Improving Race Relations- For $23.30
By Jerry Leibowitz
America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.
Frederick Douglass, 1852
He reacted to his deed with a shrug of his shoulders…
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll Bob Dylan 1964
Historians write of slavery as one of America’s original sins, something we overcame with the civil war. Few describe slavery as a holocaust, which I suggest is historically more accurate. In the more than hundred years before the formation of United States of America and the nearly one hundred years after its formation, the ruling class subjugated millions of workers to forced labor based solely on race. Many generations of blacks were born into slavery, lived as slaves and died as slaves, never tasting “freedom”, “democracy” or “independence”. By definition those terms are universal or they are meaningless, they either exist or they don’t. A country where one fourth of its population was forced to create the wealth of its ruling class cannot meet any criteria to be labeled as a model of “free enterprise”. In the lowlands of South Carolina, where slaves were approximately four fifths of the population in 1776, “fascist”, or “police state” would be more appropriate labels. There is little doubt that slave workers were sent there to do backbreaking labor until they died; whether they would last a day, a week, a month, a year, or ten years. Many areas of South Carolina were considered too harsh for settlement, so the only whites there were taskmasters. There is no accurate history of South Carolina or other parts of the slave nation; the victims could not write it and the ruling class would not write it. The myths of early America as a bastion of free enterprise or democracy were born and bred in this Dark Age, a tale told by ignorants, repeated even today by many who should know better.[ii]
Since owning slaves was legal and common, a slave owner or task master had to cross the line from horrible into depraved before their conduct would warrant notice, and even the most egregious acts were tolerated or mildly punished. Of the many founding fathers who owned slaves not a single one faced any significant scrutiny for their behavior towards their slaves. In their time they were heroes of a revolution and their ownership of slaves was deemed insignificant in comparison. We continue to write our history from this point of view. We continue to use words like freedom, democracy, independence and free-enterprise to define a place where they did not exist. We continue to doom ourselves by repeating and believing this false history. Ask most white Americans today about slavery and the reaction will be something akin to a shrug of the shoulders.
Slave owners appear on American currency and coin currently issued by the United States Treasury.[iii] There is something unseemly about asking Americans to carry a legacy which honors anyone who participated in this part of our past. It is even more of an affront to the citizens of the United States whose ancestors were forced to live unspeakably brutal lives at the whim of those who claimed the audacity to own another human. Symbols matter and who we as a country choose to honor today speaks to who we think we are as a people. We cannot physically punish dead men but we can reconsider that which is left of them; their reputation. I propose here that we institute a 28 year ban on the issue of currency or coinage depicting anyone who owned slaves. At the end of 28 years at least some punishment will have been served and a review should be undertaken of any slave holder to determine if their benefits to our world outweigh their participation in our national holocaust and they can again be the source of national honor and worthy of being placed on or coins or currency. Perhaps we cannot change the past but in my mind there is little doubt that we can improve the present and future by better acknowledging and addressing some of the disturbing issues that separate us and restrain our quest for a more perfect union.
Andrew Jackson is on the twenty dollar bill.
It is thought that Andrew Jackson inherited about 9 slaves and had over 150 slaves when he died. It is estimated that he owned about 300 slaves during his lifetime. Among other tasks, his slaves undertook the backbreaking work of clearing out the land of Jackson’s legacy farm, the Hermitage. His slaves provided for Jackson’s growing wealth by working the land. [iv] Although an absentee owner, his periodic updates on conditions at the Hermitage included news that his slaves were dying at astounding rates, usually blamed on an unknown disease on not on the cruel acts of his overseers, who were known to be quite cruel.[v] Jackson also took a leading role in America’s other abomination, its unforgivable treatment of Native Americans.[vi]
Thomas Jefferson is on the nickel and two dollar bill.
