Sunday, August 24, 2014

Frederick Douglass and the Hidden Truth about Slavery

by Nomad

A letter written while former slave Frederick Douglass toured England reveals a truth about the insults and attacks aimed him. What was the mindset of those that use this kind of language?

His observation gives us an insight into a half-hidden truth about slavery and the age that followed.

Exciting Hatred and Jealousy
The quote in  the meme above comes from a letter sent to the abolitionist and newspaper mogul Horace Greeley in 1846. It had been sent from Great Britain, where Frederick Douglass was giving a series of anti-slavery speeches and recounting his own history. 

Douglas' purpose for his trans-Atlantic journey was to lay bare the evils of slavery before the British people.
Slavery exists in the United States because it is reputable, and it is reputable in the United States because it is not disreputable out of the United States as it ought to be, and it is not so disreputable out of the United States as it ought to be because its character is not so well known as it ought to be.
In calling out the sins of America, both North and South, by indicting those that stood by hypocritically, he was subtly pointing out the British role as well. 

Using every possible rhetorical device, Douglass, in his farewell address to the British, pointed out how the Christians in England had been "hoodwinked" when American evangelicals alleged "that their peculiar circumstances make it a matter of Christian duty in them to hold their slaves." 

He warned the British "that slavery takes refuge in the churches of the United States " and for them not to be misled by the excuses the Americans had offered about slavery. 
He went still further:
The fact is, the whole system, the entire network of American society, is one great falsehood, from beginning to end. I might say, that the present generation of Americans have become dishonest men from the circumstances by which they are surrounded.
From the period of the first adoption of the constitution of the United States downward, everything good and great in the heart of the American people— everything patriotic within their breasts—has been summoned to defend this great lie before the world. They have been driven from their very patriotism, to defend this great falsehood.
*   *   *   *
There are, for a historian, some interesting points in the Greeley letter. In it, he referred to his numerous critics in the New York press who condemned him for being "a runaway slave" (as if there were some merit or nobility in remaining a slave.) 
As Douglass wrily noted, "There's no pleasing some people." (That's something President Obama has had to learn the hard way.)

His critics were, Douglass wrote, "so anxious to excite against me the hatred and jealousy of the American people."

One newspaper in particular had launched personal attacks upon Douglass, as his letter reports.
I have been denounced by the New-York Express as a "glib-tongued scoundrel," and gravely charged, in its own elegant and dignified language, with "running a muck in greedy-eared Britain against America, its people, its institutions, and even against its peace."
Yet, in an abstract way, this hysterical reaction fascinated the cool-headed Douglass. 

He could understand- in a detached way-  why Southern slave owners and traders would launch personal attacks on him. A trader of slaves, he writes, was "one who has all his property in human flesh, blinded by ignorance as to his own best interest, and under the dominion of violent passions engendered by the possession of discretionary and irresponsible power over the bodies and souls of his victims."

These were people who treated slaves in much the same way as they treated horses, swine or sheep. Naturally they would not be expected to be filled to the brim with human compassion for a runaway slave.

What confounded him was: why there were people in the north so hostile toward his mission to England? In this case, represented by the editors of a New York newspaper, New-York Express.  Weren't these people who apparently had no connection to the Southern institution of slavery?

There was something that Douglass had not yet fully comprehended. And it had less to do with slavery and more to do with the cotton industry.

Ascendency of the North
Whether Douglass was fully aware of it or not, informing the English people how their cotton came to them was bound to ruffle feathers. Spreading that truth, arousing a degree of conscience in England- which had already outlawed slavery- could adversely affect those special interests with the most to lose. 
Namely those whose fortunes were connected to the cotton trade, especially, the trade speculators of the North.

According to historians, before the war, 90% of the world's cotton trade passed through the hands of speculators on its way to textile mills in England.

As author  Gene Dattel explains in his book, Cotton and Race in the Making of America: The Human Costs of Economic Power:
“Britain, the most powerful nation in the world, relied on slave-produced American cotton for over 80 per cent of its essential industrial raw material. English textile mills accounted for 40 percent of Britain’s exports. One-fifth of Britain’s twenty-two million people were directly or indirectly involved with cotton textiles.”
As the biggest, wealthiest, and noisiest city in the United States, New York's economy was tightly bound to Southern cotton. By 1822 half of the city's exports were related to cotton, which also fed the upstate and New England textile mill.
Slave-produced cotton “brought commercial ascendancy to New York City, was the driving force for territorial expansion in the Old Southwest and fostered trade between Europe and the United States.”
This could explain why some powerful people in New York felt such animosity towards Douglass' British tour.

