Presentation on theme: "The Role of Enslaved African Americans in United States History."— Presentation transcript:
The Role of Enslaved African Americans in United States History
The Public Memory of Slavery and its Influence on American Society
Because of the desire on the part of Northerners and Southerners alike to reunify the nation in the aftermath of the Civil War, it was commonly related that both sides had fought honorably for what they believed was right – and that both sides had fought valiantly for a “just cause.” This interpretation of the war simply left out the narrative of African- Americans and the role which they played in fighting and winning the war for the Union. African-American slavery, which was the most important cause of the Civil War, was dropped from the public memory of the war in order to foster reconciliation and unity. The goals of Reconstruction – equality and justice for freedmen – were lost as well. In an effort to redeem Southern Americans, the violence and inhumanity of slavery was minimized.
Film depictions of African-Americans during the Reconstruction period undermined notions of self-advocacy and self-sufficiency. The commonly held conviction of Southerners that slavery was a “positive good” – allowing the enslaved to be redeemed by Christianity and civilized by whites – for their own edification – was reinforced in film. D.W. Griffin’s “The Birth of a Nation”, which was screened in the White House for then President Woodrow Wilson – a well-known segregationist – invents a lie about mob rule by African-Americans and portrays the Ku Klux Klan (a violent hate group responsible for hundreds and perhaps thousands of murders during the period) as an agency promoting order and good will - attempting to protect Southern women from assault. The film reinforces the notion that enslaved blacks needed the moral guidance of their white masters in order to remain civilized. In “Gone with the Wind”, African-American characters are distorted as well – loyal slaves like Mammy, embittered black soldiers, evil scalawags, and punitive carpetbaggers are stock characters in the film. The idea that African-Americans enjoyed their role as slaves and did not seek emancipation is simply untrue. Both films were considered epic dramas and masterpieces when they were released. And while the films were infatuating and spectacular for audiences in their respective periods, they are surely not good history.
Revisionist history has always undermined the public memory of slavery. Of course, slavery was the key issue which led to the Civil War; however, de- emphasizing the differences between the North and South during the conflict was a key to reconciliation and Reconstruction… “In his excellent book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, historian David Blight demonstrates that as soon as the war ended, debate over how to remember it began. Two understandings of the war, he argues, collided in late-nineteenth-century America: an "emancipationist" vision that emphasized black freedom and equality as essential to the war's meaning, and a "reconciliationist" narrative that de-emphasized slavery and saw both sides as fighting for noble causes—the Union, on the part of the North; local rights and individual liberty, on the part of the South. By the turn of the century, as soldiers from North and South fought side by side in the Spanish-American War, the latter triumphed. The abandonment of the nation's commitment to equal rights for the former slaves was one basis on which former white antagonists could reunite. And the displacement of slavery from a central role in the war accorded with the new racial realities under Jim Crow.” From there, the idea that slaveholders were not so brutal or violent, or that slavery as an institution was not so repressive is not such a difficult leap. SOURCE: http://www.ericfoner.com/articles/101011nation.html accessed 3/26/13.http://www.ericfoner.com/articles/101011nation.html
The Coexistence of Slavery and Liberty in an Age of Individual Liberty and Representative Government
Slavery was never simply accepted, and a desire to create a just society was present in African-American communities long before the Civil War brought Emancipation and an opportunity for freedom. Even under the slave system, African-Americans found ways to exercise their freedom and to protest their condition. Slaves on the plantations slowed down their working pace, broke tools, and undermined the productivity of the plantation to protest their condition of servitude. Many slaves were allowed to work on their own plots of land during “free time.” Religious celebrations and a uniquely African American culture emerged on the plantation in this manner. Slaves in urban areas frequently were able to acquire skills and make their own money in public markets – some were able to purchase their own freedom and establish profitable businesses in the process.
While most enslaved people were held on plantations and worked in agriculture, there were other occupations slaves held. In urban areas, many of the enslaved worked in trades - as blacksmiths, cart wrights, or butchers. They were able to hire their own time in many regions – and did so profitably. Some even managed to purchase their own freedom in due time. Time outside of work was used by enslaved people to tend their own private gardens, hire themselves for profit, and to establish their own cultural, religious, and social institutions. Just as importantly, slavery was an ever-present political issue in the United States; it was always recognized as wrong and at odds with our basic values as a representative democracy. It was in opposition to our beliefs as articulated in the Declaration of Independence. Even the Founding Fathers recoiled at the notion of slavery – leaving the word out of the Constitution despite many references to the violent system itself.
In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson originally included the following passage concerning slavery, but the passage was struck out: “He [the king of Britain] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.”
