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Episode 15: African American Frontiers (Part 3)

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African American Frontiers (Part 3) — Introduction:

In this episode, African American Frontiers (Part 3): A Tale of Two Revolutions. We look at the two new republics in the western hemisphere — the United States and Haiti. As the two fledgling nations forge new frontiers, what will their independence mean for African Americans? What new dangers and opportunities will Africans face? What role will Blacks on the frontier play in shaping the course of a new nation?

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Hello, and welcome to African Elements. In this episode, African American Frontiers (Part 3): A Tale of Two Revolutions. We look at the two new republics in the western hemisphere — the United States and Haiti. As the two fledgling nations forge new frontiers, what will their independence mean for African Americans? What new dangers and opportunities will Africans face?   What role will Blacks on the frontier play in shaping the course of a new nation? All that, coming up next.

Slavery and the New Republic

On September 17, 1787 a group of men — about a third of whom were slaveholders — ratified a document originally premised on a bold declaration that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The other two thirds — at the very least — indirectly really reaped the rewards of slave labor. The mental gymnastics required to forge a nation grounded in notions of liberty and justice for all, while the republic was daily increasing its reliance on slave labor will be discussed in a later episode. For the purpose of this discussion, however, it will be sufficient to note that framers of the constitution were well aware of the contradictions, and from the beginning there were conflicting views on how the peculiar institution ought to be addressed.

When folks like Samuel Adams began to complain that British colonial policies were making slaves out of the American colonists, Thomas Paine, who penned the revolutionary pamphlet, Common Sense, called them out on their inconsistencies, stating, “With what sense of decency or consistency can you complain of attempts to enslave you while you hold so many and bondage?”

For a variety of reasons, slavery began to phase out in the northern states fairly quickly after the revolution. Largely because of people like Thomas Paine, the revolutionary ethos of natural rights, doctrines of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness espoused by Thomas Jefferson (although not practiced universally) gained far greater traction in the northern states as opposed to in the southern states where property owning white men saw no contradiction between their own pursuit of happiness and their denial of liberty to everyone else. Additionally, African Americans themselves challenged post-revolutionary America to live up to its creed of freedom, liberty, and equality by pressing their own claims of freedom through escape, self-purchase, petitions and successful lawsuits. As a result, slavery began to steadily phase out even in the Mid-Atlantic States such as Pennsylvania in 1780 and New York in 1799 which tended to have a greater investment in slavery than did New England states. Eventually virtually all of the northern states had legally abolished slavery by the 1830s. In Massachusetts by 1783, free black men who paid taxes were extended the right to vote.

Why did African American’s claims of freedom seem to gain more traction in the northern states? Were the northern states simply more morally enlightened than the southern states? The answer is largely an economic one, however, I have often observed that one’s moral compass is often aligned with one’s economic interests. For example, the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade formed in 1787 was formed in the United Kingdom. Their numbers and influence grew until British Parliament passed The Slave Trade Act on March 25, 1807. The Royal Navy, vigorously enforced the act by establishing the West Africa Squadron in 1808 to patrol the coast of West Africa, ultimately seizing over a thousand slave ships and freeing 150,000 enslaved Africans who were onboard.

The committee for the abolition of the slave trade was formed largely by a group of evangelical English Protestants who now voiced strong moral objections to the slave trade. But was it any coincidence that the committee formed in 1787 – the same year that the Constitution of United States was ratified? Hadn’t evangelical Protestants previously voiced their moral obligation to enslave Africans as a rescue from barbarism? What changed? Well, one obvious change is that the British North American colonies were no longer British possessions but colonial competitors. With that largely economic change, the British moral outlook seems to take a corresponding 180 degree about-face with regard to slavery, as almost overnight slavery goes from being a moral obligation to a moral abomination.

Likewise, in contrast to the Southern states which were increasingly turning to slavery to fuel its economic engine, the northern states were increasingly relying on wage labor. Why would wage labor be preferable to slave labor? Well, the expense of maintaining a large slave labor force — that is to feed, clothe, and house a large number of slave laborers — would not make sense unless you have an economy that requires year round labor such as … say … a cotton plantation. In the northern states, a more disposable labor force was desired. For example, if all you want your laborer to do is unload a cargo ship, it would make much more sense to simply pay them a set wage, extract the labor you need from them and then you never have to see that person again (much less provide year-round food, clothing, and housing). Additionally, there was a steady supply of white ethnic immigrants to supply the cheap labor needs of the northern states. Far from an economic asset, slavery in the northern context would prove be a social liability. How would white European immigrants who came to American shores with high hopes of freedom and economic opportunity react if they had to compete with slave labor? Might that stir up a resentment of the economic elite which was exploiting their labor? Could that lead to a replay of Bacon’s rebellion as we saw in Episode 4?  

