". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Slavery's Constitution & the Perfecting of it in the Constitution of the C.S.A.

Some time back I worked through Richard Beeman's excellent, deeply informative study of the Philadelphia (Constitutional) Convention,  Plain Honest Men: The Making of the Constitution (2009). Beeman provides the debates and the articles that deal with slavery as much central attention as any of the other signally important issues, such representation in the hopefully central government.

That same year, 2009, David Waldstreicher also published a study of the Constitution and the making of it, Slavery's Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification.  A much slimmer book than Plain Honest Men, Waldstreicher (also auther of Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery and the American Revolution (2004)), it focuses on this Document sans the entertaining and enlightening context of the personalities and histories of the delegates to the Convention.  He also runs down the various 'historians' schools' approaches to the Constitution, which, like that of the

"... 'republican' or 'ideological school tends to see slavery as at most a side issue -- a distraction that nearly derailed the Constitution.  This is true even though the same historians are sometimes willing to discuss the issue of slavery in other contexts.  There are two reasons for this.  One is that the scholars of republicanism take ideas and rhetoric most seriously  In doing this, they have advanced our understanding of political change in this era. But they tend to see slavery as the opposite of ideas, of discussion, of reason.  Slavery in their view was an ancient institution propped up by a traditional, shared, and irrational racism that, Bailyn and Wood argue, hardly anybody challenged until many decades later.

Yet, recent scholarship depicts African slavery in the eighteenth century as a dynamic, changing modern institution.  Its innovations, and the rise of enlightened critiques of colonialism, contributed to the emergence of antislavery during the same decades, the 1760s and 1770s ... . Instead, these historians bring slavery back into the narrative as post-Revolutionary, American antislavery. ... this explains the Constitution's silence about slavery and suggests the praiseworthy antislavery implications of that silence.  It also excuses the framers from having done anything more. (pp 11-12)
Now, imagine reading along with these two books, a study of how the C.S.A believed it perfected the Consitution by ridding it of the distractions of democratic inclusion and all the other Enlightenment idealism.  The C.S.A. constitution filled in those perceived absences or silences of good taste (the Constitution never employs the words slavery or slaves) by making textually explicit that this is a democracy for white men only.  It was based ideologically and economically on white supremacy, slavery and the inferiority of anyone who is not a white man.  Among real life challenges the C.S.A. encountered immediately with this Constitution was ... C.S.A. women. The C.S.A women had to handle things alone -- whereas the C.S.A government and constitution promised to care for them, as naturally ordained inferiors -- like the slaves -- in the place of their naturally ordained superiors, their (white) male relatives.  Among many other problems, not that much later arrived the necessity to employ slaves and even freemen by the Confederate armed forces.

This book also puts the slaveholding thinking within a nineteenth century, international political and sociological matrix of white supremacist, anti-enlightenment and anti-democratic, anti-reform movements throughout Europe, South America and the U.S.A. Recall, for instance the re-institution of serfdom in Middle Europe and in Russia.  This book is Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South (2010) by Stephanie McCurry. 

I've never seen anything quite like McCurry's study.  Among the many fascinating, unknown events are the women-organized food riots in the Confederacy.  Speculators and gougers hoarded food, raised the prices beyond anything that war or no war, the wives and mothers of the average troop in the Confederate army would never have been able to afford.  The biggest riot was in Atlanta.  For some reason Margaret Mitchell did not choose to include this very large event in her Civil War Atlanta in Gone With the Wind.

No comments: