Fergus M. Bordewich

Archive for the ‘Race & Politics’ Category

YES, Slaves Did Build the White House and the United States Capitol
Friday, July 29th, 2016

Irate conservatives this week dismissed Michelle Obama’s assertion at the Democratic Convention that enslaved workers built the President’s mansion. They’re dead wrong, and Mrs. Obama is precisely right. Here’s the real story, which I explored at length in my book “Washington: The Making of the American Capital” (Amistad/HarperCollins, 2008), a history of how the politics of slavery helped to determine the location of the nation’s capital, and the role that slaves played in the construction of the city.
 
In the early 1790s, when construction on the federal buildings began, in theory it should have been possible to hire enough free white workers to undertake the jobs that needed to be done. But most local whites shunned what they harshly called “n—-r work.” Moreover, the commissioners appointed by George Washington to oversee the construction of the city were all slave owners, and deeply suspicious of independent white labor. Free men were liable to complain, agitate, disobey their superiors, and walk off the job. As one observer put it, the free white worker “becomes the greatest puppy imaginable, and much unpleasanter even than the Negro.”
 
There was of course a solution to the commissioners’ labor anxieties readily to hand: slaves in abundance. Masters could lease their slaves to the commissioners for a handsome profit, which might range as high as 23 percent of their market value for one year’s work. They could generally be hired locally for about three-fifths the cost of the cheapest unskilled free labor. Moreover, as early as 1793, the federal commissioners deliberately undercut white workers’ demands for higher wages by making it clear that they could always be replaced by slaves, who “have proven a very useful check and kept our affairs cool.”
 
White workers made up about one-third of the workforce in the capital at any given time, mostly as skilled stone-carvers and at certain other specialized trades. In 1795, about 300 slaves were working in the city-to-be, including the White House and the Capitol Building, half of them for the federal commissioners and the rest for private contractors. The white workforce then numbered about 150.
 
Slaves generally were assigned the roughest and least-skilled tasks: hauling timber, dragging sledges, digging foundations, stirring mortar, toting baskets of stone, and the like. Some were highly skilled, however, such as White House architect James Hoban’s private team of five enslaved carpenters. Hoban earned $60 a month from the commissioners for the work of his carpenters, one of whom was so superior in his workmanship that he — or rather Hoban — was paid more than free white workers on the same job.
 
Who were these enslaved men? The federal commissioners’ yellowing records tell us nothing personal about them. But their names can be found, along with the jobs they did, and the amount that their masters were paid for their work, in box after box stored at the National Archives’ facility in College Park, Maryland. Many hundreds of the chits for their work survive on scraps of old paper, there for anyone to read. There you’ll find Commissioner Gustavus Scott’s two slaves, Kitt and Bob; William Somerwell’s Charles; Susannah Johnson’s Peter, Nace, Basil, and Will; George Fenwick’s Auston, and many, many more.
 
Thanks to Michelle Obama for reminding us of them, and that slavery was embedded in our country from the founding, just as it was in the erection of our most important symbolic national buildings.
 

Review of Manisha Sinha’s The Slave’s Cause
Thursday, March 10th, 2016

I recently reviewed Manisha Sinha’s revelatory history of American abolitionism in her new book “The Slave’s Cause” for The Wall Street Journal. Beginning in the 1960s, a new generation of scholars recovered many aspects of abolitionism from oblivion, but until now none has attempted the kind of sweeping account that Ms. Sinha, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, has achieved. Below are some excerpts from my review titled, “The Righteous of Our Nation.” It can be read in full at WSJ.com.

“Lucidly written, compellingly argued and based on exhaustive scholarship, “The Slave’s Cause” captures the myriad aspects of this diverse and far-ranging movement and will deservedly take its place alongside the equally magisterial works of Ira Berlin on slavery and Eric Foner on the Reconstruction Era. Ms. Sinha seems to have read just about everything ever written on the subject of antislavery, including sermons, diaries, broadsides, speeches and legal arguments by the famous and the obscure alike. It is a measure of her command of the material that even as she leads us through the deepest thickets of antebellum polemics she is rarely dull.”
 
“The first voices to oppose slavery were often lonely ones, but they were not negligible. At the end of the 17th century, the influential Puritan preacher Cotton Mather forcefully rejected arguments for racial inferiority based on skin color. Soon afterward, Mather’s contemporary Samuel Sewall, who had served as a judge during the Salem witch trials, challenged the widely held belief that Africans had been condemned to everlasting slavery by the Bible. Organized antislavery activity began with the Quakers, who held that every human being possessed a godly inner light that made enslavement a sin against God himself.”

