US Slavery in historical and global context

Replying to the mis-teachings of critical race theory

    In my last two posts, I reviewed the sixteenth century Iberian conquest of the region today known as Latin America; and the European conquest of vast regions of Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia from 1750 to 1914.  This review provides a historical and global context, from which it is immediately evident that African slavery in the U.S South was not the only form of coerced labor in the modern world.  As seen in the previous posts, other forms of forced labor, in addition to African slavery in America, included the encomienda (replaced by the equally abusive repartimiento) in Latin America; and coerced cash crop labor through various mechanisms in vast regions of the world, including Eastern Europe, Africa, and South and Southeast Asia.  Ireland, too, can be included, inasmuch as Ireland was the first step in English conquest and peripheralization, a fact recognized by the great African leader and intellectual Kwame Nkrumah. 

     Some conditions were worse than others.  In Cuba, for example, the indigenous population was virtually exterminated; and in African slavery in Cuba, there were periods in which the death rate was so high that the slave population could only be sustained by the importation of new slaves.  This was not the case for African slavery in the USA, which experienced a natural population growth. 

       Robert Cherry, Professor of Economics at Brooklyn College, maintains that there was a diversity of experiences of slavery in the U.S. South.  Although some white owners and managers were brutal, others were paternalistic rather than ruthless.  There was an economic reason for this: more humane plantations were more profitable.  Cherry maintains that our one-sided harsh image of slavery in the U.S. South is due to the influence of the classic works on slavery by Kenneth Stamp and Stanley Elkins.  Stamp and Elkins were motivated by a desire to expose the inhumanity of slavery.  However, their emphasis on brutality and its negative consequences for the evolution of black culture fostered a negative image of blacks, including lack of a strong work ethic and lack of a strong commitment to the nuclear family.  Cherry reports that a different view of the slave experience emerges from a book in the 1970s by Herbert Gutman, Robert Fogel, and Eugene Genovese, a period in which negative images of blacks were being challenged.  Using Freedman’s Bureau data and records from six large plantations, they concluded that most slaves lived in stable two-parent families, and some twenty percent of slaves were employed as skilled or semi-skilled artisans or as managers.  In addition, many owners provided work incentives, including the use of private plots of land from which slaves could sell surplus production.  Moreover, according to Genovese, white sexual aggression against married black women was curbed by awareness that black men were prepared to die in defense of black women.

     The first form of systemic coerced labor in the English colonies in North America was not black slavery but white indentured servitude, which provided the bulk of the labor force in the seventeenth century production of tobacco in Virginia for exportation to England.  From 1630 to 1680, one-half to three-fourths of the immigrants to Virginia were indentured servants.  The use of black slaves was very limited in the first half of the seventeenth century; in 1649, there was approximately 300 blacks in Virginia (and 15,000 whites), and most blacks were probably not slaves.  White indentured servitude declined in the second half of the century, and virtually disappeared after 1700, replaced by black slavery.

     The terms of indentured servitude were generally from four to seven years, and servants were not permitted to marry.  Since the master had no economic interest in the long-term economic productivity of the servant, conditions were brutal, and many servants did not survive.  Some had their servitude extended, for one arbitrary reason or another.  Those who did attain their liberty often had been so brutalized that they no longer had the physical conditions nor the spirit to undertake great adventures in a new land of opportunity, and many of them died in poverty.  It has been estimated that perhaps ten percent of the servants, once freed from servitude, were able make good lives for themselves, including some former black indentured servants, with a few becoming famous.  Although ideologues who focus on slavery generally consider indentured servitude to be not comparable to slavery, since it was not a life-long condition, in fact the temporary condition of servitude gave masters less economic incentive to be attentive to the human needs of the servants.

      Meanwhile, the ancestors of many whites in the United States were enduring coerced cash crop labor in Ireland and Eastern and Southern Europe; indeed, their enduring impoverishment provoked great migrations to the United States in the nineteenth century, until the migration was brought to an end in the 1920s, when the conquest of the West was over, and prejudices against immigrants with different languages and religions could be expressed in immigration restrictions.  The historian Oscar Handlin maintains that the emigration of these peoples was pushed by harsh conditions, in which many confronted a choice between emigration and starvation.  Forced to leave by conditions that they could neither change nor accept, few of them were motivated by the hopeful image of the United States as a land of opportunity.  To the contrary, they did all they could in the new world to reconstruct the world they had been forced to leave behind, creating what the sociologist Herbert Gans called the “urban village.”  

