“Slave and Citizen in the Modern World” By Thomas Holt

We have all heard it before: History is about knowing dead people and long forgotten dates. Certainly, this popular refrain is at least partially true. I’m thinking of course of the multiple choice tests we were all forced to endure during high school. But far from this popular practice, the study of History is, in fact, a science. It stands as a systematic method of inquiry, where archived material, family papers, and public records are used to build interpretive frameworks that facilitate our understanding of the past. But History is not always retrogressive. These same interpretive frameworks can be applied to the present and, at times, the future, allowing for a bit of, shall we say, perspective as to our present condition, where we are going, and how to avoid the pitfalls that may arise along the way. The term “interpretive framework” is without a doubt vague, but they are highly familiar to us all. They manifest themselves in constructed ideas, phases, and concepts like “Paternalism,” “Antebellum,” and “Modernity” which come replete with their own sets of schemas and paradigms that help us make sense of a given historical topic.

The term “emancipation” is not quite as abstract. It is simply the act of being liberated from something, but it is most often applied to being freed from slavery. In American history, the national process of emancipation—I call it a process because that is truly what it was, starting with the Confiscation Acts and ending with the Thirteenth Amendment—was a monumental moment in our nation’s history, for it was the time when the promise of the Declaration of Independence was finally coming to fruition—at least for a while. Over the years, the study of our country’s emancipation process has since developed its own set of schemas and paradigms, making it, in my mind at least, its own interpretive framework for how we understand the dissolution of slavery in this country.

The only problem with these frameworks, however, is that sometimes they set limits to our understanding when our perspective on a given topic desperately needs to be expanded. In After Slavery, a collection of essays dealing with the challenges freedmen and women faced following the Civil War, Thomas C. Holt’s introductory essay titled “Slave and Citizen in the Modern World: Rethinking Emancipation in the Twenty-First Century” calls us to do just that.

Holt’s essay draws striking parallels between the worlds of plantation slavery and “slave-like” sweatshop labor, forcing the reader to consider the implications behind the reality that ancient methods of labor extraction still exist in a country that places the expansion of freedom at the center of its world view. Using a 1995 case occurring in the Los Angeles suburb of El Monte and a similar case in the Sunset Park area of Brooklyn, New York as a point of departure, Holt blurs the line between the diabolical and utterly inhumane Atlantic Slave Trade and the late twentieth century process we now know as Globalization. Both movements, he points out, arose out of a concerted effort to satisfy world markets with, in the case of the Atlantic slave trade, raw materials and under globalization, cheap goods—both of which could not have been accomplished without a steady abundance of cheap, mobile labor.

Parsing out the differences between slave labor and the “slave-like” labor found in sweatshops is a valid undertaking, but for this comparison, in-depth analysis is not needed. All that is needed to know is that sweatshop laborers are forced into oppressive labor situations where an undue amount of control is exerted over them. They are, to briefly paraphrase and add to Holt, often pushed into unfair labor contracts which sometimes mandate that a worker’s wage be withheld until a certain quota of production has been met, disallowed from organizing themselves as a bargaining labor force, inhibited from seeking outside allies, and often racialized–meaning that many of the workers come from other parts of the globe, creating what Holt calls a “not-us” or outsider mentality, allowing them to be tucked away in enclaves out of plain site. In essence, they are not in any way the single independent agents in their own lives, which, in my mind, is enough to grant validity to the comparison. Might I point out too that Holt’s essay does not even mention the nefarious and all too real world of sex slavery, a system that I would presume warrants an even stronger comparison.

But so what? What purpose does this comparison serve and how does it relate to thinking about Emancipation? Well this topic is certainly one that needs more study for a final conclusion to be made, but I think the message, at this stage at least, is simple. The comparison proves that just as the Civil Rights Movement did not eradicate notions of white supremacy (do we need to look any farther than Charleston, S.C. for proof of this?), our country’s national emancipation process did not put an end to the terrible human quality that beckons one to exploit the labor of another for personal gain. It is a quality, quite frankly, that is engrossed in greed, making it inherent to human nature. As a result, our country’s emancipation process is one that, I believe, is never ending, and its history should help shape our future policy, lest slavery, in any of its nuances or variances like sweatshop labor or sex slavery, creep back into our society.

 

 

References

Holt, Thomas. “Slave and Citizen in the Modern World: Rethinking Emancipation in the Twenty-First Century.” in Baker, Bruce E., and Brian Kelly. After slavery : Race, Labor, and Citizenship in the Reconstruction South, Gainesville : University Press of Florida, 2013.

