Thursday, July 9, 2015

Please don't throw me in that briar patch, Br'er Vox

British pro-slavery propaganda from the late 18th century, via HumaneMyth,
I was somehow personally offended to learn from blogfriend M. Bouffant, in comments to last Friday's post on how an 18th-century David Brooks might regard the American Revolution, that Dylan Matthews at Vox had already put up a post on Thursday arguing that the Revolution was a mistake from a more or less progressive, or at least Voxgressive, point of view, on the grounds that
I'm reasonably confident a world where the revolution never happened would be better than the one we live in now, for three main reasons: slavery would've been abolished earlier, American Indians would've faced rampant persecution but not the outright ethnic cleansing Andrew Jackson and other American leaders perpetrated, and America would have a parliamentary system of government that makes policymaking easier and lessens the risk of democratic collapse. 
Let the record show, by the way, that Matthews started his literary career as a 14-year-old blogger under the nym Minipundit ("I am little, it's the blogs that got elephantine"), and it wasn't very long ago. Like 2004, to be exact. Just saying.

What bothered me, obviously, was the troll presentation of the Revolution as a reactionary, pro-slavery phenomenon—you know my feelings about the Founders, especially Adams, Franklin, and little Mr. Madison (yes, I know, he was as conflicted on the subject of slavery, and almost as bad, as Mr. Jefferson)—but even more the implication that the British Empire was by contrast some kind of progressive haven where the enslaved peoples could look forward to freedom or something like it in a mere 60 years instead of 90 and the natives to a refreshing absence of genocidal mania (ask the 19th-century Irish about that, Dylan, or the Tasmanians—oh wait, there aren't any Tasmanians, what's up with that?). And on a broader level the historiographical errors of treating these societies as ideologically coherent, and of arguing backwards from the contingencies of what happened in the mid–19th century to say what sort of societies they were in 1776.

Not that Matthews isn't a lot smarter than George Will or Jonah Goldberg or somebody like that. He knows how to read, anyhow, and put a real argument together, and you can't just fisk it into oblivion. It's taken some time to work out how to respond, but I'm pretty confident at this point that he's wrong on the slavery issue at least, and here's why.

The anti-slavery movement in the English-speaking world in the late 18th century, wasn't an England or Britain vs. America thing; it was international and partisan. It came, as I've been at some pains to show recently, from the French Enlightenment (specifically Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot) to the Scottish (Adam Smith of course was an abolitionist in theory, as of 1776, though very nervous about it in practice as of 1790) and English Enlightenment, and its political work was done by Dissenters and Freemasons; in short, it was on the radical side of Whiggery, meaning in England under Tory George III the opposition, and in the northern American colonies the Revolutionary party (including Virginia, where planter aristocrats like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison knew very well what was right, though they failed to act on it).

The well-worn story, cited by Matthews, that slavery in the British Isles was abolished in 1772, by Lord Mansfield's decision in the 1772 case of Somerset vs. Stewart, is not true, per a useful rundown at the UK National Archives. The opinion was a progressive one, sort of like the opposite of the Fugitive Slave Act, ruling that an escaped slave in England could not be forcibly removed from Britain and sold, but it did not interfere with the right of white people (mostly absentee owners of Caribbean and North American plantations) to keep slaves in Britain, and didn't even stop them from doing exactly what the decision said they couldn't do, capturing escaped slaves and shipping them away for sale, as newspaper advertisements of the time amply prove. Lord Mansfield himself ruled in 1785 that slaves in Britain did not need to be paid wages, which sounds a lot like saying slavery was legal.  The actual status of enslaved persons in Britain remained unclear until the imperial abolition of 1833.

Meanwhile, in the Revolutionary northern states, abolition took place, starting with Massachusetts and New Hampshire in 1783, Connecticut and Rhode Island in 1784, Pennsylvania in 1780, New York in 1799 (in a very gradual process that wouldn't be complete until 1827), and New Jersey in 1804. And Canada, incidentally, by 1819. The slave trade in America in general ended at the same time as it did in Britain, in 1807, and north of the Mason-Dixon line, in fact, slavery itself ended long before it did in England. It was only in the South that it did not, and I'd like it noted for the record that there were people in England who were perfectly OK with that, notably the moneyed class financing the new textile industry, which depended on Southern raw cotton. These attitudes, as everybody knows, were as strong as ever during the American Civil War, when support for the Confederacy was widespread both among the British aristocracy and the workers in the industrial north of England, who saw their jobs as being at stake; except a wide (and Liberal) pro-Union feeling also existed, and that, together with the fabulous diplomacy of ambassador Charles Francis Adams, kept the UK neutral.

As far as the British abolition of slavery in the Caribbean in 1833 goes, I think people need to understand that it wasn't the maturing of anti-slavery feeling in the UK that prompted it but a massive slave revolt in Jamaica, the 1831 Baptist War, which mobilized some 60,000 enslaved people (compared to about 70 in Nat Turner's Rebellion at the same time) and frightened Parliament into the series of inquiries that led to the drafting and passage of the Slavery Abolition Act. Nor did they do anything for the freed slaves of Jamaica and Barbados and Trinidad except to take their jobs away and give them to workers thought to be more docile and less prone to uprisings, indentured semi-slaves imported from India,
treated as inhumanely as the enslaved Africans had been. They were confined to their estates and paid a pitiful salary. Any breach of contract brought automatic criminal penalties and imprisonment. Many of these were brought away from their homelands deceptively. Many from inland regions over a thousand kilometers from seaports were promised jobs, were not told the work they were being hired for, or that they would leave their homeland and communities. They were hustled aboard the waiting ships, unprepared for the long and arduous four-month sea journey. Charles Anderson, a special magistrate investigating these sugarcane plantations, wrote to the British Colonial Secretary declaring that with few exceptions, the indentured labourers are treated with great and unjust severity; plantation owners enforced work in sugarcane farms so harshly, that the decaying remains of immigrants were frequently discovered in sugarcane fields. If labourers protested and refused to work, they were not paid or fed: they simply starved.
So no, on the whole, I don't think British rule in the colonies would have ended slavery at all; the colonies of the North surely would have tried to do it for themselves, to whatever extent the royal occupiers allowed them to, but if the colonies of the South had remained British, English industry would have done whatever it could to retain the slave system (another of their aims in the Revolutionary War, of course, was to strangle competition in industrializing New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, while keeping the Southern economy exactly as it was). As to the American Indians, keep in mind that British Canada and the Northern US were both pretty much equally terrible, but the especially dreadful incidents to which Matthews refers took place in the South. There's no reason to think British occupation would have stopped them either. And as to the parliamentary system, please. The system in use in Italy, Singapore, and Israel is somehow intrinsically better, more decisive and less prone to breakdown, than the one in France and Brazil? I don't think so.

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