Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Slavery and myth of American exceptionalism

In 1501-1867 an estimated 12.5m Africans were forced to travel to the Americas  

The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart:
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!

William Shakespeare (1564-1616), 'Merchant of Venice'

The term American exceptionalism dates from an article in the Communist Party USA's 'Daily Worker' newspaper in January 1929. The newspaper reported that Communist International was acutely aware of "American exceptionalism" and this affected "the whole tactical line of the CI as applied to America." In May 1929, Jay Lovestone (1897-1990) [born Jacob Liebstein in modern-day Belarus], the US communist chief, visited Moscow to explain to Stalin why the American proletariat was not yet ready for revolution. The "man of steel" had no time for Marxist exceptionalism and Lovestone was ousted from his position.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), the French aristocrat and writer, used the word "exceptional" about the United States in his book 'Democracy in America' (1845) and in recent decades conservatives parrot American Exceptionalism to highlight what they think is patriotism for their gullible supporters and to set a bogus contrast with their opponents. In 2009 in an answer to a British journalist's question, President Obama said, "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." A year later, Marco Rubio ran a US senatorial campaign on the theme of "exceptionalism" and in his victory speech he described America as "a place without equal in the history of mankind" this, of course, was bullshit on a grand scale.

The English dramatist Micheál Mac Liammóir (1899-1978; born Alfred Willmore) who with his life partner, Hilton Edwards, founded Dublin's Gate Theatre in 1928, is reputed to have said that America was a country you cannot tell a lie about. In 1981, the late Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntingdon (1927-2008) wrote of the 1960s student radicals who he saw as part of a recurring tradition of American Puritans, enraged that American institutions didn't live up to the country's founding principles: "[They] say that America is a lie because its reality falls so far short of its ideals. They are wrong. America is not a lie; it is a disappointment. But it can be a disappointment only because it is also a hope."

It's easy to preach hope from a comfortable armchair and exceptionalism should include both the good and the bad.

The slaveholders did what Shakespeare had anticipated, and quoted Scripture while the Puritans and their modern iteration, Trump's Evangelists, use God to validate their actions.

God has often been a cover for the rank hypocrisy of politicians, or Bible-thumpers who profit well from their sale of salvation.

Google Books NGRAM chart for American Exceptionalism 1950-2010

 American slavery from 1619

On August 20, 1619, “20 and odd” African Angolans, who were part of a bigger group that had been kidnapped by the Portuguese, arrived in the British colony of Virginia and were then bought by the English colonists. Founded at Jamestown in 1607, the Virginia Colony had a population of about 700 people by 1619. Two English privateer ships had stolen the cargo of the 'San Juan Bautista,' a Portuguese slave ship, and the English flagged 'White Lion' had docked in Virginia to trade the slaves for food.

In 1630 a flotilla of 16 ships bringing Puritans from England arrived in what would become known as Boston Harbor. During the voyage, John Winthrop (1588-1649),  the leader of the group, wrote in a sermon "that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world."    

The metaphor of the city on a hill has been used by politicians up to modern times, as an affirmation of the myth of American exceptionalism. It is a hoax. 

Michael Parker in his book, 'John Winthrop: Founding the City Upon a Hill' (2013) wrote that after a smallpox epidemic had broken out in 1633/1634 among the Native Americans, Winthrop viewed the epidemic "as a providential affirmation of the Bay Colony's right to the land."

Winthrop didn't know that it was he and other colonists who had brought the plague from England, not his God killing the natives as a gift to them.

Mark Peterson in his 2019 book, 'The City-State of Boston: The Rise and Fall of an Atlantic Power, 1630–1865' wrote on the 1637 defeat of the Pequot Tribe followed by other tribes being forced to become "tributaries" of the colonists and provide regular payments of wampum beads that were the tribal currency.

Invoking God as an ally would legitimise both the massacre of women and children, and slavery.

On May 26, 1637, Winthrop's "city on a hill" showed its true colours when about 80 Pequot huts housing roughly 800 inhabitants, were set on fire.Governor William Bradford (1590-1657), who had arrived in Massachusetts in 1620 on the 'Mayflower' ship, in his 'History of Plymouth Plantation' wrote: "It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fyer, and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stincke and sente there of, but the victory seemed a sweete sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to inclose their enemise in their hands, and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enimie."

