Revisionist History

Revisionist History by CREDIT - Bill Hudson, AP
CREDIT – Bill Hudson, AP

The above picture was taken in 1963, during a protest march for civil rights, in the United States. This was the time in history when Martin Luther King and his people were organizing sit-ins, boycotts, and marches to protest their oppression. They were looking for a means to turn public opinion in their favor by provoking the police.
They got their moment on that day in 1963. The protest march started at a church near the Kelly Ingram Park. Besides the protestors, there was a crowd to watch the march and police to control both of them. The police stood between the spectators and the protestors. And they had dogs. Then the dog, controlled by a white police officer, attacked one of the foot soldiers, an innocent looking black boy.
The picture became famous. Newspapers printed it above the fold. The President was asked about it; Congress discussed it; there were debates around the country. Eventually, the civil rights act was passed.
All of this was fine, except that the photo did not represent the reality. This was the topic of a recent Revisionist History podcast.
The boy in the picture was Walter Gadsden. He had skipped school and was walking to meet a friend when he saw the protests. He moved away from the marchers when he was attacked by the dog. In a later interview, Gadsden revealed that he had no connection to the civil rights movement. He was neither a participant nor a foot soldier. Also, the police officer had not unleashed the dog on the boy; he was trying to pull the dog away to save the boy.
There is a statue at the Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham which memorializes this incident. The dog attacking the boy scene has been immortalized; a powerful memory which people had chosen to preserve. The Podcast makes the case that even though that particular incident was technically wrong, the statue is an art (the dog turns into a wolf, the boy is falling down) needs to be seen as an interpretation.
Thus does it matter that the basis of the statue at Kelly Ingram Park was incorrect? Doesn’t it miss the big picture of what happened in 1963? Did police use dogs at that time? Sure they did. These kind of gotcha stories are an example of missing the forest for the trees. Societies which are not obsessed with these low-level details have ways to abstract the wisdom of events into stories which can be retold.

Cliven Bundy and James Henry Hammond

Recently, Cliven Bundy, an American rancher, pontificated these views after seeing a public housing project in Nevada.

They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.[CLIVEN BUNDY’S SLAVERY DELUSION]

The comment that Blacks would have been better off as slaves picking cotton stuck with me because, it was just few months back that I had  read a similar comment made by James Henry Hammond who a politician and planter from South Carolina who served as a United States Representative, the  Governor of South Carolina  and as a United States Senator in the mid-19th century. In Letter to an English Abolitionist written in 1845, he argued that slavery was more humane than wage labor. Quoting slave writings from Solomon Northrup, Harriet Jacobs, and Charles Ball, I had written essay refuting Hammond’s alternate universe. The very casual way in which Bundy suggests slavery as a alternative, even after all these, is quite shocking.
Over the past few months, I also wrote few other essays on American slavery, like From a Society with Slaves to a Slave Society, Understanding Thomas Jefferson, and Disputing the Jefferson Davis Theory. All these were part of the coursework required for the Coursera course from University of Pennsylvania titled, The History of the Slave South. For completing these essays and participating in the weekly discussions, I got a certificate as well.

Disputing the Jefferson Davis Theory

Jefferson Davis, painted by Daniel Huntington in 1874
Jefferson Davis, painted by Daniel Huntington in 1874

In his memoirs, published in 1881, ex-Confederate President Jefferson Davis cast secession as a wholly constitutional move designed to restore government to what the founding fathers had intended. The goal of secession, the late President wrote, was to protect the rights of “sovereign states” from “tremendous and sweeping usurpation” by the federal government. “The truth remains intact and incontrovertible, that the existence of African servitude was in no wise the cause of the conflict, but only an incident.” The problem is that Davis’s  interpretation was not consistent with case for secession made by southern politicians in the 1850s.
On June 10, 1850, the people of Georgia passed the Georgia Platform and it contained five grievances of the state. One of the main points of contention between Georgia and the Federal Government was related to slavery and its future. For the Georgians, the “ the establishment of a boundary between the latter and the State of Texas, the suppression of the slave trade in the District of Columbia, and the extradition of fugitive slaves, the rejection of propositions to exclude slavery from the Mexican territories and to abolish it in the District of Columbia (“Georgia Platform”) ” were all controversial. The fourth clause in the Platform made it clear that when it came to the subject of slavery, there would be no compromise. It clearly stated that it would oppose any action, “upon the subject of slavery in the District of Columbia, or in any places subject to the jurisdiction of Congress incompatible with the safety, domestic tranquility, the rights and honor of the slaveholding States, or any refusal to admit as a State any territory hereafter, applying, because of the existence of slavery therein, or any act prohibiting the introduction of slaves into the territories of New Mexico and Utah, or any act repealing or materially modifying the laws now in force for the recovery of fugitive slaves. ” Thus, they were clear about what they were fighting for.
Mississippi too was clear about why were seceding from the Union in A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union. “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth,” they stated. Mississippi too was incensed by the dangers to the institution, the refusal of admission of new slaves states to the Union, the nullification of the Fugitive State Law and the proposal for slave equality. They felt that, it was worth seceding from the Union rather than face the loss of four billions dollars of money
The inspection and sale of a slave, 1854
The inspection and sale of a slave, 1854

