Made possible by Europe’s advantages in military and social technology, the slavery started by Europeans in the fifteenth century was different, because it became the enslavement of one race by another.
(Excerpt from Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your High School History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen)
White supremacy and racism were the causes, rather than the symptoms, of slavery in our country. The enslavement of Africans was justified, in part, because of the presumed superiority of whiteness. In short, without racism, we have no slavery or defense of its existence. In the past ten days, we’ve had memes and discussions of our racist history popping up everywhere, and all too often, they’re either incomplete, distorted by bias, or inaccurate. Today I’m going to let some of these historical figures speak for themselves. This post is subject to my own bias by virtue of which figures and quotes I choose to highlight, but I will try to include a representative sampling.
Lincoln was a white supremacist, but he was also a believer in the Declaration of Independence.
I will say here, while upon this subject, that I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so. I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position. I have never said anything to the contrary, but I hold that, notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. [Loud cheers.] I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects-certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man. [Great applause.]
(From the first Lincoln-Douglas debate in Ottawa, Illinois, August 21, 1858: https://www.nps.gov/liho/learn/historyculture/debate1.htm)
Lincoln didn’t shy away from making the moral argument.
Henry Clay, my beau ideal of a statesman, the man for whom I fought all my humble life-Henry Clay once said of a class of men who would repress all tendencies to liberty and ultimate emancipation, that they must, if they would do this, go back to the era of our Independence, and muzzle the cannon which thunders its annual joyous return; they must blow out the moral lights around us; they must penetrate the human soul, and eradicate there the love of liberty; and then, and not till then, could they perpetuate slavery in this country! [Loud cheers.] To my thinking, Judge Douglas is, by his example and vast influence, doing that very thing in this community, [cheers,] when he says that the negro has nothing in the Declaration of Independence. Henry Clay plainly understood the contrary. Judge Douglas is going back to the era of our Revolution, and to the extent of his ability, muzzling the cannon which thunders its annual joyous return. When he invites any people, willing to have slavery, to establish it, he is blowing out the moral lights around us. [Cheers.] When he says he “cares not whether slavery is voted down or voted up”-that it is a sacred right of self-government-he is, in my judgment, penetrating the human soul and eradicating the light of reason and the love of liberty in this American people. [Enthusiastic and continued applause.]
(From the first Lincoln-Douglas debate in Ottawa, Illinois, August 21, 1858 : https://www.nps.gov/liho/learn/historyculture/debate1.htm)
In the second Lincoln-Douglas debate (Freeport, Illinois, August 27, 1858), Douglas clearly enunciated what became known as the Freeport Doctrine. His casual racism, very much the norm at the time, has scarcely been noticed or acknowledged.
I have reason to recollect that some people in this country think that Fred Douglass is a very good man. The last time I came here to make a speech, while talking from the stand to you, people of Freeport, as I am doing to-day, I saw a carriage, and a magnificent one it was, drive up and take a position on the outside of the crowd; a beautiful young lady was sitting on the box-seat, whilst Fred Douglass and her mother reclined inside, and the owner of the carriage acted as driver. (Laughter, cheers, cries of right, what have you to say against it, &c.) I saw this in your own town. (“What of it.”) All I have to say of it is this, that if you, Black Republicans, think that the negro ought to be on a social equality with your wives and daughters, and ride in a carriage with your wife, whilst you drive the team, you have perfect right to do so. I am told that one of Fred Douglass’ kinsmen, another rich black negro, is now traveling in this part of the State making speeches for his friend Lincoln as the champion of black men. (“White men, white men,” and “what have you to say against it?” That’s right,&c.) All I have to say on that subject is, that those of you who believe that the negro is your equal and ought to be on an equality with you socially, politically, and legally, have a right to entertain those opinions, and of course will vote for Mr. Lincoln. (“Down with the negro,” no, no, &c.)
Robert E. Lee was a self-described Christian…and a slaver.
In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild & melting influence of Christianity, than the storms & tempests of fiery Controversy. This influence though slow, is sure. The doctrines & miracles of our Saviour have required nearly two thousand years, to Convert but a small part of the human race, & even among Christian nations, what gross errors still exist! While we see the Course of the final abolition of human Slavery is onward, & we give it the aid of our prayers & all justifiable means in our power, we must leave the progress as well as the result in his hands who sees the end; who Chooses to work by slow influences; & with whom two thousand years are but as a Single day. Although the Abolitionist must know this, & must See that he has neither the right or power of operating except by moral means & suasion, & if he means well to the slave, he must not Create angry feelings in the Master; that although he may not approve the mode which it pleases Providence to accomplish its purposes, the result will nevertheless be the same; that the reasons he gives for interference in what he has no Concern, holds good for every kind of interference with our neighbors when we disapprove their Conduct; Still I fear he will persevere in his evil Course. Is it not strange that the descendants of those pilgrim fathers who Crossed the Atlantic to preserve their own freedom of opinion, have always proved themselves intolerant of the Spiritual liberty of others?
