Oregon 2005 (15)


20. Jefferson and slavery

Wednesday Sept. 28, 2005. Chalk it up to Powell’s in the Portland Airport, which was a great breath of fresh air: When have you ever seen an airport bookstore selling things much different than the usual run of interchangeable thrillers and topical best-sellers? When have you ever seen one selling used books?

I need to buy another book like the government needs to hire (or elect) another incompetent but we both keep doing it. I stopped in just to look around, and walked out with Negro President: Jefferson and the Slave Power by Garry Wills, and unfortunately that purchase will mark a major milestone in my intellectual life. I say “unfortunately” because I don’t like the things it suddenly brought into clear relief. Adding a few simple facts to things I had known and half-known and should have known, it made me realize things I should have realized years ago. By the time I got off the airplane in San Francisco, I was a somewhat different person, intellectually, than I had been before I opened the book.

Much of what he laid out was already clear enough. I knew that the pre-civil war nation was dominated by the slave power, which held and kept a stranglehold on all three branches of government. I knew that Lincoln was not exaggerating, and was not alone, in saying that a conspiracy was working its way all through the 1850s to extend slavery nation-wide. If you don’t believe this, it is merely because you don’t know the history. There isn’t any secret about it. The slave power, like the abolitionists, knew that it was as Lincoln said: The house divided would become all one thing or all the other, or it would fall.

What I hadn’t sufficiently thought about – though it too is a matter of record – is that the slave power got such a stranglehold strictly because of the three-fifths clause in the constitution. Proposed originally as a taxation measure (because slaves were valued as property), this clause of the constitution became a representation measure (as if giving votes to the people who owned them were the same as providing them with representation). That extra margin in the House of Representatives was enough to give them control. Without it, many a measure to confine slavery would have passed. (Read the book for the detail.)

Now, this is sad enough. What is worse, though (and probably my more worldly friends will be shaking their heads at my naiveté) is that I had never really thought about this obvious point: No politician from slave-holding states ever dared vote against the interests of slavery in the least thing. Not Jefferson, not Washington, not Madison, not Monroe.

An equivalent today would be hard to come by. Perhaps closest would be to imagine someone in public life denouncing the power of money over our lives. The main difference would be that the money power, unlike the slave power, is not localized.

Nonetheless, the big slave owners dictated their states’ political and social life, and in turn they dominated national politics, because anyone with national ambitions, from wherever section, had to make his accommodation to the slave power if he were to have a chance to win. And the slave power confidently expected that, as slave territory expanded, their hold on the national government would increase. Hence, the Mexican War. Hence, the Compromise of 1850. Hence, Kansas-Nebraska. Hence, Dred Scott.

The joker in that particular deck is that-to put it into theological terms-God said otherwise. Immigrants in massive numbers came to these shores from Ireland and Germany, and they naturally came to the north, rather than try to compete with slave labor. The north’s population soared.

Innovation, too, flourished in free country and stagnated in slave country, for reasons obvious enough. The north’s wealth, commerce and industrial ability soared.

And finally, incalculably, a few men and women, deeply feeling the wrong and the stench of  slavery, became convinced that slavery must be abolished. Mobbed and contemned in the north, gagged and murdered in the south, abolitionists began holding this abomination to the light beginning in the 1830s – and the slave power couldn’t stand it!

 Bear in mind, these were slave-owners, with the power of life and death over the people (excuse me, the slaves) they owned. They were not used to contradiction, and they were certainly not used to being held up to condemnation. Consequently, the slave power went too far, and its denunciations became more violent, its actions ever more extreme. (One example is the caning — on the floor of the Senate of the United States! – by a southern representative, of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, who was deemed to have insulted a Southern politician, an assault that left him half-dead. Another is that southern states instituted censorship, opening the U.S. mails and forbidding delivery of anything deemed abolitionist.) The worse it got, the clearer the slave power’s tyranny became, and the more people in the north began to reconsider the merits of abolition.

Ultimately, 600,000 men died young because the slave power couldn’t stand being in a union it couldn’t control. As soon as it realized that not even its extra representatives would suffice to control; as soon as its own actions had catalyzed a reaction that became embodied first in the Free Soil party, then in the Republican Party; the slave power seceded.

(The Civil War was a tragedy not only because of the lives lost but because, in the stress of wartime emergency, the federal government acquired new power, and power once acquired is never willingly given up. Beyond that, the small towns and villages of the north were doomed by that war; the federal government passed from control by the slave power to control by the new iron- and steel-masters, with their railroads and foundries. A new subtler form of slavery would arise, from which we were partially but perhaps only temporarily rescued by the depression-enabled measures of Franklin Roosevelt.)

I have wandered from my theme, but perhaps no elaboration is needed. Garry Wills book made me realize the stark and unpalatable fact that not one of the founding fathers from a slave state ever took the least action that might offend the slave power. Not Jefferson, not Washington, not Madison, not Monroe. Individually admirable men, they were as much a captive of that oligarchy, in their own way, as the slaves they commanded. 


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