Monday, November 9, 2020

The Language of Slavery

 The New York Times today has a story about a new study that claims Alexander Hamilton owned slaves right up to the end of his life.  There doesn’t seem to be new evidence but a new, more assertive interpretation of it.  I know little about the period or Hamilton in particular, so my opinion doesn’t mean much, but the argument struck me as persuasive.  I would be surprised to find out that Hamilton wasn’t a slave owner.

But here’s the thing: the article’s writing endorses the new language around slavery.  We no longer have slaves but enslaved people, not slave owners but enslavers.  It is an attempt to personalize the issue.  The word “slave” is said to carry a connotation that the individual in question was somehow different by virtue of their status; instead we want to convey the idea that they were just like anyone else except that, at some point (or repeatedly), other people enslaved them.  Myself, I never thought that slaves were anything other than ordinary folks who had been delivered into slavery, so for me it’s a distinction without a difference, but if other people need the change in terminology to respect the full humanity of slaves I’m OK with that.

The enslaver bit is a different story.  An enslaver is someone who alters the status of another human being from non-slave to slave.  Those who captured previously unenslaved people, whether from a village in Africa or a native community in the New World, were enslavers.  Those who participated in the institution of slavery by buying or selling those already enslaved or by directing their work were slave traders or slave owners but not enslavers.  If we care about precision in language, we should be careful about the words we use.

But the problem goes much deeper than this.  The campaign to replace slave owner with enslaver is part of the larger movement to make politics a matter of individual responsibility.  Slavery was a horror, and this horror, we are to believe, was the product of the individual consciousness and behavior—personal racism—on the part of each person who participated in it.  According to this view, we need to use the word “enslaver” to not let these evildoers off the hook.  If Alexander Hamilton was an enslaver he was personally responsible for the enslavement of the individuals forced to work in his household.

Now personal responsibility is real, but not mainly in this way.  We are all called upon to consider our position in an unjust social order, not because each of us individually creates some small piece of it, but because it rests on our acceptance of it.  It was not Hamilton who authored the enslavement of his servants; it was the slave system itself that placed them in that position and ensured that, with few exceptions, if he didn’t own the slave in question someone else would.  At the margin, an enlightened rich person like George Washington could free a few slaves (in his case upon his death), but slavery as an institution grew and prospered.

At stake is the understanding of politics itself.  Is slavery just an accretion of individual choices by enslavers or an institution with legal, economic and social underpinnings?  Is racism today also institutionalized and reproduced legally, economically and politically, or is it mainly the outcome of racist thoughts and actions one individual at a time?  How does social change happen?

In the case of slavery, it didn’t really matter that Hamilton was active in the Manumission Society, which encouraged slave owners to release individual slaves, nor would it have mattered much for the course of slavery in America if he had refused to purchase slaves from their prior owners.  At the margin again, it was better to promote manumission than not, and it would have been even better if Hamilton weren’t such a hypocrite about it by owning some of his own.  But manumission did not end slavery nor could it: that was accomplished only by a civil war and the subsequent constitutional amendments outlawing it.  It took collective action, and a lot of bloodshed, to bring about this social change.

Obviously the battle for social justice is far from over.  Our society is riven by deep inequalities and change is still on the agenda.  But just as in Hamilton’s day, more enlightened personal behavior is nice but also something of a distraction.  The real personal morality is about participation in movements to dismantle the institutions of inhumanity.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

and the immorality of those that supported its continuation or did nothing to change it.

Anonymous said...

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/09/arts/alexander-hamilton-enslaver-research.html

November 9, 2020

Alexander Hamilton, Enslaver? New Research Says Yes
A paper by a researcher at the Schuyler Mansion finds overlooked evidence in letters and Hamilton’s own account books indicating that he bought, sold and personally owned slaves.
By Jennifer Schuessler

The question has lingered around the edges of the pop-culture ascendancy of Alexander Hamilton: Did the 10-dollar founding father, celebrated in the musical “Hamilton” as a “revolutionary manumission abolitionist,” actually own slaves?

Some biographers have gingerly addressed the matter over the years, often in footnotes or passing references. But a new research paper * released by the Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site in Albany, N.Y., offers the most ringing case yet.

In the paper, titled “‘As Odious and Immoral a Thing’: Alexander Hamilton’s Hidden History as an Enslaver,” Jessie Serfilippi, a historical interpreter at the mansion, examines letters, account books and other documents. Her conclusion — about Hamilton, and what she suggests is wishful thinking on the part of many of his modern-day admirers — is blunt.

