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American History, conservatism

Believe it or not, Michael Medved has a column at Townhall making excuses for slavery in America. It wasn’t all that bad, he says.

Medved presents six “inconvenient truths” about slavery, which (condensed) are:

1. American didn’t invent slavery. Lots of other countries did it too. Yes, but by the mid-19th century the practice had been pretty much run out of Europe, as well as the northern states, for being barbaric and immoral.

2. Slavery existed only briefly — 89 years from the Declaration of Independence to the 13th Amendment. It probably didn’t seem all that brief to the persons who were enslaved. And, of course, it had been going on for some time before the Declaration of Independence. Medved figures that only about 5 percent of today’s Americans are the descendants of slave owners. That may or may not be true, but I’m not sure why it’s relevant to anything.

3. Slavery wasn’t genocidal. Dead slaves brought no profit, Medved says. Of course, about a third of the people captured in Africa to be sold into slavery died in the ship voyage to America, but Medved says the slavers didn’t intend the slaves to die, so it doesn’t count. “And as with their horses and cows, slave owners took pride and care in breeding as many new slaves as possible,” Medved writes. No, really, he actually wrote that. I am not making this up.

4. It is not true that the United States became wealthy through slave labor, Medved says. Many “free soil” states were more prosperous overall than the slave states. That may be true, or not, but those cotton plantations were cash cows for the plantation owners. In 1855 raw cotton amounted to one-half of all U.S. exports, valuing $100 million annually in 1855 dollars. (Source: Encyclopedia of American Facts & Dates [Harper & Row, 1987] p. 255.) There was huge income disparity in the slave states; the plantation-owning elite hoarded the wealth.

5. The United States deserves special credit for abolition. Huh?

6. “There is no reason to believe today’s African-Americans would be better off if their ancestors had remained in Africa. ” Actual quote. Who says conservatives are insensitive? Well, me, for one.

Jillian at Sadly, No and John Holbo at Crooked Timber also comment. But no one so far has asked the critical question, which is What the hell was eating at Medved’s reptilian brain that inspired him to write this? Has criticism of American slavery been in the news lately?

Update: See also Kevin at Lean Left, who has a more substantive retort to “fact” #5 than I did.

Year the British ended slavery throughout the Empire: 1833. Number of wars it took to do so: 0. Year the Spanish Empire ended slavery (except in Cuba, where the ban was not enforced by local governors until 1886): 1811. Number of wars to do so: 0. Year the U.S. ended slavery throughout the country and its territories: 1865. Number of wars it took to do it: 1, the bloodiest one in American history. In fact, all European powers abolished slavery before the United States did. So, no, dear Mr. Medved, we as a nation don’t deserve special credit for a bloody damn thing. We were below average, even by the standards of the day.

Update 2: I’d like to add that during our civil war the wealthy industrial interests of Britain put a lot of pressure on Victoria and Parliament to enter the war on the side of the Confederacy. The Americas were their chief supplier of raw materials for their textile mills, and the owners were losing money. But anti-slavery sentiment was so strong in Britain — even among mill workers who’d been laid off because of the war — that active support for the Confederacy was out of the question. And, of course, Prince Albert favored the Union, which means Victoria did, also.

Update 3: This is a riot.

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65 Comments

13 Comments

  1. laa laa  •  Oct 1, 2007 @6:13 pm

    As an actual functioning historian of Africa (with a job, whee!) I am sick and tired to death of points #1 and #6.

    Slavery was an ancient institution…but it had a place within those societies, and people were not merely units of labor in African slavery within sub-Saharan Africa. It’s a vast difference from the removal of people from the system entirely as units of labor and trans-shipment to places where their average life expectancies were on the order of 5 to 8 years.

    #3…Slave owners wanted to breed as many new slaves as possible. What? No; this only became the case after the spigot of the trade was turned off. Pregnant or childrearing slave women were not producing cotton, tobacco, or sugarcane; it was also far cheaper to bring a new slave than to raise a child to working age while also losing the mother’s labor for part of that period. Slave owners decidedly did NOT want to encourage procreation until they were forced to do so by exigency of the trade’s abolition. Even then, it was sometimes preferable to risk being caught in violation.

