"Here's Your Mule," Part Two - Slavery and Sinners
One of the most bizarre mischaracterizations of history is the idea that in the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the Lord made the North free, and just, without prejudice or malice. He saw the North, and declared that it was ‘good’.
He then made the South, full of slavery and slave-owners, dark of heart and reeking of cheap gin. They were twisted and evil, taking time out of beating slaves and raping children only to drink lemonade on the veranda dressed as Colonel Sanders... rubbing their hands together, cackling maniacally.
In reality, by the dawn of the 19th century there was slavery pretty much everywhere in the United States. More in some places than others, but it was a thing all over. There were abolitionists as well – pretty much everywhere – carrying on about the evil of the peculiar institution and making everyone unhappy.
It was an onerous institution, even for those not actually slaves. It was expensive and high maintenance and morally suspect, and after a bit the Northern states began realizing they just didn’t need it that badly. Gradually, the practice was phased out and eventually banned - and everyone seemed better off.
Besides, they already had an entirely different class of not-quite-people to exploit and dehumanize. In the elite world of historiography, we call them the "Irish.”
The South, on the other hand, was going the opposite direction. In the late 18th century a clever fellow named Eli Whitney had invented (or at least improved and marketed) the cotton gin!
See, cotton was CRAZY useful, but a nightmare to pick. The picker had to stoop over 94 hours a day, pulling about 1/zillionth of an ounce of cotton from each boll - which the good Lord had seen fit to make POINTY of all things. You got poked a lot, which hurt – and if you bled, even a little, the #$%&ing cotton stuck to your finger. But, you shook it off into the bag and moved on to the next one. If you did this successfully 480 billion times, you had about one handful of cotton.
So people wore a lot of animal skins and weird scratchy things. It was easier.
Whitney’s little machine made this process much less onerous. Basically you threw everything into the machine and spun a handle until hoodies and socks came out the other side. With the deluxe model you could add an Eskimo Joe’s logo and do t-shirts.
The cotton gin, as every middle school history teacher can tell you, made cotton production what we historians call ‘way cray’ more profitable – thus cementing slavery as an ‘essential’ institution for decades past its anticipated life span. Unintended consequences suck.
But that’s not what caused the war – at least not entirely.
See, within a generation or so of the last Northern slave passing on, if you asked the average New Yorker or Pennsylvanian why they didn’t have slavery, they would be unlikely to give you a history or geography lesson. Most would let you know – with conviction – that slavery was bad.
To be fair, slavery WAS bad, but that hadn’t stopped their father’s generation from tolerating or even embracing it. Now it was suddenly primitive, backwards - even sinful. Why, then, did their Southern brethren remain so vested in this peculiar institution?
Well, obviously the south is full of sinners. Not like us – we’re good people. That’s why we abolished it.
Moral superiority. MUCH cooler than a geography or economics lesson.
The North began looking down on the South in newer, uglier ways, and abolition quickly evolved to attack not only the institution but those willingly participating in it as well. The South gave back as well as they received, condemning the ‘wage slavery’ and general self-righteous hypocrisy of the North.
It became personal – much more personal than before.
The abolitionists may have been the 'good guys', but their paths weren't always clear. Some had long, tortured debates regarding the most effective approach to ending slavery without ignoring social, economic, and political realities. Others abhorred compromise, believing righteousness required inflexibility - results coming from divine necessity, not temporal strategy.
They argued over the inclusion of women, and even over how much voice to give to free blacks. Some of this had to do with their lingering biases, but much of it was calculated based on effectiveness – a professionally dressed, traditionally educated, bespectacled white male had a better chance of changing minds when facing entrenched power and culture.
It was ‘right’ to let women speak on behalf of the enslaved. It was more ‘right’ to let freed blacks speak for themselves. But it was sometimes more effective – based solely on the realities of the day – to not.
You see the dilemma?
At least most abolitionists were aware of the inherent murkiness in their cause and their methods. Lincoln himself famously wrestled with exactly how one limited or ended slavery without creating as many problems as were solved – at least on the white side of things.
I mean, come on... Liberia?
But it was when murkiness vanished and conviction reigned that real sparks flew.
I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, 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. (William Lloyd Garrison, 1831)
Wages is a cunning device of the devil, for the benefit of tender consciences who would retain all the advantages of the slave system without the expense, trouble, and odium of being slaveholders. (Orestes A. Brownson, 1840)
One might suspect the Universe had a cruel sense of humor: Whitney’s little machine and the diverging development of two interdependent regions based primarily on geography and human nature. Two such different cultures with such similar values, unable to recognize themselves in one another.
Conflict and confusion among the well-intentioned, most of whose names we’ve largely forgotten - was it more important to be effective or to be just? A largely white population coming to violence over a black population rarely consulted as to their views or desires. An unforgiveable sin in our history becoming almost secondary to the vitriol with which it was debated.
The plot had more holes than Battlestar Galactica, and nearly as many characters we still can’t quite figure out whether to love or despise. (Say what you like about the Cylons, they at least had moral clarity.)
It should have been no surprise that the resulting war would make even less sense. It will set men free, almost accidentally, and without giving them real freedom. It changed everything, which –
(Oh gosh, I’m getting a bit trite and predictable here, aren’t I? My apologies to The Sphinx.)
It changed everything, which of course stayed way too much the same.
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