The Atlantic – Still Relevant!

One of the best in-print observations of the sesquicentennial is by The Atlantic Monthly (altogether fitting, since it was one of the most influential magazines in the 1860s), who’ve assigned blogging duties to Ta-Nehisi Coates.

I’ve seen Coates in a few talking-head spots (and, if I recall correctly, a Colbert Report interview) and he’s always fascinating; well-versed in popular culture yet deeply intellectual. Go figure, this sums up his regular column, too.

The most recent is an investigation into Ron Paul’s controversial (read: ridiculous) pro-Southern stance on the war, which he considers to have been unnecessary, claiming compensated emancipation would’ve solved all the problems. Coates approaches the topic as a scientist:

One of the more unfortunate aspects of blogging about the Civil War is that a great deal of time is expended on debunking, as opposed to discovery. Instead of looking at, say, Unionism in Tennessee, or Native American participation in the Confederate Army, we end up revisiting black Confederates again. I’ve tried to avoid this. But history is political and the deployment of comfortable narratives is a constant malady. Moreover, I get something out of these repeated debunkings that I didn’t realize until this weekend. My wife recently noted that is not unusual for scientist to spend as much, or more, time disproving things, as opposed to proving. She added that sometimes in disproving, they actually make a discovery…

The problem debating this sort of thing is the side of dishonesty and intellectual laziness is at an advantage. It will likely take more effort for me to compose this post, then it took for Ron Paul to stand before the Confederate Flag and offer his thin gruel of history. Those attempting to practice history need not only gather facts, but seek out facts that might contradict the facts they like, and then gather more facts of context to see what it all means.

He presents some facts:

We know that states like Mississippi and South Carolina were, in 1860, majority black and thus compensated emancipation in Hammond and Calhoun’s South Carolina would not simply mean the end of this broad aristocracy, but the prospect of a free white populations outnumbered by a free black population. We can thus surmise that it is no coincidence that South Carolina inaugurated the Civil War.

We know that to alleviate fears of black majority, compensated emancipation was usually partnered with a proposal of colonization–that is the removal of African-Americans from slave states to colonies in Africa or the Caribbean. We know that colonization was a polarizing issue in the black community, and by 1860, much of its popular support had collapsed. Thus we know that any contemplation of compensated emancipation must grapple with how several counties, and some states in the South, would react to finding themselves suddenly outnumbered by free black people.

Then asks more questions:

2.) Was a mass payment toward slave-holders even possible? We know that in 1860, slaves were worth $3 billion in 1860 dollars (75 billion in today’s dollars.) Did the American government have access to those sorts of funds? If so, how would they have been garnered?

4.) Assuming compensation, how would Southerners have reacted to a substantial black minority in their midst? What would the labor system have looked like? What would have happened with black male suffrage? How would the white working class reacted to finding itself in competition with blacks?

6.) Why didn’t England have a war over slavery? What were the specific differences between England slave colonies and the Antebellum South?

upon which, in the comments, his readers expound.

I would have to assume on 2, there would never have been enough money to buy the slaves outright, considering both the numbers (4.5 million, if memory serves) and southron intransigence. I can easily envision a situation like Germany’s WW1 reparations, which it just finished paying a couple of years ago (!), where the Union would make payments over time. Imagine the implications of that, with the South changing from Slave Power to perpetual creditor. And if you consider the financial rollercoaster of the late 1800s and the risk of a missed payment, I’m sure any arrangements would include a penalty for default that would have fallen on the freed slaves somehow.

It’s an antidote to the Ron Paul incident, and the recent Jim Crow revival for voting rights, to see an educated black man, at a liberal publication, asking tough questions. Isn’t this every Republican’s worst nightmare?

2 Trackback(s)

  1. Feb 14, 2012: from Slavery in Canada : The Civil War Podcast
  2. Mar 13, 2012: from Civil War Photographs: Places : The Civil War Podcast

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