By the time of his death Thomas Jefferson owned about 200 slaves. In addition to tilling his fields, slaves…”cut his firewood, cooked and served his meals, washed and iron his linen, brushed his suits, nursed his children, cleaned, scrubbed, polished, and opened and closed doors for him, saddled his horse, turned down his bed, waited on him hand and foot from dawn to dusk…”[vii]It is unclear if his most famous writing, the Declaration of Independence, was hypocritical, self-delusional or aspirational. Jefferson knew that his most infamous words as written in the Declaration of Independence were not true. He owned numerous slaves and knew quite well that by any meaning of the words his slaves were not born equal to him, nor were they able to exercise their unalienable rights. As a slaveholder in a system designed to protect slaveholders, he knew that it was he who was alienating these unalienable rights, a failure of logic that he could never resolve. It is often said that in his heart Jefferson wished for the end of slavery, recognizing it as an abomination. Yet, Jefferson had no desire to turn America into a multicultural society; his “problem” with freeing slaves was that there was no place to put all those newly freed and probably angry former slaves.[viii] Other than a bit of hand wringing, Jefferson accomplished nothing politically before, during or after his presidency to ameliorate the plight of forced labor.[ix]
George Washington is on the quarter and the one dollar bill.
Considered one of the wealthiest Americans at the time of the American Revolution, George Washington owned approximately 200 slaves. There is evidence that he treated his many slaves well and contrary evidence that he had them whipped for being unproductive. There is evidence that he grew to see that slavery must be abolished and contrary indications that he rarely thought of abolition and only thought to free his own slaves upon his death because they were too numerous for his land and were growing old and expensive to maintain.[x] Washington was not an innocent bystander who was born into a corrupt system and did nothing to change it. As president, Washington personally took up the cause of slave owners under the Treaty of Paris in their startling pursuit of compensation (reparations?) or return of those former slaves who made it to freedom in England during the American Revolution.[xi]
Whatever other merits these men may have had as people, as statesmen, or as writers, their ownership of slaves warrants some reconsideration of their reputation on a periodic basis. I question whether any of the three belong on the currency or coinage of the United States. At some point we must have decided that slavery was not that significant an issue in our history so as to taint its practitioners. Historians have participated in this whitewash. We are wrong.
Blaming the British
Ask the average intelligent American today about the justification for the ownership of slaves by some of our founding fathers and you will usually get an answer which somehow blames the British or Dutch for bringing slaves to America as early as the 17th century. This peculiar notion of slave owner as a victim of the times was developed and explored by Virginians in the 1770’s and was expressed in an early version of the Declaration of Independence.[xii] Historians have often pointed to Jefferson’s writings for the notion that some in the south believed that the issue of slavery would eventually be suitably resolved.[xiii] It is true that each of the three subjects of this piece inherited slaves. Each was born into a culture where slavery was not only tolerated but was the wealth creating engine of their society. Each was imbued with a notion that the freedom of existing slaves would wreak havoc on their economy and would create a security and social problem both for the former slave and the former slave owner. I find none of these points persuasive in any current analysis of their characters.
By 1776, it is estimated that the population of the American colonies was 2,500,000, of whom 500,000 were slaves. Virginia alone had more than 200,000 slaves.[xiv] With the institution of a new government friendly to the slave holder, by the start of the Civil War in 1860 the number of slaves in America reached approximately 4 million. This growth of slavery from 1776 to 1865 must lead to a contemplation of the moral foundation of this new government and its supposed commitment to freedom.
Slavery was a barbaric institution and slave holders knew it to be such. Whether slavery in the colonies was legal or not, cruel acts against slaves were technically illegal, yet largely unpunished. There is little doubt that slave holders were not charged in numerous cases of murder, assault, child abuse, rape, and child endangerment against their slaves.[xv] Slaves were not permitted to be educated, legally marry, and were denied any right to maintain a family.[xvi] Many slaves were literally worked to death, so much so that South Carolina needed a continuous new supply of slaves to work the lowland, turning parts of Virginia into a slave breeding enterprise.[xvii] Still, we really know little of the horrors that were perpetrated in the many pretty houses of both the south and the north. One can always find cherry picked statements quoted by a series of apologists intending to prove that the founding fathers who were slave owners were good to their slaves, or wished for the end of slavery but at a future time.[xviii] These were men who supposedly fought a revolution for the proposition that a human being must have a basic right of redress. Their inability to resolve the slavery issue at the inception of the new country led to the forced labor of millions of workers, the ignominious death of many, and ultimately to a brutal war which killed many of their descendants. It also led to the founding of a country based on hypocritical principles. Legal scholars continually argue cases based on the “original intent” of the Constitution as can be deciphered from these founding fathers. Dred Scott was such a case. The mistakes of those founding fathers who used their political will to insure that the Constitution permitted the continuation of slavery are continually being visited on us, their actual and adopted descendants.