The term “slavery” does not appear in the text of the United States Constitution, despite the fact the it is addressed on a number of occasions. The three-fifths clause identified enslaved African- Americans as three-fifths of a person in terms of representation in Congress – and it gave Southern States greater representation in Congress for holding African- Americans in bondage. The Fugitive Slave Law – requiring non-slaveholders to capture and return runaway slaves was incorporated into the Constitution as well. Finally, the Constitution included a provision which forbid the banning of the international slave trade for a period of twenty years – meaning that the Middle Passage would continue until 1808.
George Washington failed in many ways to articulate an anti-slavery stance during his lifetime. He initially refused to allow slaves and free blacks to serve in the Continental Army; he presided over the Constitutional Convention which both protected and empowered slaveholders in the South; and he OWNED slaves, which he kept even as he accepted the Presidency in 1789. The flaws of Washington are particularly manifest when it comes to the issue of slavery in America. He did, however, make provisions in his will to emancipate his slaves when his wife passed away. (She liberated them almost immediately – fearing that slaves anxious for freedom may take her life.) At Mount Vernon, George Washington held hundreds of slaves which he kept even as he assumed the Presidency in 1789. His wife eventually liberated them.
Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, removed a passage from that document which criticized the British for maintaining slavery. He held hundreds of slaves – even as President – and had an affair with Sally Hemmings, a slave presumed to be the half-sister of his late wife Martha. Enslaved people, recognizing that the language of liberty applied to their own circumstances, used it in an effort to win their own liberty both during the Revolutionary War period and afterwards. Consider, for example, the banner reading “DEATH OR LIBERTY” which the slave Gabriel’s followers planned to carry in their failed rebellion of 1800 in Richmond, VA. Jefferson often compared the hypocrisy of slavery to “holding a wolf by its ears” – he feared maintaining slavery but also feared ending it.
It is often asked, “Why didn’t slaves fight back against their owners?” They did, of course. Nevertheless, we tend to associated slavery with passive, harmonious, and orderly work. Southern slave owners worked hard to maintain this image of slavery in the popular mind, and took pride in their own “paternalism.” They viewed slaves as inferiors but also as dependents and usually sought to maintain a strict hierarchy on their plantations. But ultimately, what kept slaves on the plantations doing work – what allowed plantation owners to sell children away from their mothers – what allowed overseers to whip and brutalize slaves – was violence. Every slave understood that the master could take his or her life without any practical legal consequence.
The largest slave rebellion in the history of the English colonies, the 1739 Stono Rebellion was a determined effort on the part of 20 enslaved people – the leader was known as Jemmy and is presumed to have been a recent arrival from the Congo – to escape to freedom in Spanish controlled Florida. The men were able to attract close to fifty others who were willing to risk their lives to escape slavery and gain emancipation. By the end of the day, South Carolina militiamen had put down the uprising. The vast majority of the men involved were executed, and South Carolina’s state legislature instituted draconian measures to control the enslaved population of the state in the future.
Gabriel’s Rebellion took place in Richmond, Virginia at the turn of the 19 th Century. Although the uprising never really came to fruition, it was especially concerning to slaveholding Virginians because the plot involved both free blacks and cooperating whites. Given the language of liberty which flowed freely during the Revolutionary Period, enslaved people were bound to be inspired to seek emancipation – and since American colonists had gained their independence through armed insurrection, it followed, logically, that armed insurrection might do will to end slavery as an institution as well.
Denmark Vesey, a free black of Charleston, South Carolina, who had once been the property of a slave ship owner, planned a major assault on the city’s slaveholding population in 1822. Vesey, a man well versed in the Bible and politically well informed, had founded his own African Methodist Episcopalian (AME)Church. When white leaders forbid and disbanded the AME Church, he conspired with as many as eight other men to organize a rebellion. He hoped to organize thousands to rise up, slay local slave owners, destroy the city of Charleston, and then sail off from the port of Charleston to points in the Caribbean or in Africa. Vesey, however, was informed on by one of his own conspirators. When the plot was uncovered, scores were arrested and dozens of executions, including the hanging of Vesey, followed. Vesey’s church was torn down, one brick at a time by the whites of Charleston, and anxiety prevailed in South Carolina. After all, Vesey had been a free man. How much angrier and potentially dangerous must the enslaved population themselves be?