In fact, The New York Express, run by the brothers James and Erastus Brooks, had long been a Whig party organ. The Whig party at that time stood for solid capitalist principles like a market-oriented economy. Their economic policy was called "The American System" and reflected a much more modern approach to industrialization with a national bank, "internal improvements" such as roads and railroads, and a protective tariffs. 
(Eventually, the slave question would tear the Whig political party apart.)

The outrage against a runaway slave's speaking tour to the British masses had nothing to do with patriotism, or morality or even racism. It was a question of protecting industry and a lucrative trade arrangement.   

The Language of the Slave Driver
In the Greeley letter, Douglas was fairly nonchalant about the name-calling and  tried to remain detached. The insults, he wrote, didn't bother him.
This former slave had a strong faith in the American people and in the country. Given the circumstances of his life is perhaps surprising.
Such epithets will have no prejudicial effect against me on the mind of the class of American people, whose good opinion I sincerely desire to cultivate and deserve.
Furthermore, he makes this astute observation:
Of the low and vulgar epithets, coupled with the false and somewhat malicious charges, very little need be said. I am used to them. Their force is lost upon me, in the frequency of their application. I was reared where they were in the most common use. They form a large and very important portion of the vocabulary of characters known in the South as plantation "Negro drivers."
The men in the North who castigated him so vigorously in the local press of the North were, he implied, using the same language and style as the men who managed and "broke" the slaves in the South. He points out that the actual gentleman slave owner would never stoop to using such language but the men he employed frequently did.
The actual owner of slaves leaves those words and that vulgarity "to find their way into the world of sound, through the polluted lips of his hired 'Negro driver'—a being for whom the haughty slaveholder feels incomparably more contempt than he feels toward his slave."
Like the slave-owner, Douglass confesses to Greeley that he has the same contempt for those slave drivers, "whether born North or South." 

That last phrase is clearly filled with implication. It suggests that Douglass had a sharp eye and insight to the hidden gears of the capitalist system. The reporters and editors in the press who attacked him were simply doing the work for others whom preferred to remain unseen and unsoiled.  

Slavery of Wages
Much later in his life, with the South destroyed and the "peculiar" institution that it had based its economy on had been abolished, Douglass acknowledged that the extinct institution of slavery should not be replaced by a more insidious form. 
"Experience demonstrates that there may be a slavery of wages only a little less galling and crushing in its effects than chattel slavery, and that this slavery of wages must go down with the other."
By then, of course, it was too late.  
As Jacob A. Riis, the crusading photographer who exposed the conditions of the poor in New York, would write in the1880s:
Ever since the war, New York has been receiving the overflow of colored populations from the Southern cities. In the last decade this migration has grown to such proportions that it is estimated that our Blacks have quite doubled in number since the Tenth Census.
Whether this exchange has been of advantage to the negro may well be questioned. Trades of which he had practical control in his Southern home are not open to him here.
In American history, this was an ironic tragedy that Douglass saw only the shadows of. While the emancipated slave population had now attained its freedom, within a generation it was to join the ranks of the impoverished immigrant and victimized working class. 

The wage system- the one we presently live in- differed, as one writer noted, "perhaps more in appearance than in fact from the original chattel slavery from which it was evolved."

But, for the black American,  the question remained was he or she actually better off after his emancipation?

The writer, Ernest Crosby, wrote in 1907, less than ten years after Douglas' death .
The lot of a wage-worker is undoubtedly preferable to that of a slave, but there are points of resemblance between them and there are some advantages on the side of the slave. Under slavery there is never any question of the unemployed, and no one ever seeks work without finding it. It is the master's interest to keep his slave in good health. The wage-earner is free to starve or to commit suicide, but the slave was not, for his master had a stake in his life and strength. A good slave was worth a thousand dollars, but a good wage-earner is worth nothing at all, for you can pick up another on the next corner.
But there is one more indigestible irony. 
Perhaps the greatest advantage which the wage-worker possesses over the slave is that he thinks that he is free, and freedom is such a quickener and vivifier that the mere belief that you have it is a tonic in itself.
That idea shouldn't surprise anybody too much. In 1860, Benjamin Stanton, a U.S. Representative from Ohio, pointed out that slavery was not merely a race issue but it was an equality issue.
It is said the white man may enslave the negro because he is his superior, physically and intellectually. But it will be remembered, if mere superiority gives the title, then it is not simply that a white man may enslave the negro because he is inferior, but that he may enslave another white man who is his inferior. It is the inferiority of the slave and the superiority of the master upon which the right rests. It is not, therefore, a question of race or complexion.
Slavery, either the chattel or wage variety, undermines the entire artifice of democracy and the idea that all men are endowed with equal rights.