Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Times's black out on abolitionism from below in the American Revolution


The Times continues its black out of the story of abolitionism, fought for by blacks and whites from below, preceding, during and after the Revolution. Instead, it prints three letters of Finkelman's fine op-ed "The Monster of Monticello" - see my essay on it here - the first of which suggests that secession would have occurred right away despite the Revolution if the Constitution had gradually abolished bondage by Eli Merritt. He is the author of a new book defending the wisdom of the Founding Fathers.

***

The thesis of the book is, prima facie, strange. The South had just taken part, at least Virginia, in a war and had been exhausted by it. They did not, just then, want a new war. And they might have been easy targets for the Crown in the War of 1812.

Further, South Carolina and Georgia, whose militias hunted escaped slaves and did little to no fighting against the Crown, needed the federal government to make war on the Creek indians, part of a genocide that has distinctively marked America since its founding.

***

Pressure from the North might thus have produced gradual emancipation in the South, even in the absence of the military competition with the Crown for recruiting and freeing slaves which made it a possibility during the Revolution. After all, gradual emancipation did occur throughout the North during and immediately following the Revolution (see my letter to the Times below).

***

In fact, gradual emancipation took place in the two largest slave-owning states in the North, New York (1799) and New Jersey (1804) twelve and fourteen years after the Constitutional Convention. The Convention was dominated by slave-owners, North and South, and North did not achieve decency unless and until it was pushed from below...

***

The depiction of unified Northern representatives at the Convention, which Merritt's letter suggests, is false.

***

During the Revolution, Patriot New York held as many slaves as Virginia or South Carolina. In 1799, New York emancipated slaves partly because it was surrounded by states the freed slaves, partly because it had been a stronghold of the British who had liberated many blacks there and slavery was perhaps more weakened than in the South where many also escaped, partly because it was less centralized than the rice and tobacco plantations of South Carolina and Virginia with a more direct influence on politics, and the proportion of non-slaveowning whites was greater in New York, and partly because of stronger abolitionism from below (Alexander Hamilton was also a sometime abolitionist leader in the elite, though his participation in the Federalist Papers in which Madison's No. 54 presents slaves as three-fifths human from the point of view of expanding the political representation of the owners is, in this central respect, degraded).

***

While it is likely that slavery would have been maintained in the South despite Northern pressure at the time, the absence of that pressure made it certain.

***

But such a thought cannot get into the Times because it so far allows no mention of the thesis of Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War of Independence (University of Chicago Press: May 2012) here. I reprint below my brief letter about the pre-Revolution abolitionist movement and its role in forging democracy, again rejected by the Times (see here for an earlier letter on their July 4th front page article on a new chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, founded by two black women).

***

Democracy has always been fought for by the people from below. The civil rights movement was not mainly created or "given from above" by Supreme Court justices (Brown v. Board was decided in 1954 because American segregation was too awful a racist atrocity in a Cold War being fought out for influence among non-white peoples rising against colonialism - see Mary Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights) or the Kennedys or Lyndon Johnson. There was, instead, a mass nonviolent civil rights movement from below which took diverse actions across the South for many years and there were rebellions in American cities...

***

That democracy is the leading feature of making America a "more perfect union," one not to be considered, let alone debated, so far in the Times.

***

Imagine if an author actually concerned himself with the experience of blacks and whites from below and not just reading the assemblages, mostly of racists - Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and James Wilson, along with Tom Paine who was not there and John Laurens, not emphasized yet except in my book and some academic biographies - debating the Constitution or the Missouri compromise.

***

The Times prints a fine letter on Finkelman's piece by Eric Glitzenstein. The image of King offsetting the memorial to a slave-owner is powerful.

***

The author is right on Hamilton and Franklin, but wrong about John Adams who arranged with the Southern slaveowners keeping slavery. Except for a decisive speech in favor of the Declaration of Independence, Adams was sublimely reactionary (conducted a racist defense of British soldiers for the murder of Crispus Attucks, feared natural rights and Tom Paine, and the like).

***

But note the fundamental limitation of both Finkelman's piece and thus, what Glitzenstein can comment on: it is all right to notice that Jefferson was a "creepy brutal hypocrite" about slaves. But it is not all right to notice the activities of blacks and antiracist whites themselves who fought against bondage on the Patriot side (as well as the greater number of slaves who found emancipation with the Crown).

That fact upsets the story line, the Founding Myth; that fact must, therefore, be left out, news not yet, some 227 years later, "fit to print."

***

"Poor" and "humble" slaves and sailors, they must have been long-suffering, silent and invisible, certainly not worthy of notice in the Times...

***

The Times is not, so the editors think, a quasi-Monarchical paper...