Nat Turner’s Rebellion wasn’t the first slave revolt. Hundreds of revolts had taken place over the years – from the Stono Rebellion and Denmark Vesey’s uprising in South Carolina to the Gabriel’s Revolt in Richmond, Virginia in the year 1800. In Haiti, a slave revolt against the French had even resulted in the an independent nation of former slaves. But Nat Turner’s revolt sent out alarm bells across the South. The Southampton Virginia exhorter had organized a massacre – killing men, women, and children – and then escaped punishment for months. When he was caught, he was hung, then skinned. Virginians briefly considered ending the slave system, but instead chose to violently punish the conspirators and then create stricter laws controlling slavery.
The manumission of slaves had begun in Northern states during the early 19 th Century. In states like New York, slaves were bound to their owners for a certain number of years, and then emancipated. By the 1820s, slavery was virtually non- existent in the North. It was in this period that a movement towards abolitionism became more pronounced in the United States. William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator declared in it’s first edition, “ On this subject [slavery], I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; – but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest – I will not equivocate – I will not excuse – I will not retreat a single inch – AND I WILL BE HEARD.”
Frederick Douglass, himself a runaway slave, began his abolitionist meetings familiarly with the lines, “I appear before you this evening as a thief and a robber. I stole this head, these limbs, this body from my master and ran off with them.” In 1847, he established his own abolitionist newspaper, the North Star, which promoted the abolitionist movement. He was committed to other causes as well – including the woman’s suffrage movement. Along with other prominent abolitionist speakers like Sojourner Truth and the well- known Harriet Tubman, Douglass was a leading African-American spokesperson for the abolition of slavery in America.
In 1839, the enslaved people led by Sengbeh Pieh (Cinque) mutinied and took over the Spanish slave ship Amistad. Although they demanded that the ship be returned to Sierra Leone in Africa, the captains of the vessel were able to cross the Atlantic by deceit, and the ship was taken over of the coast of New Haven, CT in 1839. When the ship was impounded, the slaves on board were arrested and imprisoned as mutineers. But former President John Quincy Adams, an abolitionist invested with a passion for the rights of man, represented the men in court and convinced an American judge to set the men at liberty. Within New England, abolitionist sentiments had begun to resonate. Not so to the south. Cinque, the leader of the mutiny onboard the slave vessel Amistad, was freed through the efforts of ex-President John Quincy Adams. African-Americans who fought back against their enslavers were often executed, but this case shows how conscious Americans were of the violence within slavery – and the natural rights of men with which all enslaved people were endowed by their creator.
How the United States was Polarized and Provoked into War over the Issue of Enslaved Men and Women
The original crisis regarding the issue of slavery came with the petition from the state of Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state in 1820. The Senate membership being what it was, the admission of Missouri would have given a decisive advantage to the slave states. The Compromise which was brokered included three major points: 1. Maine would be added to the Union as a free state. 2. Missouri would be added to the Union as a slave state. 3. A line of demarcation would be drawn from Missouri’s southern border - 36°30’ N latitude. North of the line, all future states would be free. To the south, slavery would be permitted.
The story of the annexation of Texas is one which is recounted in every history textbook in America – for reasons that have more to do with textbook adoption than US History, at times. During the 1820s, Stephen F. Austin had led a group of emigrants to Texas at the invitation of the Mexican government. They were expected to maintain loyalty to the Mexican government, to ban slavery, and to convert to Catholicism. None of the above actually happened. Part of the reason for the Texas War for Independence – this is not a main theme in the aforementioned texts – was the desire to preserve the institution of slavery. For nine years, Texas existed as an independent republic. When President John Tyler annexed the state, the expansion of slavery was a major factor in his reasoning – the threat of war with Mexico – which still claimed the territory as its own – was dismissed, as well. Many Americans saw war with Mexico as an opportunity to claim territory for the extension of slavery – much of the land was below the 36°30’ Missouri Compromise Line.
According to historian Eric Foner, “At the cotton plantations in Tennessee and Mississippi owned by President James K. Polk, conditions were so brutal that only half the slave children lived to the age of fifteen.” Polk was the Speaker of the House who enforced a gag order on the slavery issue – refusing to allow even the discussion of abolitionism in his chamber of the Congress. As President, he encouraged the provocation of the Mexican-American War in an effort to take California for the United States and to ensure that lands South of the Missouri Compromise Line were available for the expansion of slavery and the acquisition of future slave states. His brutal methods were typical of slaveholders in the Deep South. Who started the Civil War? This man is at the top of the list…
The United States of America annexed Texas in 1845, as President John Tyler left office and was replaced by the most expansionist President in our nation’s history, James K. Polk. Having run on the posturing campaign motto “Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!”, a barb intended for English ears over the Oregon Country, Polk was soon embroiled in a dispute not with England, but with our neighbors to the South, in Mexico. Desiring the resource rich land of California, Polk quickly provoked a war with the turmoil plagued Mexican nation, defeated their military, and demanded the concession of Mexico’s northwestern provinces. The Mexican Cession of 1848 included California, as well as most of the American Southwest. But the rapid expansion left Americans reeling and anxious over the future of slavery as pioneers and settlers went forth.
