One Step Back

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
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. 

Thanks reader.

6 comments… add one
  • Jed Dec 23, 2006 @ 0:05

    Thanks so much for mentioning that wonderful book by Kamphoeffner and Helbick, on the Civil War-era German-American letters to relatives back home in Germany. I got a copy a while ago and read some excerpts, and it put me in touch with what my own ancestors were thinking when they first came over.

    My own family is of mainly German descent, and they indeed came to the US right in the thick of the Civil War to Ohio, fighting with the Union. It always surprised me that Germans would come in such large numbers at a time when they knew they’d be immediately conscripted, but those letters really do show how much the Germans at the time identified with the emancipation struggle in the USA. It was also surprising to me how progressive Otto von Bismarck actually was with his policies. He’s portrayed as a conservative Junker, yet it was his policies, and the general emancipation in Germany that brought about a lot of social welfare advances– a spirit that crossed the ocean with my ancestors.

    This has since become a hobby for us, collecting and archiving these old letters. There’s been a little ancestral rival in our extended family– dozens of us have picked up the study of German even in adulthood and a few of the smarter ones in the family (not myself, I can promise you 🙂 ) are fluent. A couple even got jobs in and emigrated back to Germany, and they’ve managed to access archives in the town halls there– which has been a wonderful resource in the occasional treks for the rest of us to the ancestral homeland. (We met up in Hannover a while back, felt weird, like I was stepping back into my ancestor’s shoes.)

    It’s been eye-opening in any case, how interested Europe was in the US Civil War. Even well before the US had become a world power, Europe knew how important the contest was here.

  • Will Keene Dec 21, 2006 @ 16:37

    In answer to Stephen’s question about European colonies, one can see that Kevin’s list of emancipation included “British Empire (1833)” but Kevin’s list was missing ‘French Colonies (1848)’.

  • Kevin Levin Dec 21, 2006 @ 15:05

    Stephen, — If I am not mistaken William Freehling once offered an interesting argument which suggested that slavery could have continued into the first few decades of the twentieth century. I think you need to move beyond this image of slavery as tied to agriculture. You may want to check out William Link’s book _Roots of Secession: Slavery and Politics in Antebellum Virginia (University of North Carolina Press, 2003). Part of the book discusses the broad spectrum of ways in which black slaves were being utilized in Virginia.

    Unfortunately, I am not sure what you are asking me at the end of your comment. Perhaps you can elaborate.

  • Stephen Keating Dec 21, 2006 @ 14:58

    Would slavery have died? Yes, as the key ingrediant to sustain slavery was the ability to continue to expand into new areas that would support large scale agriculture centered on labor intensive crops, and the area assigned to be ‘slave territory’ was rapidly running into the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico. As Michael Holt points out, things started going down hill for the supporters of slavery when the geographical prbolems of the Southwest led to the demand for being able to move into Northern territories. This led to a push-back from the North, which to a degree helped bring on the war, as the slave-owning groups circled their wagons and claimed their culture was under assault. Thus contained, slavery would had died out. Naturally, or how soon, is a question that must remain in the realm of the hypothetical.
    Kevin, at the risk of showing my ignorance, did not slavery continue in most European colonies until about the 1820’s-30’s? My usnderstanding is that one of the reasons for the Emencipation Proclamation was to put the UK and France in a position to support slavery, not very long after ending it in their empires.

  • University Update Dec 21, 2006 @ 10:08

    One Step Back

  • Marc Ferguson Dec 21, 2006 @ 7:29

    These are are important points you make concerning the placing of American history in it’s larger global context. The complaint that the Civil War could have been avoided and slavery allowed to die a “natural death” has always perplexed me. Slavery is ended everywhere through social and political processes that were well underway in the United States as well. This process was short-circuited by the Southern attempt to protect it’s “peculiar institution” through breaking up the nation.


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