***

In an earlier letter, Eric Foner emphasized the diminution of black and white abolitionists from below in the movie "Lincoln" - the most intelligent example of the genre of Presidential biography which is nearly the only medium allowed, in the Times and conventional filmmaking, to discuss American history. See "Eric Foner's striking letter to the Times on 'Lincoln" here and "'Lincoln" and Founding Myths" here. Blacks are but the backdrop to the important "discussions" in the nation's Capital of their freedom and to the wars in which. as Frederick Douglass has more aptly said, they centrally fought for liberation, and by their death at last proved their manhood to the racists, i.e. the Founders and most Presidents including, until the last year of his life, Lincoln.

***

The third letter this morning is a tired apology for Jefferson. Yes, Jefferson's words and thoughts were sometimes noble and influential. But the substance of what he did was not.

Yes, we all have "flaws," but bondage is not a flaw any more than the torture and aggression conducted by Bush, Cheney and Condi Rice is a "flaw."

***

As Black Patriots and Loyalists emphasizes, there was a huge fight from below against bondage, both on the Patriot side - extending freedom to all - and among Loyalists. The generic cliche about "current" standards and supposed anachronisms - in Gordon Wood see here and the new Museum of the American Revolution, and in the public sphere - is preserved only by determined silence about the social history.

***

The nonsense retailed as serious discussion of historical figures, false empathy only for monsters which is what Jefferson was to human beings whom he held in bondage, is breathtaking.

***

It is interesting that those who fought for freedom, the former slaves and Narragansett indians, with the First Rhode Island Regiment, the central fighters at Yorktown, as Private Georg Daniel Flohr reveals in his diary, cannot be mentioned, while Jefferson, who never took up arms, has never-ceasing promotion...

Founding myths...

***

Is the Times into advertising or the truth?


***

Thomas Jefferson, in a Different Light
Published: December 5, 2012

To the Editor:

In “The Monster of Monticello” (Op-Ed, Dec. 1), Paul Finkelman accurately describes Thomas Jefferson as a “brutal hypocrite” on the question of slavery, but his impassioned finger-pointing obscures a larger point about American history.

Jefferson, Madison and the other tireless architects of the nation had a stark choice to make: either liberty for black Americans or union. They could not have it both ways, so they made a devil’s bargain: to preserve the Union, they preserved slavery.

One has only to look at the records of the Constitutional Convention and the Missouri Compromise to know that, had our early leaders not compromised on the tinderbox of slavery, the Southern states would have seceded in 1787 or 1820. A walkout by those states would have precipitated civil war.

Is this hypocrisy? Perhaps it is, but Mr. Finkelman does not acknowledge that the founders were acting out of political exigency more than moral failing. Our early history is much more complex than he lets on in his criticism of an admittedly flawed, racist man.

ELI MERITT
San Francisco, Dec. 1, 2012

The writer has just completed a book about the founders’ fears of disunion and civil war.

To the Editor:

Paul Finkelman is to be applauded for his willingness to tell it like it is regarding Thomas Jefferson’s racist views and cruel treatment of slaves. For far too long apologists have trotted out lame excuses for Jefferson, although many of the founding fathers — such as John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin — had far more enlightened attitudes, even if they failed to include them in the Constitution.

For visitors to the National Mall, it is fitting that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s imposing statue is now situated directly across from Jefferson’s memorial. Some have criticized King’s stern countenance, but that is entirely appropriate, as his statue now stands as a national refutation of Jefferson’s abhorrent beliefs.

ERIC R. GLITZENSTEIN
Washington, Dec. 1, 2012

To the Editor:

If we judge the great men and women of the past by the moral standards of the present, then surely we ourselves will be found wanting in the future, since some of our own actions and philosophies will seem primitive and cruel to a more enlightened age.

Rather than condemning Thomas Jefferson for his human imperfections, let us celebrate his contribution to human liberty. While the man himself may not have seen it, his ideas and words made slavery untenable, and continue to further freedom here and around the world.

JOSHUA P. HILL
New London, Conn., Dec. 1, 2012

A version of this letter appeared in print on December 6, 2012, on page A34 of the New York edition with the headline: Thomas Jefferson, in a Different Light.

***

And here is my letter which the Times did not print:

To the editor,

Paul Finkelman's apt "Monster of Monticello" highlights Jefferson's cruelties. But it also participates in the elevation of Presidential biography - Kings and Queens as it were - at the expense of democracy.

For the sailors, black and white, who were seized – “impressed” - by the Crown. identified with slave revolts in the Caribbean in the 1750s. They brought the word to James Otis whose 1764 Rights of the British Colonists Asserted and Proved embraced the “natural rights of all men, black as well as white.”

Sailors also led revolutionary crowds. As a result of democratic protest from below shaping legislation, the North freed slaves during and after the Revolution: Pennsylvania in 1780, Massachusetts in 1782, Connecticut and Rhode Island in 1784 and New York 1799 and New Jersey 1804.

This was the highest realization of freedom - "of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" - in the American Revolution. This was the pivot from which the Civil War was fought. The leadership of the people, not just the "founding fathers." needs to be recognized in achieving that "more perfect union" which America seeks to extend.


Alan Gilbert is the author of Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War of Independence (University of Chicago Press, May 2012).


No comments:

Post a Comment