More than two centuries later, Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) who would become the 26th president of the United States, wrote in the opening chapter of his 1889 book, 'The Winning of the West:'

"During the past three centuries, the spread of the English-speaking peoples over the world's waste spaces has been not only the most striking feature in the world's history but also the event of all others most far-reaching in its effects and its importance."

There were, of course, people in "the world's waste spaces" and it took until Dee Brown's book, ‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee’ in 1971 for a rare eloquent platform to be available for the voices of the vanquished, in this case, a chronicle of the sweeping injustices and official betrayals experienced by the original settlers from Asia, in North America.

Chief Red Cloud (1822-1909) of the Oglala Lakota Tribe (Oglala Sioux Tribe) summed up the record of the US government well, “They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it.”

Between 1501 and 1867, the transatlantic slave trade resulted in an estimated 12.5m Africans being forcibly shipped to the Americas and involved almost every country with an Atlantic coastline. In the impressive book, 'Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade,' two historians created the first comprehensive atlas on this 366-year history of kidnapping and coercion. The atlas is based on an online database — www.slavevoyages.org — with records on almost 35,000 slaving voyages, roughly 80% all such voyages ever made.

David Eltis is Robert W. Woodruff professor emeritus of history and principal investigator, Electronic Slave Trade Database Project, Emory University. David Richardson is former director, Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation, and professor emeritus of economic history, University of Hull, England.

An estimated 10.7m survived the route from Africa to the Americas known as the Middle Passage, disembarking in North America, the Caribbean and South America. About 388,000 arrived in North America and 303,300 in the United States.

The United States had a population of 3.9m in 1790 including 682,000 slaves. Virginia accounted for 42% of US slaves.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), later the 3rd president, began the 1776 Declaration of Independence with these words, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

The last paragraph of the declaration begins by appealing to the “Supreme Judge of the world” and ends “with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence.”

Jefferson fathered up to 6 children with an enslaved mixed-race woman named Sally Hemings. He freed Hemings along with his slave children in his will but unlike President George Washington (1732-1799), who had freed his slaves, Jefferson put his other slaves on the auction block with the risk of breaking up families forever.

One of the greatest acts of cynicism was that states could include slaves in their population to boost the number of seats in the House of Representatives, and votes in the presidential Electoral College — 5 slaves were equivalent to 3 whites. Slaves, of course, had no vote.

In 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, the US population was 31.4m including 3.9m slaves.

The Irish rioted in New York City on July 13-16, 1863 and the biggest civil insurrection in American history was sparked by opposition to the Union Army Draft that could be avoided by paying $300. On Saturday, July 11, 1863, the first lottery of the conscription law was held. There were also Irish fears that President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation which took effect from January 1, 1863, as the nation approached its third year of bloody civil war, would result in competition for jobs from freed slaves. By 1860, there were about 200,000 Irish living in the city — almost one-quarter of the population.
Democratic Party leaders raised the spectre of a New York deluged with southern blacks in the aftermath of the "nigger war."
The draft riots quickly deteriorated into a pogrom against the city’s 12,500 African-American residents. Across New York, black men and women were attacked, and in many cases the men were tortured, murdered and mutilated after death. On the first day of rioting, the mob burned the Colored Orphan Asylum at 44th Street and Fifth Avenue, which housed about 230 black and Native American children. "This illustration (above) in the New-York Illustrated News was one of numerous depictions of the horrific racial violence perpetrated by the rioters" — New York Times. "Accounts of the day say it was Irish women who were the most brutal in these attacks, cutting off fingers and toes as souvenirs or stabbing the men in every part of their bodies. When a man was hanged, they often also set him on fire" — Washington Post. The death toll may have been up to 500 people.
Freedom for US slaves 1865
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free,” the order says. Credit: US National Archives.
General Order No. 3 was read aloud by a Union officer, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, in Galveston on June 19, 1865, to inform Texans that all enslaved people in the state were free. That date, which became known as Juneteenth, has been celebrated ever since. However, the order also advised the freed slaves to “remain at their present homes and work for wages,” and it warned that “they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

The freed slaves would become second-class citizens of the American Republic.

