Chasing Smallwood .40. Slavery as a continuing issue in our time

[A book with four interlocking themes: how to communicate with the dead; the life of a 19th-century American; the massive task facing us today, and the physical world’s place in the scheme of things.]

[Saturday, February 25, 2006]

8:45 p.m. Good stuff. Typed, sent out. Proceed, friend.

You in your time are facing – or not facing – the same issue we finally had to look at in my time. We won, but the way we had to win, we lost, too. Mr. Lincoln could have helped us but they killed him. What you are going to do, I don’t know.

If we have a Lincoln among us, he is well hidden.

Ours was not all that obvious ahead of time. But where is your organization, your common understanding? I don’t see it, if you do.

The issue is still the issue that was behind slavery, the issue Mr. Lincoln pin-pointed when he described it as the dictum that says you sow the wheat and grow it and harvest it and grind it and take the flour and make bread, and I will eat it.

It ain’t anything complicated, it is as simple as that. That, and the fact that one person in chains puts everybody in chains – which is why it is so hard to get rid of chains. There are too many people think their prosperity depends on other people being in chains, and they don’t dare make the experiment.

Slavery was the grossest form of chains, and so we got rid of it first. In your day, only your criminals have access to other men’s lives and women and their basic right to live standing up and not on their knees. In my time, most all of it, anybody wanted it had the right to do this to somebody else, on two conditions – one, they had to be able to pay, and two the slave had to be at least part negro. One part in eight was common enough, and you had ought to think of that when you hear people talking about slavery. Race made it barely possible in the years after the revolution, but it wasn’t about race mostly, it was about money. It’s just that the slavers couldn’t have got away with making slaves out of white people, so that had to settle for people 7/8ths white and less.

The logic of slavery

Look, none of this is new. In my day we came to understand it plain enough, at least in the north. Follow it out.

If you have slaves, you got to have force to keep ‘em slaves. Patrols, posses, the threat of something worse – “selling you down the river” – etc.

If you have got to have force, you got to have conformity of opinion among them that do the enforcing. It wouldn’t do to have Quakers and others standing up for the humanness of slaves and muddling things – so the longer time went, the less tolerance there was for any form of free thinking. Everything was the party line, or else.

The more the party line was enforced, the less outside influence was allowed, so then they began sorting the mail, stopping newspapers they didn’t want in, and in general extending censorship.

The more isolated they got, the less they could tolerate things that hadn’t used to bother them: black seamen, free black communities, communities of Friends, preachers, reports of preachers, journals from New England and sometimes even Old England.

You see? What you had was a few families with an iron grip on everything. What they didn’t own, their friends did. What their friends didn’t own, they could threaten with economics or social ruin. If for some reason those threats wouldn’t work, there was always thugs and mobs.

Those families ran the government, they owned the newspapers, they used the police for their own purposes, they drove out every dissenting voice and they just mercilessly turned the screws year by year. And they were out to make slavery national and came within a little of doing it too, only – like you say – they went too far because people always do go too far.

Now, the war smashed slavery and that was good. But it didn’t set up the black families on their feet – not even the work of the Freedman’s Bureau or the Friends and others who came down with schools did that. So them that had started the war still had most of the money and the connections and the ability to sway the poor whites that kept them in power not quite knowing it.

Like I say, Mr. Lincoln would have stopped some of that, probably, because he’d been thinking on it and he had his plans. Probably things would have gone better.

The logic of economic  slavery

But to beat the slavers we had to call up an army to beat them with, and war means profit, and the piling-up of profit means creating another class of predators, and after the war nobody knew what to do about it. People mostly got in line for crumbs, and there were plenty of ‘em.

You look at your bought-and-sold government of the postwar era, and what do you think they were buying the government with? Money they had made on the war. JP Morgan sold bad rifles to the union army that got a lot of good men killed – and he made another fortune. Armour sold bad meat. You know the list, or you could find it easy enough.

What I’m saying is simple. We had got rid of the chattel slavery, but there were plenty of other kinds of slavery left, and some got worse because of the war piling up so many fortunes and delivering the government into the hands of those that could pay for it. Ward, municipality, county, state, federal, all the way up and all the way down, it was the same.

Now you could say – and it would be right in a way, and to a degree, that at least people didn’t own people and weren’t able to whip ‘em and kill ‘em and abuse ‘em however they wanted. You could say at least the women weren’t owned by a class of owners, as in slave days. And that’s sort of true.

But where do you think all those penniless whores came from? Why were people working in sweatshops 12 and 16 hours a day, for nothing much? Why were people treated as bad as the better-off slaves had been? Because economically they were slaves, and it was a conscious design that kept ‘em there.

Why do you think the rulers of your country let in all those immigrants, but to keep down wages and provide plenty of new fodder for their mines and factories? The fact that families did better themselves wasn’t the reason for bringing ‘em, it was a side-effect that the owners didn’t care about one way or the other.

Did they have economic freedom? Not when they had to have a job and had to take what they could get, and a few men at the top determined it.

Did they have political freedom? Not except the choice between two sets of puppets who were going to do what they were told or find themselves on the outside.

Did they have any ability to affect their own lives? Ask the strikers who were cut down by the National Guard, or beaten by the police, or by the scabs the police watched do it.

Did they get clean water? Did they get nutritious food? Did they even for God’s sake get sunlight? You wouldn’t think a people that called themselves free would put up with having to live scarcely ever seeing the sun, now would you?

All this followed because of the war, and you might say it is one more effect of secession: it turned a nation of small towns into a nation of cities, and it turned it all into the pockets of a handful of families. Most of these results took full bloom after my time, but I see it clear enough. And what do you think is different about your time?

It is the same thing. Some wear boots and near everybody else wear saddles. And you are doing nothing to counter it. Evil has got to be fought. It don’t just curl up and die on its own.

Well, Joseph, I hope you have some suggestions. The situation today looks bleaker than I can remember.

It looked pretty bad in the 1850s, too. There’s things can be done – but they won’t just do themselves.

Well, I’m sure we’ll all be grateful for any suggestions. Tomorrow maybe?

Tomorrow is fine. Just don’t expect a big plan or a secret weapon.

One thought on “Chasing Smallwood .40. Slavery as a continuing issue in our time

  1. The idea of the necessity of our participation, our doing, is said here as well as in your TGU posts. Smallwood discusses our social organization from a more honest and urgent perspective that is really useful to me. Thanks again.

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