Root of All Evil
Ned and Constance Sublette, "The American Slave Coast" (2016, 754 pp)
|Robert Christgau||Mar 24|
Ned and Constance Sublette’s The American Slave Coast was published in 2016. It got a fair number of positive, intelligent reviews from people you never heard of in periodicals you never heard of either, enthusiastic writeups at Goodreads and Amazon, and no coverage whatsoever from the establishment press. It’s long, and painful to read despite the grace and verve of the Sublettes’ prose—the excruciating details of a slave’s daily life up front proved so nightmarish that I put it down for years. But in December, at the end of a year that convinced me more vividly than ever that black-white relations were at the root of national politics more bifurcated than I’d ever seen, I finally picked it up again, reading five or 10 pages at a time until I got near enough to page 668 to hike to the end.
I consider this is a great book, worth reading at least as much as Ned Sublette’s 2004 Cuba and Its Music. But while it means something for a music critic to declare that one the best social history of music he’s ever read, my blackface minstrelsy studies don’t give me the standing to make comparable claims for The American Slave Coast. I believe the reasons the USA became the first democracy since an Athens that had slavery too were less pecuniary and more idealistic than this book makes room for. Moreover, I have no idea what the Sublettes, who I’ve known as casual friends for years, may have left out, of what the counterarguments might be or who might make them. So it occurred to me that rather than reviewing this worthy tome I should just cherry-pick it—sequence brief excerpts and let the misprisions fall where they may. Despite scattered moments of hope, this is grim stuff. But most of the details are new to me and feel like they’re worth sharing. Want to read nicer things about George Washington? Try Howard Fast’s Citizen Tom Paine. The Civil War? I’m a fan of Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels. But the Sublettes are every bit as much worth reading.
Having reread the hundreds of passages I’d marked and picked out the most striking, I’ve settled for a rather crude organization. Rather then construct a pseudo-argument, I’ve divided my selections into five categories. The Sublettes’ fundamental thesis is that the Constitution banned the importation of slaves after 1808 so that slave owners—especially in Virginia, then the wealthiest state, and South Carolina, the Capital of Evil in the Sublettes’ view—could turn slavery into an appalling industry in which they’d produce and sell slaves domestically by breeding them like livestock. Insofar as Southerners were wealthy, they counted their riches not in precious metals but in the living bodies of the people they owned. Many of America’s most revered figures—including every president not named Adams or Van Buren through Polk—benefited directly from this system. So my first three sections are headed “Capital/Credit,” “Presidents and Other Luminaries” (watch out, pretentious Francophile Thomas Jefferson), and—such an obsession I had to cordon it off—“South Carolina.” Then follow two more sections, one labeled “Oppression and Resistance,” the other “Civil War.”
Some notes on form. Anything in quotation marks is a direct quote from the text, but not always a verbatim one—I’ve both inserted clarifying words or phrases and elided verbiage without indicating it with the customary ellipsis. Page numbers are provided. The few entries not in quotation marks are observations I’ve gathered from the text and condensed.
17 “Slaveowners’ wealth was stored in the bodies of their always liquidatable slaves. In the absence of a domestic supply of coin, slaves collateralized the credit that created new money.”
69 “The idea that the South fought the Civil War so that it could be left in peace to have slavery merely within its settled bounds does not fit the facts on the ground, nor did anyone think so at the time. Quite the contrary: the war was fought over the expansion of slavery.”
111 “New England had slavery in the colonial years, but unlike Virginia, it never became a slave society, in which all social and economic relations revolve around slavery.”
183 “As the slave trade created business opportunities in Africa, African despots formed regular armies and battled against each other, the losers being sold into slavery.”
215 “Rhode Island in the eighteenth century became the largest outfitter of slaving voyages in North America, with Newport sometimes referred to as the ‘American Liverpool.’”
250 “The slave-society colonies of the South had their own compelling reason to secede from Britain: only independence could protect slavery from the growing power of British abolitionism.”