“Not only did Alexander Hamilton enslave people, but his involvement in the institution of slavery was essential to his identity, both personally and professionally,” she writes.

“It is vital,” she adds, “that the myth of Hamilton as ‘the Abolitionist Founding Father’ end.” ...

* https://parks.ny.gov/documents/historic-sites/SchuylerMansionAlexanderHamiltonsHiddenHistoryasanEnslaver.pdf

2slugbaits said...

The emphasis upon the personal immorality of slaveowners rather than the institutional injustice of slavery would seem to undermine much of the reparations argument since that argument hinges crucially upon systemic injustice. That could be an unintended consequence of pushing the personal immorality argument too far.

Anonymous said...

http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/archive/doc?id=L17970109ja&rec=sheet&archive=letters&hi=1&numRecs=1182&query=I+was+seized+with+a+Fever&queryid=&start=1090&tag=text&num=10&bc=

John Adams to Abigail Adams

9 January 1797

Philadelphia

My dearest Friend

Hamilton I know to be a proud Spirited, conceited, aspiring Mortal always pretending to Morality, with as debauched Morals as old Franklin who is more his Model than any one I know. As great an Hypocrite as any in the U.S.

Anonymous said...

The emphasis upon the personal immorality of slaveowners...

[ Offensive rubbish. ]

jamzo said...

colonization is still the larger story of slavery in the Americas

at 78 i welcome the unfolding interpretations of slavery in the United States as breathtaking and wish it had happened before i starting taking history courses in high school

i am eagerly awaiting contemporary discussion of the debate among the founders on colonization strategies and the constitution and the decision to use state sovereignty and restrictions on the power of the federal government to allow the southern colonies to maintain the "plantation economy" strategy pursued by England from Northern Ireland to India, Africa, and the Caribbean

Anonymous said...

colonization is still the larger story of slavery in the Americas...

[ Really important comment. ]

RW said...

Spike Lee used to make a fairly sharp distinction between bigotry or racial animus and racism, the former being a personal attribute as he argued (to paraphrase) and the latter a systems property. It may not always matter in lived lives, but conflating the two risks category error and flawed analysis.

Anonymous said...

The emphasis upon the personal immorality of slaveowners...

[ Returning to this comment, after more consideration, the point is that no matter the general sentiment we have and each make moral choices and keeping slaves was always the wrong choice and general sentiment should not be any justification. I found the comment unfortunate. ]

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

I am unclear on the facts about Hamilton, although it does seem that he did own as well as buy and sell slaves, while also at some point being involved in the Manumission Society. I do not know the timing or details of all this.

Franklin is both simpler and more complicated. When he young he definitely bought and sold and owned slaves. But at some point in his middle age he had a change of heart and view. He freed his slaves and became a strong and open abolitionist. I suspect part of Adams's comments about Franklin's "Immorality" have more to do with his personal sexual escapades than with his views of slavery, where once he changed he was probably more anti-slavery than was Adams, who was, but not all that vigorously so.

2slugbaits said...

Anonymous,

No one is arguing against the immorality of either owning a slave or engaging in the slave trade. That was not the issue in my comment. My point was that there is a certain tension between focusing on the morally obnoxious behavior of a slave owning individual and the morally obnoxious nature of systemic racism. The argument for reparations hinges upon the lasting effects of systemic racism. Emphasizing the moral shortcomings of 18th century slaveowners makes it a lot harder to convince people that it was the system that was evil and not just the people who operated within that system. When you focus on the personal immorality of slaveowners it tends to let today's whites off the hook because they can rightly claim they don't own slaves and therefore do not share in the blame. And if they don't share in the blame, then you weaken the case for reparations. As I said, the case for reparations hinges critically on making the case for impersonal systemic racism, not personal racism.

Anonymous said...

My point was that there is a certain tension between focusing on the morally obnoxious behavior of a slave owning individual and the morally obnoxious nature of systemic racism. The argument for reparations hinges upon the lasting effects of systemic racism. Emphasizing the moral shortcomings of 18th century slaveowners makes it a lot harder to convince people that it was the system that was evil and not just the people who operated within that system....

[ This comment clarifies the matter for me and I am grateful for the addition to the original statement. I was wrong in dismissing the original comment, but was confused. Excellent, I understand now and agree completely.

Thank you so much. ]

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