From 1873, a series of Supreme Court decisions restricted Reconstruction-era laws and federal support for the so-called Reconstruction Amendments, mainly the 14th Amendment 15 Amendment, which gave African-Americans the status of citizenship and the protection of the Constitution, including the right to vote.

In 1877 following a deadlocked presidential election, Republican Party politicians agreed with southern Democrats to have federal troops withdrawn from the former Confederacy.

In the 12 years from 1865, African-Americans had been elected to various offices and now the era of racial segregation began with African-Americans being denied the right to vote and stripped of their civil rights.

It was slavery by other means but often worse than bondage.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett in her 1895 book 'The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States' shows that blacks were more at risk of being murdered when they ceased being a financial asset.

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), who had escaped slavery in Maryland, had visited Dublin in 1845 where he met Daniel O'Connell (1775-1847), the most influential leader of Gaelic Ireland in the 19th century, who supported the slavery abolition movement in the US. Douglass wrote a preface for the book:

"If the American conscience were only half alive, if the American church and clergy were only half Christianized, if American moral sensibility were not hardened by persistent infliction of outrage and crime against colored people, a scream of horror, shame, and indignation would rise to Heaven wherever your pamphlet shall be read."

In the book Wells-Barnett wrote:

"Not all nor nearly all of the murders done by white men, during the past thirty years in the South, have come to light, but the statistics as gathered and preserved by white men, and which have not been questioned, show that during these years more than ten thousand Negroes have been killed in cold blood, without the formality of judicial trial and legal execution. And yet, as evidence of the absolute impunity with which the white man dares to kill a Negro, the same record shows that during all these years, and for all these murders only three white men have been tried, convicted, and executed. As no white man has been lynched for the murder of colored people, these three executions are the only instances of the death penalty being visited upon white men for murdering Negroes."

In 1896 the United States Supreme Court shamefully endorsed racial segregation by supporting the fraudulent doctrine of "separate but equal."

In October 1901 Theodore Roosevelt, the new US president, invited Booker T Washington, an African-American educator, to dinner at the White House.

Southern newspaper editors were apoplectic and readers were warned that "Rooseveltism means nigger supremacy."

God erected barriers between the races warned the Macon, Georgia 'Telegraph.' "No President of this or any other country can break it down."

The Richmond 'Times' said, "It means the President is willing that negroes can mingle freely with whites in the social circle- that white woman may receive attention from the negro man."

"Pitchfork Ben" Tillman (1847-1918), a US senator from South Carolina, said, "The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger will necessitate us killing a thousand niggers in the South before they will learn their place again."

These racist people such as Tillman were neither true democrats or Christians, but barbarians or in modern parlance, terrorists.

In 1913 Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), the former president of Princeton University, became the 28th US president. The Democrat was a virulent racist and he restored racial segregation in the federal civil service.

In his book, 'A History of the American People' (1902), Wilson had referred to blacks as "an ignorant and inferior race" and he wrote that at the end of Reconstruction, "Negro rule under unscrupulous adventurers had been finally put an end to in the South, and the natural, inevitable ascendancy of the whites, the responsible class, established."

Wilson's racist views were in stark contrast with Roosevelt's attitude to African-Americans — the youngest president in the Nation's history (then and since) — who had invited an African-American to dinner in the White House.

W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), an African-American intellectual, sent an open letter to Wilson, "We are told that one colored clerk who could not actually be segregated on account of the nature of his work has consequently had a cage built around him to separate him from his white companions of many years."

Thomas Dixon, a Baptist pastor who also made a living from racism, was the author of a novel, 'The Clansman' (1905), had been a classmate of Wilson at Johns Hopkins University. The book was adapted into one of the most notoriously racist films in American history.

“It teaches history by lightning,” was a remark attributed to Wilson after 'The Clansman' silent movie, became the second film ever to be screened in the White House. DW Griffiths, the director, in an interview with the Hearst newspaper, 'New York American,' suggested that was the president's response.

The presidential endorsement and the presence of the chief justice and national politicians at another Washington DC screening helped to make the movie a success. Crucially it revived the Ku Klux Klan as they were the heroes of the film that was renamed The Birth of a Nation' — the United States reunified by the heroic Klan restoring white supremacy in the South.