Thus, the northern states were framing the morality of slavery around a far different set of economic interests than were their Southern brethren. Their sometimes competing sets of interests would prove to be a challenge throughout the United States constitutional convention. The southern slaveholding states were ready to bolt if their interests were in anyway threatened by the United States Constitution. So how did competing interests deal with this conundrum? In short, they didn’t. The result is an almost comical avoidance of dealing with slavery in any direct way. In fact if one were to do a search of the United States Constitution one would find that neither do the words “slave” nor “slavery” appear anywhere in the document.

One way in which this challenge was manifest arose over the issue of representation. State representation House of Representatives was to be determined by the state’s population – the larger a state’s population, the larger the number of representatives for that state in the House of Representatives. But what about slaves? Where they to be counted in the state’s population for the purpose of representation? For the northern states, who clearly wanted to stack the number of representatives is their favor (and thus further their interests in the House of Representatives), the answer was clearly, no. For southerners — who wanted to use the slave population to boost their representation in the House of Representatives — the answer was clearly yes. Thus, the infamous three-fifths compromise was born, which stated that representation “shall be determined by adding the whole of the number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years and, excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other persons.” So, the framers dealt with the issue of whether slaves were to be included in this population for purposes of representation without mentioning the word “slave” in a way reminiscent of a scene from an Austin Powers film in which Dr. Evil wants Mini Me to leave the room …

… Alright it’s getting crowded in here. Everyone out! Everyone out! Come on.

Not you, Scotty. Not you, Number 2. Not you, Frau. Not you, Goldmember. Not you guys back there. Not you, henchman holding wrench. Not you, henchman arbitrarily turning knobs making it seem like you’re doing something.

Ohhh, this is uncomfortable!

Another issue arose over the status of fugitive slaves. What if a slave escaped to a non-slaveholding state? What would be the status of that slave? Furthermore, how does the convention address the issue of fugitive slaves without mentioning the word “slave?” Again, their avoidance of even mentioning the word “slavery” is almost comical. The result is a very strangely worded clause that reads: “No person held to service of labour in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labour, but shall be delivered upon claim of the party to whom such service or labour may be due.”

Alrighty then …

What about the slave trade?  What would be the authority of the Congress regarding the slave trade? And, again, how do we specify congressional authority in this regard without mentioning the “s” word? The result is another strangely worded clause allowing the slave trade to continue for at least the next 20 years:

“The migration or importation of such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the year 1808.”

Vaguely written as the references to slavery were, the rift between north and south was already so great that the United States Constitution would not have been ratified without them — a fact that prompted James Madison to state, “Great as the evil is, a dismemberment of the Union would be worse.”

That the Constitution was so vague on the issue of slavery left the union with no constitutional means to deal with the issue — a problem that would finally come to a head four score and seven years later. In fact, the moment the ink was dry on the US Constitution, the monumental oversight on the part of its framers — the lack of any specific reference to slavery — ultimately meant that civil war was virtually inevitable. It was only a matter of time.

The first sign of trouble occurred as soon as a peace deal was ratified with Britain. By the terms of treaty, Britain granted independence to its 13 North American colonies. The problem, however, was that Britain hand no further use for the land from the crest of the Appalachians to the Mississippi River that it had acquired from France as a result of the 7 year’s war. So, they threw that in for good measure, and, almost immediately, the United States doubled its size and created a new western frontier. Why was this a problem? Well, suddenly we have a large new territory and two emerging sections – North and South – that would like to see it molded to fit their own competing interests.

So, what will become this new territory? Would be an extension of the southern slaveholding interests, or will it be a platform for northern interests to exploit the cheap labor of poor whites whites? Well, we could just consult the constitution. The only problem is that the Constitution says nary a word about slavery. It’s a problem to United States is going to confront  after every territorial acquisition — and there is simply no constitutional remedy. It’s a problem that can only be resolved through compromise and delicate balance of northern and southern interests. Obviously, however, we can see where this is going. Ultimately that balance is going to be upset and the only way to permanently resolve this issue is through Civil War.

