Chapter 3: Racism, Revolution and Anti-racism
Bourgeois revolution the challenge beginsAt a time when the bourgeoisie was proclaiming all Men are created equal, that they are
endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, many white people reconciled the subjugation of black slaves and colonial peoples by rationalising that somehow they were, by nature, not fully human. However, on the other side of the ideological struggle, many white people also sought to extend the universalising principles of bourgeois democracy to the slaves. In the revolutionary ferment of late 1700s United States, lifelong and hereditary enslavement of some 20% of the population began to stand out as a monstrous aberration. In response to a slave revolt in Boston in 1774, Abigail Adams told her husband John Adams, the later US president, it always appeared a most iniquitous scheme to me to fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have.1
Prominent bourgeois revolutionaries like Benjamin Rush and James Otis fiercely opposed slavery and countered the racist charges of black inferiority. Otis wrote in his Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved (1764):
The Colonists are by the law of nature free born, as indeed all men are, white or black. Does it follow that tis right to enslave a man because he is black? Will short curld hair like wool, instead of christian hair, as tis called by those, whose hearts are as hard as the nether millstone, help the argument? Can any logical influence in favour of slavery be drawn from a flat nose, a long or a short face? Nothing better can be said in favour of a trade, that is the most shocking violation of the law of nature, has a direct tendency to diminish the idea of the inestimable value of liberty, and makes every dealer in it a tyrant from the director of an African company to the petty chapman in needles and pins on the unhappy coast. It is a clear truth, those who every day barter away other mens liberty will soon care little for their own.2
The Reverend Isaac Skillman even asserted in 1772 that the right of slaves to rebel conformed to the laws of nature.3 Benjamin Rush wrote in the following year:
I need hardly say any thing in favour of the intellects of the Negroes, or of their capacities for virtue and happiness, although these have been supposed by some to be inferior to those of the inhabitants of Europe. The accounts which travellers give us of their ingenuity, humanity, and strong attachment to their parents, relations, friends and country, show us that they are equal to the Europeans. All the vices which are charged upon the Negroes in the southern colonies, and the West Indies, such as Idleness, Treachery, Theft, and the like, are the genuine offspring of slavery, and serve as an argument to prove that they were not intended by Providence for itFuture ages, therefore, when they read the accounts of the slave trade (if they do not regard them as fabulous) will be at a loss which to condemn most, our folly or our guilt, in abetting this direct violation of the laws of Nature and Religion.4
It was in the birthplace of racial oppression that some of the most ardent and radical critics of slavery first emerged under the driving force of revolution. In order to wage their revolutionary struggle, the American bourgeoisie had to rally the mass of (white) plebeians under the banner of universal natural rights and liberties. The seething, uncontrollable ferment and upheaval that was then unleashed naturally threatened to reach into the ranks of the black 1 Herbert Aptheker, A History of the American People: The American Revolution 1763-1783, International Publishers, New York, 1960, p. 2092 Louis Ruchames (ed.), Racial Thought in America Volume 1: From the Puritans to Abraham Lincoln, Grosset & Dunlap, New York, 1969, p. 1383 Aptheker, op. cit.4 Ruchames, ibid., pp. 140-41
Ch. 3: Racism, Revolution and Anti-racism, by Iggy Kim 1
toilers themselves. In any revolution, cracks can spread throughout the edifice of the ruling order. Indeed, large numbers of African-Americans did take part in the upsurge. At least 5000 were regular soldiers in the revolutionary army,5 many distinguishing themselves in combat like the famous Salem Poor. Some were freed and even awarded land and pensions. Still many others participated in a civilian capacity. The whole process even radicalised some slaveholder revolutionaries. John Laurens, a South Carolinian lieutenant-colonel and son of a slaveholder, was an early advocate of freeing and arming 3000 slaves in exchange for military service. He won support from Congress in 1779 but was vetoed by the South Carolina assembly. Laurens father had written to him four years earlier to tell him that he was freeing his slaves and cutting off the entail of slavery.6
Ultimately though, the American revolution was limited to the political sphere. Unlike the more far-reaching social revolution in France a few years later, the Americans were out to secure political independence from London, another bourgeois state, without touching the existing social-economic system. As such, the revolutionary alliance of class forces was founded on the interests and structures of US capitalism at that time not only the mass of petty bourgeois artisans, farmers, and the mercantile (and some manufacturing) bourgeoisie in the north, but also the profitable slave-worked plantation empire in the south. Northern capitalists and southern slaveholders had distinct interests, but these had not yet become antagonistic. The original US constitution of 1777 had confederated the thirteen colonies into a union of sovereign states and protected the southern slave system from outside interference. In the immediate years after the revolutions victory in 1783, central government was kept to a minimum, lacking even a national army. When a Constitutional Convention came together in 1787 to devise a new federal system, everyone was well aware of the delicacy of negotiating a national government that would preserve harmony between north and south. The convention eventually came up with a state structure that would allow the two wings of the ruling class to work together while protecting their separate interests. Congress was split into two houses, with only the lower house subject to direct election. Both the Senate and president were to be indirectly elected. There were also property qualifications placed on voters. This was all codified in a new Constitution that embarrassedly avoided the words slave and slavery and, instead, used the euphemism of other persons. The Constitution counted each slave as three-fifths of a person so that the number of southern representatives in Congress matched those from the North with its greater number of white men.
The compromise of 1787 gave the southern slavocracy a confidence boost. They had, for now, brought partly under their control what was potentially the biggest threat to their power and legitimacy a new revolutionary government resting on the allegiance of a mass of non-slaveholding free citizens. In fact, the slavocracy deliberately worked to foster a political alliance with the small farmers the majority of the population not in support of slavery, but around trade, tax and monetary policies that favoured their shared agricultural interests. Leading slaveholder politicians of this time, such as Thomas Jefferson, who won the presidency in 1800, continue to be eulogised today as a champion of the little people.
The free, white plebeian citizenry were generally hostile to slavery. In the North, where the weight of small freehold farmers and artisans was much greater, new settlements banned slavery. But this hostility to the institution of slavery was not necessarily matched by a sense of solidarity with the slaves (or former slaves). Foreshadowing later racism elsewhere against servile immigrants of colour, many free white towns in the Midwest excluded blacks, free or slave. Even anti-slavery revolutionaries like Tom Paine had reservations about extending full and equal citizenship to African-Americans. Blacks were seen as alien to the organic bonds of free smallholding community which the revolution rested on. Even those who went as far as advocating full emancipation saw a solution in resettling blacks outside the United States. The new plebeian democracy was undoubtedly tainted by a racially exclusionist streak.
To foster their alliance with the farmers, slaveholder politicians settled for some restrictions on the expansion of slavery while fiercely defending its preservation in the southern states. The importation of slaves was outlawed in 1808, although the law was hardly enforced. Some northern states abolished the slave trade but not slavery itself. Some states decreed freedom for future generations born to slaves, but only after they had served out a period of servitude into their adult years, ostensibly to repay their masters for their keep.
5 Aptheker op. cit., p. 2266 Ruchames, op. cit., p. 157
Ch. 3: Racism, Revolution and Anti-racism, by Iggy Kim 2