    As for #6, well, we can’t say African Americans would be better off had their ancestors not been shipped across the ocean. We also can’t say they would NOT have been. We can say, however, that Africa’s economic and political stability would have remained far greater; without the Atlantic Slave Trade, Africa would look radically different today. Someone needs to introduce Mr. Medved to the great kingdoms of early modern Africa, which were the equal of anything in Europe or much of Asia–they simply didn’t transfer knowledge by writing or have an interest in sailing to places far away because they already had the things that they wanted and needed close by.

    Medved’s a twit.

  2. cherria  •  Oct 1, 2007 @6:25 pm

    Mikey Medhead seems to be looking to justify the redesign and implication of southern strategy. For all the code words they have , one would think he would just say the words ‘make them sweat and pay them even less’ and just get on with his life.

  3. woody  •  Oct 1, 2007 @8:06 pm

    [Deleted for being offensive on a couple of levels. — maha]

  4. Dale  •  Oct 1, 2007 @10:10 pm

    I don’t particularly care for Michael Medved’s viewpoints, but in this case Maha is being disingenuous, quote mining and selectively editing to achieve effect.

    All Medved is doing is calling for a balanced analysis of slavery, in some cases addressing specific complaints presented by others in the public arena. People who are making criticisms of Medved here, based on what Maha has written, should go to the original and read what it says.

    And then they ought to read up on the history of humans for the past 2000 or 3000 years. Morality is relative. I’ve been reading about waning years of the Republic of Rome. The Romans frowned on the Gallic practice of human sacrifice, or of the Belgic practice of killing the old and weak as being barbaric, yet they saw nothing wrong with leaving unwanted babies to the elements, nor with enslaving millions of Gauls, Germans, Slavs, and others, nor of crucifixion as punishment for all kinds of trivial crimes.

    The US was not particularly evil in its handling of slaves and slavery, that’s all Medved is saying.

  5. maha  •  Oct 1, 2007 @10:26 pm

    Dale — “All Medved is doing is calling for a balanced analysis of slavery” — No, he’s presented an unbalanced and dishonest analysis of slavery.

    “People who are making criticisms of Medved here, based on what Maha has written, should go to the original and read what it says.”

    Oh, please do read the whole thing. Every word. It’s stunning. I only presented highlights. I can’t believe anyone bright enough to tie his own shoes actually wrote that crap.

    “And then they ought to read up on the history of humans for the past 2000 or 3000 years. … The US was not particularly evil in its handling of slaves and slavery, that’s all Medved is saying.”

    Well, we weren’t as bad as the Aztecs, I give you that. However,considering slavery throughout human history, what was done to plantation slaves, especially in the lower Mississippi plantations, was on the more brutal end of the scale (see comment #51, above). Saying that “The US was not particularly evil” just tells me you don’t know much about history.

  6. Emily  •  Oct 1, 2007 @11:13 pm

    As a child of the south with no political loyalties (right now, I’m just about equally annoyed with both sides, although the Dems are more consistent and less evil), slavery wasn’t the big reason for the civil war. One difference was that the north didn’t depend on slave labor – they just paid people as little as possible with no obligation to make sure they were fed, clothed and housed (not that slavery was any better, just different). Thus, there were fewer blacks in the north – so freeing them or being friendly to them meant the south would have a smaller fighting force, since they were definitely pulling in slave labor to their armies. And, finally, they were fighting for states’ rights – rather than have something be mandated from above, they wanted to be able to chose it for themselves. With the way society was going, they’d have probably ended it sooner or later, but it would have disappeared slower, possibly state by state.

    That said, Medved is an idiot. While some of the stuff may be at least partly true in an abstract sense, you can’t use it to justify slavery. You can’t use ANYTHING to justify slavery. Just doesn’t work that way.