Back to the issue at hand. Thomas Jefferson proposed that slavery should not be introduced in the entire territory west of the Appalachians.  Why would Thomas Jefferson – a man who owned hundreds of slaves – suggest that slavery should not be introduced on the frontier territory? Recall our earlier discussion of the nature of frontier in episodes 6 and 7. The frontier tends to be an attractive place for poor and marginalized folk. As discussed earlier, there was already a steady stream of poor white ethnic Europeans who were supplying the cheap labor needs in the northern section. Many of those poor ethnic whites were finding that it was largely the wealthy who were reaping the rewards of their labor. That could be dangerous in that it could potentially create another discontented class of poor whites that may end up revolting against the wealthy. The saftey valve was the frontier.

The frontier offered these poor whites cheap land and an opportunity to acquire wealth — that is unless those poor whites have to go head to head with slave labor. That is the reason that the last thing these poor whites want to see out on the frontier was slavery. Thomas Jefferson recognized that fact and was perfectly happy to see those poor whites out on the frontier where they would be out of sight and out of mind. It turns out that slavery would have ruined that dynamic.

The South, of course, had other plans. The increasing profitability of slave labor made the expansion of slavery to the west inevitable. So here we have our first crisis of the post-revolutionary period. What to do? In this case the crisis was resolved by extending the Mason-Dixon line to the Ohio River. It was determined the territory north of the Ohio River be opened up to non-slave holding interests while Slavery was allowed to expand inthe territory south of the Ohio River west to the  Mississippi. So, the crisis was averted in the Ohio Valley frontier … for now, but, again it’s easy to see where this is going.

The continued expansion westward, the competing interests between north and south over the western frontier, and the failure of the nation’s founders to provide any constitutional means of addressing the issue of slavery is going to put the country on a collision course toward Civil War. As we will see, the further west we expand, the closer we get to war.

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The Impact of the Haitian Revolution

Ironically, the Haitian Revolution is going to play a critical role in shaping the United States Frontier as it relates to African Americans as well as heightening tensions between slaveholding and non-slaveholding interests. Only a few hundred miles from US shores, turmoil was erupting in France’s wealthiest colony – Saint-Domingue, which produced 60 percent of the world’s coffee and 40 percent of the world’s sugar imported by France and Britain.

Due to widespread absentee landlordism, the slave population outnumbered the white population by about 10 to 1, and under the leadership of Toussaint L’Overture, the slaves staged a slave revolt between 1791 and 1804. On January 1, 1804, the former colony’s independence was officially declared and the second independent republic in the Western Hemisphere – the result of the world’s most successful slave uprising – came into being as the territory was renamed after its indigenous Arawak name, “Haiti.”

The impact of the Haitian Revolution was far reaching.  The most immediate impact occurred on April 11, 1803. With the impending loss of its wealthiest colony, Napoleon had no further need for its large holdings on the American mainland. In a fit of disgust, he reportedly exclaimed, “Damn sugar, damn coffee, damn colonies … I renounce Louisiana forever!” Therefore, when then President Thomas Jefferson sent emissaries to France to negotiate for New Orleans, to their complete surprise and astonishment, France agreed to hand over the whole of the Louisiana Territory for a mere $15 million.

Despite initial concern over the constitutionality of the Louisiana Purchase, the territory was ceded to the United States – and in one fell swoop, the territory of United States doubled in size. The constitutional concerns were many, but chief among them was the simple question of what to do with the territory. Would it be opened up as a free territory or to slaveholding interests? Well, we could consult the U.S. Constitution. The only problem is the constitution doesn’t say a mum word about slavery. Here we go again! What to do?

This particular question with regard to the Louisiana territory was resolved in 1820 when Missouri was ready to apply for statehood. To maintain the balance between free and slaveholding state’s interests, it was determined that Missouri would be admitted as a slave state and to have the southern boundary of Missouri be extended in the Louisiana territory (just as the Mason-Dixon line had been extended to the Ohio River in the Ohio valley region). The territory to the north of that line would be opened up for non-slaveholding interests while slavery would be allowed to expand in the territory south of the line. Additionally, to provide numerical balance between the slaveholding and non-slaveholding states in the senate, a new non-slaveholding state had to be admitted into the union. Thus, the northern part of the state of Massachusetts was severed to create the state of Maine. So, crisis averted – for now. But as you can see, you got a long way to go and a lot of territory to hash out before this is finished. The Missouri compromise, however, was yet another impact of the Haitian Revolution on the United States which indirectly led to the westward expansion of slavery on the frontier.

Another impact of the Haitian Revolution had to do with the United States disposition toward slavery itself. The Revolution sent shockwaves throughout the Western Hemisphere. Many of those fleeing the conflict came to US shores with tales of carnage and bloodbath. Many in the United States – particularly those in the south – were understandably fearful of a slave revolt taking place only a few hundred miles from US shores, especially since there were already places in the south where slaves outnumbered whites. This fear based reaction prompted southerners to enact harsher slave codes.

