". . . 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

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Framers of Pro-slavery Philosophy

The evolution of anti-slavery thinking, and who helped craft that thinking, is fairly well known to students of the Civil War.  These people's names, whether Harriet Tubman, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, all of the Beechers and Stowes, the Grimkés, Seward, Stanton, Chase -- Lincoln himself, and so many more -- are highly recognizable names today, even among people who aren't specialists in the Civil War and the related subjects. There are many books who include the work and writing of less illustrious, though equally effective abolitionists.

Then there are the many, many slave narratives, the books written by free people who were kidnapped into slavery, such as Solomon Northrup, or those born into slavery and escaped finally, like Harriet Jacobs.  There is no corresponding genre that the slave power could counter with, no slave narratives, penned by slaves extolling the wonders of their condition.

However, there were also many well-known, published and highly respected men who equally consciously and carefully crafted the southern slave power's pro-slavery philosophy between 1820 and 1850. But these days the only widely recognized names for anyone who studies American history are probably Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and John C. Calhoun. James D.B. DeBow was at least equally influential as the previous three.  I would be curious to learn who aren't historians looking at slavery can say off the top of their head who DeBow was though.  As enormously influential as he was, as well-known as he was in those decades, right up to 1860, and even after, maybe his name isn't as recognizable as I think?  He never served in the house or the senate or in a president's cabinet, unlike Calhoun -- who is also forever closely linked with other very famous figures, such as John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson.) There aren't many books about these men.

Thus the last few days I have been digging into dusty, musty bound volumes of the writings of some the other famous pro-slavery men, besides DeBow: Hinton Helper, Michael Pillard, BGeorge Fitzhugh, Leonidas Spratt and Edward Deloney.

I'm so completely convinced of the sheer right in every way of the anti-slavery people, I cannot in the least find any value at all in a single word any of these men wrote, or in the authorities to which they appeal -- the two foundation documents of course for them are the Bible (Old Testament) and the Constitution.  There is one other authority to which they appeal, and that is classical Rome and Greece, because they too had slaves. In refutation one begins immediately: " But the slavery in the Bible, classical Rome and Greece, was not race based." And that's just to start with.

As distasteful as perusing such texts are in so many ways, they do bring one closer to 'feeling' those decades.  In their own way looking at these proudly proffered words about the dogma around which these men and so many others organized their lives, their families, their communities, their finances and their politics helps draw back that inexorable veil between then and now.

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