Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Paradox Lost

On July 4th, I happened to read this article-review, by Paul Street, an excellent summary/overview of Gerald Horne's The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America. I'm going to cherry-pick this passage from the piece:
The “American paradox” (US historian Edmund Morgan’s term), whereby “the Age of Liberty” was also “the Age of Slavery,” was not limited to colonial North America and the United States. As the historian Greg Grandin reminds us, “the paradox can be applied to all of the Americas, North and South…What was true for Richmond [Virginia] was no less true for Buenos Aires and Lima – that what many meant by freedom was the freedom to buy and sell black people as property” (Greg Grandin, Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World, New York, 2014, emphasis added). But consider this: of the 10 to 16 million Africans who survived the brutal Middle Passage to the New World, two-thirds ended up in Brazil or the West Indies. But by 1860, approximately two thirds of all New World slaves lived in the US South. In the US alone among the new Western Hemisphere Republics of the 19th century, slavery flourished rather than faded – until its destruction in the Civil War.
Part of the explanation for that disjuncture is the natural reproduction of slaves under the “paternalist” regime of the US South. Another aspect is the remarkable expansion of cotton slavery across the US South in the first half of the 19th century, intimately related to the early industrial revolution in England and Europe. A final piece is the white settlers’/slaveholders’ Counter-Revolution of 1776. The break-off slayed the specter of British Abolition and opened up vast new swaths of land for genocidal theft from the continent’s original inhabitants and the deployment of new slave cash-crop production armies. [Paul Street, "The White United States’ Real Founding Father: Lord Dunmore", July 3, 2014, teleSUR]
I read Horne's Counter-Revolution of 1776 earlier this year, and while I found it occasionally rough-sledding as a reading experience (Horne's prose sometimes gets in the way of his presentation of what is after all either unfamiliar or re-contextualized information), at minimum it contains a wealth of material on what the colonists-slaveholders-proto-founders were concerned with - essentially, preserving the slave system and protecting their property rights and themselves from both insurrection from slaves and attack from Africans armed by either the Spanish or British, depending. Horne's book sketches, as Street concisely puts it, "a central, fundamentally counter-revolutionary motivation behind the fateful decision to break off from England: a sense that the slave system on which North American fortunes depended could not survive except through secession from the British Empire."

I read two other books this year, which can be read fruitfully alongside Horne's: Domenico Losurdo's Liberalism: A Counter-History (translated from the Italian by Gregory Elliott) and Edward E. Baptist's much-discussed The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. Among much else, in Liberalism Losurdo reveals anew that the "American paradox" is no paradox. That "the Age of Liberty" was also "the Age of Slavery" was no accident. Losurdo is fond of phrases like "the pathos of liberty" or, my favorite, "the self-congratulation of the community of the free", but ultimately, the point is that the articulated values of liberty and freedom, and the political rights developed to protect them, were based on the un-freedom of others, explicitly. Their liberty depended on the dispossession of the indigenous and the enslavement of Africans. There was no contradiction, no paradox, except insofar as we continue to read them in isolation, when they were meant in concert (the book is not only about American liberals, but that's what's relevant here). And then The Half Has Never Been Told narrates, in horrifying detail, the slave system as it changed and expanded after 1776, and especially after 1800. One considerable virtue of the book is that it recontextualizes information droned into us as school-children (along with, of course, tons of information we never encountered in school) such as the Louisiana Purchase, the various slavery "Compromises", the Mexican War, the cotton gin, and so on...


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