.The same spirit about slavery was echoed in the Cotton is King speech of James Henry Hammond in 1858. According to Mr. Hammond, though people claimed that slavery had been abolished, it was in name only and “all the powers of the earth cannot abolish that. God only can do it when he repeals the fiat.” Unlike the Northerners who had kept White men as wage earners, the Southerners, he felt, had “a race inferior to her own, but eminently qualified in temper, in vigor, in docility, in capacity to stand the climate, to answer all her purposes.” Every society, he argued required a class of people, “do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life” with a “ low order of intellect” and with such people, they were able to produce massive amount of wealth. The new developments, he thought were threatening the business and if required, the South was ready to go to war for it.
The Southerners knew that the admission of a large number of free states would change the balance of power in the Congress. As they struggled to the secure the future of slavery, the edifice on which their wealth was created, they realized that the slavery could soon be abolished. The admission of new states into the Union always resulted in a debate over slavery and they often resulted in a compromise. For the Southerners it was evident that the tide was not going their way and secession was the only option available to preserve their wealth.
The important point to note is that the statement from Jefferson Davis was written in 1881, much after the South lost the war and thus a post-justification for the war they lost. As you read the statements from Mississippi, Georgia and from James Henry Hammond, it is clear that slavery and not the state rights were the cause of secession.
(This was one of the writing assignments for the course History of the Slave South at Coursera)

Slaves Refuting Pro-Slavery Arguments

The inspection and sale of a slave
The inspection and sale of a slave, 1854

James Henry Hammond was a politician and planter from South Carolina who served as a United States Representative, the  Governor of South Carolina  and as a United States Senator. He owned several plantations, about 300 slaves and was one of the outspoken supporters of slavery before the American Civil War. In Letter to an English Abolitionist written in 1845, he argued that slavery was more humane than wage labor.

“You think it is a great ‘crime’ that we do not pay our slaves ‘wages,’ and on this account pronounce us ‘robbers.’  In my former letter I showed that the labor of our slaves was not without great cost to us and that in fact they themselves receive more in return for it than your hirelings do for theirs. . . It is altogether praiseworthy to pay the laborer a shilling a day and let him starve on it.  To supply all his wants abundantly, and at all times, yet withhold from his money, is among ‘the most reprobated crimes.”

This outrageous claim was challenged by narratives written by the slaves, published with the help of anti-slavery and abolitionist allies. A perfect rebuttal is this passage from Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northrup.

“The existence of slavery in its most cruel form among them has a tendency to brutalize the humane and finer feelings of their nature. Daily witnesses of human suffering—listening to the agonizing screeches of the slave—beholding him writhing beneath the merciless lash—bitten and torn by dogs—dying without attention, and buried without shroud or coffin—it cannot otherwise be expected, than that they should become brutified and reckless of human life.”

When Hammond tried to present the image of a benevolent overlord, who provides for his slaves, as opposed to people who just paid wages to laborers, he just washed away the humanity that was taken away from the slaves. The above passage mentions all that Hammond did not acknowledge.  The slaves lived in perpetual fear of punishment and hardship. The master, by law, owned the blood and flesh and had the freedom to enforce tyranny. For example, during the cotton picking time, the slaves were expected to rise early in the morning, take a break for ten to fifteen minutes at noon to eat a cold meal and then slave away till dark. Once the cotton was picked, they were weighed and if the quota was not met, the floggings started.
When an impurity was found in the picked cotton or a branch was broken, the penalty was twenty five lashes. For crimes above this, they got fifty lashes. If you stood idle, the penalty was a hundred lashes and two hundred, if you fought with other slaves. Runaway slaves got five hundred lashes  and Northrup mentions an incident where a slave named Patsy was almost flogged to death. For some incidents, they were put down like animals or hanged. Northrup writes that  for some slave owners “…. whose chief delight was in dancing with his “niggers,” or lashing them about the yard with his long whip, just for the pleasure of hearing them screech and scream“ were not paternalistic as Hammond claimed, but just sadistic.

