Friday, August 30, 2013

Conversation with Ken McClenton, the Exceptional Conservative, on Black Patriots and Loyalists



Ken McClenton invited me on his show The Exceptional Conservative to discuss Black Patriots and Loyalists for the second time. Like Marc Steiner of Baltimore public radio, he just read the book straight up, learned to his amazement and joy that blacks have fought for freedom throughout the history of the country, and recommends that every one read this startling story. He speaks to the force of miseducation, of Founding Amnesias (we spoke also of indigenous people) and the hunger that he – and a caller – had to find out the truth.

We had a lively conversation for which we were both grateful. You can listen here.

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Black Patriots and Loyalists means to break out of a previously restricted or timid historians’ paradigm, one digging up the role of blacks on the British side, fitfully, over the last 30 years, and saying, with the great historian Gary Nash, that this is the American Revolution’s “dirty secret.” But this is no matter of a separate “identify politics>” (Nash’s wrote a wonderful book with the unilluminating title The Forgotten Fifth in 2006). Much more important is the discovery of history from below, of blacks and poor whites, particularly sailors, fighting for emancipation, making American freedom real, not just for “white men,” but for all (except indigenous people).

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It was thrilling for me to listen to Ken read the dark passage, in Chapter 7, where George Washington presses Sir Guy Carleton, the British commander, to return slaves who have fought with and been freed by the British. Carleton rejects Washington’s claim, saying rightly this would be “a monstrous breach of the public trust” on the British part and that they are already embarked.

“Already embarked” exclaims Washinton.

Ken read this account of Washington, a hero of the America Revolution and a slave owner, and his jaw dropped (mine, too…). For here was a British secretary saying that Washington seemed no more than the “captain of a band of banditti” (Italian for bandits), and he was, of course, in this major respect, completely right.

Note that Washington recruited an all black and Narragansett indian regiment in Rhode Island in 1778 and supported John Laurens’ proposal to recuit and free 3,000 blacks in South Carolina, and 2,000 in Georgia in exchange for fighting which passed the Continental Congress in 1779. This was the zenith of freedom in the fight for American independence. To defeat the Crown, Washington was a statesman, and understood the evil of slavery.

And yet, right after the Revolution, he became a crass representative of slaveowners and returned to being a (somewhat ineffectual) slave owner himself (he had seen blacks fight and no longer believed in bondage). Yet Washington built bondage into the Constitution, for instance in the 3/5th clause which counted fractions of slaves only to give increased votes to their owners. This was a counterrevolution against black Patriots, against poor blacks and whites who had won gradual emancipation in the North. See here and here. I was initially horrified to read this, and frankly, any person of decent sympathies ought to be entirely unforgiving of the slaveholding of many of the Founders.

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Let us, instead, honor the people, the democracy when it fights for decency, not the “great men” (Presidents) who prove to be not so great…

John Laurens and Thomas Peters and John Brown and Martin Luther King, Jr. are, nonetheless, pretty good.

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I added the story, which was edited out of the final version of my book, of how the American slave-owners chased after reparations from the British for 43 years. For blacks escaped anew and went to Canada in the war of 1812. There is currently an ideological, largely false, putatively "value-free" inter-democratic peace hypothesis popular among political scientists, and quick to the lips of Bill Clinton and George Bush. They all conveniently forget that the US has overthrown 15 or so non-white democracies during and after the Cold War. The United States has also given massive military aid to reactionary regimes, for instance, every tear gas canister fired against democrats in Egypt during Arab Spring was made by the deceptively named Consolidated Systems Inc, but stamped USA.

The result is through a methodological sleight of hand – that in a case where each side does not lose a thousand soldiers, there is an intervention but not a war. See here and here. Thus, Nixon and Kissinger organized the murder of General Rene Schneider, President Salvador Allende and thousands who disappeared in Chile – but they were "not bellicose" toward other democracies. This is political science-speak, the opposite of the truth.

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The outset of the Revolution was little better. Britain was a parliamentary democracy by the odd coding practices of political science, and so warred with the United States in the Revolution (they were not yet two separate regimes, however…) as well as in the war of 1812 when they are plainly, as weak democracies, a counterexample to inter democratic peace. Worse yet, the American government sued the Crown for repayment for the slaves Britain had “absconded with” (Article 7 of the Peace Treaty of 1783). In 1826, the tsar of Russia, awarded some millions of pounds to Americans in compensation.

Of political science, one might say, you really can’t make this stuff up…

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It will take a much deeper kind of democracy, as John Rawls suggests in his Law of Peoples, (p. 53) to make the interdemocratic peace hypotheis, motivated by democratic influence from below, real. Now protest from below is trying to halt Obama’s illegal and unwise bombing of the wretched government of Syria. The U.S. has a terrible problem of out of control, i.e. tyrannical “executive power.” For the people to have deeper and easier access to bridge belligerence, shrink the war complex and move toward peace (negotiated settlements and not using American aggression – Syria has not attacked America) is a long way, yet, from here.

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In talking about Ben Franklin, I told Ken Franklin’s last public writing in 1790 during the first debate in Congress, pushed by the Philadelphia Abolition Society which Franklin led, about abolition (see ch. 9, but this story about Franklin did not survive the final edit…). Franklin imagined an Arab despot (he catered to Orientalist ideology among his readers for the sake of exposing bondage) along the Barbary Coast who practiced slavery and was challenged by a pure sect, the Erika. The despot offered all the slaveowners’s arguments, then said that since there was money in it and the case was not clear, the Erika were wrong.

The abolitionists were not wrong…

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Ken asked me if I still want to go more deeply into these matters, feel strongly about them. I do. We need to remake the understanding of American history, and empower people to take on a new pride, a sense that we can change things (in this, I agree with some of Obama’s sentiments two days ago).

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This show is very lively especially because Ken and I disagree on some current matters (I am much more sympathetic to the crowds in Washington last weekend who called for an end to 2.3 million people in prison – 25% - of the world’s prisoners, and cutting off any chance at a decent life for young people, especially blacks and latinos. I regard marijuana smoking as something not to be persecuted, and certainly not by throwing away a generation. Ken fears that marijuana is a gateway drug. On another occasion, perhaps we can discuss this (granting Ken's point for the sake of argument, there is still a question of the magnitude of a generation's destruction...).

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But the point is that Black Patriots and Loyalists unearths a bedrock truth about poor people throughout American history: that they have stood up (indigenous people, too). That heroic struggle for freedom makes a new kind of society, a multiracial and humane one, possible.

That underpinning, that each of us is free, and that many of us have a history long denied and needing, by many voices, to be told, is the discovery about the American Revolution and the point of view of Black Patriots and Loyalists.

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