Image Url: http://positiveactivism.org/2013/09/11/sweatshops-child-labor-and-what-you-can-do/

The American Political Tradition: And the Men Who Made It

America’s political history is defined by points of contention. Whether it be in ideas or principles, disagreement is natural, if not essential, to the political process. It is what turns the dial, so to speak, of political thought, weaving the country through various phases and periods. It should come as no surprise, then, that our most celebrated political thinkers have been those who arose during the most contested moments in our history. These men—the likes of Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln among others—harnessed the moment, fashioned their own iconic set of ideas, and, consequently, wrote themselves into the pages of history. It was their stature, in the midst of such strife, that has elevated them to the lofty status we now hold them at today.

In his classic 1948 work, The American Political Tradition: And the Men Who Made It, renowned historian and public intellectual Richard Hofstadter charts a different course. Rather than pointing out the differences dividing the American political class, Hofstadter argues that there is a “mute organic consistency” embedded within our political framework. A dedication to the principles of freedom and democracy seem to be obvious components of such consistency, but Hofstadter moves a step further, pointing out that, regardless of party affiliation, the American political consciousness is traditionally rooted in a belief in the rights of property and economic independency. These foundational beliefs, according to Hofstadter, march lockstep with the development of modern industrial capitalism and allow for the coexistence of both democratic governing structures and capitalist systems. Moments of strife have naturally arose, but when taken on the whole, these moments prove to be stark outliers. That America has been able to maintain itself for so long serves as a testament, at least in the eyes of Hofstadter, to strength of the country’s “fundamental working arrangements (xxxvii).”

Hofstadter’s argument is perhaps best embodied by the men who hashed out these “fundamental arrangements.” The brilliancy of the American Government, he points out, is that it checked vice with vice, not vice with virtue. The founders believed man to be naturally greedy and self-interested. Therefore, the government, which would be driven by man, was designed to halt the ambition of one branch with ambition of another, a system commonly thought of as checks and balances. But this system of controlling the vices of man goes farther than what is often taught in schools. With an incredible amount of foresight and circumspect political thinking, the founders designed a government that controlled man’s cupidity in other equally fundamental and successful ways.

For one, the country was designed as a federation of states. In one state, a minority, driven by their own misguided and corruptible passions, could overthrow the power of the majority, but in a federation of states, the others, acting on behalf of the majority, held the power to suppress the fractious minority and maintain civic harmony. Representative government itself, is another way to control the passions of man. Direct democracy places the mechanism of government in the unstable hands of the people, but in a representative democracy, the onus of government is given to members of society believed to be more prudent and morally resolute. The most brilliant of all, however, lies in the split assembly. To the makers of the Constitution, the divided congress represented the interests of the commoners (the House) and those of the perceived American aristocracy (the Senate). Having the two houses neutralized one from subjugated the other through governmental control. These three principles of American government, at their core, establish an environment of peace and moderation by disallowing the government from undergoing violent swings of power, also known as revolutions, and safeguarding the power of the majority from the discontent of the minority. Under such a government, freedom was not created; harmony was simply maintained. Only the opponents of the constitution—Jefferson and his anti-federalist—were concerned with prescribing freedom. They famously refrained from signing the revered document until the Bill of Rights were written in.

As Hofstadter points out, liberty, after all, was essentially property—or the ability for one to acquire property, invest it, and use it however he or she pleased. The founders, he asserts, “aimed to create a government that would act as an honest broker among a variety of propertied interests, giving them all protection from their common enemies and preventing any one of them from becoming too powerful (15).” The lineage of political thinkers that followed, from Calhoun to Roosevelt, Clay to Wilson, sought to maintain this “brokerage.” Thus, Hofstadter comes to the conclusion that a concurrent strain of what can only be referred to as a moderate conservatism runs through the heart of the American political class, seeking social and economic harmony at all times and advocating for reform only when one interest grows large enough to threaten another.

Hofstadter, Richard. The American Political Tradition: And the Men Who Made It. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1948. Print.

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Liberty and Power by Harry Watson

Liberty and Power by Harry Watson is about what the title suggests. Amazon will tell you it’s about the political career of Andrew Jackson. But at its core, the book is about the coexistence of liberty and power in the political environment of the early 19th century. Jackson’s career–the source of much squabbling between Whigs and Democrats alike–just happens to be the perfect embodiment of that coexistence, laying the foundation for a political structure still in use today.

Prior to Jackson, liberty and power had been two irreconcilable terms in the American political arena. America’s republican government rested on liberty for the common man, and the preservation of that liberty was secured through the collective virtue of the populace. As Watson notes, the Market Revolution, along with the many societal changes it precipitated, threatened America’s supposed collective virtue by giving rise to powerful institutions like the National Bank. These institutions, as the Democrats saw it, trampled on the independence of small landholders and the laboring class as a whole. As a result, power—in any sense of the word—quickly became the antithesis to the sanctity of American liberty.