At no point in the years leading up to the civil war did the Congress proposing ending slavery where it already existed. The institution of slavery in the South was not endangered. However, the future of slavery was very much in doubt geographically. The West, in a very real sense, was the future. When Americans envisioned the nation twenty, fifty, or one hundred years hence, they envisioned a West that was occupied by Americans, prosperous, and utilizing the resources of the environment. What kind of a lifestyle would be expanded into the west was a point of critical difference between Northern and Southern Americans. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 had attempted to resolve this issue, but by the 1850s – with Americans rapidly pouring into the west – the issue became more palpable and the arguments more vigorous. The fact that slave-owning Southerners were unable to participate in the “Manifest Destiny” of the nation according to the same economic terms they had in the past was viewed as unacceptable.
The picture to the right is from 1890, but African-American industrial labor was not a recent innovation at the time. In the years prior to the Civil War, the nature of slavery was rapidly diversifying. Where previously Americans had argued that slavery could never expand into the West because the geography was not suitable for plantation agriculture, now, Americans recognized that slave labor could serve owners of railroad companies, mining operations, or any of a host of other economic interests. And the benefit of slave labor to the bottom line of any business was clear. By the end of the 1850s, two of the leading owners of slaves in Virginia were the railroads and the Tredegar Iron Works – demonstrating the dynamic potential of slave labor in the economy of the South – or West.
THE COMPROMISE: California entered the Union as a free state. The slave trade was banned in Washington, D.C. Popular Sovereignty would determine the future of slavery in Western Territories. The Fugitive Slave Law was made stricter than ever, requiring Northerners to aid in the capture and return of runaway slaves from the South.
1850 – The Compromise of 1850 left Southerners angry over the decline of their influence in the Congress – and doubtful that slavery would be extended into the West. Northerners were equally outraged that they might be compelled to participate in the capture and return, indeed, the enslavement of runaway “property.” 1852 – Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin is published, enraging Southerners for it portrayal of slaveholders and eliciting great, passionate support for abolitionism among Northern readers.
1854 – The Kansas-Nebraska Act resolves that popular sovereignty would determine the future of slavery in the west. “Bleeding Kansas” a microcosm and fore- runner of the Civil War, breaks out in the Kansas Territory. The act essentially reversed previous agreements – the Missouri Compromise Line, for example – by allowing citizens of the territory in question to determine the future of slavery in their region. Violence erupted in Kansas during the 1850s – most notably when John Brown and his sons massacred five pro-slavery men along the banks of Pottawatomie Creek. Rival governments were established in Kansas – one pro- slavery and one against. The spilling of blood over the future of slavery was a precursor to the Civil War.
In the case of Dred Scott V. Sandford, the Supreme Court issued a ruling which essentially legalized slavery in every state in the Union. Dred Scott was not freed when his master took him into a free state – because Southerners property rights were inviolable no matter where they should choose to relocate. While politicians considered the contentious issue of the expansion of slavery into the Western Territories, the Supreme Court unilaterally determined that the rights to private property of Southern slaveholders could not simply be waived when a he or she moved from one state in the Union to another. Hence, if slaves legally owned by a citizen of a slaveholding state were moved to a “free state” – well, the free state did not have the legal right to seize – or free – his or her personal property: in this case, an enslaved person.
In his ruling, Chief Justice Roger Taney determined that enslaved African-Americans – and indeed, even free blacks – “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made by it." Taney’s ruling was met with outrage and defiance on the part of abolitionists, who redoubled their efforts to undermine the Fugitive Slave Law and forbid the expansion of slavery into the West.
In 1858, radical abolitionist John Brown and a handful of his followers marched into Harper’s Ferry, VA intending to provoke a slave rebellion on a massive scale. Brown was a veteran of the fighting in Pottawatomie Creek in Kansas, and had devoted his live to the destruction of slavery. He vowed to purge the land of the sin of slavery with blood, if necessary. Although the uprising in Harper’s Ferry was quickly put down, the South was nonplussed by the event. A white man had led slaves into battle, openly advocating murder, revolution, and bloodshed. And what was worse in the eyes of most Southerners, Brown was considered a hero by many Northern abolitionists, from Frederick Douglas to Ralph Waldo Emerson, to William Lloyd Garrison. Depictions of Brown as a martyr and hero were inexplicable to those who favored slavery, yet, they persisted.