A decade later at least 30,000 KKKs robed in white sheets would march down Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC.

In accepting the Republican Party's nomination for the 1920 presidential election, Warren G. Harding (1865-1923) of Ohio, was a stark contrast to the outgoing racist Democrat.

“No majority shall abridge the rights of a minority,” he said. “I believe the Negro citizens of America should be guaranteed the enjoyment of all their rights, that they have earned their full measure of citizenship bestowed, that their sacrifices in blood on the battlefields of the republic have entitled them to all of freedom and opportunity, all of sympathy and aid that the American spirit of fairness and justice demands.”

Just almost 3 months in office, President Harding was confronted with one of the worst racial massacres since the Civil War.

In oil-rich Tusla, Oklahoma, on May 31, 1921, white men were fired up by a false rumour that a 17-year old white female elevator operator had been sexually assaulted by a 19-year old black. There was a prospect of a public lynching. When the suspect was not released to the mob, white gangs on June 1, 1921, with some of them armed by city officials, swarmed into the black Greenwood area and began fire-bombing, murdering and looting. Even planes were used in the assault.

Tulsa, Oklahoma massacre 1921

The terrorist attack left up to 300 people dead, mostly African-Americans, and destroyed Tulsa's black neighbourhood of Greenwood, including the commercial area which had been called the “Negro Wall Street” by Booker T Washington. More than 1,400 homes and businesses were burned, and nearly 10,000 people were left homeless. Read more here.

No one was prosecuted for the murders and insurance claims were rejected.

The New York Times in its June 4, 1921 issue, suggested that African-Americans were responsible for the carnage. Its report was headed, 'Military Control is ended at Tulsa: One Negro Agitator Under Arrest, Three Others Sought. PLOT BY NEGRO SOCIETY? Wealthy Men of Race Say Hotheads Were Busy Hours Before the First Clash.'

In contrast, on June 6, 1921, President Harding who was in Pennsylvania made a detour to Lincoln University in the state — a college for African-Americans — to make a commencement address. The student newspaper noted that the president had shaken hands with every graduating student.

President Harding racial equality

In October 1921, Harding became the first president to visit the Deep South since the Civil War. He spoke to whites and blacks in a park in Birmingham, Alabama. A fence separated the races.

“I can say to you people of the South, both white and black, that the time has passed when you are entitled to assume that the problem of races is peculiarly and particularly your problem,” Harding told the audience. “It is the problem of democracy everywhere, if we mean the things we say about democracy as the ideal political state.”

“Whether you like it or not, our democracy is a lie unless you stand for that equality,” he added.

Yet, in 1936 President Franklin D Roosevelt (1882-1945) ignored the success of Jesse Owens (1913-1980), a four-time gold medalist at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and refused to send him a customary telegram of congratulations. The 18 black Olympians were excluded from the whites-only reception at the White House. In New York Owens had to take the service elevator to a reception at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

In 1963 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, Martin Luther King (1929-1968) said in his famous speech:

"Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination."

Richard Nixon, another racist president, who was a heavy drinker, in 1971 declared a War on Drugs to target in particular African-American people, according to his aides:

Epic failure of global war on drugs under lead of US

Milton Friedman (1912-2006), a free markets economist and conservative, said the move repeated the folly of alcohol Prohibition.

Soon the prison incarceration rate in the United States would be exceptional in a global context.

With opioid deaths disproportionately high among whites (80% of opioid overdose deaths in 2017), drug addiction and overdose risks are now considered a health rather than a criminal issue. Wonder why?

There were some advances in the 1950s and 60s — the Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that racial segregation of schools was unconstitutional; a Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act were passed by Congress. However black households in 2015 at the 20th and 40th percentiles of household income earned an average of 55% as much as white households at those same percentiles. This is exactly the same figure as in 1967." (New York Times 2017)

"At $171,000, the net worth of a typical white family is nearly ten times greater than that of a black family ($17,150) in 2016."(Brookings 2020)

The Black-White Wage Gap Is as Big as It Was in 1950: Recent research indicates little progress since the Truman administration (NYT, June 25, 2020)

The Gaps Between White and Black America, in Charts. (NYT, June 19, 2020)

Trump, the latest racist president, confirmed last month that he wants the Supreme Court to scuttle Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act), which would be an attack on minorities who have a disproportionate risk of contracting Covid-19.

