In response to my recent post which asked whether slaveholders were "trapped" by slavery an anonymous reader offered an emotional, but important observation about the way Americans view themselves in relationship to the rest of the world. I assume that this reader was not born in the United States:
Lee was not bad. NO, having slaves and coming up with the idea that the
bible sanctions that is WRONG and BAD, especially in 1865. Maybe Lee
did not know that all slavery mentioned in the bible was based mostly
on the ancient idea of servitude which so MODERNLY allowed slaves to
earn their freedom over time. We are way into the Industrial Revolution
in Europe in the 1860s, 76 years past the French Revolution, Bismarck
is about to install social laws that provide health care for the public
and free education in Germany and he is preparingn to restrict child
labor. WHERE WERE LEE AND DAVIS AND EVERYBODY ELSE IN AMERICA? How can
Americans see themselves so isolated.I am willing to give
Jefferson a small break, but we are past the Enlightement and way into
the Romantic notion of individualism and individual rights? Beethoven
died in 1827 mourning the fact that not ALL PEOPLE can yet elect their
government in Europe. MAYBE just MAYBE Lee might have even heard of
Marx (1818-1883) and Engels. How can anybody argue that they were just
thinking it is right and were therefore good men nonetheless. Is that
what happens today: we don’t listen to what the world thinks because we
are right and are good men?
Yeah, of course compared to child
labor in Great Britain slave holders look swell even in 1865, but for
some brain activity’s sake how can somebody argue that there is still
any justification for slavery in 1865????
This writer reminds us that every so often it is useful and necessary to pull our heads out of the sand. When Americans do talk about slavery we tend to think about its eventual abolition internally. Some suggest that if the Civil War had not occurred slavery would have died a natural death, and the evangelicals somehow manage to justify slaveholding by arguing that the individuals in question believed that God would have ended it on her schedule. In other words, who were the slaveholders to question? There is a kind of bunker mentality in all of this and I suspect that it has much to do with an inability or unwillingness to place American history within a comparative context.
As a teacher I plead guilty to contributing to this mindset. My survey courses do not really touch on world affairs until the United States enters the world stage. Most textbooks are rather narrow in this respect. One of the questions often asked by students is whether Europeans followed the Civil War. They want to know what others thought of events in the states and in this regard there is a great deal to tell. [This gives me an opportunity to recommend a fabulous collection of letters written by German-Americans to relatives back in Europe during the Civil War. Walter D. Kamphoeffner and Wolfgang Helbick, Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home (University of North Carolina Press, 2006)]. What we don’t hear nearly enough about is whether Americans followed events elsewhere. Think about what this broader perspective does to our self-congratulatory or apologist dialog about emancipation and the "march of freedom" throughout our history. The United States is nowhere close to the top of the list of nations that abolished slavery in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. I am of course ignoring gradual abolition in the North for the sake of argument here. Here is a partial list: Sweden and Finland (1335), Portugal (1761), England and Wales (1772), Haiti, (1791), Upper Canada (1793), France and its colonies (1794-1802), Chile (1823), Argentina (1813), Mexico (1829), British Empire (1833), Denmark (1848), Peru (1851), Romania (1858), Netherlands (1863), and finally the United States of America (1865).
I guess the evangelical has to conclude that those involved in the abolition of slavery elsewhere did not listen closely enough to God. My point for now is that while Americans want to know that others cared about what was happening here we are not that interested in knowing to what extent the favor was returned. It’s easier to see Americans as isolated rather than part of a broader story of freedom where the United States was not always in the lead – and in the case of abolition not even close. One final thought: I don’t think the reader is criticizing Lee per se, rather the reader is struck by the lengths we will go to to preserve an image of certain historical figures which involves excusing a certain belief or action.