(Letter to his wife on slavery, December 27, 1856: http://fair-use.org/robert-e-lee/letter-to-his-wife-on-slavery)
John Brown has often been portrayed as “insane” for his Harper’s Ferry raid. Doomed to fail and willing to use violence, perhaps, but far from insane.
I have, may it please the court, a few words to say.
In the first place, I deny everything but what I have all along admitted, — the design on my part to free slaves. I intended certainly to have made a clean thing of that matter, as I did last winter, when I went into Missouri and took slaves without the snapping of a gun on either side, moved them through the country, and finally left them in Canada. I designed to do the same thing again, on a larger scale. That was all I intended. I never did intend murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection.
I have another objection; and that is, it is unjust that I should suffer such a penalty. Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved (for I admire the truthfulness and candor of the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified in this case), — had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends — either father, mother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class — and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.
The court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me further to “remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.” I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say, I am too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done — as I have always freely admitted I have done — in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments. — I submit; so let it be done!
(Address of John Brown to the Virginia Court at Charles Town, Virginia on November 2, 1859: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h2943t.html)
“After some slave states had seceded they sent out commissioners to other slave states to urge them to secede… Secession Commissioner S.F. Hale of Alabama urges Kentucky to secede to avoid racial equality and the ‘lust of half-civilized Africans.’”
If the policy of the Republicans is carried out, according to the programme indicated by the leaders of the party, and the South submits, degradation and ruin must overwhelm alike all classes of citizens in the Southern States. The slave-holder and non-slave-holder must ultimately share the same fate—all be degraded to a position of equality with free negroes, stand side by side with them at the polls, and fraternize in all the social relations of life; or else there will be an eternal war of races, desolating the land with blood, and utterly wasting and destroying all the resources of the country.
Who can look upon such a picture without a shudder? What Southern man, be he slave-holder or non-slave-holder, can without indignation and horror contemplate the triumph of negro equality, and see his own sons and daughters, in the not distant future, associating with free negroes upon terms of political and social equality, and the white man stripped, by the Heaven-daring hand of fanaticism of that title to superiority over the black race which God himself has bestowed? In the Northern States, where free negroes are so few as to form no appreciable part of the community, in spite of all the legislation for their protection, they still remain a degraded caste, excluded by the ban of society from social association with all but the lowest and most degraded of the white race. But in the South, where in many places the African race largely predominates, and, as a consequence, the two races would be continually pressing together, amalgamation, or the extermination of the one or the other, would be inevitable. Can Southern men submit to such degredation (sic) and ruin? God forbid that they should.
In 1881, Jefferson Davis’ 2-volume book, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, was published. This excerpt is his reaction, written 18 years after the fact, to the clause in the Emancipation Proclamation which allowed the enlistment of African-Americans into the armed forces.
Let the reader pause for a moment and look calmly at the facts presented in this statement. The forefathers of these negro soldiers were gathered from the torrid plains and malarial swamps of inhospitable Africa. Generally they were born the slaves of barbarian masters, untaught in all the useful arts and occupations, reared in heathen darkness, they were transferred to shores enlightened by the rays of Christianity. There, put to servitude, they were trained in the gentle arts of peace and order and civilization; they increased from a few unprofitable savages to millions of efficient Christian laborers. Their servile instincts rendered them contented with their lot, and their patient toil blessed the land of their abode with unmeasured riches. Their strong local and personal attachment secured faithful service to those to whom their service or labor was due. A strong mutual affection was the natural result of this lifelong relation, a feeling best if not only understood by those who have grown from childhood under its influence. Never was there happier dependence of labor and capitol on each other. The tempter came, like the serpent in Eden, and decoyed them with the magic word “freedom.” Too many were allured by the uncomprehended and unfilled promises, until the highways of the these wanderers were marked by corpses of infants and the aged. He put arms in their hands, and trained their humble but emotional natures to deeds of violence and bloodshed, and sent them out to devastate their benefactors. …
Frederick Douglass, July 5, 1852.
What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelly to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.
At this point in a post, I would normally offer up something hopeful or positive or even silly. But I can’t do that today. As a white person in America, with all the privilege that ensures, I have a choice to make. I can stay quiet; be polite; not make waves. Or I can sit with these words, of men admired and derided, and learn from them. I can consider that 150 years after most of these words were spoken or written, not enough has changed; in fact, too many of these ideas are still heard today. I can begin to understand the anger and the anguish of my fellow citizens who still do not have full access to the rights I take for granted. I don’t have a clear path forward for myself, much less suggestions for anyone else. But I do know that silence is not an option; that we who believe in freedom cannot rest.