Monday, November 02, 2020

America's Other Original Sin: 'Preserving the Union'


by Thomas Neuburger

Almost all of America's ills — but not whole set — stem from a single source, its "original sin" if you will. America's real original sin was not its founding as an elite-dominated republic in the 1780s, but the importation of a large population of African slaves starting in the early 1600s. It's a commonplace to say that if slavery had never touched these shores, we'd be a vastly different nation today. 

But America may have a second original sin, a follow-on, and it's one that may surprise you. Consider this, from the opening of a good piece on the history of the Electoral College by Justin Fox published at Bloomberg:

The Many Unintended Consequences of the Electoral College

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When it came time in 1787 to set the rules for choosing a president of the U.S., three of the principal authors of the Constitution — James Madison, Gouverneur Morris and James Wilson — argued that the best approach, the one most likely to inspire public confidence and national feeling, would be a nationwide popular vote.

All three also understood the prospects of this happening were, as Wilson put it, “chimerical.” It was obvious the method would instead have to reflect the two great (or awful, if you prefer) compromises hammered out at the Constitutional Convention over political representation. To keep the slave-holding states on board, the delegates had apportioned seats in the House of Representatives on the basis of a population count that considered slaves to be three-fifths of a person. And to assuage the smaller states they had created a Senate with two members per state, regardless of population. [emphasis added]

Consider the next-to-last sentence: "To keep the slave-holding states on board, the delegates had apportioned seats in the House of Representatives on the basis of a population count that considered slaves to be three-fifths of a person."

Now consider the American Civil War. That war was a violent and successful attempt, in essence, to also "keep the slave-holding states on board." It stripped them of their slaves, but not their deep history of racial animus, anger, exploitation, constant fear of rebellion. 

What if America's second original sin was this — the attempt to "keep the slave-holding states on board" at all? It wasn't at all a given that it should do this.

What if, in other words, the framers of the Constitution had written rules for only the non-slave states? It's entirely possible that the all of the states north of Maryland would have joined the Union, and left those south of that line to do ... what? Stay separate from each other? Form a proto-Confederacy? 

Who knows what they would have done? And why should we care, given what they've done to us since, from 1789 to today, as part of the "union" we so desperately cared about?

Had they departed the Constitution, or never been folded in, the rest of us would have been rid of them, having never been made to lie with them in the first place. And we certainly would not have had the Electoral College. Madison may well have won.

What If Lincoln Had Just Said, 'Fine, Go Away"?

Consider another juncture in our history when we could have been freed of them. What if Lincoln had not been so hell-bent on "preserving the Union" — had just said, "Let the slave states go and good riddance to them all"? 

By then the slave-induced wounds on the republic had already festered — the compromises that led to war left a mess in the west — but the massive national bloodletting might have been avoided, and the new, non-slave nation of the Northern Union would not have been continuously and politically roiled by the slave-holding South from the day of Emancipation till now. 

We're poisoned today by Lincoln's determination — at least that's one way to look at it.

But What About the Slaves Themselves?

The greatest obstacle to this way of thinking involves the state of the slaves themselves. The benefits of freedom as a result of the Civil War should not be understated or underestimated. It's certain that the history of Africans on this part of the American continent would have been vastly different had they not been freed in 1862. 

It's true that men like Frederick Douglass would still have achieved their greatness — he escaped slavery to Pennsylvania well before the war — but everyone who failed to escape would have remained in the wretched condition she or he was subject to prior to emancipation. So we cannot consider this thought lightly.

Yet we should consider it, at least in an alternative-history sense. What may have happened indeed had the Founders not bent the Constitution to include the slave states? What may have happened had Lincoln not valued union over peace?

In the first case, a number of possibilities present themselves, among them the non-consolidation, at least for a time, of the slaves states into one entity. This would have left each of them vulnerable, considering the smaller size of their individual economies, to shrink even further when the northern industrial powerhouse began to dominate the continent. 

As they watched the Northern Union grow stronger, would the southern states have sought to join with them, their hats in hand? Perhaps some of them might. 

More likely, though, they would eventually have banded together, but as the industrial North became the engine it was to become, even a united Southern Union would have been no match for it in real wealth, and the need to trade with the North would have placed natural restraints on southern power. 

In addition, a look at the history of Haiti is instructive. The Haitian Revolution occurred at the end of the 1790s and concluded in 1804. Would a weakened South have been subject to a similar rebellion, or many of them? If revolts had occurred, the Northern Union (I certainly would hope) would have found it in its interest to stand aside. (If they would actually have stood aside is another matter, but abolitionist voices were strong.)

A war may well have emerged between the Northern Union and the South, caused either by skirmishes launched by separate southern states or by the South itself united. But would it have gone the same as the actual war? It may well have ended earlier. 