Andrew Jackson entered the oval office as a democratic crusader bent on fighting the powerful in the name of the not so powerful. His presidency ushered in an era of universal white male suffrage and witnessed a return to the political ideals of the early Democratic Republicans. On the surface it appeared as if liberty would forever be safeguarded from the corruptible nature of power as long as Jackson and his “Kitchen Cabinet” romped through the halls of the White House.

Of course, the inherent irony at the center of Watson’s argument is that Jackson protected liberty by combating the growth of power with his own executive strength. Jackson’s presidency teetered on the brink of demagoguery, growing the stature of the executive office with every action. Of course, to Jackson, it was all in the name of the common man. Take for instance his crusade against the National Bank. Jackson believed that banks were simply a means of perpetuating monied monopolies and none was a larger culprit than the country’s National Bank. In 1832, a bill to recharter the bank and keep it in existence passed both the House and the Senate. Jackson, however, vetoed the bill—an action, mind you, that did not occur as often in the 19th century as it does today. In an attempt to kill the bank for good, Jackson then issued an executive order mandating that federal deposits be taken from the Bank and dispersed to other state and local “pet banks,” effectively negating the Bank’s ability to loan money.

As Watson points out in the concluding chapters of the book, Jackson’s legacy lies in the birth of the American two party system which, more often than not, divides itself over this delicate balance between liberty and power. In fact, even in today’s modern political climate, much of the haggling between the two parties is derived from this very issue. And even still, the language used to describe the balance has not changed. Jacksonian rhetoric can be found throughout the history of American politics, particularly during its most contentious episodes. The Populists, for instance, acting in the 1880s and 90s, harkened back to the same Jacksonian theme of “The People” in an effort express the common plight of poor labors in the face of corporate America. Similarly, the rhetoric used to describe the Watergate Scandal placed virtue at odds with corruption in a fashion akin to how Jackson and his democratic supporters rallied support on the campaign trail. Therefore, Watson perhaps says it best when he remarks that “If Andrew Jackson could never restore the Old Republic, he succeeded remarkably in shaping the changing Republic that followed him.”

 

Work Cited: Watson, Harry L. Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America. New York: Hill and Wang. 1990.

Image of Andrew Jackson as “King Andrew I,” a popular moniker used by his political opponents is courtesy of History.com

The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America by Lawrence Goodwyn

In The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America, an abridged version of the much larger and more widely celebrated Democratic Promise, Lawrence Goodwyn offers a concise review of how agrarian political insurgents challenged America’s two party political system and the corporate state it protected. Beginning with a discussion of the dreaded crop-lien system, Goodwyn traces the history of the “People’s Party” from its origins as the political off-shoot of the Farmers’ Alliance to their eventual fusion with the Democrats over the issue of silver coinage–a fusion that ultimately led to their own dissolution.

But Goodwyn’s short history is more than a simple retelling of the Populist movement. In his own unique way, he also brings up a number of particularly pressing issues for scholars, authors, and students alike. He challenges readers to think critically about the inherent irony embedded in the fact that the Populist Movement was a politically charged, democratic uprising taking aim at the institutions of an ostensibly democratic society. Goodwyn points out that even in democratic societies, cultural hierarchies govern the shared social institutions that citizens are expected to adhere to. These hierarchies take shape in rather inconspicuous forms, but they generally lead to rather unjust and often self-serving political decisions, such as the decision to place the U.S. back on the Gold Standard, filling the pockets of Eastern bankers and further ensnaring the rural farmer in the precarious crop-lien system.

Goodwyn lays out a detailed process for how democratic movements grow to the point in which they are capable of combating these cultural hierarchies. According to Goodwyn, the movements are started by a select few who possess a high level of self-respect and develop a message they seek to advance. In the case of the Populists, this message was the idea, first, of cooperative buying, and then later, the sub-treasury system. While refining the message, those men of self-respect organize themselves by consolidating under one name, like the Farmers’ Alliance. Though the message may not be completely clear just yet, the name conjoined with the rather murky message creates cooperative “movement” between interested actors. Once the message is established, the actors behind the message embark on a recruiting campaign to politically educate those who share a similar set of interests, turning the growing movement into a mass movement. For the Populists, these were men like S.O. Daws and William Lamb who rode from town to town on a Populist lecture circuit sparking debate and creating intraregional political dialogue. With consistent recruitment and good ideas, the simple movement turns into what Goodwyn calls a “movement culture,” where everyone involved develops a new political consciousness.  From there, with everyone cognizant of their own political ability, the movement that started out as a simple message can effectively seek to bring about social change through politics.

