The Societal Scars of Slavery-Searching for Common Ground an Ongoing Dialogue


The Scars of Slavery, A man named Peter, Louisiana 1863 - source Wikimedia

I had a very kind comment from The Chiefio, regarding my previous post, A Comment on the Downfall of the Slavery Driven Expansion of the Antebellum United States, which was itself derived from a comment I made on a post over at his blog entitled Slavery Shrunk America.

As an aside – you can see immediately that The Chiefio and the Meme Merchants Consortium are operating on very different theories about titling posts.  Chiefio seems to be operating on the Norman Mclean [Scottish] model, and we MMC on the James Joyce [or Irish] model – oddly the MMC tends towards Scottish ancestry, and Chiefio Irish – go figure.

Naturally, my interests were somewhat tangential to Chiefio’s original post, which had more to do with how North South pre-Civil War political wrangling over the slave issue affected US expansionism southwards into Mexico, but we seem to be having some kind of a civil conversation on the subject – I’m loving it.  You can decide if its interesting to you.

Here is The Chiefio’s reply to me in full:

FWIW, I didn’t hammer on the issue of Southern Expansionist Slaveholders for two reasons.

First off, I don’t now much about it. I’m a native Californian with one parent from England. The other parent is part Amish, part Irish immigrants. That is, no roots in the confederacy nor in the Union Army near as I can tell. So I’ve never been very focused on it (until recently, so I’m playing ‘catch up’ – the daughter is dating a guy who does some “re-enacting”….)

Secondly, I’m generally more interested in “history as mirror to the future”. What parts of history can show us a reflection of our future? The way the geography of the USA was limited via political bickering is such a mirror. Slavery is done and gone, so that part has little predictive value. Yes, it is a peculiar way to look at history… Also, at the time of the founding of the nation, slavery was fairly common in the world. (As was effective slavery of whole nations via colonial domination). It is my opinion (ill founded that it may be) that even had the South triumphed, slavery was doomed by modernity.

Or perhaps more succinctly; what interested me was the way that haggling over slavery caused the North to vote against what would have surely been a successful acquisition of Baja California and most of the northern tier of Mexican States; so that’s what I looked at most.

FWIW, with not much to back it up, I was under the impression that the slave holding plantations were a minority of wealthy families. That most folks in the south did not have slaves or plantations. Perhaps I ought to dig in to that part too…

Thanks to The Chiefio for taking the time to comment.

My interest in the issue of the American Civil War recently has been largely to do with the psychological rationalizations of the Southerners in maintaining the institution of slavery and their willingness to sustain the War at enormous cost to their population, long past any reasonable hope of success.  Like the Chiefio I also hope to show that the issue can act as a historical mirror – in the McLuhanesque sense maybe of driving with the rear view mirror [and the only thing that’s good about that is its better than driving blind] – to post Second World War Germany’s recovery from Nazism, and human society’s general evolution away from totalitarianism.

If you remember, slavery had almost died out in the Europe prior to 1492, except as the political issue of Europeans being enslaved by Muslims in N. Africa and what to do about that – the Barbary Wars & etc.  At times it wasn’t safe to live within fifteen miles of the coast in some places, entire coastal regions of Spain, Portugal and Southern France were depopulated due to fear of being enslaved by the Barbary Corsairs, but nobody in Europe owned any slaves.

It was not until a new economic motive appeared: sugar, cotton, and tobacco that the situation changed and altered some peoples rationals about slavery changed with it.  What makes it interesting sociologically is that while the  Great Awakening [1st & 2nd] was going on generally in British North America, the awakening that brought forth our uniquely American ideas about liberty, also saw in the South the entrenchment of the slave system, and in New England the rejection of the institution of slavery and the birth of the Abolitionist Movement.  This strange dichotomy was written directly into our Federal Constitution and it took three quarters of a century and a Civil War as bloody as all of the other wars we have fought put together to finally rectify the error.

In the North, merchants and ship owners had been heavily involved in the Triangular Trade, but eventually were able to put aside their own commercial interests and end that trade on ethical grounds [mostly, they eventually developed new markets].  BTW -this was going on in England at the same time as well, with the British lead by Pitt the Younger, ending their slave trade finally in 1807, a year after Pitt’s death.  Again, strong financial interests [British shipping] eventually lost to humanitarian ones, [and anti-American political ones like being allowed to seize American slave ships].  It is significant to remind ourselves that these self-generated acts of political will have become enduring cultural achievements for both nations.  No foreign power had to invade Old England or New England [or the United States] to end the practice that a lot of rich white people in those places were benefitting from.