257 Some Southern soldiers in the War of Independence were paid in slaves.
357 “The payday for Virginia slaveholders was that slaves could not be brought to Louisiana from Africa or Havana but would have to be imported from the United States—a move that substantially revalued every Chesapeake slaveowner’s holdings upwards and substantially increased Virginia’s share of the nation’s capital stock.”
397 “New England did not want the War of 1812; the Southerners did. They got what they wanted: under cover of war with Britain, a substantial chunk of the Deep South was made safe for plantation slavery when Andrew Jackson vanquished the Creek Nation and took its land.”
414 “As the power looms of Lancashire sucked up all the cotton the South could grow, enslaved wombs were not only sources of local enrichment but were also suppliers in a global system of agricultural input, industrial output, and financial expansion.”
447 “In the eight years it took to build, the Erie Canal employed some nine thousand wage laborers, many of them Irish, but also including free black laborers. This was what a non-slave economy could do, and indeed by 1827 slavery ended in New York.”
464 “Slave mortgaging was essential to the functioning of the Southern credit system, but the practice has not been much discussed by historians and we do not have a good overview of the numbers.”
465 “The price of slaves fluctuated with the price of cotton, but in the long term, those fluctuations were superficial disturbances of steadily increasing prices.”
465 “The stimulus that got the economy pumping again after the Panic of 1837 was the annexation of Texas in 1845, which stimulated the slave trade.”
466 “Slave prices inflated continuously as compared with the price of the cotton the slaves produced.”
552 The slave population grew almost 30 percent between 1840 and 1850.
564 “The discovery of gold in California was a turning point on the way to Southern secession.”
598 “The Compromise of 1850 that admitted California as a free-soil state had not removed the South’s dream of slavery in a separate Southern California. The slave-breeding industry was reaching critical mass for unraveling—unless the expansion of slavery territory could postpone the collapse. From California, it would have to expand outward into Asia, and this was discussed on occasion.”
606 “The coming of railroads ushered in a new era of capitalism on a scale impossible when markets were linked only by water. But Dred Scott threw western expansion plans into chaos, railroad bonds dropped in price, and there was a Panic.”
627 Alabama secession commissioner Stephen F. Hale, December 27, 1860: “African slavery has become not only one of the fixed domestic institutions of the Southern States, but forms an important element of their political power, and constitutes the most valuable species of their property, worth, according to recent estimates, $4,000,000,000” (a figure that converts to 127 billion in today’s dollars).
PRESIDENTS AND OTHER LUMINARIES
41 “Thomas Jefferson funded the renovation of Monticello by mortgaging the labor force that did the work.”
49 “When Jefferson’s slaves got too old to work, he routinely cut their rations in half.”
63 “Twenty-two-year-old Ona Judge, who was Martha Washington’s personal servant, escaped from the President and First Lady of the United States in Philadelphia in 1796 after learning she was to be given away as a wedding gift. She married a free black man in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and managed to avoid falling prey to the attempts at recapture that George Washington attempted against her until he died in 1799.”
259 “Patrick Henry’s polemical evocations of liberty and slavery were framed by his concrete, daily experience of denying the most basic freedoms to an entire community of people over whom his word was law and who lived in misery at his grudging expense.”
262 Patrick Henry in a private letter: “I believe a time will come when an opportunity will be offered to abolish this lamentable evil.”
277 “With Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson definitively established himself as a founding theorist of white supremacy in America, laying out in condensed form key points of racialized thought that pro-slavery writers would consistently reaffirm and that would echo in the cant of modern-day white supremacists.”
297 “The story of the Constitution’s making in 1787 has been told any number of ways, typically suffused with a cue-the-kettledrums aura of religiosity and an assumption of American triumphalism. Constitutional historians have tended to portray their subject as the most important political document in world history, in the greatest nation in history. In extreme cases this has involved elevating the framers to a sort of secular sainthood.”