Slave Market in Atlanta, 1864
Slave Market in Atlanta, 1864

While daily laborers sold their labor and not themselves, that was not the case with the slaves. Since they had no ability to read, write or swim, they had to endure the torture. Floggings were the not cruelty they had to endure. Overseers, whose sole motive was to ensure the maximum crop without any concern for the suffering went around with dogs to overhaul fleeing fugitives and even used the gun sometimes. If a slave fell down, tired from his cotton picking, he was dragged to the shade and buckets of water poured on him to wake him up. Once he woke up, he was sent back to labor.
In the quoted passage, Northrup mentions the “ tendency to brutalize the humane and finer feelings of their nature.” Slaves were treated like animals. In the slave market, customers would examine their body, look at their teeth, ask about their skills, like how “a jockey examines a horse.” In some cases, they were stripped and examined more carefully. Once a purchase was finalized, the purchasers did not care if a family was separated. One of the heart wrenching incidents in the book is when a mother and her children are separated without any remorse by the slave trader. Charles Ball, in his account, Fifty Years in Chains, wrote about the painful separation of the family as the most traumatic experience, “ …I was now a slave in South Carolina, and had no hope of ever again seeing my wife and children. I had at times serious thoughts of suicide so great was my anguish.”
“Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own”, wrote Harriet Jacobs, a slave woman in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl , upon the birth of her daughter. Besides the physical and mental torture, female slaves also faced sexual harassment. When she was 15, her 55 year old master Mr. Flint was after her. Her mistress knew what was going on, but in patriarchal system, she was helpless and  vented her anger on the female slaves. To find a way out from Mr. Flint, she entered into a relationship with a lawyer with whom she had children. Mr. Flint still did not leave her alone and threatened to separate her from her children.
All these narratives reinforce the view that the slave was the master’s property and he could do whatever he wished with them. In his book, Northrup rightly notes that all of this was happening in the country which proclaimed, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Understanding Thomas Jefferson

This is the "Rough Draft" text of the Declaration as Jefferson probably presented it to Benjamin Franklin and John Adams
This is the “Rough Draft” text of the Declaration as Jefferson probably presented it to Benjamin Franklin and John Adams (via

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “All men are created equal”,while being a slave owner. He called slavery repugnant and called for its abolition, but emancipated only a handful of the few hundred slaves he owned. So how does one understand Jefferson? When he wrote about the equality of men, was he talking only about White men or all men? If he made public statements against slavery why did free only a few? Was there a contradiction between his public position and private behavior?
Jefferson’s position on slavery in the new country was anything but complicated. When he wrote the Declaration of Independence, he was drawing on Scottish moral sense philosophy and when he equated men, he was equating them in the moral sense. For Scottish thinkers, people who had Common Sense could grasp self-evident truths. A republic with such ideals would enhance the quality of its citizens and also advance the interests of the whole and make them consent to a social vision. What was required was the ability to set aside self interests and pursue the common good. Moral sense gave people dignity and Jefferson did not exclude Blacks from this claim.
“I hope preparing under the auspices of heaven for a total emancipation”, he wrote in  Notes on the State of Virginia because he thought that slavery was morally wrong. He thought that the  “commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.” He wrote about the immoral aspects of slavery which allows one set of the citizens to trample on the rights of the others and thought that these practices were inconsistent with Republicanism.
Though he talked about emancipation, he did a lot to expand slavery in the union and make it an engine of economic growth and political power. A century before Herbert H. Risley defined 2378 castes as belonging to 43 races on the basis of their nasal index in India, Thomas Jefferson used dubious science to define the difference between Blacks and Whites. He noted that the Blacks were brave and adventurous and easily entertained, but they were inferior to the Whites.  Jefferson writes, “but never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration never seen even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture”.
They had good memory, but “in reason,much inferior as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid and that in imagination they are dull tasteless and anomalous.”  He also found “They secrete less by the kidneys, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odor.” But that did not prevent him from having an affair with Sally Hemings who was a teenager and thirty years younger. He had six children with her whom he did not acknowledge, but they were the only people whom he freed.

