Thursday, November 26, 2020

Ira Berlin, "Many Thousands Gone"

I have lately gotten into two arguments with people who seem to think that since I dislike the NY Times' 1619 Project I must be a conservative who likes great white man history and hates to read about slavery. But this is untrue. What the Times should have done instead is print and distribute a million copies of Ira Berlin's 1998 masterpiece, Many Thousands Gone: the First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America.

What Berlin understands, and the 1619 Project tries to gloss over, is that slavery was not a simple, unitary thing, but took different forms in different times and places, and for different people in each time and place. We are talking about millions of people across 246 years, so this is only what you would expect. As Berlin writes, "Understanding that a person was a slave is not the end of the story but the beginning.” (3)

Berlin draws a major distinction between what he calls "slave societies" and "societies with slaves." In a society with slaves, slavery exists, but it is not the main form of labor, and society is not organized around its maintenance. Slaves are rather few, and often become free. One example I have studied was in the Great Valley of western Maryland, where many of the wealthier farmers owned one or a few slaves, but many owned none. Tracing these farms over time you might find a single slave in one census, none ten years later, three ten years after that. Enslaved and free people lived intimately, usually under the same roofs, and they worked side by side. Slaves were sometimes freed only to remain with the landowning family as servants.

In a slave society, slaves provide the bulk of the labor and the whole society is structured to maintain slavery and keep the very numerous slaves in their place. The plantation societies of Brazil, the Caribbean, and the US South were slave societies. Their creation required the massive importation of captives from Africa, special law codes that included draconian penalties for aiding slaves or even criticizing slavery, and a well-organized, well-trained militia constantly on the alert to put down rebellion. When the planters said that ending slavery would destroy their way of life, they were right, because their whole way of life was built around slavery.

American slave societies did not appear all at once, but developed over the course of the 1600s. One problem with making 1619 a key date is that the slaves who arrived in Virginia before 1650 lived very different lives, under a very different system, than those who came later. Only after decades was the status of slavery made permanent and hereditary; early-arriving Africans who survived long enough almost all ended up free. They mixed on fairly equal terms with white indentured servants and enslaved Indians, so race was also not the overriding factor it became later. Among their descendants are the "tri-racial isolates," groups like the Melungeons whose mixed ancestry is testimony to the absence of hard racial lines in 17th-century America.

Slavery was profoundly different from other unequal systems, like tenancy or share cropping, and not just because it was worse. Relationships between enslavers and enslaved were intense in a way we can barely imagine, because they were both intimate and permanent. People had to find ways to get along, because there was nowhere else for either side to go. Yes, rebellious slaves were sometimes sold away as a kind of punishment, and occasionally killed, but by and large a plantation was a place where everyone involved expected to live and die. Reading about plantation life the overwhelming impression I always take away is not horror but strangeness. I was just reading (for work, as it happens) the day book of a wealthy Maryland planter from the years 1838-1839, and half the entries concern which of his workers were either too drunk to work or had run off to town and hadn't been seen in days. And while the enslaved workers couldn't be fired and stayed on no matter how many times they had to be brought home from town dead drunk, the hirelings came and went with the seasons, forming no lasting ties. A more famous example comes from the extensive diaries of Virginia planter Landon Carter, who spilled thousands of words complaining that neither his children nor his slaves respected his authority; he regularly accused his slaves of crimes like intentionally killing oxen but rarely did anything about it. What could he do, when his livelihood depended on their willingness to work and to take great care with his possessions?

Consider that while enslavers and enslaved lived intimately together, they also feared each other, and with good reason. The history of slavery is the history of slave rebellion, and even more of rumors of slave rebellion. Slaves and planters regularly turned on each other with murderous violence. Think of how crazy the threat of Islamic terrorism made many Americans after 9-11, and then imagine that the suspected terrorists live in your house; that was the plantation, a place where people lived at the closest quarters, developed relationships that sometimes seemed respectful and friendly or even loving, but constantly feared that their housemates would slaughter them. The reason some planters gave for not freeing their slaves was fear that this would lead to a genocidal race war; "We have the wolf by the ears," Thomas Jefferson wrote in a famous letter, "and dare not let him go."

