovels, hoes, shoes, axes (using for clearing forests for farming).  They developed symbiotic relations with the southern slave owners and this led to sympathetic political arrangements.  Southerners were concerned about their property rights and demanded the right to have escaped slaves returned to their owners.

There was northern resentment of slavery and political forces to restrict its development.  Demographics changed over time with most European immigrants settling in the north and fearing competition from cheap labour.  The northern states could count the new immigrants as 5/5 of a person and gained control of Congress.  Southern slave owners were fearful of losing control and convinced the poorer whites that they needed to protect state rights, claiming if the north could impose equality of races, the whites would lose their status.  The author is quick to point out that the war was not for state rights, but to maintain slavery. It seems one political party still uses similar tactics to convince large numbers to vote against their economic self interest.

After the Civil War blacks gained some freedom, but it wasn't long before the whites reasserted their dominance.  Blacks had no accumulated wealth and soon had to contend with segregated schools and a range of Jim Crow laws.  In truth the situation was not much better in the north

A consolation and a form of communication for African slaves was music.  Their music was borrowed by whites and now is an integral part of American culture and spread around the globe.

There are many details that prove that slavery was critical to the development of American capitalism and created a culture of distrust, fear and continuing damage.  There is still much room for improvement.

The author, Edward E Baptist had a thought provoking response to a review of the book by the Economist magazine that puts the situation in a relevant context.

As a Canadian it is easy to be self-righteous, but we shouldn't be.  As one example it turns out that George Tuckett  a former mayor of my home city, Hamilton made a fortune by cornering the tobacco market in Virginia during the American Civil War.  He had a warehouse in Lynchberg, Virginia and was allowed to go back and forth because he was a Canadian.  I learned that his home originally known as the Tuckett Mansion is in my opinion the most interesting building in town, now known as the Scottish Rite building.  Thanks to Robin McKee.

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