Question for Discussion: What role does slavery and racism
play in America's emerging "Empire of Liberty"?
Reading: Declaration of Independence ; Douglass, "What to the Slave is the
4th of July" ; Taney , The Dred Scott Decision; Douglass, "On Whether
Slaves are Happy";
Video: YouTube: The Downward Spiral of Slavery;
You Tube: The Capture of Slaves in Africa ; YouTube: The Origins of Slavery
Slavery in America
African American Views of Slavery
The Geography of Slavery: 1600-1860
The Debate over Slavery in America
The American Civil War
1. Anglo-European Cultural Values
2. Slavery in the Old South
3. The Spread of Slavery in the U.S.
4. The Debate over Slavery
5. Black's Views on Slavery
6. The Debate over Slavery: Douglass vs. Taney
7. The Meaning of the Civil War
8. Blacks and Whites in the South after the Civil War
1. What does Ken Burns mean when he says:
"If we forget the great stain of slavery that
stands at the heart of our country, our
history, our experiment--we forget who we
are, and we make the great rift deeper and
2. Do you agree with Loewen that race is the sharpest and deepest division in American Life? (138)
3. Do you agree with Loewen that the struggle over racial slavery may be the predominant theme in American history? (139)
4. According to Loewen, "What are the twin legacies of slavery to the present?" (143)
5. How do we reconcile Thomas Jefferson's assertion that everyone has an equal right to "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness" and his enslavement of 175 human beings when the wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776? (146)
6. How can we explain that the freedom the Texans fought for in the war for Independence against Mexico in 1835 and 1836 was, as Loewen notes, "the freedom to own slaves"? (151)
7. Do you agree with Democratic politician Stephen Douglas who
said in 1858: "In my opinion this government of ours is founded on the white basis. It was made by the white man, for the benefit of the white man, to be administered by white men"? (154)
8. How does white supremacy and racism help explain Americans
treatment of African slaves and American Indians?
9. If racism, racial hierarchies, and racial divisions dominate
American history, why don't textbooks address the larger reality of
racism and its influence on our history and society?
"In my opinion this government of ours is founded on the white basis. It was made by the white man, for the benefit of the white man,to be administered by white men. I am opposed to taking any step that recognizes the Negro man or the Indian as the equal of the white man."
Senator Stephen Douglas, 1858
(Loewen, p. 154)
"It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures [black slaves] to be men, because, allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that we ourselves are not Christian."
French philosopher Montesquieu, 1748
"WE hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness -- That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. "
Declaration of Independence
Loewen, "Gone With the Wind: The Invisibility of Racism
in American History Textbooks," pp. 137-170
Do you agree with Ken Burns who said:
"The black-white rift stands at the very center of American history. It is the great challenge to which all our deepest aspirations to freedom must rise. If we forget that--if we forget the great stain of slavery that stands at the heart of our country, our history, our experiment--we forget who we are, and we make the great rift deeper."
If Burns is right, then why do Americans continue to deny the central importance of race and racism in their history? Loewen argues that "race is the sharpest and deepest division in American life....that the struggle over racial slavery may be the predominant theme in American history." (p. 139) But there are those who argue that race and racial division ended with the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. But can America's over two-hundred and fifty year history of racial slavery really be erased in a mere generation? Can the wounds of racism and the culture of racism really be pushed aside in thirty years?
In this chapter, Loewen examines the larger history of racism and its affect on American culture and society. Examining high school history textbooks in the twentieth century, Loewen finds that up until the civil rights movement textbooks denied the painful divisions created by slavery in America. He argues that the "Gone with the Wind" myth portrayed slavery as "a social structure of harmony and grace that did no real harm to anyone, white or black." (p. 140) The textbooks were merely repeating the Southern myth of slavery, which portrayed slavery as the white man's burden to care for blacks, who could not survive without such white support. Far from being a brutal and evil institution, textbooks described slavery as the duty of whites to protect their Black charges. Loewen argues that the "Gone with the Wind" myth reflects the very American racism that created and supported slavery. But, of course, this myth conceals this racism behind the myth of white benevolence.