The Decision in Somersett’s Case
There is no truth to the persistent historical theory that slavery was tolerated in early America out of ignorance that those who were owned were somehow not human and therefore suitable to be possessed like other property or livestock. Obviously, those many slave owners like Jefferson who used their slaves for sexual purposes did not see themselves as practicing bestiality or sexual deviance. In England in the mid-18th century, a movement developed which asserted the rights of slaves as human beings deserving of their freedom. This movement in the mother land was disconcerting and provoking to American slave holders since the King and parliament was the ultimate arbiter of American Law. Slave owners from America routinely brought their slaves with them when conducting their business in England, where there were servants but not slaves and a growing significant population of free blacks. English abolitionists led by Granville Sharp began “kidnapping” slaves from their owners and asserting their freedom in various English courts using various arguments. While many cases were settled for freedom and compensation, the Somersett case did not settle mostly due to the thought on both sides that they could not lose on the big issue of the legality of slavery on English soil.[xix] The case proceeded to the highest court of Great Britain and when Lord Mansfield was finally called to issue his decision in 1772, he ruled the obvious; that slavery was an odious institution inconsistent with natural or English law and could not exist where there was no positive law permitting it to do so and no such positive law had ever existed in England.[xx] The ruling class in the south did not have to take any action in response to the decision since each colony had passed positive laws concerning the legality of slavery thereby making the Somersett decision of little legal relevance.
While applicable only to the soil of England, the significance of the Somersett decision in Colonial America is under debate. There is a theory that the wealthy South would not have participated in the American Revolution but for their apprehension that continued British rule would eventually lead to a decision freeing slaves in America.[xxi] This theory does not fail for lack of logic, only for lack of actual proof that America’s founders specifically contemplated the significance of the decision.[xxii] It remains somewhat unexplained why wealthy British citizens so loyal to England in 1766 would become revolutionaries by 1775, since the South did not suffer from many of the indignities perpetrated in the North. It remains likely that their motives were not as pure as we attribute to them, and that the perpetuation of slavery was significant in their motivation. Self-rule was the antidote to any intrusion whether foreign or domestic. That the south would cling to the rubric of self-rule at all cost was proved later by the civil war. In any event, in 1772 the High Court of their motherland left no doubt that their slaves were human, their behavior was odious, and their institutional practice of forced labor was uncivilized, although perfectly legal. Perhaps, they may have rightly feared, one day soon they would be considered criminals by their motherland for their participation in such abomination. Revolution was a lesser evil.
The Gradual Emancipation Acts
The formation of the United States of America from the Stamp Act Congress of 1766 to the passage of the Constitution in 1787 includes a sad history of how slave owners managed to keep slavery legal through a revolution of thought about independence, freedom and democracy. Once the northern colonies, through John Adams, agreed to let the issue be considered as a local matter, the die was cast that the new America would remain a slave nation. In the mercantile north, where slavery was not vital to the local economy, slavery began to wane after the revolution as abolitionists petitioned for freedom of slaves in the courts, much like Granville Sharp had done in England in 1772. Pennsylvania provided the nation with a template to solve the slavery issue politically, with the passage of legislation in 1780 providing for the gradual emancipation of all slaves.[xxiii] New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Rhodes Island ultimately passed similar legislation. But this template was not followed in the agrarian South which became more intransigent on the issue. The best minds of the Virginia, given so much credit for establishing the core principles of American democracy, could not or would not entertain a political solution. Perhaps they could perceive of no solution that would safely and fairly accommodate Southern slave holders. Any talk of ultimate liberation of all slaves in America at the forming of the new government, and there was such talk even in the south, never did have any traction politically.[xxiv] Instead, the new government repeated the horrors of compromises past, and included in its Constitution the three-fifths compromise of Article 1 Section 2, and the Fugitive Slave Act of Article 4 Section 2. So much for their original intent.