282 “The bargain between freedom and slavery contained in the Constitution of the United States is morally and politically vicious”—John Quincy Adams, 1820
342 “Jefferson’s policy toward Toussaint Louverture was markedly different from that of the non-slaveowner John Adams. He refused even to write a personal letter for his new consul to Saint-Domingue to carry to Louverture, as was diplomatic custom.”
397 “Andrew Jackson is the only US president that we know of who personally drove a slave coffle [Webster’s: ‘a train of animals or slaves fastened together’]. But then, Jackson was also the first president to have been a merchant.”
459-60 “John Quincy Adams, whom Jackson defeated in the 1828 presidential election, was elected to Congress in 1830—the only ex-president to take such a step—and began a remarkable second career. His diary, which he began at the age of 12 in 1779 and maintained for 69 years until his death in office in 1849, is the most extensive by any American historical figure. On his first day in Congress he presented 15 petitions praying for the abolition of slavery in Pennsylvania and the slave trade in the District of Columbia.”
495 In 1836 the district attorney of the District of Columbia jailed a young Georgetown doctor whose possession of a trunk full of abolitionist literature the DA adjudged seditious. The doctor was acquitted, but two years later died of tuberculosis he contracted in prison. The name of the DA was Francis Scott Key.
530-31 James Knox Polk hailed from Tennessee but owned a plantation in Mississippi and bought slaves for it while he was president. His “slaves were a miserable, unhealthy lot who couldn’t even sustain ‘natural increase’ over the years: a collection of young people bought like mules and cut off from their familiar lives, with few natural or local connections among them, in an atmosphere of violent, daily repression.”
629 “Thomas Jefferson’s youngest grandson, George Wythe Randolph, was the Confederate Secretary of War for eight months in 1862.”
P.S. George Washington, James Madison, and James Polk all left wills instructing that their slaves be freed upon their deaths. None of their widows complied.
142 “The constitution of South Carolina was largely drafted by John Locke, who was secretary to the lords proprietors and an investor in the Royal Adventurers and the Royal African Company and who tutored one of the lords proprietors’ children.”
143 “The utopian vision of Carolina was the pursuit of individual profit by any means necessary.”
144 “North Carolina had no major seaport, and never developed a colonial aristocracy.”
147 “Carolina traders built a network that extended through the territories later known as Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. It was all South Carolina, at least in the minds of the Carolinians.”
148 “Even before South Carolina was able to establish a major staple crop, it quickly developed a two-way slave trade: first, exporting Native Americans, then plowing the profits into importing Africans.”
366 South Carolina slave imports: 8,592 in 1805, 15,551 in 1806, 23,174 in 1807. Recall if you will that 1808 was when it became unconstitutional to import slaves.
441 “The Denmark Vesey conspiracy of 1822 provoked a series of retaliatory measures that included the formation of a new repressive organization, the South Carolina Association. The Negro Seamen’s Act provided for imprisoning free black soldiers when their ships were docked in Charleston; in open defiance of federal law, it put South Carolina in the provocative position of detaining black British sailors. All emancipation petitions were to be denied; the entry of free people of color into the state was prohibited, as was all education for free or enslaved blacks.”
564 “‘Give us slavery or give us death!’”—Edward Bryan, South Carolina, 1850.
OPPRESSION AND RESISTANCE
60 “The slave trade routinely destroyed marital relationships, along with all other family ties, by selling one or the other partner away.”
165 “Self-interested rationally acting sugar plantation owners could make the most money by working laborers to death.”
184 “Slave rebellions reveal themselves not to be isolated struggles, as they have been frequently characterized, but rather as eruptions of a widespread, ongoing state of resistance. Between 1730 and 1760, there were 29 slave revolts reported in North America, about one a year.”
213 “Slave ships were death ships, the bottom of the employment ladder for sailors. On 1709 slave voyages out of Liverpool from 1780 forward there were 10,439 deaths, or 17.8 percent, about half of them killed by the captives.”
237 “John Wesley, in what was called the Arminian heresy by its enemies, democratized salvation by insisting that anyone could attain it—a free-will doctrine that would be fundamental to African-American Christianity as well.”