………………..

“Even at its peak on the eve of the Civil War, the abolitionist movement was never the monolith that pro-slavery Southerners thought it to be. It always comprised an array of rivalrous groups that diverged over such matters as the public participation of women, collaboration with mainstream political parties, financial compensation for slaveholders and the use of physical force. Ms. Sinha deftly elucidates these fissures, which became especially evident when Garrisonians, who rejected the Constitution as a pro-slavery document and shunned mainstream politics, squared off against Smith and his allies, who hoped that an abolition-influenced party might triumph at the polls and who sometimes allied themselves with the Whig Party, which included slave owners in its ranks.”

………………..

“Abolitionists for the most part challenged rather than shored up the status quo,” Ms. Sinha writes. Thus they contributed to a variety of causes, not only women’s rights but also temperance, the campaign against capital punishment, and immigrants’ and workingmen’s rights. But the “enduring heritage of the abolition movement is even broader,” Ms. Sinha observes as she closes this watershed account of one of America’s most transformative movements. Its heritage of “unyielding commitment to human rights and a call to action,” she says, remain embedded in Americans’ stubborn desire to better society, even against long odds.”

 

Can Calhoun, Waive Wilson
Saturday, January 9th, 2016

Woodrow Wilson was an unadulterated racist. Princeton students who are demanding the removal of his name from everything named after him at the university he served as president are right to point it out. Born in Virginia in 1856, and raised in Georgia and South Carolina during the Civil War and the repressive Jim Crow years that followed it, Wilson absorbed southern bigotry as a birthright. As Princeton’s president, he made clear that he would welcome no black applicants. As president of the United States from 1913 to 1919, he oversaw the racial segregation of the federal civil service. Segregation, he asserted, “was not a humiliation but a benefit” for blacks. He also held a White House screening of “Birth of a Nation”, praising its degrading portrayal of blacks and romanticization of the Ku Klux Klan as depictions of reality. Although the Klan’s resurgence after the film’s release cannot be blamed on Wilson, his approval of it doubtless lent encouragement to its activities.

Wilson is now the latest target in proliferating demands to topple monuments and reputations that honor long dead Americans tainted by racism. Students at Yale are engaged in a similar, much publicized campaign to remove John C. Calhoun’s name from one of the university’s undergraduate colleges. A former vice president, and a senator who was a member of the “Great Triumvirate” that also included Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, Calhoun, who died in 1850, regarded African-Americans as fundamentally “low, degraded, and savage.” He adored slavery and defended it tenaciously, declaring that it ennobled masters and slaves alike, and formed the foundation of true republicanism, by creating the affluence and leisure for white men to engage in self-government.

His advocacy for slavery was accompanied by a broader disdain for mass democracy  and its basic freedoms, even for white men, which he claimed led only to “violence, injustice, and anarchy.” He mocked the assertion of the Declaration of Independence that all men were born free and equal, declaring, “There is not a word of truth in the whole proposition,” adding that “the attempt to carry into practice this, the most dangerous of all political error…has done more to retard the cause of liberty and civilization than all other causes combined.” He advocated that police powers, and censorship of both speech and the press be imposed on the rest of the country to silence slavery’s enemies, and actively fostered, if he did not invent, the South’s antebellum narrative of perpetual resentment and grievance. At a time when Congress was gridlocked and Civil War threatened, in 1850, he stood out among his contemporaries as the leading enemy of compromise.

Calhoun’s legacy remains a vital if too little acknowledged part of American politics today. It survives in appeals to racism cloaked in anodyne present-day appeals to “states rights,” in the continued devaluation of black lives, and in the kind of cultural purism that wishes to build walls against immigrants in the guise of patriotism and “self-defense.”  Calhoun of course cannot be blamed for every retrograde tendency in twenty-first century American politics. But nor should his ghostly influence be underestimated.

Wilson’s record pales beside Calhoun’s contempt not only for blacks but also for basic democratic values. Although Wilson’s policies on race were shameful, they must be balanced against his commitment to political reform, which resulted in the passage of a raft of progressive legislation – the Federal Reserve Act, creation of the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Farm Loan Act, the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the right to vote, and much more – as well as his advocacy for the League of Nations and self-determination of the world’s oppressed colonial minorities. His contributions to the liberalization of American government and to the export of America’s higher political values were significant and lasting. Calhoun, by contrast, did more than any other American politician in history to sow suspicion of the federal government, to undermine democracy, and to rationalize authoritarian tendencies in the United States.