The 1780 legislation in Pennsylvania, entitled An Act For the Gradual Emancipation of Slaves, might be considered an insufficient document by today’s standards but it was a big step forward towards the elimination of slavery in Pennsylvania and in the other states that ultimately passed similar legislation.[xxv] The Act freed no slave, any current slave in Pennsylvania would remain a slave until death or manumission. The Act provided that no additional slaves could be brought into the state, and that any children of current slaves born after 1780 were free, except that they were to be bound as indentured servants to the masters of their mothers until they were 28 years old when they must be released. These children were technically not slaves and could not be sold as slaves. While imperfect and subject to amendment to fix loopholes, the Act did provide the template that led to the elimination of all slaves in Pennsylvania by 1847. It also must have provided some hope to a Pennsylvania slave child born after 1780 (an indentured servant) that the day would come when they would be free. Twenty eight years is a long time, but it is not a lifetime, at least not for some. It now seems just the right length of time to “punish” those slave holders who did not see fit to provide for any thought of freedom to those whom they enslaved.
I could easily come up with a long list of great Americans who could replace slave owners on our currency and coins for the duration of the 28 year period of banishment of the subjects of this piece. The richness and diversity of the land has given a spark to many great Americans who participated in and rose above the common American experience. Yes, I tried to be eclectic and broad minded, and to the best of my knowledge everybody here represents a great idea in American History without participating in abominable acts. I would be honored to hold any of them in my pocket or my wallet.
Nickel- John Quincy Adams
Quarter- Harriet Tubman
Dollar Bill- Clara Barton
Two Dollar Bill- Mark Twain
Twenty Dollar Bill- Frederick Douglass
I am not really so naïve as to think that this writing will improve race relations. I take my cue from Mark Twain who wrote Huckleberry Finn in 1885 to humanize a troubled issue at a time when ignorance and hate were deeply entrenched. As brilliant as that work was, it perhaps accomplished little. I also take my cue from my Passover Seder, where each year my family and friends recount a story of slavery which happened thousands of years ago. We learn that it takes more than a few generations for some damage to be repaired. It seems that many Americans, even the well-meaning, are trying to ignore our way out of a deep seated problem and it is not working. It astounds me that most Americans seem to not care about its past, preferring to preserve its myths as if they are sacred. America is such a beautiful place but we have to clean its blood soaked stains. Time by itself heals little and slowly; knowledge is the only cure. Tough issues must be discussed in a heartfelt manner at dinner tables, VFW halls, barber shops and bowling alleys by all who truly want a better America. America is not some ancient civilization where what occurred in the past doesn’t matter anymore. All of its past is recent past, a blip in the history of the world. Its experiment is still quite young, still quite promising. I cannot think of anything more American than having our leaders, even if they are dead, called to task for what they have done. Some price must be paid. I suspect that a great thinker like Jefferson would have it no other way. For just $23.30 some of those discussions, maybe quite painful ones, may begin to take place. Being true to our past remains our best and perhaps only hope for a true and just future.
[i] Extract from an oration at Rochester, New York July 5, 1852.
[ii] Obviously there are many historians and many histories. Yet, even historians sensitive to the issue of slavery, such as many of the authors cited here, use words like “Freedom”, “Independence” and “Democracy” where it did not exist. For example, just because a document is called a Declaration of Independence does not make it a declaration of “independence”. As a personal note I offer that the “Give me Liberty or give me death” speech of Patrick Henry is perhaps the most hypocritical, obnoxious speech ever presented. Yet, he too, has been given a pass and been labeled a great patriot.