     The children of the immigrants lived in poverty conditions, and they had low levels of educational attainment.  However, they found relatively good-paying jobs that did not require education, and they actively participated in labor organizations.  Work and labor activity provided a context for political education, and they arrived to define things differently from their parents.  They patriotically embraced the American promise of democracy, seeking to deepen and expand its meaning and to make it real for them, not merely for White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.  Beginning with the generation of the grandchildren of the immigrants, growing up in conditions that were not luxurious but were above poverty, the descendants of immigrants began to attain university and post-graduate degrees, for the most part not at the most prestigious universities.  Beginning in the 1970s, with the great industrial expansion of the nation having come to an end, and with educational attainment surpassing employment possibilities, many could sustain a comfortable living only with two working adults, and often in conditions of underemployment.  The descendants of nineteenth European immigrants tended to take claims of black inferiority with a grain of salt, since they themselves had been victimized by such absurdities.  For them, racism was not so much a deep belief in black inferiority, but a practical matter of competition for scarce resources.

      Looking at things in a global and historical context, we can see that one does not need to be a person of color to have ancestors that were subjected to forced labor and other forms of degrading abuse.  It is tempting to want to compare and contrast the levels of abuse that our peoples have experienced; but it would be pointless, because none of it is acceptable by the democratic values of today.  In addition, when the abuse of some of our peoples is highlighted, ignoring the abuse of others, the historical reality of our nation is distorted.  It would be far better to recognize that conquest and superexploitation have been our common fate as humans.  A very high percentage of persons in the world today, if they are not presently victims of abusive conditions of labor, are the descendants of persons who were.  Nearly all of us today come from peoples that have, in one place and time or another, been conquered and/or superexploited. 

     Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project have sought to discredit the moral authority of the founders of the nation, because they owned slaves or tolerated slavery within American territory.  However, at the time of the founding of the American Republic, systemic slavery existed in only two of the thirteen colonies, and some of the colonies prohibited slavery.  In Virginia and Charleston, slavery had been created for the purpose of the production and exportation of tobacco and rice.  These areas were assuming a peripheral function in the world-economy, consistent with the peripheralization of vast regions of the world and the imposition of forced labor in the expanding world-economy of the time.  At that time, African slavey in America was far more extensive in the Caribbean and Brazil. 

      Thomas Jefferson, much aligned by the cancel culture, favored the gradual emancipation of slaves, but he approached the matter with a practical political temperament.  His initial draft of the Declaration of Independence included a denunciation of the slave trade, but it was eliminated in the final draft.  In 1784, he attempted to get slavery banned from the Northwest Territory. Jefferson held to a progressive view for his time.  He envisioned an agricultural society with widely distributed property, with political power concentrated in the hands of a lower house directly elected through nearly universal suffrage.  Jefferson was opposed to the banking and taxing system created by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, which promoted the interests of the big manufacturers, merchants, and investors at the expense of agricultural producers.  Such are the ironies of the human condition: Jefferson, a slaveholder who could not financially afford to liberate the slaves he inherited from his father, was a defender of the rights of the people; Hamilton, an orphaned immigrant from the Caribbean island of Nevis, was allied with the rich against the interests of the people.

     During the nineteenth century, after the founding of the American Republic, the expansion of the world-economy and of global markets for a variety of raw materials propelled the expansion of the peripheral function beyond the limited confines of Virginia and Charleston.  From 1800 to 1860, the entire Southeastern region of the USA was peripheralized and converted into the production of cotton, tobacco, and sugar for export to core and semiperipheral regions, utilizing low-wage labor, primarily African slave labor, but including also impoverished white tenant farmers.  Cotton, the principal raw material for textile production, was central to this expanding peripheralization.  The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 made possible the mechanized separation of cottonseeds from the fiber, thereby speeding the process of preparing the fiber for export to the cotton mills that manufactured cloth.  By 1800, cotton gins were located throughout the South, and for the subsequent sixty years, there occurred rapid geographical expansion and an explosion in production.  By 1860, cotton was grown throughout South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, as well as in parts of Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, Texas, and Florida.  Although some white farmers cultivated it, cotton and black slavery became intertwined in the South.  Corresponding with the expansion of cotton production, the number of slaves grew from less than 700,000 (mostly in South Carolina and Virginia) in 1790 to more than 2 million by 1830 and to nearly 4 million by 1860.  Slaves constituted one-third of the population of the South.

