Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Audio of Living Dialogues: abolition, internationalism and the constitution


Here is the link to my radio interview with Duncan Campbell for part 1 of Living Dialogues. Duncan rightly emphasizes that I identify two revolutions in Black Patriots and Loyalists, notably the revolution from below for emancipation emerging from some 20 slave revolts in the Caribbean which surged into the United States, and extended to Saint-Domingue. Many of the future revolutionaries there including Henri Christophe, a future king in the non-republican part of the new Haiti, apprenticed with Rochambeau and the French on the American side during the Revolution.

Duncan aptly takes from my book the point that the American movement for emancipation ultimately lagged behind Britain and France. But internationalism is complex: the second revolution in America also stimulated abolitionist movements in both places. Thus, Britain freed slaves throughout the colonies in 1833. But Granville Sharp elaborated a radical democratic theory, built on his understanding of the importance of emancipation to a serious American movement for self-determination. Similarly, abolition in the French Revolution was shaped by those who fought in the Americas, for instance Lafayette in the United States; in 1794, three insurgents from St. Domingue, Jean Baptiste Mills, Jean Baptiste Belley-Mars and Louis-Pierre Dufay journeyed to France and spoke to the National Assembly. The Jacobins then sweepingly declared emancipation throughout the French colonies which was the zenith of the French Revolution, neglected by historians, as a revolution for freedom. Inside France, the serfs threw off the lords, made themselves men and inspired the world – a huge point, so I do not make the point about abolition lightly. Reflecting the sharp veil of racism, however, even sophisticated commentators like Barrington Moore in Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy omit the centrality of emancipation.

But this high point of abolition was eroded by Napoleon, who – as in part a friend of the rule of law (he imposed general laws and freedom of speech in the Rheinland, for example), but mainly, about racism, the enemy of decency - tried to restore slavery in Saint Domingue. Napoleon deceived in negotiations, kidnapped, imprisoned in Sicily and murdered Toussaint L’Ouverture, the great leader of the slave uprising that created Haiti.

Ironically, however, the very success of the slave revolt in Haiti forced Napoleon to give up on Louisiana as slave-holding territory and enabled the Louisiana Purchase by Jefferson which extended American bondage.

There were thus intertwined, up and down movements about abolition – surges from below, push backs from the slave-traders in London and Bordeaux as well as American slave-owners – in all three cases. And in fact, the movement for abolition in North America, led by sailors black and white, artisans, Christians and members of the elite like John Laurens, Paine and Franklin, was also strong before and during the Revolution, creating gradual emancipation, parallel to Venezuela, in all the Northern states by 1799 and 1804. That emancipation went this far on the American side during the Revolutionary era needs to be taken in.

For before the Revolution, New York was as large a slave-owning colony as South Carolina. And if gradual emancipation could come to New York in 1799 – Hamilton, the friend and colleague of John Laurens, and the Federalists pushed it through despite their by then quite commercial, anti-republican outlook (the serious republicans of the Revolution, led by Laurens, were abolitionists and often liked the idea of citizens from below, standing up for democracy*) - so it was possible in South Carolina.

In New York, blacks and poor whites lived with each other (in “negro kitchens” – sleeping places) and rebelled together as early as the 1741 uprising. In contrast, large plantations for rice and tobacco in the South had more centralized ownership and the elite which controlled the government was more concentrated, black segregation on plantations more exacerbated. Nonetheless, as Black Patriots and Loyalists shows, there was a strong movement from below for abolition, given America’s need for soldiers in the Revolutionary War,** even in South Carolina.

The American movement was set back by slave-holding compared to the movements in England and France; yet the American movement also greatly inspired the international movement, which particularly during the French Revolution, surpassed it in sweep, intelligence and impact. In an analogy to the recent nonviolent mass movements in Arab Spring, one might say that America, the first independence movement, was like Tunisia, France like Egypt.

In New York in the early 1990s, a huge black graveyard, long forgotten, was unearthed during the construction of a new building. 40% of the skeletons were from children under 15, a huge rate of early death. But don’t slave-owners have a need, we are told, economically speaking and patriarchally (aren’t partriarchs, like Santorum and Romney, benign human beings?), to “breed up” and thus, at least not kill slaves? No, even George Washington had his slaves use their single, tattered blankets to bed down the hogs and cattle comfortably for the night (see Henry Wiencek, Imperfect God: Washington, His Slaves and the Creation of America.

A special predilection for murder, through violence and starvation of black children, marks bondage as an institution – killing of some as well as whipping kept others "in line." Slaves and slave children were the least valuable (note: certain economic charts on medical care in America recently have discounted the value of children and the elderly compared to adult workers – my sister, a doctor who works at the AMA, spoke at a conference, critical of such a paper written by three researchers at Harvard a few years ago. The same murderous “logic” applies - who is worth something to the masters, right now? (these researchers were sycophants)

Slavery was no different in its attitude toward the "non-productive" – lives “devoid of value” [wertlos] than Nazism (the Nazis murdered all “defective Aryan children” as well as mental patients in Germany) or than these so-called economists' contribution to the criminal erosion of medical care in the United States. Economics is, in the fact, the study of human well-being and real wealth, based on the equal value of each child, not predation on the "weak" for extra money for the 1/10 of 1% (consider Sen's account of capabilities compared to alienated notions of GDP and per capita income - Development as Freedom, p. 4).