  7. IndyHoosier  •  Oct 2, 2007 @6:34 am

    Emily – In the north, if you wanted to change your lot in life, and leave the opressive mills in New England to hunt or farm in Illinois, you did not have a posse chase you down, whip you senseless, strap you in chains and drag you back to your workstation. One cannot say the same about a slave in Georgia, now can they?

    Equating low pay to the abuses of slavery is just so …. Republican.

  8. apikoros  •  Oct 2, 2007 @9:01 am

    maha #45 I am a history nerd 🙂 but in a fairly specialized way. I am fascinated by the period prior to the civil war especially the growth and spread of slavery. I live in Alexandria, VA, a headquarters of the interstate slave trade before the war, altho “we don’t talk about that.” and have fallen into studying what I call “we don’t talk about that” history. It’s quite fascinating. When I go to historic sites and the docent lectures on “servants” I always ask what they were paid, etc. etc. Since I know all the embarrassing questions at this point, I can be quite a tryiung tourist.

  9. maha  •  Oct 2, 2007 @9:20 am

    Emily —

    As a child of the south with no political loyalties (right now, I’m just about equally annoyed with both sides, although the Dems are more consistent and less evil), slavery wasn’t the big reason for the civil war.

    Yes, it was. The southern states seceded to protect the institution of slavery. This is beyond question. Four states — Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas — prepared “declaration of causes” documents when they seceded, giving their reasons for secession, and the reasons were slavery, slavery, slavery, and slavery. You should read them yourself. A few other issues were mentioned, but those issues were only important because they were connected to slavery. States’ rights, for example, only mattered to southerners when it came to protecting their “property.” In other circumstances — such as enforcement of the fugitive slave laws — they were real big on federal government solutions.

    One difference was that the north didn’t depend on slave labor – they just paid people as little as possible with no obligation to make sure they were fed, clothed and housed (not that slavery was any better, just different).

    Northern factory and sweatshop workers had a bad time, but you really can’t compare that to plantation work. On some plantations slaves were literally worked to death within months.

    Thus, there were fewer blacks in the north – so freeing them or being friendly to them meant the south would have a smaller fighting force, since they were definitely pulling in slave labor to their armies.

    Not to fight, except toward the end of the civil war, when the Confederates put together a black regiment that never saw combat. In most southern states African Americans were not allowed to have firearms. They certainly weren’t allowed to join the state militias. It is documented there were a handful of free African Americans — slave owners themselves — who joined Confederate regiments, but I’m not sure how much they were allowed to do.

    And, finally, they were fighting for states’ rights – rather than have something be mandated from above, they wanted to be able to chose it for themselves.

    And the “it” was slavery, slavery, slavery, and slavery.

    With the way society was going, they’d have probably ended it sooner or later, but it would have disappeared slower, possibly state by state.

    Probably not for a couple of generations. But the South started the war — South Carolina fired on the FEDERAL military reservation of Fort Sumter — so whatever happened, the South brought on itself.

  10. Robert Fernando  •  Oct 2, 2007 @11:56 am

    Slavery, Reparations, Medved… Can we get more silly?

    Fact: There was an active movement in this land from early on to ban slavery. It doesn’t make up for the fact that slavery existed but this needs to be said.

    Fact: The American Civil War was not about freeing the slaves; this was an outcome, not the cause. For evidence of this look no further than the date of the start of the war and the date of the Emancipation Proclamation.

    To my knowledge the 50,000 white slaves who were brought over to the plantations in Virginia never received compensation, nor did their great-great-great grand children. (I’m not trying to quantify whose slavery experience was harsher, just stating that other people besides blacks from Africa were enslaved here)

    Nor did the govt of Australia pay reparations to the descendants of British prisoners including those who trace their heritage to the infamous rape ships. Nor does anyone speak of reparations for the indentured servants from Europe, China and India who live in the Caribbean.