Looking behind the myths about slavery, Loewen argues that slavery has left two major impacts on American society today: 1) social and economic inferiority that it conferred upon blacks, and 2) the cultural racism it instilled in whites. (p. 143) But what is the larger cause of the growth of slavery and racism in American and European society? Loewen argues that the Europeans used racism
to justify "taking land from and destroying indigenous peoples and enslaving Africans to work that land." (p. 143) Finding the Americas already settled by peoples they called "Indians," European governments and settlers declared
these peoples racially, culturally, and religiously inferior. The Native peoples did not, therefore, have the right to continue to own and develop their land, to practice their own culture and rule their own societies, and to freely practice their
diverse religions. Arguing that God justified the settlement of the Americas by Europeans, settlers used racism and ethnocentrism to deny the Indians their basic rights as peoples.
But this raises a larger question. Having decided that Indians were inferior and must be civilized and controlled by white settlers, why didn't the
settlers enslave the Indians? Why did they import African peoples all they way from Africa, causing tens of thousands of Africans to die on the passage to America in slave ships? In the early years of European settlement in America, settlers did try to enslave Indians and use their labor to develop the resources and wealth of their dispossessed lands. But this soon posed a serious problem. Nearby Indians tribes whose peoples had been enslaved would often attack
the colonies that had enslaved them. In addition,during the numerous Indian wars and conflicts between Indians and the growing European colonies, Indian slaves often provided invaluable information that Indian war parties could use in
attacking the colonies. Finally, white settlers feared, with some reason, that Indians tribes would retaliate to whites enslaving Indians by themselves enslaving whites. As a result of these serious problems caused by enslaving Indians, European colonies and settlers began to import African peoples to
work as slaves in the colonies. Unlike the Indians, these African slaves would
not understand the local environment, have friendly Indian tribes to free them, or pose a military threat to the colonies.
Given the long history of racism that justified slavery and the dispossession of Indian land, why don't high school textbooks discuss the centrality
of race in American history and society? We can begin to answer this question by examining the Founding Fathers attitudes toward slavery. The larger problem high school textbooks face is telling the story of the settlement of America in
terms of increasing progress, the spread of rights and liberties, and the larger mission of America to bring democracy and its values to the world. Slavery and racism undermine this noble story, and force Americans to look at an "uglier" side of American history and society.
Patrick Henry is often celebrated for his "Give me liberty or give me death" speech, but he was a slaveholder. But Henry ordered "diligent patrols to keep Virginia slaves from accepting the British offer of freedom to those who would
join their side." (p. 146) For many slaves, the promise of the Revolution was to be found by fighting for the British, who offered them their freedom and liberty. Patriots like Henry fought for and won their freedom from Britain, but
refused to grant freedom to their slaves. Recognizing the contradiction, Henry said: "I am drawn along by the general inconvenience of living here without them....I will not, I cannot justify it." (p. 148)
Thomas Jefferson is even more a problem for Americans who would argue that the history of America is the expansion and growth of freedom and liberty. Jefferson help draft the Declaration of Independence, which declared that
"all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of
happiness." But Jefferson owned 175 slaves at the time he wrote this. He later wrote that "blacks and whites can never participate in society equally.
The attempt to do so will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race."(p. 147) Jefferson had lived his life by exploiting
the labor of his Black slaves. His wealth, freedom, and luxury were all dependent on denying to Blacks the very liberty that he argued were the rights of "all men." In fact, as the founder of the Democratic party, Jefferson political legacy was
the creation of a white supremacist party that dominated the South until the 1970s and 1980s.
Loewen now argues that it was the need to expand slavery and the profits that slavery generated that drove American imperial expansion before the Civil War. Slaveholders supported the wars of 1812, the Texas war for Independence, and the war with Mexico. American slaveholders wanted to push the Indians off their land, create a larger buffer between Indians and American slaves, and
expand their profits and wealth. In his debate with Abraham Lincoln in 1858, Democrat Stephen Douglas argued that "this government of ours is founded on the white basis, it was made by the white man, for the benefit of the
white man, to be administered by the white men..." (p. 154) This is the larger argument for American slavery and the American dispossession of Indian lands.