Those slave codes make more sense in light of our discussion in Episode 5: Healing as Resistance, when one considers the modes of African survival slaves adopted in the Western Hemisphere and the foundation they created in laying the groundwork for revolt. Recall that the Africans taken to the Americas represented a wide variety of ethnic groups. Vodou, thus represented an adaptation and modification of West African religion that blended the various groups and could serve as the ideological glue that would unify the various groups and hold the revolt together. Recognizing this, the practice of vodou was quickly banned throughout the south.

Also, if you recall the integral role that music played in prayer, healing and spirituality, it’s easy to understand why drumming was also outlawed. In addition, laws were enacted that forbade Blacks from congregating in groups of three or more,  movement was restricted by allowing slaves to travel only with written permission from the slave owner and travel at night was restricted.

Southerners had good reason to fear that the slave revolt would spread to the United States. Of the three major slave conspiracies in United States — Gabriel Prosser (1800); Denmark Vesey (1822); and Nat Turner (1831) — all in some way invoked the Haitian Revolution.

When one recalls that many of the slaves entering the United States came by way of the Caribbean (as discussed in Episode 6), it becomes easier to understand yet another of the impacts of the Haitian Revolution — Thomas Jefferson’s ban on the international slave trade. The tales of slaughter Haitian refugees brought to the United States make it obvious why Jefferson would no longer desire to see Caribbean slaves imported into the U.S., but newly arrived slaves from the African continent were also known to be higher risk in terms of revolt. Thus, then President, Thomas Jefferson imposed a ban on the international slave trade effective January 1, 1808 (the moment it was constitutional permissible).

The impact of the ban was devastating for African-Americans in United States. With Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1793 – a machine that quickly and easily separated cotton fibers from their seeds – the South became even more dependent on plantations and slavery, and cotton producing 54% of the U.S. gross national product by 1860. Accompanying that was a nearly fourfold increase in cotton production by 1850 as the slave population ballooned to 3.2 million. The increasing number of slaves and increasing economic importance of the institution of slavery combined with the closing of the international slave trade gave rise to one of the most horrific aspects of slavery itself — the domestic slave trade.

With the domestic slave trade, slaves were trafficked from within the United States (typically the upper South) to the plantations of the Deep South. In an increasingly important business, slaves were literally bred for sale. As author, Angela Davis, explains in her book, Women, Race & Class, Black women bore the brunt of the wholesale exploitation of Black Slaves. In describing the mechanisms that removed gender from the equation with regard to slavery, she explains how Black women were considered genderless with regard to slaveholders, while at the same time they could be exploited sexually.

To understand this, it’s necessary to review the difference between gender and sex. While sex is purely the biological difference between men and women, gender is the difference in social roles based on, but not the same as those biological differences. They are the social scripts that say women’s roles are confined to the home (cooking, cleaning, and rearing children) and proscribe women as “the weaker sex”  while men’s roles are largely outside the home (wage earning, providing for, and protecting the family).

So, to say that under slavery, black women were genderless, is to say that black slave women were not confined to the home, but were working alongside black women. Far from being considered the “weaker sex,” Black women were expected to work the same amount of hours, and bear the same physical burdens alongside black men. Likewise, Black men were also genderless in that they were not in a position to provide materially for their own families (but that of the slave owner), and were in no position to protect family members from physical and sexual abuse.

That Black women could still be exploited sexually (that is, for their biological capacity to bear children) adds and extra layer of burden for Black women. Black men, for example are biologically incapable of the experience of working all day in a cotton field while 8 months pregnant (or just after having borne children). Black men were also biologically incapable experiencing being whipped with cowhide while 8 months pregnant. Thus, while men were also exploited sexually as “stallions” forced to impregnate “breeders” for sale in the growing slave empire, they didn’t bear the same biological burdens that black women did.

The results were abysmal in the truest sense. In addition to the commodification of rape of African American women, came the wholesale breakup and destruction of families, as individual members were sold off one by one to feed the growing market in the South. Yet, as we saw in Episode 5, life will find a way and new modes of survival would be adopted in order to help Black slaves adapt to even this atrocity. The culture that is: the beliefs, practices, and modes of being that came out of slavery would later be described by W. E. B. Du Bois as “The Souls of Black Folk.”

That’s it for this episode. You can see everything you’ve seen here as well as the entire archive of episodes at my website www.africanelements.org. You can also join the discussion on our Facebook Group African Elements. I’m Darius Spearman. Thank you for watching.

 

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