In addition, if after the war the Northern Union had not tried to force the slave states back into the fold, the price of victory could simply have been to declare all the South's slaves free, with right of passage and citizenship to the non-slave Northern Union. 

Thus no Reconstruction. The occupying Northern Army could guarantee (to the extent that it could) the safety of every slave who wished to emigrate, then let the slaves states do what they wished to do without more interference, and left. 

The myth of the "war of Northern aggression" would never have been born, since the only way a broad war could have started would be by Southern aggression against its sovereign neighbor to the north.

Food for thought. Life for Africans and their descendants was horrible in the South before the actual Civil War, and after Reconstruction, ended by the corrupt bargain of 1876 (a "third original sin," if you will), life for African descendants became returned to terrible. The South did rise again, with lynchings, poverty, fear and social isolation replacing the slave cabins, whips and guns. 

Not an exact trade — slavery was still far worse — but not a good one either. This new bad life for African descendants lasted at least till the end of Jim Crow, if it ever ended at all.

The New Secessionists

Today many dream of a kind of new secession, one where California and the Pacific states are free of rules imposed by Alabama and Idaho; where Texas doesn't write creationist textbooks for Vermont; and one small-minded, power-hungry conservative from Kentucky can't put gay-hating climate deniers on the Supreme Court for the next four decades, to rule us from the bench.

Was the price of "union" worth it? Do we even have "union" at all, after all that effort and pain? Or would have been better for everyone concerned if the North were rid of the South from the very start?

Food for thought.


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At 10:43 AM, Blogger Ten Bears said...

Secession is a fool's errand, if one were so inclined yet another deep state fake, a distraction. The thin layer of potentially toxic gasses enveloping the only ball of rock we know of we can live on no more recognizes the boundaries of little dink-ass nation-states as continent-spanners. The only value into breaking the Untied States up into nine or eleven bio/geo/cultural cantons would be with a comparable movement worldwide breaking the continent-spanners up into comparable cantons that would in turn elect representation in a world government.

We have to stop doing what we're doing. It isn't working.

At 10:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A good retrospective.

you can boil it down to one original sin -- slavery. When the framers wrote the constitution, they clearly desired those slave states for some reason (after all, several of those folks came from VA and other slave states). I suppose they had to accomodate all those virginians or else they would have had to convene a northern-only CC and tell the slave south to conform or just go fuck themselves.

Given the times and sitchie, I don't really see a different outcome. But the evil of slavery *IS* the evil that led, straight line, to all the other evils.

Given that the 'union' was normalized by 1860, you can't really blame Lincoln for being a patriot and holding the 'union' together.
However, the evil of reconstruction (after Lincoln was offed) was an exercise in our OTHER, perpetual evil -- greed.

And greed has been our main evil ever since then.

And since about 1980, we have seen our two original evils merge, consume both current political parties, be consistently affirmed by every single voter that votes, and destroy pretty much everything about the union that made it NOT SUCK!

So at this juncture, we're left with ONLY our two evils and a 'union' that is a pure shithole... and since voters keep affirming either/both of this, it shall EVER be a shithole until it finally and mercifully burns all of its fuel and leaves a charred hole in the earth.

At 12:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

instead of the Civil War being fought over slavery, it would have been fought over westward expansion. There was no escaping conflict with the greedy South.

At 1:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

wrt reconstruction, the greed (pillaging...) was solely of the north.

But if the south had been a separate sovereign nation, there would have been little reason for the war, no way to pillage via reconstruction.

But your point about westward expansion? might have been more of a race between the USA and the CSA. That might have created some potential for conflict. Maybe the natives would have fared better if they'd waited for the Us and Cs to wear each other out before engaging.

At 2:59 PM, Blogger Cugel said...

Actually the South had a plan to make sure there were as many slave states as free states as the US expanded into the west. They wanted to conquer Mexico and the Caribbean and turn them into a gigantic slave empire.

"Referring to annexation, he said 'our destiny has forced us to acquire FL, TX, LA, NM, and CA. We have now territory enough, but how long will it be enough? One hive will suffice for one swarm of bees, but a new swarm will come next year and a new hive is wanted. People say that we will never want more of Mexico territory, but a time will come when we are compelled to take more. Central America . . .the time will come when our destiny, our slave institutions, our safety will compel us to have it. So it is with the island of Cuba. It is a matter of no consequence if we want it, we are compelled to take it and we can't help it." -- Sen. Douglas, New Orleans speech, December 8, 1858.

Only the North would not permit them to start all these wars to seize the Caribbean and Mexico and Central America, just because there were millions of peasants there they could enslave and force them to grow cotton and tobacco and sugar cane for their southern masters. The Northern members of Congress kept blocking them. So. . . . . disunion.


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