Black Patriots and Loyalists also sets the America Revolution in the context of the independence movements to the South, the movements of black and brown people, that created Haiti and Venezuela. In Saint Domingue, the insurrection of slaves literally made Haiti; in Venezuela, 40% of Bolivar's troops were pardos (blacks) and republican Haiti supported Bolivar who proclaimed gradual emancipation. The two revolutions thus occurred in tandem throughout the Hemisphere, except in the United States which alone had a bloody Civil War over slavery.

More precisely, during the Revolution, emancipation accompanied independence in the Northern states, parallel to Venezuela. But despite a 1779 Congressional resolution to free 3,000 to 5,000 blacks in exchange for soldiering in South Carolina and Georgia, a campaign for abolition from below, and one for black recruitment,, led by John Laurens and Nathanael Greene even in the elite, emancipation was defeated in the South.

The South is not a clear case, however, of obvious economic interest in slave-owning overriding the possibilities of emancipation as some Marxians infer (one may say, on their behalf, that the Civil War, where the North recruited 184,000 black troops, was comparatively stronger than black soldiering in the American Revolution). For such freedom occurred in the North and throughout the Hemisphere in each independence movement. Thus, as Black Patriots and Loyalists shows, this is a more puzzling political case in which slave-owning ultimately won out against powerful forces for the recruitment of black soldiers which prevailed both in the North and elsewhere in the Hemisphere.***

Duncan wonderfully ties in the failure of gradual emancipation in the South with the three clauses on slave-owning in the constitution (in the context of the Revolution, a mainly reactionary document). I comment on these – the three-fifths clause, article 1 section 2, clause 3 which was responsible for the election of Jefferson and other slave-owners as President for 52 of the first 70 years of the American republic based on the psuedo-votes cast for slaves on behalf of and by their "masters"; article 4 section 2 clause 3 prohibiting aid to slaves who escaped – slave-owners had been terrified by mass escape to the British accompanied by black soldiering, particularly the guerilla movements in New Jersey led by Captain Tye, and in South Carolina – and wrote their fear in bold letters - the "hallowed document" reeks of the slave market - into the constitution****; and article 1, section 9, extending the slave trade to 1808 - and some of their consequences here and here.

These facts are particularly important today with the false reverence for the constitution - the Tea Party whose representatives read the constitution into the Congressional record in 2011 except these clauses, the psychological denial about racism coinciding with intense racism toward that "other," President Obama - against what is best in its spirit and justification, namely the Bill of Rights and its extension. Taking in these clauses, one may conclude aptly that “original construction” means enthusiasm for slavery, and is connected to limitations on the suffrage (no women, no native americans and so forth), to ethnocide against native americans and many other horrors. What is good in the constitution needs to be defended against today's bigotry in the name of alleged love for the constitution.

Scrutiny of and questioning about such matters might leave Roberts, Scalia, Alito and Thomas shivering (their new clothes revealed as but a fantasy of the Emperor). America is, in the title of another recent book, a slave nation, and pays the price for it down to the holding 25% of the world’s prisoners today – the US government is the biggest police state in the world*****– and the need for a mass movement from below to produce even an arrest in Florida for the gunning down of Trayvon Martin for walking in a hoodie in the rain.

*Even Jefferson, in France, paradoxically supported the Shays rebellion and “watering the tree of liberty every twenty years with the blood of patriots and tyrants”; attending only to his interests as a slave-owner which he would pursue as President, however, he feared the slave insurrection in Saint Domingue.

**A post on p. 99 of my book on the black and Narragansett indian first Rhode Island regiment is up at Marshall Zeringue’s Campaign for the American Reader blog here.

***Black Patriots and Loyalists is no. 7 on the Denver Post's list of local nonfiction bestsellers for May 6, 2012. See here.

****The clause was an answer to the Mansfield decision in England freeing James Somersett upon reaching English soil in 1772. This clause stands for American despotism as clearly as Mansfield's decision stood for English freedom. Here are the despicable words: "No person held to service or labour in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labour, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labour may be due."

Those who voted for the constitution knew that slavery was morally abhorrent and avoided the word. Their crime was further implemented, however, through "An Act respecting fugitives from justice, and persons escaping from the service of their masters," the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act. Under it, slave-owners would be able to recapture their slaves in any US state (sections 3 & 4) and states could seize escapees (sections 1 & 2). It was signed into law by President George Washington, who knowing better, did worse. This was the "Act" upheld and extended by the infamous Chief Justice Roger Taney and his "court" in the 1857 Dred Scott decision.

*****See Michelle Alexander on Colbert last night, where Colbert didn't quite know what to do here.

I will read and sign Black Patriots and Loyalists at Boulder Book Store on May 31 (Thursday) at 7:30.

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