      Who benefitted from extensive slavery in the U.S. South in the period 1800 to 1860?  Farmers and merchants in the New England and mid-Atlantic regions had been accumulating capital during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries through a lucrative trade relation with slaveholders in the Caribbean islands.  The Caribbean slaveholders had developed extensive plantations utilizing African slave labor to produce sugar for export to Western Europe.  To maximize profit, it was rational to utilize plantation lands for the cultivation of sugar and to purchase food on the international market.  As a result, the slave production of sugar in the Caribbean generated an international market for food products.  North American farmers, given their medium-sized farms and their proximity to the Caribbean, were strategically located to respond to this market demand.  The sale of food and animal products to the Caribbean became a lucrative business for the North American farmers, enabling them to accumulate capital

      After 1800, the New England and mid-Atlantic farmers and merchants converted their capital accumulated from the West Indian trade into industrial development, taking advantage of new possibilities emerging from the peripheralization of the South from 1800 to 1860.  During this period, slave production in the South provided cheap cotton for the textile mills of the Northeast, and the peripheralization of the South provided markets for the new and expanding industries of the Northeast, thereby facilitating the industrial and economic development of the Northeast.  Therefore, although the Northeast did not utilize slaves as an integral and significant part of its production, it economically benefited from slavery in the Caribbean and in the U.S. South through core-peripheral commerce with these slave regions.  Inasmuch as northeastern manufacturing was central to the economic development of the nation during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we are recognizing here the importance of slavery in the economic development of the USA.  At the same time, in accordance with the general pattern of the modern world-economy, the peripheralization of the South promoted its underdevelopment, leaving the region with a legacy of limited industrial development, forced labor, and political repression. 

     Anti-racist ideologues are mis-directing the attention of the people when they single out slaveholders and slave traders.  If fact, the entire nation was implicated, and the entire nation benefitted.  Today, all U.S. citizens benefit from the economic development that the nation attained through slavery, even the descendants of slaves, especially those who have attained middle class status, taking advantage of possibilities opened by the economic development of the nation.  We should be focused on explaining to our peoples the role of slavery in the Caribbean and in the U.S. South in promoting the economic development of the nation.

     But slavery is not the only factor explaining the spectacular U.S. ascent from a semi-peripheral nation in 1789 to a hegemonic core power by 1965.  There are several other factors as well.  (1)  The expansion of U.S. territory through (a) the conquest of indigenous nations, and (b) a war with Mexico that resulted in the ceding of significant parts of Mexican territory to the USA.  This territorial expansion established the material foundation for the economic development of the nation.  (2)  The concentration of U.S. industry in the second half of the nineteenth century, a process driven by the ethically and legally questionable practices of the “robber barons,” which accelerated the capacity of the nation to produce goods.  (3)  Beginning in the 1890s, a continuous foreign policy of imperialism, that is, military interventions and political interferences in the affairs of other nations, in order to ensure that these nations would adopt economic policies that provide access by US corporations to their markets, cheap labor, and raw materials.  (4) The development of a permanent war economy and an arms industry, taking advantage of World War II and the ideology of the Cold War.  These dynamics, too, should be explained to our people, so that they can understand the factors that made America great, and arrive to see that it is not necessarily possible to Make America Great Again, without redefining what greatness means.

     As the common inheritors of a world constructed on a foundation of the historic human tendency of domination and development, which has now reached and exceeded its geographical and ecological limits; and as citizens of a nation that became great through the classic road of conquest and development; we have an interest today in a common struggle that seeks to forge a world order not based on domination and superexploitation, but on mutually beneficial trade among nations, contributing to the prosperity of all.  A new international world order that would be in accord with the common human interests of all of humanity, so that within each of our nations, we can creatively search for ways the protect the social and economic rights and the socio-economic needs of all of our citizens.  When we call out individuals of the past whose moral sensibilities were influenced by global economic dynamics and moral standards of their time, we are miseducating our peoples, distorting what happened in the past, and distracting the people from the necessary moral agenda of our time.

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Preface - April 6, 2021


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