This video is from a May 1969 edition of the 'Dick Cavett Show' where James Baldwin (1924-1987) discusses racism. Being both black and gay, the novelist and essayist escaped to Paris in 1948 and he later lived in Turkey and finally from 1971 in the small village of St. Paul de Vence in Provence, Southern France.
On the TV program, Baldwin explains a damaging double standard of perception. He says when white people such as Irish, Jews and Poles, pick up a weapon and demand freedom, they are viewed as heroes. When a black person does the same, white people don’t hesitate to criminalise him.

A historic debate between James Baldwin v. William F. Buckley Jr., a prominent US conservative, at Cambridge University 1965 on the question: "Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?"

The economics of slavery

Up to the 1790s in the main slave states, Virginia, Maryland and South and North Carolina, the principal commercial crops were tobacco, rice, corn and the sought after indigo plant that produced a brilliant deep blue dye.

Eli Whitney (1785-1825), a Yale college graduate, developed a cotton gin to clean green-seed cotton as the fibre clung to the seed. Coupled with the technological developments of the Industrial Revolution in England and the rise of cotton manufacturing, a lucrative industry had been born.

The British-born economic historian, Prof David Eltis (referred to above in connection with the slave database) in his 1987 book 'Economic Growth and the Ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade,' contested the view that the British Empire in being a pioneer in abolishing the slave trade in its colonies from 1833, stood to benefit from the move.

He argued that "Britain's control of the slave trade and great reliance on slave labour had played a major role in its empire's rise to world economic dominance" while British economic expansion was hindered greatly as a result of abolition.

In the United States, Prof Robert Fogel (1926-2013), a co-winner of the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel in 1993, in his 2003 book 'The slavery debates, 1952-1990' (2003) looked back on the controversy in the 1970s when he and a colleague Stanley Engerman, presented a revisionist interpretation of slavery in America.

Fogel and Engerman noted that if the slave-owning states of the South were in a separate country in 1860, it would have been the fourth richest country in the world.

Not only was the South more developed than contemporary Japan or India, but Southerners also had more wealth than France, Germany (the Second Reich was declared in 1871) and Denmark, or any of the countries of Europe besides England, while manufacturing complemented cotton in the region.

They also argued that in general the slaves were better-treated than those on Caribbean sugar plantations owned by the British, French and Dutch.

Far from stagnating the income per capita of the South grew by an average of 1.7% per annum in 1840-1860. It was about a third higher than the North and high by historical standards.

The main reason was a rise in manufacturing in the period. Coton production doubled in the 1850s and by 1860, the region was producing two-thirds of the world’s cotton.

In 1850 in the United States, Textiles, mainly cotton, accounted for 22% of industrial production. Typically cotton accounted for more than half the value of overall exports.

The economist Douglass C. North (1920-2015), who was the co-winner of the Nobel with Robert Fogel, noted in 'The Economic Growth of the United States' (1961) that "cotton was the most proximate cause of expansion" in the 19th American economy.

The US was the main exporter of raw cotton to the UK and as prices fell in the first half of the 19th century, Britain became a big exporter of cotton textiles.

Gregory Clark an economic historian at the University of California, Davis in a 2005 book chapter wrote on the British Industrial Revolution "By the 1830s cotton represented 20% of British imports, and cotton goods were 50% of British exports. The cotton industry rose from being about 0% of GNP in 1760 to about 8% of GNP by 1812. By 1860 65% of all the cotton goods produced in Britain were for export, as were 38% of woollen goods and 40% of linen goods."

In the US economy, exports remained a small and relatively constant proportion of gross national product in the 19th-century varying between 5.5 and 7.5%.

The near 4m slaves were valued at $3.5bn in 1860 dollars — 80% of the gross national product of the United States.

In 1858 Abraham Lincoln had estimated that it would take up to 100 years for a peaceful abolition of the ancient institution/tyranny that treats human beings as property.

A civil war was inevitable

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Filmmaker Ken Burns reflects on James Baldwin's understanding of liberty. "Our most venerated monuments are representations of myth, not fact. While we may hope the statue represents our highest aspirations of what America can and should be. It also can be a reminder of where and how far we fall short."