It may prove relatively easy to remove Calhoun’s his name from the college that bears it. But it will not scrub his reactionary legacy from the body politic. The more difficult challenge is to confront the pernicious thinking that he championed and that Wilson was heir to. Princeton students, and the rest of us, will benefit more from a fully rounded understanding of Wilson, who illustrates disturbingly but not all that uncommonly how racism can coexist alongside the highest idealism. He deserves to retain his place in the American political pantheon, tainted though it may be: Calhoun does not.

 

“We Have Found One Another again as Brothers”
Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

Remembering Gettysburg in 1913 and 1938

 

LIKE NO OTHER battlefield of the Civil War, Gettysburg has lent itself to an iconic, almost mythologized, presentation of the war. It has served in this way for at least a century. In 1913, on the fiftieth anniversary of the battle, it was the site of a huge national celebration of reconciliation which drew 54,000 Union and Confederate veterans from around the
country. Twenty-five years later, in 1938, on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the battle, the final “grand reunion” drew more than one thousand aged survivors from both North and South.

What exactly happened at these events, beyond the obvious socializing? What was “celebrated”? What “remembered”? What were the larger national (even international) meanings of the “reunions”? These are not simple
questions.

Both events were well recorded by the press, on film, and in 1938 on radio, and featured important addresses by the sitting presidents of the day, Woodrow Wilson in 1913 and Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938. They offer
parallel windows into the changing ways in which the Civil War has been remembered and misremembered, the uses to which that history was put at different times, and into America’s conception of itself on the cusps of both World War I and World War II. (more…)

A Call for the Bold Pragmatism of 1850
Monday, August 13th, 2012

AS WASHINGTON steams in the summer heat, and the nation prepares for the November elections, Congress is no closer to overcoming the legislative paralysis that has hobbled its deliberations all year. Although the recent Supreme Court decision on President Obama’s health care law has temporarily heartened Democrats, it is likely to fuel a new and perhaps even more virulent round of ideological posturing during the upcoming congressional campaign.

For a roadmap through the legislative combat zone that almost surely lies in store, today’s senators and congressmen might look for inspiration to the supremely pragmatic lawmakers who piloted Congress through the longest, and arguably the bitterest, debate in American history to pull the nation back from the brink of war and craft the Compromise of 1850.

Congress had already struggled unsuccessfully for two years to decide whether to extend slavery into or ban it from the vast new territories the United States had conquered in the Mexican War. The crisis came to a head in 1849 when Gold Rush settlers in California petitioned for admission as a free state, upsetting the precarious balance of fifteen free states and fifteen slave states in the U.S. Senate. Threats of southern secession were rampant. Congress was so badly deadlocked that many Americans expected civil war to break out within weeks. “We are on the very eve of bloodshed in the capital,” warned the New York Herald. “There is no telling when its crimson streaks may deluge the halls of Congress.”
The ten-month-long debate that extended until September of 1850 was not a pretty spectacle. Before it was over, mortal threats would be made, punches thrown, and guns drawn on the floor of Congress. (more…)

Evangelical Religion, Liberalism, and Antislavery
Friday, February 10th, 2006

WHEN STUDENTS AND FACULTY at Calvin College in Grand Rapids protested the invitation of President George W. Bush to speak at commencement in 2005, it made national news. This wasn’t Harvard or Columbia, but an evangelical institition supported by the Christian Reformed Church—the president’s supposed home turf, at least spiritually speaking. After all, weren’t evangelicals the shock troops of the Radical Right?

The evangelical movement has never been a political monolith. In the early nineteenth century, evangelicals were most likely to be found on the radical left. From the archives Indeed, evangelical religion helped lay the groundwork for modern liberalism. Its contribution can most clearly be seen in the spiritualized politics of the abolitionist movement in the years before the Civil War.

Although Quakers always played an important role in abolitionism, they were soon joined by large numbers of both white and black Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists. The evangelical message of individual redemption through political action resonated deeply with Americans in a deeply pious era when Judgment Day was an event as real as the annual spring planting and autumn harvest, and the secularist passions of the Revolutionary generation had grown stale. (more…)