Southerners in the United States, on the other hand, were completely dependent on the continuation of slavery as an economic system.  They could not change it without destroying the economic basis of their economy as well as the class structure of their society that slavery necessitated, highly self-reinforcing.  Eventually war was required to force the change.

Chiefio was correct in that relatively few southerners were slave owners, less than 10% I think, more profited financially directly or indirectly, but ALL white Southerners, no matter how poor, profited enormously socially and psychologically from the class system that slavery created.  I’m no Marxist, but it was pretty damned oppressive.  It took a hundred years AFTER the civil war to put that one to bed – the loss of the sense of entitlement to social superiority – in the civil rights movement of the 1950/60’s.

It was this class/economic motivation, in my opinion, that kept the Southern men lining up [to get cut down by Northern grapeshot] for so long after it made any sense for them to continue.  It was near run thing that we didn’t wind up with continued partisan warfare in the South after the Civil War ended as there was in the Western Territories during the War.  Spengler [David P. Goldman] writes forcefully about this his book, How Civilization Die and in his various on-line essays at The Asia-Times On-Line, which is why I reference him so often [he also harps on the Thirty Years War which interests me].

Psychologically speaking, what I find most interesting is how difficult the whole slavery issue is for Americans to talk about North and South.  Southerners have developed these quaint stories that evade dealing with the ugly realities of the issue of slavery, you know states-rights, and defending the fatherland and all that.  It is still very hard for them [white Southerners] to stare the dragon in the eye and denounce slavery for what it was and their own ancestors for creating, sustaining and fighting to preserve that monstrous atrocity.  Slavery, really? how could you?

I’m reminded of Ken Burns’ 2007 Second World War documentary The War, and that sweet old lady from Mobile so nice and soft talking describing life in Mobile and her family at that time, then I think of Atticus Finch, Harper Lee, Southern gentility and hospitality all of that everything that is nice and good about [white] Southern society- then – I think of M. Night Shyamalan‘s 1999 psychological thriller The Sixth Sense with Bruce Willis and the little boy Cole Sear navigating through this terrain of two worlds, one the work-a-day world with marriage problems and trouble at school, and this other world with the unhappy dead wandering around everywhere that no one else can see – like the South’s slave owning past.  Dealing with these types of issues are like this.  The trick is to be able to hold both worlds simultaneously, to be able to stand the contradictions without resorting to dehumanizing anybody or glossing anything over, and then come to some type of a conclusion about the problem.  Tricky.

For Northerners, Yankees like me, it still hard to do – talk about it with southerners in terms that don’t gloss over the realities of slavery.  In interest of full disclosure I am a Connecticut Yankee by birth, but my only family connections to the Civil War [that I am aware of] are to cavalry Captain Adna Chaffee [the Elder, later Lt Gen. and father of Maj. Gen. Adna Chaffee Jr.] and A.D. Rockwell [youngest surgeon of the War and later a sickly Teddy Roosevelt’s boyhood physician] so I don’t have graveyards full of dead relations to feel sore about – its also been a hundred and fifty years – so I can’t really take any of it personally.  People in the South, real Southerners, still do take these things personally, so when they talk about ‘The War’ you need to be careful to make sure which war they are talking about.  You don’t want to be rude, a dead grandfather is still a dead grandfather, but at the same time you can’t mollycoddle a fairy-tale.

Another reason I’m so keen on the issue is the degree to which the social and psychological ‘reconstruction’ of the American South mirrors the social and psychological ‘reconstruction’ of Germany after the Second World War.  Several of the other recent articles on this blog:  The White Rose of MunichVictims of Their Own Oppression, The Rosenstrasse Protests reflect the current state of the Meme Merchants Consortium’s thoughts on this issue and how vitally important this ‘reconstruction’ process is for the evolution of human society as a whole.

It is for this reason I am cautiously agreeing with Chefio that Modernity in the socio-political sense [hoping that is the sense of the word he meant] is toxic to the institution of slavery, but cautious that even with the passage of History, the institution of slavery has been remarkably resistant to extinction in societies that have not fully accepted Modernity and its accent on individual liberty.  I am thinking particularly of Muslim Africa and the Middle East, though you can also extend the investigation into the sex trade globally, human trafficking and other more modern social issues regarding domination and control over people.  Time will tell if these societies will ultimately reject, or be forced to give up these practices.

I hope that History will tell us that it was a voluntary act, History has shown itself to be unkind to societies that are forced to give up these practices when outside intervention becomes necessary.

That’s the essay,


Please leave a comment - It's all more interesting in the Q&A

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s