Berlin is at his best in describing the many different lives lived by some of the enslaved. For example Charleston, South Carolina developed a thriving urban black culture, with many black-run businesses and churches. Some blacks, such as the operators of taverns and brothels, got rich enough to afford fancy clothes, which led the white legislature to pass one sumptuary law after another cracking down on black finery. (Didn't work, so far as we can tell.) But before the Revolution almost all of those black city-dwellers were slaves. Some of them used their owners' names as protection against annoying police intrusions or complaints from neighbors; they didn't own anything, not even their clothes, and they had to kick a big share of their profits back to their enslavers, but that didn't keep some of them from thriving. It seems more like a Roman patronage scheme than our idea of plantation slavery. On the big plantations a black hierarchy developed, headed by drivers (foremen) and skilled workers, who bossed around the lower-ranking slaves and argued with overseers. Berlin has several cases of white overseers who were fired because they couldn't get along with the leading slaves; if it came to a choice, the slaves were far more valuable to the owners, so the overseers were sacked and the drivers remained in charge.

One criticism that could be made of Berlin is that he might devote too much attention to these rather unusual cases and not enough to the hard, boring lives of plantation workers. After all the majority of North American slaves were laborers who mainly did grueling work in the tobacco fields or rice paddies. In Berlin's defense you could point out that those who formed the black elite before emancipation – free blacks, those who lived and worked in cities, drivers – set the tone for the free African American culture that developed after 1820. 

My favorite section of Many Thousands Gone covers the Revolution. The turmoil of those years allowed thousands of slaves to escape bondage, sometimes by fighting (both sides at times offered freedom to slaves who enlisted) and sometimes by just taking off when the white folks were distracted. Berlin is wonderful on all the ways this happened, and on the angst it caused the planters. The bloodiest partisan fighting of the war was in the Carolinas, and thousands of Carolina slaves joined the armies of both sides, ran for the wilderness, or joined outlaw bands, participating in what Berlin calls "the local tradition of multi-racial banditry." The chaos was repeated during the War of 1812, when more than 4,000 slaves escaped from Virginia plantations.

Of course the Revolution was also a great ideological and political event, and the impact of those changes provides a good lesson in the complexity of historical causation. What was the impact on slavery of all that talk of freedom, and the moral struggles of planters like Washington and Jefferson? In the north, the people turned decisively against slavery and it was abolished or phased out. In the deep south, a decade of waffling ended with the opposite, a much harder pro-slavery ideology backed up by intensified racism. In the middle colonies slavery endured but hundreds of planters freed all or some of their slaves, leading to explosive growth in the free black population and the emergence of Baltimore as the first great urban center of free African Americans.

Freedom, when it came, was hardly the end of trouble for African Americans. In a chapter I found deeply sad, Berlin shows that freedom for some enslaved people in the north led to a fall in economic status. In cities like Philadelphia and New York many slaves were artisans who worked in highly skilled trades like carriage making and metal casting; after all it was only the most successful craftsmen who could afford to buy slaves. After the end of slavery white workers fought to reserve those highly skilled jobs for themselves; without the patronage provided by their owners, black workers could not complete and found themselves gradually driven out of almost all highly skilled work.

But that is just the barest summary of a book that is astonishingly rich with insight from beginning to end. If you are really curious about slavery in America, read it; I know of nothing better.


C.M. Mayo said...

Fascinating, thank you.

Kpgoog said...

the story of Phillip Reid and the Statue of Freedom is worth a look:

"Born around 1820, Reid was an enslaved laborer in the foundry run by the self-taught sculptor Clark Mills, who cast the Statue of Freedom. Mills was a former resident of South Carolina, where he had purchased Reid in Charleston for $1,200. Mills stated he purchased Reid, "many years ago when he was quite a youth... because of his evident talent for the business in which your petitioner was engaged, and paid twelve hundred dollars for him."