[iii] The same analysis should be applied to stamps issued by the United States Postal Service. Yet few use stamps today so at this point any changes to stamps while symbolic would not generate any useful thought.
[v] Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Democracy 1833-1845 Volume lll, (Harper & Row Publishers, New York 1984) 50-51.
[vi] Jon Meacham, American Lion, Andrew Jackson in the White House (Random House, New York 2008) 54.
[vii] David McCullough, John Adams (Simon & Schuster, New York 2001) 116.
[viii] At best, Jefferson’s solution to the slave issue could be summarized as “anywhere but here”. See http://www.monticello.org/slavery-at-monticello/liberty-slavery/solution-jefferson-proposes-gradual-emancipation, http://www.monticello.org/slavery-at-monticello/liberty-slavery/solution-jefferson-proposes-colonization, http://www.monticello.org/slavery-at-monticello/liberty-slavery/solution-jefferson-proposes-diffusion. See also Jon Meacham, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (Random House 2012) 124.
[ix] Jon Meacham, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (Random House 2012) 124. Jon Meacham presents a sensitive approach to Jefferson’s failure at 474-479. I am skeptical of Jefferson’s real commitment to the abolition of slavery where Meacham is not.
[x] Most every biographer of Washington has a theory of his personal and political views on slavery. I suspect that he was more lenient than most but stories persist of cruelty to slaves at Mount Vernon, and that his replaced teeth were extracted from his slaves. For a general view see Chernow, Washington, A Life (Penguin Press New York 2010) 110-117.
[xi] See Chernow, 639; and James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn, George Washington, The American Presidents, Arthur M. Schlesinger, General Editor (Times Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York 2004). 109-110.
[xii] This tawdry analysis was removed from later versions of the Declaration of Independence. See Jon Meacham, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (Random House 2012) 105.
[xiii] See footnote 8.
[xiv] David McCullough, John Adams (Simon & Schuster, New York 2001)131.
[xv] The slave narratives written both before and after Emancipation are perhaps the best firsthand evidence of the true horrors of slavery. The most well-known of these is the autobiographical Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845). As brutal as his Narratives are, Douglass admits to pulling some punches to protect himself as he was a fugitive slave at the time of publication. The narratives were mostly written by men and thematically deal with the subrogation and reclamation of manhood. The special concerns of female slaves remain unimaginable. See Introduction to the Signature Edition of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Dale Edwyna Smith (Barnes & Noble New York 2012).
[xvi] In his Narrative and later speeches and writings, Douglass came back to this theme numerous times. Without deemphasizing the oppression of the whip, Douglass continually argued that some horrors of slavery were more subtle but no less the result of abject cruelty.
[xvii] Alfred W. Blumrosen and Ruth G. Blumrosen, Slave Nation, How Slavery United the Colonies & Sparked the American Revolution (Sourcebooks Inc., Naperville Illinois 2005).46.
[xviii] See Richard R. Beeman, Patrick Henry, A Biography (McGraw-Hill Book Company New York 1974) 66.
[xix] See Stephen Underwood, The Black Must Be Discharged- The Abolitionist Debt to Lord Mansfield, HistoryToday Volume 31, Issue 3 1981 at http://www.historytoday.com/stephen-usherwood/black-must-be-discharged-abolitionists-debt-lord-mansfield. Note: The article includes a persistent reference to the notion that there were 15,000 slaves in England in 1772. My research indicates that that is the number of free blacks and that the number of slaves was insignificant.
[xx] See Norman Poser, Lord Mansfield, Justice in the Age of Reason (McGill-Queen’s University Press, Canada 2013).
[xxi] See Alfred W. Blumrosen and Ruth G. Blumrosen, Slave Nation, How Slavery United the Colonies & Sparked the American Revolution (Sourcebooks Inc., Naperville Illinois 2005).
[xxii] I would like to thank Professor Poser for his emails which helped me clarify some thoughts appearing herein.
[xxiv] Jon Meacham, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (Random House 2012) 124