For the “People’s Party,” however, the political milieu of post-Civil War America proved to be too big of an obstacle to overcome. As Goodwyn notes, the same dreaded sectionalism that helped drive the county into civil war remained. Southern Whites excoriated the thought of turning against the Democratic Party—the party of their fathers and the party that fought supposed “Yankee rule.” Likewise, Northern Republicans abhorred the idea of getting into cahoots with Southerners they once deemed enemies. When the issues of sectionalism were overcome and bilateral political cooperation existed between farmers from Texas to Kansas and down to Georgia, internal disputes divided the party. Some, like Charles Macune—the movement’s most celebrated ideologue—propagated the message of the Farmers’ Alliance but resisted any sort of break from the Democratic Party. Others joined the effort to coin silver, a move that ran completely counter to the interests of the “Greenbacks,” whom, for the duration of the Populists’ existence, occupied the party’s political base.

These divisions ultimately inhibited the Populists from generating the levels of support needed to truly tackle corporate America and infiltrate the offices of the U.S. Capitol. As a result, their experience can easily been identified as a failure and even Goodwyn notes that many study the Populists to see where they went wrong. But to be fair, the Populists attempted to unify a people still rife with sectional difference and memories of war in order to topple the one true bulwark of American society—corporate America. Put in this perspective, it becomes clear; the demise of the Populists owes itself not to the effort but to the gargantuan size of the task.

 

Image Courtesy of Vassar College: http://projects.vassar.edu/1896/populists.html

Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made by Eugene Genovese

Wikipedia summarizes the historiography of American slavery as this: U.B. Phillips wrote about what slavery did for the slaves, scholars writing in the 1950s like Kenneth Stampp pointed out what slavery did to the slaves, and Eugene Genovese documented what the slaves did for themselves. As it pertains to Eugene Genovese and his highly acclaimed Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, Wikipedia’s concise summary only offers a cursory assessment. Genovese did, in fact, write about what the slaves did for themselves, but his analysis of the slaves’ cultural creations is embedded within a complex argument about the law, class distinction, and, above all, the conveyance of power.

Genovese’s central argument is centered on the notion of paternalism, commonly thought of as the practice by which a figure in a position of authority asserts power by assuming the role of a subordinate’s mother or father. As Genovese points out, there were deep contradictions in how the country’s legal codes and the slaveholders themselves governed the enslaved. In theory, slaves existed only to be extensions of their master’s will, and the slave codes treated them as such, addressing them only as property void of any legal rights or human qualities. The slaveholders, however, could not ignore the human qualities of their slaves. Whether it be for reasons associated with increasing agricultural output or plantation harmony, the slaveholders regularly interacted with their slaves on a basic, human level. More often than not, these interactions were governed by the practice of paternalism which, to the slaveholders and many northerners, justified the hegemonic nature of the master-slave relationship and the institution as a whole. But the slaves themselves also had a role in paternalism’s development. As Genovese notes, the slaves quickly recognized that in the absence of legal protection, their defense could only come from the hands of their supposed “benevolent” masters.

The slaves’ appeal to the slaveholders for defense only reinforced the slaveholder’s claim to paternalism, but it also entered the two sides into a paternalistic relationship—a dialectic relationship replete with its own set negotiations as to the nature of slave life. Genovese argues that through these negotiations the slaves defined paternalism in their own way, using the slaveholders need to justify their status as patriarchal overlords to claim basic rights and ameliorate their conditions. Issues such as time off, church participation, and the ability to produce their own food through gardening or hunting became quasi “rights” that all slaves could claim for themselves. This relative amount of “freedom”—as in the freedom to make certain choices for themselves—Genovese argues, is how slaves were then able to assert their own cultural creations and build a “protonational consciousness.”

Genovese pays, perhaps, too much homage to the idea of paternalism. While no one can discredit its role in the master-slave relationship, the range of slave experiences varies to the point that paternalism cannot be listed as the sole or even primary governing factor. Other factors such as racism and the basic market value of slaves also dictated how masters, in particular, interacted with their slaves. Yet, with that being said, Genovese lays out a precise and thorough argument for how slaves eked out a life—rife with its own set of customs and expectations—under the hegemonic rule of their masters. While not a frontal challenge to slavery itself, these customs and expectations limited the reach of the slaveholder’s hegemony. As Genovese succinctly puts it, the slaves’ assertion to basic rights under the master’s guise of paternalism “rendered unto Caesar that which was Caesar’s, but it also narrowed down considerably that which in fact was Caesar’s.”

 

Citations:

Genovese, Eugene D. Roll, Jordan, Roll; the World the Slaves Made. New York:       Pantheon Books, 1974.

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