    Money will not heal a wound, certainly not one that has no visible scar. It certainly will not heal those whose great-great-grand parents were victimized. (how do you heal that?)

    If you were to pay money to people how would go about doing it? Base it on race? There is no such thing as a “black” person or a “white” person from a scientific stand point. (see http://www.pbs.org/race/ ) Would Halle Berry get 1/2 as much as Oprah Winfrey due to their parentage? Should people on public asst. get more than people with jobs? Should recent immigrants pay blacks compensation for which their ancestors bear no responsibility? I suppose someone could work out some grand complicated formula of who has to pay what to who, but why?

    What if they all just said they are sorry for what their ancestors did to your ancestors? Does that even make sense? Can you imagine the premier of China apologizing to the president of Iran “I’m sorry that Ghengis Khan raped and pillaged your ancestors land. I don’t know why he did these horrible things…”

    It’s all pretty silly. History is something you learn from so as not to repeat the errors of the past. If anyone really deserves any compensation for something it would be the Native Americans. Pay them for the value of the land taken from their ancestors (at today’s prices) and you bankrupt the treasury before you are done.

    What we all need to do is to forget about outdated concepts like race and forget about whose great-grand-daddy did what to whose great-grand-ma.

    We really need to decide how we are all going to live together and make this Nation a better place for our children. That is a goal for which we, as humans and as Americans should all strive for.

  11. maha  •  Oct 2, 2007 @12:27 pm

    Fact: There was an active movement in this land from early on to ban slavery. It doesn’t make up for the fact that slavery existed but this needs to be said.

    Yes, some people recognized that slavery was bad. But before the Civil War abolitionism was something of a fringe movement. The majority of northern whites didn’t care for slavery but were willing to put up with it as long as it stayed in the South. Abolitionist meetings and literature were banned in most Southern states.

    Fact: The American Civil War was not about freeing the slaves; this was an outcome, not the cause. For evidence of this look no further than the date of the start of the war and the date of the Emancipation Proclamation.

    No. Although the Union didn’t start out with the objective of ending slavery in the slave states, it is a bare-assed fact that the reasons the Southern states seceded were slavery, slavery, and slavery. Oh, and slavery. You don’t have to take my word for this; read the declarations of causes yourself. The South rebelled to protect the institution of slavery, and the northern states responded to preserve the Union.

    To my knowledge the 50,000 white slaves who were brought over to the plantations in Virginia never received compensation, nor did their great-great-great grand children.

    You are talking about indentured servants, right? I believe some of my ancestors were indentured servants. It really wasn’t quite the same thing as slavery, and I don’t think I need reparations for it.

    I’m not going to respond to reparations arguments, because that’s not the issue here, and it’s a bit late for that, IMO. I just want to set you straight on history.

    History is something you learn from so as not to repeat the errors of the past.

    This only works if you actually learn history rather than embrace some revisionist myths.

  12. John C. Calhoun  •  Oct 4, 2007 @1:24 am

    It’s not like he doesn’t have sources for Point #6

    From Slavery a Positive Good
    http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?subcategory=34
    John C. Calhoun
    February 6, 1837

    But let me not be understood as admitting, even by implication, that the existing relations between the two races in the slaveholding States is an evil:—far otherwise; I hold it to be a good, as it has thus far proved itself to be to both, and will continue to prove so if not disturbed by the fell spirit of abolition. I appeal to facts. Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually.

    In the meantime, the white or European race, has not degenerated. It has kept pace with its brethren in other sections of the Union where slavery does not exist. It is odious to make comparison; but I appeal to all sides whether the South is not equal in virtue, intelligence, patriotism, courage, disinterestedness, and all the high qualities which adorn our nature.

  13. Paul Fraser  •  Feb 12, 2008 @12:48 am

    More drool?! None of us, including Michael Medved lived back in the time of slavery. Unless you believe in reincarnation! So how do we know what really happened? Besides, has anyone on this blog actually considered Michael’s remarks openly?!
    http://battlesoftim.com

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