Since there were substantial differences between the races he thought freeing the slaves would create problems because “Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites ten thousand recollections by the blacks of the injuries they have sustained new provocations the real distinctions which Nature has made and many other circumstances will divide us into parties and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race”. He rejected the idea that the two races could co-exist. Since that could result in a civil war, his solution was to send the freed Africans back to Africa or somewhere outside the colonies where they could not mix with the white population(“he is to be removed beyond the reach of mixture”) and live as “free and independent people” . He wrote, “For if a slave can have a country in this world it must be any other in preference to that in which he is born to live and labor for another in“.
At the end of his presidency, Jefferson left slavery an immensely strong institution after the Louisiana purchase and the spread of slavery across the continent. He even provided the intellectual defense of slavery. When Missouri wanted to join the Union as a slave holding state there was a debate over it and Jefferson took the side of the slave holders.  He wanted the northern states to recognize slavery; for him the expansion of the country was more important than the abolition of slavery. During the purchase of Louisiana under his presidency, he did more than anyone to change the terms of slavery for slaveholders. This purchase added significant slave territory to the nation and with the surge  of cotton production slavery expanded to new regions within southern states and to territories further west. There emerged an invigorated interstate slave trade, and hundreds of thousands of slaves, particularly in the Upper South, were separated from families and sold to labor on cotton fields in the new states.
(Based on   Notes on the State of Virginia  by Thomas Jefferson and the lectures of Prof Stephanie McCurry, University of Pennsylvania for the course History of the Slave South at Coursera)

From a Society with Slaves to a Slave Society

Recreated Powhatan village at the Jamestown Settlement
Recreated Powhatan village at the Jamestown Settlement

In 1621, an Angolan named Antonio was captured by an enemy tribe and sold to an Arab merchant who eventually sold  him to the Virginia Company. The company was chartered in 1606 by King James to grab land in Virginia and propagate Christianity and it was the Virginia Company that established the Jamestown colony. It was during the initial settlement of Jamestown that the myth of John Smith and Pocahontas was created. After the initial hiccups, where they had to resort to cannibalism, the colony had survived.
Anthony Johnson
Anthony Johnson

In Virginia, Antonio worked as an indentured laborer and after a period of time — after he had paid off his dues — he was freed. His wife, Mary, too was freed and as was normal for free indentured people, granted land.  Thus, 20 years after he arrived in Virginia, he took the name Anthony Johnson and became the owner of a 250 acre farm with his own servants. Thus an African man becoming a landlord himself may look unusual, it was not odd because slavery was not codified during this period. Though African slaves were present in Jamestown few years at least a decade after its founding, people like Anthony Johnson could buy their freedom and become property owners.
During this period, there was not much of a difference between the White indentured servants and Africans; the difference between slavery and indentured servitude was fuzzy. The slaves and servants would revolt and run away together. Initially the colonies had more indentured servants consisting of poor English folks who were willing to risk everything for a prosperous life. Though the Africans formed less than 5% of the population in Virginia, they were more balanced in gender and age while the indentured Whites were mostly male. The Africans had families and since there was no ban on interracial marriage, free blacks even married Englishwomen. They were also able to court to settle disputes. In this early phase, Virginia was a society built by slaves and servants, but it was not a slave society.
 Map depicting major slave trading regions of Africa
Map depicting major slave trading regions of Africa

By the 1660s, there was a demographic shift. There was a decline in servant population.  The mortality rate began to drop and the White population started increasing and more African slaves were required. According to the Slave Trade voyages database, while Virginia imported a hundred slaves from Africa in the period 1628 – 1650, that number increased to 4754 in the fifty year period after that. To concentrate the powers among the landowners, only the landed were allowed to vote. In one instance, one governor even banned general elections for 15 years.
There were two events that happened which caused a dramatic shift in how the slaves and servants were viewed. The first was passing of the Enactment of Hereditary Slavery Law Virginia in  1662 and the second, the Bacon rebellion of 1676.
Under English law, a child received his or her status from the father. The new  colonial law of 1662 made the child of an enslaved mother also a slave for life. Thus this race making piece of legislation ensured that reproductive capacity of the African women was used to feed into the slave system. Slavery was thus codified on the woman’s body. This also made sure that even if the father was one of the English slave owners, their child would still be a slave.
The rebellion of Nathaniel Bacon started when he wanted a commission to fight the native Americans to kill them and drive them off the land. The governor declared him a rebel, but Bacon was resourceful. He built an army with slaves and servants and plundered the region. They took control over Jamestown and burned it to the ground. The rebellion had a surprise ending when Bacon died of dysentery and the armed vessels returned regaining control. This incident showed Virginia’s elite that the slaves were a politically unstable and a dangerous force.
Soon the slave code was enforced by singling out people of African descent from the Christian white servants.  Free blacks were stripped off their rights  and the rights to marriage. A master had the right to “correct” a slave, and if the slave died during the “correction” process, he would be acquitted. A similar experiment was carried in the English colony of Barbados earlier and the concept of Whiteness and Blackness had been introduced. Due to similar changes, the slave category was codified into law and by the first quarter of the 18th century, Virginia had become a society of slaves.
(Based on the lectures of Prof Stephanie McCurry, University of Pennsylvania for the course History of the Slave South at Coursera)

