[Homestead] Slavery---The Money Machine

tvoivozhd tvoivozd at infionline.net
Thu Feb 17 16:03:07 EST 2005

"By the eve of the Civil War," says Horton, "the dollar

value of slaves was greater than the dollar value of all

of America's banks, railroads, and manufacturing combined





Home Issues 2/14/05

The complex story of slavery
By Jay Tolson

The governor of South Carolina was outraged. A slave ship

arriving from Africa had dumped the bodies of captives who

had died during the Middle Passage into the Charleston

harbor, and now they were washing up on the shore. Had

this all-too-grisly proof of an inhuman system of

exploitation awoken the governor to the enormity of

slavery? Not at all, says Dante James, series producer of

Slavery and the Making of America, talking about one of

the more poignant scenes from the documentary airing on

PBS February 9 and 16. The governor was angry, James

explains, "because the smell of the bodies was upsetting

the white residents of South Carolina."

The story of slavery in America has long been a history of

denial and evasion. Look no further than the original U.S.

Constitution, where the words slave or slavery never

appear, even alongside the founders' implicit definition

of a slave as three fifths of a person. Or consider a

recent controversy in North Carolina in which, the New

York Times reported, only bad publicity forced a large

Christian school to abandon a pamphlet describing slavery

as "a relationship based upon mutual affection and

confidence." Up until only five decades ago, rosy textbook

treatments of antebellum "plantation life" were more the

rule than the exception.

Reality. Such coverups and distortions are somewhat less

common today because the past 50 years have seen the rise

and expansion of a major scholarly effort to construct a

fuller, more accurate record of American slavery. That

endeavor takes into account both the internal reality of

an ever changing institution, particularly as seen by the

enslaved people themselves, and the massive contributions

of those people--dignified, resilient, and ingenious in

the face of brutalizing adversity--to the economy and

culture of the larger nation. It is precisely this story

that Slavery and the Making of America sets out to

dramatize through re-enactments of representative episodes

and figures, interspersed with commentary by some of the

finest scholars in the field. George Washington University

historian James Horton, the principal academic consultant

and coauthor of the companion book, makes the project's

ambition very clear: "We set out to show that slavery was

no sideshow in American history but the main event."

At the very least, the series will make it harder for

viewers to think of American slavery as a static

institution, limited to a particular time or region. "One

of the things the film does well is to show that slavery

was not a 'peculiar institution,' " says University of

Maryland historian Ira Berlin. "In the 17th and 18th

centuries," he adds, "it was very general." Indeed, the "

peculiar institution" --the epithet given to slavery as it

existed in the antebellum "Big Cotton" South--was only a

phase in the evolution of a system that effectively

emerged in British North America in 1619, when a handful

of Africans were brought to Jamestown to work the tobacco

fields. The status of those workers, whether in Jamestown

or New Amsterdam, was fluid, uncodified, and often similar

to that of white indentured servants who served only for

limited periods.

But soon the Africans brought over in the expanding trans

-Atlantic slave trade found themselves coming under ever

more severe constraints. Within a decade after South

Carolina's 1691 adoption of a comprehensive slave code,

other Colonies had laws defining and regulating human

chattel. And by the eve of the Revolution, slaveholding

was deeply rooted in all of those Colonies, with New York

City, among colonial cities, standing second only to

Charleston, S.C., in its population of slaves.

The American Revolution truly made slavery "peculiar,"

Berlin explains, because it became the outstandingly

flagrant violation of the new nation's founding

principles. The film's view from within slave society

illuminates not only the slaves' acute awareness of that

contradiction but their determined, and sometimes

successful, efforts to demand the application of the

founding ideals to their own condition. Even before the

Revolution was over, some, such as a New Jersey slave

named Titus (who came to be known as "Colonel Tye"), took

up arms and fought with the British, believing that their

best chance for eventual freedom lay with them. More

successful, though, was Mum Bett, whose victorious lawsuit

against her Massachusetts master was a first and crucial

step toward that state's abolition of slavery in 1783.

But the sheer power of slavery as an economic engine,

benefiting not only southern planters but northern textile

producers and many others, guaranteed that the institution

would not go quietly into extinction. Nor did the

congressionally mandated ban against importing more

Africans after 1808 do much to slow a burgeoning domestic

slave trade. This internal market was possibly even more

brutal, breaking up families in the upper South to send

off legions of laborers--children separated from parents,

husbands from wives--to work the cotton fields of

Mississippi and other Deep South states. And the engine

yielded expanding results. By as early as 1815, cotton was

America's most valuable export, and the worth of the

people who harvested the product grew apace with cotton's

steadily growing value. "By the eve of the Civil War,"

says Horton, "the dollar value of slaves was greater than

the dollar value of all of America's banks, railroads, and

manufacturing combined."

And amid this brutalizing economic engine, the series

emphasizes, enslaved people's institutions--including

families and a growing network of churches--endured.

Indeed, the resilience of the former, says Princeton

historian Nell Irvin Painter, gives the lie to overly

simplistic modern sociological generalizations about the

pathology of the American black family tracing back to

slavery. "Families, biological and constructed, survived

against amazing odds," she says. Part of the series draws

heavily on Painter's work on a remarkable figure, Harriet

Jacobs. Born in North Carolina in 1813, Jacobs eventually

ran away from a lecherous master, hiding for seven years

in a cramped, airless space beneath the roof of her

grandmother's shack. There, through a tiny peephole, she

kept watch over her two children until the threat of

exposure forced a harder separation. Fleeing to the North,

she joined her brother in the struggle for abolition and

eventually penned her autobiography, Incidents in the Life

of a Slave Girl.

The hopefulness of Emancipation and early Reconstruction

is shown through the experiences of Robert Smalls, a slave

dock master in Charleston who skippered a stolen

Confederate ship into the protective arms of an offshore

federal fleet. Fighting for the Union for the rest of the

war, Smalls later returned to South Carolina, served in

the statehouse, and was eventually elected to the U.S.

Congress. But ultimately he saw the new system of

segregation emerge, rolling back many of the gains that

African-Americans had won.

If historical accuracy requires such a downbeat

conclusion, producer James believes his dramatized

argument that "enslaved people were proactive in terms of

pushing the agenda of equality and freedom forward" offers

true consolation. After all, the hopes that faded to

cinders would spark another conflagration almost a century

later: a struggle for full equality that continues to this


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