Tuesday, March 24, 2015

‘The Half Has Never Been Told’ Comment Ten


REVOLUTION AND COUNTER-REVOLUTION. We are now at the end of our journey through the remarkable book on US slavery, ‘The Half Has Never Been Told,’ by Edward E. Baptist. The last chapter is entitled ‘The Corpse,’ again with a double meaning, referring to the dead African Americans who rose up to fight slavery as Union soldiers, and the death of the institution of slavery itself.

As Union armies penetrated deeper into the South, at every camp dozens, hundreds, or even thousands, of ‘contrabands’ appeared, African Americans who deserted slave plantations, mines and mills to join the Union ranks in whatever way they could. W.E.B. Dubois referred to these critical events as ‘the general strike of Black labor,’ and it took the heart out of the slave economy. Some 200,000 of these self-liberated slaves were eventually formally brought into the Union Army, any proved decisive in many battles. Perhaps as many or even more found other ways to assist, working as laborers for the army, or in labor camps that helped produce and supply provisions for the army.

One thing many slave couples did in the army camps was to ask to be married by Union officers, who had the power to make such unions official. It mattered to the former slaves in many ways, but one way was especially important to the widows of some 40,000 Black troops killed in battle. In meant they and their children could receive a surviving widow’s pension.

The 13th Amendment abolishing slavery passed in1864, before the end of the war. On hearing Lincoln speak about it, one John Wilkes Booth stated that this ‘means nigger citizenship, and now, by God, I’ll put him through.’ Within a few months, he did.

The surrender of the South meant a period of dual power existed in the former Confederacy. Black freedmen, many of them armed veterans, together with federal troops, allowed ‘Reconstruction’ governments to emerge, with many freed Blacks and free Blacks being elected to office in new state legislatures and the to US Congress. Many of the laws they passed, designed to meet the needs of the poor generally, were among the most progressive ever seen in the area. Radical Republicans floated the program of supplying every Black man with 40 acres, a mule, a rifle and the right to vote, breaking up old plantations. But it never was implemented. The old ruling classes in the South also organized, especially with the armed terror of the Ku Klux Klan. By 1876, federal troops were withdrawn, and Reconstruction overthrown by ‘Redeemers.’

At the point of a gun or a noose, Blacks were forced into ‘labor contracts,’ ‘sharecropping,’ and penal gangs little different from slavery. But that is a story for another book, ‘Slavery by Another Name’ by Douglas A. Blackmon, describing how this new re-enslavement lasted until 1945. In evaluating Lincoln’s assassination, Baptist makes an interesting point in his conclusion, that the 16th President was either the last casualty of the Civil War or the first casualty of other mass insurgencies for Civil Rights and Black freedom yet to come. But in the end, the most powerful dimension of this book is a simple one. It gives us an excellent and well-documented account of our own history, but one that takes a point of view as its centerpiece, the point of view of the enslaved and the exterminated that made our history even possible. It’s an awakening that won’t go away.

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Sunday, March 22, 2015

‘The Half Has Never Been Told’ Comment Nine


MANIFEST DESTINY'S DNA: SLAVERY, CONQUEST AND GENOCIDE. We are nearing the end of our journey through the remarkable book by Edward E. Baptist, 'The Half Has Never Been Told.' Chapter Nine, next to last, is titled 'Arms,' again with multiple meanings. The simplest one is the strong arms of Black slaves in building the South's railroads, for getting cotton to markets more efficiently.

But its also 'arms' as in the US military uses for expansion, successfully and unsuccessfully. Ethnic cleansing on Native peoples to secure land for new plantations was successful, as was the Mexican War, securing much of the Northern half of Mexico, were slavery had been abolished, for US enslavers.

It didn't stop there, however. There were numerous attempts to annex Cuba for slavery, plotted within the government rather openly. Then there were the entrepreneurial enslavers called 'filibusterers,' the original meaning of that term, who set out to take over nations south of the Rio Grande by armed coups. The most noted was William Walker, who tried to take over Nicaragua in 1956, and declared himself its president. Luckily, it failed and he was executed there. Our history often mentions 'Manifest Destiny' as a simple effort to extend the nation to the Pacific. But it rarely goes deeper into the reasons why, or the methods--expanding slavery and genocide.

Politically, things come to a head with two measures. First, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed Missouri to keep slaves, but allowed Kansas's new government to decide the matter for a population largely opposed to slavery. Missouri pro-slavery thuggish gangs by the thousands invaded and hijacked the politics. But the abolitionists fought back, most notably under John Brown, responding to the killing of 'free soilers' with the execution of pro-enslavers. 'Bloody Kansas' was really the opening of the Civil War. Brown was later thwarted at Harper's Ferry in Virginia, but his hanging served as a clarion call for wider resistance.

The second measure was the infamous Dred Scott decision by the Taney Supreme Court, declaring that African Americans had 'no rights whites were bound to respect,' and practically speaking, required every citizen to assist in slave-catching of runaway slaves everywhere, or be fined and jailed.

These led to the shattering of the two existing parties, Whigs and Democrats. Southern Democrats became secessionists; Northern Democrats were sympathetic, but opposed secession. The Whigs split several ways, North and South and otherwise, imploding. Lincoln's Whig grouping joined with Free Soilers and Liberty Party Advocates, and a mass social youth movement called the 'Wide Awakes', to form what would be a new 'First Party,' opposed to slavery's expansion, but not yet for abolition directly. The Enslavers saw that in practice, however, it meant their doom, and with Lincoln's election, they seceded and launched the armed attack on Fort Sumter. More to come.

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