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Coming Classes on Why American Slavery Persisted

By Nancy Spannaus

Aug. 27, 2021—Come September, I will be teaching two classes at local colleges on “Why American Slavery Persisted.” They will be offered, for a fee, at both the Institute for Learning in Retirement at Frederick Community College in Maryland, and the Lifelong Learning Program at Shepherd University in West Virginia.[1] Both will last four weeks, and will be given on campus, with the added bonus that the Shepherd class is also available over Zoom.

In promoting the class series at a gathering of instructors at Shepherd Aug. 26, I stressed the importance of Americans addressing the paradox that while the American colonies were at the forefront of the battle against slavery in the 18th century, it eventually took a civil war to uproot this evil (and that we still face the destructive consequences of that evil today). My class will seek to shed light on this reality in a constructive way, with emphasis on the Hamiltonian principles of political economy which represented a viable alternative to the slave economy.

Hidden Treasures

Since I first mentioned my intention to write a book on this subject several months ago, I have significantly expanded my research on the anti-slavery movements within the American colonies. Efforts to ban both the trade and slavery itself began in the mid-17th century and were carried forward not only by a wing of the Quakers, but also the Methodists, Congregationalists, and the Mennonites. They were supplemented by individuals with no religious affiliation.

Coming Classes on Why American Slavery persisted

The image on a medallion created by Englishman Josiah Wedgwood in 1787. It was sent to Benjamin Franklin in 1788 for use in Pennsylvania.

As the British suppression of the colonists’ freedoms, emphatically including the right to economic development, increased, so did the anti-slavery agitation. The abolitionists exposed the horrors  of slavery and appealed to our common humanity. They also directly debunked all those arguments we discuss today as hallmarks of white supremacist justifications for the dehumanizing practice: the alleged inferiority of the black race, the alleged bestiality of African culture and people, and the supposed inability of whites to cultivate crops in hot or tropical climates. All were shown to be total lies.

In my classes, as well as my upcoming book, I will quote directly from these documents, most of which are ignored by modern scholarship, as well as chronicle the extensive anti-slavery activity and networks which have been largely lost to popular consciousness, and extensively riddled North and South. To talk about slavery in America, you need to read these documents. The movements which produced them are a vital part of our national story, indeed, our identity as a nation.

The Whole Truth

As several individuals have commented to me already, setting the record straight on the fight against slavery in the American colonies and United States is a critical issue at this point in our nation’s history.  Claims that our country was built on the foundation of slavery, as the 1619 Project asserted, have viciously distorted the history of our country and many of its founding fathers.[2]

The truth matters. And the truth is that the vast majority of Americans abhorred slavery, both for themselves and for their fellow men. Among that majority was a small number of leaders who fought valiantly to end the practice, and organize their fellow citizens against a powerful campaign, initiated and funded from the Mother Country, to protect and expand it. Indeed, they not only fought slavery here, but helped organize international resistance to the practice. You can criticize their efforts all you want, but to minimize, denigrate, or even erase that fight is an affront to truth.

Our republic and Constitution were not based on slavery. In fact, slavery was a source of impoverishment, economic as well as moral, of the nation as a whole.

Coming Classes on Why American Slavery Persisted

A depiction of a Lincoln-Douglas debate (National Park Service)

I believe Abraham Lincoln put it well in his Alton debate with Stephen Douglas, when discussing the core of the Declaration of Independence.  I quote:

I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not mean to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all men were equal in color, size, intellect, moral development or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness in what they did consider all men created equal-equal in certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This they said, and this they meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, or yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact, they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.

They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society which should be familiar to all: constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even, though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, everywhere.

No other nation on earth established such a standard or ideal at its founding. Thus we have both a noble heritage, and a solemn obligation to fulfill.

What About the Outcome?

There will be many in this day and age that will say that our nation’s early anti-slavery activity may be interesting, but it’s irrelevant because it failed to stop the mushrooming of slavery to grotesque proportions, necessitating a war to defeat it.

I disagree. We actually have something to learn from some of those abolitionists, especially those who had a practical economic vision for how to eliminate slavery. They were centered around Alexander Hamilton and what became the American System of Economics. And, as I will seek to prove in my class and my book, it was the defeat of that Hamiltonian system of political economy, led by British imperial interests and their American hangers-on, which protected the dehumanizing slavocracy, and effectively crippled the United States as a whole.

Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures

The crucial turning point came with the ascendancy of Andrew Jackson to the Presidency, and his decisive moves against the American System, including the Second National Bank.  Former President John Quincy Adams, then serving as head of the Manufacturing Caucus in the House of Representatives, stated this reality boldly in his formal response (in early 1834) to Jackson’s veto of the reauthorization of the Bank. Taking on Jackson’s assertion in his veto message that it was the farmers who were core of the nation, as opposed to allegedly predatory industrializing interests represented by the bank, he wrote:

… However in one portion of the union, the independent farmers or planters, cultivating the soil by their slaves, may be considered, by one of themselves, as the basis of society, and the best part of the population, the assumption of such a principle, as a foundation of a system of national policy for the future government of these United States, is an occurrence of the most dangerous and alarming tendency; as threatening, at no remote period, not only the prosperity, but the peace of the country, and as directly leading to the most fatal of catastrophes—the dissolution of the union by a complicated, civil and servile war (emphasis added).

There will be much more to the story, of course, and I will try to find the time to continue sharing aspects of it on this blog, while giving the class. I may even be able to post the classes on the You Tube channel. For now, I encourage those of you in the vicinity to consider joining me.

[1] More information can be found at ilr@frederick.edu and www.shepherd.edu/lifelonglearning

[2] There are numerous articles on this blog documenting the fight against slavery and discussing the issue.  I would recommend two for starters: “Guess Who Insisted on Slavery in Colonial America?” and “The American Revolutionaries’ International War against Slavery”

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