How the British invented “Whiteness” and “Blackness”

A 19th century lithograph by Theodore Bray showing a sugarcane plantation
A 19th century lithograph by Theodore Bray showing a sugarcane plantation

While Charles I was arrested and executed in 1649 CE in England, another revolution was happening in the far away English colony of Barbados. This was the ‘sugar revolution’ and the prosperity it brought would have far reaching consequence for both Britain in the way how different groups of people were viewed.
After the failure of crops like tobacco, cotton, indigo and ginger, the colonists were under pressure from their financiers to deliver. That’s when they decided to try sugar, a crop which had arrived on the island three decades earlier. The problem was that sugar farming was labor intensive, much more than tobacco. Also, it required expertise to prepare the right soil, protect the shoots from disease and to decide the right moment for cutting. All this did not deter the colonists; they experimented, eventually got the right recipe and that made them immensely rich
That’s when the demographics of the island started changing and that change had both to do with the new found prosperity as well as the politics back in England. The backdrop of Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpostwas happening with English Civil War and the beheading of Charles I. Since their fortunes did not look good, the Royalists escaped to the island to evade persecution and to keep their head attached to their body. There were some black slaves, but not quite a lot and so the workforce was predominantly white. But as the ‘white gold’ business boomed, more slaves were required.
From around  6000 slaves in 1643, the number rose to 20,000 by 1655. Also, as the black population was increasing, the white population was decreasing because many of them were leaving the island looking for better opportunities in other countries where the land was cheaper. The black slavery also increased due to economics: an indentured slave cost 10 pounds for about 5 -7 years of work while the blacks cost double the money, but remained as slaves for life. By this time, the slave trading network was well established and it was not expensive to ship them from Africa. In an era, where the goal was to make money by any means possible, slavery did not cause any moral qualms for those who touted their superior religion all the time.
Soon, the number of black slaves outnumbered the the indentured whites and the white settlers started getting paranoid due to the thinning of the Christian people. As the first slave society of the British Americas, they had figure out a way to manage these slaves as well as maintain their superiority. The British had to  invent a political structure on which they would be at the top. One of the first laws they passed was the 1661 Act titled “For the Better Ordering and Governing of Negroes.” This law declared blacks to be “heathenish, brutish and dangerous people” and since no law existed to govern slaves, new ones had to be invented for “public safety.”
Public safety of course meant the safety of the white settlers; the laws were written by slaveholders and it was upheld by a country which gained financially from the sugar business. The laws were then enforced by the local militia and soldiers. Similar laws were passed by the French and Spaniards and compared to them, the one created by the British was the most cruel. As time went on, more provisions were added which put restrictions on the movement of slaves and prevented them from learning a  trade like carpentry.
Following a revolt by black slaves and Irish servants, another law was passed in 1688 which required every slave owner to search slave cabins for drums or horns which could be used to assemble people. If a slave had to leave the plantation, he had to get written permission from the owner. An absconding slave, if found, was whipped and four years later, another law was added which prescribed the death penalty.

In the British legal system, slaves were property and could be bought, sold, or leased; they were never considered as people. Compared to that white indentured people served a limited term and their rights were restored after that. The white indentured people were given better food, clothing and legal protection with provision for trial by jury. A white indentured servant who killed a slave was asked to pay a fine just like other whites. Soon white felons, Irish and Scots were all treated as “white” people while the blacks became another group. Blacks who came from different parts of Africa and identified themselves based on their birthplace were all collapsed into one single bucket. Their individual identity was subsumed under a different label and the world became simply black and white. By this separation, the white settlers prevented a collaboration between the black slaves and the indentured servants and thus avoided a joint rebellion, but that in turn changed the way people viewed each other on the island.

  1. Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire by Andrea Stuart