But high school textbooks do not tell this story about the expansion of American slavery and racism. Even after the Civil War, textbooks deny the larger contradiction between slavery and freedom. Loewen argues that these textbooks
retell the "Confederate myth of Reconstruction." The Confederate myth of Reconstruction claims that after the Civil War Blacks dominated the governments of the South and because "they were too soon out of slavery...they messed up
and reigned corruptly, and whites had to take back control of the state governments." (p. 156) The larger myth portrays a much darker history
than this. Whites argued that because Blacks were an inferior race, unfit for freedom, they soon ran amok after the Civil War, raping white women, looting, and acting like savage beasts. Only when their old masters regained controlled
of Southern society and government did Blacks finally get put back in their place, as second-class, inferior, rigidly controlled subjects of the White South. The textbooks don't describe how Southern whites regained this control. They used
brutal violence, murder, and terrorism to drive Blacks and Republicans from Southern state governments and society. This violence and terrorism will dominate Southern society until the 1960s.
Loewen now raises an even more difficult problem: How can we explain the "nadir of American race relations between 1890 and 1920, when African Americans were again put back into second-class citizenship" throughout the United States? This raises an even more interesting problem. Blacks have more rights and freedoms in the South between 1865 and 1890 they have between 1890
and 1965. What caused the almost complete loss of Blacks rights in the South in the 1890s and the early 1900s? Before the 1890s, Blacks could vote, own businesses, and hope for a better future in the South.
In the 1890s, fearing a growing alliance between poor Whites and Blacks in the Populist movement, Southern political and economic elites disenfranchised Blacks and convinced poor Whites that their freedom and prosperity depended
on keeping Blacks in their place as second-class citizens. Between 1890 and the
1910, thousands of Blacks were lynched throughout the South. These lynchings and the wider white violence and terrorism against Blacks served as a warning to Blacks who would challenge the growing "Jim Crow" South, which would segregate Black and Whites, keeping Blacks in their place and preventing Whites
from learning that Blacks were human beings who deserved rights, freedom, respect, and dignity. In order to force Blacks to accept their lowly place as farm laborers and servants of whites, Southern "whites attacked the richest and most successful African Americans....so upward mobility offered no way for blacks
but only made them more of a target." (p. 163)
But this violence and terrorism against Blacks was not limited to the South. Loewen argues that "it is almost unimaginable how racist the United States became during and just after the nadir of race relations" between 1890 and 1920.(p. 165) Loewen believes that it was during these years of massive white violence that "many African Americans lost hope; family instability and crime increased." (p. 166) If Blacks were going to denied an equal place in American society, why should they work hard and hope and dream that someday that America would fulfill its promise to Blacks and recognize them as Americans, as
human beings, deserving the full rights and freedoms granted to all Americans?
Only with the rise of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s do Blacks challenge the white racism, violence, and terrorism that had oppressed them since the 1890s. The Civil Rights movement succeeded, in part, because it revealed the ugly reality of white racism and white violence. Martin Luther King and others challenged Americans to finally realize the larger dream of America--that all men are created equal--by recognizing and accepting Blacks as Americans. This is what King meant when he said "I have a Dream, it is a Dream deeply rooted in the American Dream, that America will rise up and realize the true meaning of its creed--that all men are created equal." But does the ending of
segregation and white violence and terrorism against Blacks in the 1970s and 1980s really close the book on American racism?
The legacy of slavery and American racism still live on. This legacy can be seen in continued cultural racism by whites against people of color and the continued denial to Blacks of social and economic equality. We cannot understand the
rising racial tensions and divisions in America since the 1970s and 1980s without understanding the larger impact of slavery and racism on modern American society. Since the 1980s, whites have increasingly blamed Blacks for their declining living standards and loss of opportunities. Using coded language, such as affirmative action, welfare mothers, drugs and violence, and the decline of
the Black family, many whites believe that Blacks should stay in their place, as inferior, second-class citizens. Instead of demanding that American corporations and governments ensure good jobs for all those American who want to work, Whites tend to blame Blacks for their economic and social ills. If we don't understand the history of American slavery and racism, we won't begin to understand this response, or how to reduce this racial tension
and division. This is why the invisible history of racism must be made visible.