Tuesday 30 June 2015

The real reason why white Americans feel guilty about slavery

I asked a week ago, 
Why do white Americans still feel guilty about slavery?
A strong reason why Americans still feel guilty about slavery has suddenly become clear to me, on further thought. It's because the USA is founded on Enlightenment ideas. 

Americans believe Rousseau's idea that man is born free and is everywhere in chains, that society was originally based on contract and was later based on status, whereas it is exactly the other way around. Though not in North America. Except for the slaves and indigenous peoples, life in North America was to a large extent based on contract, not status. White society in North America was built by individualists who decided to seek their fortunes in the New World, without hierarchies or a powerful church or state.  This is why there is no American culture, in the sense that European and Asian countries have cultures, except a whispish WASP culture and a richer African-American culture. 

This is why there is no conservative tradition in North America. The myth of the Southern gentry was always a myth. The slave-owners were no more aristocrats than any businessmen in the North. The 'peculiar institution' - slavery - was not an ancient institution, like serfdom in Europe, but a cruel business strategy, arrived at because white indentured servants left the plantation when they became free, Indians ran away but Africans stayed and could survive the mosquitoes.

Around the world, at most times, most men have been unfree and freedom is something that has developed, through institutions, laws and civilisation. Slavery in the New World was a tragic revival of an institution that, thanks to the Catholic Church, had been abolished in Europe centuries earlier. Americans find it hard to understand how such a thing could have happened because, although they are for the time being the one developed country which is genuinely Christian, they do not have a strong belief in original sin. They tend, like good liberals, to believe that man is basically good. All Americans are either right-wing or left-wing liberals, apart from a small number of Marxists and fascists.

This reminds me of Nathaniel Hawthorne's explanation for why a good novel cannot be written in America (he certainly didn't write one)
because America has no shadows.
America has almost no shadows, unlike Europe, Asia and Africa, but Hawthorne, like most men of his time, forgot that the USA does have two terrible shadows: slavery and the extermination of the Indians.

Actually, I am very interested in slavery in North America but much more interested in the huge and complex significance American slavery has assumed worldwide since 1960. It seems to me that the most interesting and valuable book that one could write would be a 'History of Anti-Racism' 1945-2015'. I suggested this to a famous historian who has written brilliantly about Winston Churchill's views on race, but he told me I was inviting him to throw away his career.

A final point. I love footnote knowledge and this is an interesting example. Czar Nicholas I strongly disapproved of slavery in America, which he considered inhumane and un-Christian, even though one third of his subjects were serfs. One contemporary historian of Russia has stated that the difference between slavery and serfdom in practice was so fine as to be indistinguishable. This, however, is not quite true. American slaves could be sold ('down the river' which is where we get the expression from) whereas serfs, to use an English legal phrase ran with, i.e. were part and parcel of, the land. 

Nicholas I's son, the great Alexander II, shared his father's views on slavery and emancipated the serfs in 1861, thus freeing vastly more people than Lincoln did, and without a terrible war. Yet we hear nothing about this and no-one feels guilty about serfdom, not even in Russia.


  1. Your post is perhaps the most accurate, reasonable post I have read yet. A few points of discussion, but not big enough to say. Good night, good sir.
    Mark Wein

  2. You make interesting points, but it is as if you had written "Why Holland Has Fjords." A small minority of white Americans feel guilt about slavery a small part of their waking hours, often when sitting down to blog or write opinion pieces for the public media.

    The first slaves in English-speaking North America were purchased from the Spanish; a great deal of the routine of the African slave trade was worked out by the Portuguese in the Cape Verde Islands long before that. So I don't see how you can really argue for the Catholic Church as a anti-slavery influence in this context. It was Las Casas, by the way, a Spaniard and a priest, who suggested the importation of African slaves to replace the Tainos and Caribs who simply died under forced labor. It is true that he was soon horrified to understand what he had done.

    Hawthorne wrote not great novels, perhaps, but he wrote some good ones. Say what you will about slavery and the wars on the Indians, they were not complicated.

  3. I found both articles interesting and found this portion from one of comments on the first article you linked to be very appealing and a perspective I never considered. " Perhaps the Puritan core you alluded to still lingers,creating a psychological need for the United States to have a basis in Original Sin?".. Even though Southerns weren't Puritans nor their descendants, American history writing and media has been long dominated by those from the Northeast.

    Jamara Geechie Newell