432 “The free black people of Baltimore—and indeed, free black people throughout the North—lived with the knowledge that they could be kidnapped and sold.”
439 “Bona fide abolitionists were relatively few among the white population in the early days of the movement, though their numbers grew in the 1850s. The hard core of abolitionists, of course, were the enslaved themselves, along with free people of color, who constituted most of the first 500 subscribers to The Liberator.”
480 “‘Small fancy girls’ means light-skinned female children, salable as sex slaves. It was a discreet phrase, but not a mysterious one: everyone understood it.”
566 “A clause in the California constitution that would have barred free blacks from entering the territory was voted down.”
575 At a November 1850 convention, 73-year-old secessionist South Carolinian Langdon Cleves “denounced abolitionists as communists, a term recently current from its use during the European-revolutionary year of 1848.”
576 Post-1848, “proslavery writers formulated the first generation of American anti-communist rhetoric. Southern ideology had coalesced into a vision of a worthy elite that governs while the unworthy multitude suffer.”
577 Unsung stanza of Stephen Collins Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home,” the state song since 1928: “The head must bow and the back will have to bend/Wherever the darkey may go/A few more days, and the trouble all will end/In the field where the sugar canes grow/A few more days for to tote the weary load/No matter, ‘twill never be light/A few more days till we totter on the road/Then my old Kentucky home, good night.”
605 “Slaveowners incorrectly thought that the North would enslave them by making their black slaves into their masters. Increasingly, the laborers of the North correctly thought that the South wanted slavery everywhere.”
634-35 With the anti-federalist South seceded and James Buchanan having deliberately emptied the government’s coffers before retreating to Pennsylvania, Lincoln was both freed and compelled to issue U.S. treasury notes called greenbacks. “Greenbacks were not redeemable for gold or silver. They were what some economists call ‘fiat money’—money that is worth something because the government says it is.”
635 “Gold was coming in from California, where it was being found in creeks and rocks. Gold was coming in from England, which had become dependent on U.S. wheat after its own crops failed. The federal government took in the gold and paid out greenbacks, which carried no interest and bore no date of maturity. They were simply intended to pass from one hand to another, and never be redeemed, only replaced.”
636 “Greenbacks were popular; everyone was heartily sick of the patchwork system of privatized money issued by local banks.”
637 “Everyone had a stake in the survival of the currency, which meant, in the survival of the Union.”
637 “The Homestead Act was put into place—something that the South had been strenuously opposed to. The Land Grant Act apportioned land to public colleges across the country. The National Bankruptcy Act was implemented. The Yosemite wilderness was set aside as a national park.”
640 “The Emancipation Proclamation decommissioned the capitalist womb. Labor was no longer capital. African Americans were no longer born to be collateral. Their bodies were no longer a better monetary value than paper. The US economy was no longer on the negro standard. Not only were the slaves emancipated; so was American money.”
644 The Gettysburg Address’s “fourscore and seven years” dates the “new nation” “brought forth” to the Declaration of Independence, with its “all men are created equal,” not the Constitution.
645 “Pursuant to the Emancipation Proclamation, 166 black regiments were created. The number of African Americans who fought is officially around 180,000, but it seems likely there were more than that.”
646 “From the first encounters between black soldiers and Confederates in battle, the Confederates waged ‘black flag’ or ‘no quarter’ war. Atrocities were routine; taking no prisoners, they slaughtered wounded black soldiers, on occasion bayoneting them repeatedly or beating their brains out with clubs.”
646 At Fort Pillow in Tennessee on April 12-13, 1864, troops led by Nathan Bedford Forrest [the KKK founder whose bust in the Tennessee capitol has been in the news] murdered as many as 500 surrendered Black Union soldiers in cold blood.
668 “The history of the slave-breeding industry demonstrates how far the unrestrained pursuit of profit can go.”
644 “Everybody knows what happened to Lincoln.”