Tuesday, July 02, 2019

2 July

     No, I don't have any comments on tennis-shoe patterns, activism or the overly-shallow treatment of what passes for historical knowledge in many circles these days.

     Nope, here's what I've got for today: we celebrate it on the official date, the Fourth of July, but it was on this date that an assorted group of thinkers, politicians, polemicists and "direct action" men, all of them white, many of them well-off, many of them slave-owners, put their signatures on the document that touched light to the fuse of events that would result in the ethical, moral, political and technological advances that would, over not too many years as history is counted, put an end to slavery.

     At least some of them knew it, too.  And signed anyway.


The Old Man said...

Bloody well put, young lady. Your grasp of history would reflect well on any pundit (no offense). I trust you are healing well.

markm said...

The more thoughtful founding fathers expected economic progress and the filling up of the country to render slavery impractical. In England, both chattel slavery and the somewhat milder slavery of serfdom had almost died out because they could not compete with paid workers. (The difference between chattel slavery and serfdom was that slaves could be sold at auction, away from their village and their family, while serfs could only be sold by selling the land under them - and only by selling the whole village and fields together. That's a pretty big difference for the slaves.)

Slavery was introduced to the colonies because in a new land with no pre-existing peasants, it was impossible to hire and keep enough wage workers to run a plantation in the south and central states. Why work under the hot sun to make profits for another man when you could walk west, find empty land, and work under the hot sun for yourself? The planters tried getting indentured servants - British folks who would sell themselves into slavery for a limited time, to get themselves out of debt and pay for their passage. But too many of them reneged and squatted on farms in the west, and in a day before fingerprints and photography, it wasn't practical for a plantation owner to go look for them _himself_ and then try to persuade a jury (probably composed of poor whites and runaways) that he was telling the truth about recognizing this guy.

So they turned to the trans-Atlantic slave ships (which existed already, to supply the Spanish-Americans with labor for their gold mines). Buying and then training these Africans was costly, it required changing your management techniques, and you had to feed them even when your cash crop failed, but it met the quantity needs for labor, and runaways could not hide in a poor white population.

What most people who thought about this in 1776 was that the need for slaves would be temporary. Eventually the frontier would move so far west that wage workers would have to save for years to afford to go there. Eventually the bits of land left around the plantations would be taken up by poor whites, who would need jobs to supplement their little farms. And these wage workers would do better work without costing any more overall. Plantation owners would cease buying slaves, and gradually free their remaining slaves a little at a time.

And this worked in the central and northern states. In parts of New England, slavery was already so rare that it could be simply abolished with little impact. In New York and the neighboring states, taking up new slaves was banned, and existing slaves were freed a little at a time, based on birth date. For example, Sojourner Truth was legally still a slave on a NY farm in the early 1820's - and illegally kept as a slave for a few years longer, but she was still freed while fairly young. And her children were born free - although her owner sold them illegally, and she had to go to court to get them back.

But something happened in the south: the invention of the cotton gin. Before that, the only cotton that was practical to grow in quantity was Egyptian long-fiber cotton; the seeds of this were easily separated, but in the USA it only grew on the island chain off the southeast coast. Short-fiber cotton grew all over the south, but the seeds clung to the fibers and hand-separating them was possible only for small quantities. The cotton gin solved that problem, but there were many other ways that cotton was labor-intensive. The planters now needed more labor than they had ever expected, and had the cash crop to buy all the slaves they could get.

markm said...

Congress still banned the importation of slaves on the first day the Constitution allowed this, Jan 1, 1808. The Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves was proposed by Jefferson, a planter with lots of slaves himself, passed in March 1807 with a delayed effective date, and at least some Southerners must have voted for it. Enforcement wasn't always effective, but the feds kept trying, even passing a death penalty for importing African slaves in 1820, but juries would not impose heavy penalties... And the South turned to systematically breeding more slaves.

And attitudes in the South kept hardening. In 1830, Virginia held a convention to consider abolishing slavery; it lost, but not by a wide margin. By the 1850's, a man who spoke out against slavery in the South was risking his life, and a southern Congressman even beat a northern Congressman senseless _in the Chamber while the House was in session_. When slavery was put up for a popular vote in Kansas Territory, Missourians crossed the river, not only to pack the polls, but also to randomly murder abolitionists in the street. (John Brown and his followers then set out to murder slavery advocates, in a far more organized and psychopathic way, so maybe the southerners would have been better off sticking to just words.)

As a descendant of Jayhawkers and non-slave-owning Missourians, I date the start of the Civil War to several years before Lincoln's election. In 1861 after Lincoln's inauguration was just when it re-lit and spread.