Unearnt privilege is real. Unearnt privilege is also invisible.
Because privilege is invisible, those of us who have it (hi, straight white male here) can often be unaware of it, even when we’re actively exercising it; and this can lead us to think it isn’t real. This can lead us to insist it isn’t real, particularly when we’re being called out for having (unwittingly or otherwise) profited by it.
But it is real. If you’re in America and society perceives you as male, or white, or straight, or rich, or Christian (to name just a few big ones), then society affords you a latitude, society caters to your preferences and to your comfort, in ways that it simply doesn’t do for people it perceives as not belonging to those privileged groups. It makes life for you easier and makes sure you feel more important. That isn’t to say it makes life easy or makes you feel important, simply easier and more important than would be the case if you belonged to one of the non-privileged groups.
Gear change. I really love this piece in Cosmopolitan calling out Fox News’s Outnumbered for their paternalistic attempt to tell Cosmo to stay in their place and cover issues women should be reading about (fashion and pleasing men in bed, obvs) while leaving politics with the men, where it belongs. In its tone, in its substance, in its perception, the essay is perfect from start to end.
And it got me thinking about the title of the show. Outnumbered. I’m already predisposed to dislike that title, because I don’t appreciate a cable news show appropriating the name of the most hilarious parenting sitcom ever televised.
But if you’re someone who I’ve claimed, up above, that our society gives you unearnt privilege, just for being you, and you’re sitting there thinking that’s a load of bullshit, that what you have, you’ve earnt, and it’s patent liberal hypocrisy of me to use claims of equality in order to give women or racial minorities or LGBTs special treatment, then think about the title of Outnumbered.
This is Fox News’s attempt to get women watching them in the middle of the day, since, after all, the daytime TV market is predominantly female. And yet it’s not called Outnumbering or In the Majority or anything to emphasise the women who comprise most of its panel. Instead it’s called Outnumbered. The producers of this show, in their quest to appeal to women viewers, still take it totally for granted that even in something so fundamental as the show’s title, their audience are by default going to share the perspective of the one male panelist rather than his female colleagues.
That’s not the most pernicious, or pervasive, or harmful manifestation of privilege I could think of, not by a long shot. It’s not even the worst instance of it just in the criticisms of Outnumbered cited in the Cosmopolitan essay. But it’s a tremendously clear one.
There’s a word that I’ve seen in alternate history discussions, and I like it a lot—overdetermined.
Essentially, a historical event or phenomenon is overdetermined if its likelihood of happening remains robust across different alternate timelines—that is to say, if the event remains likely to happen even in timelines where prior events that led up to it have been changed.
The French Revolution would seem to be overdetermined, in that after 1750 (and very possibly before), there’s very little that can be done to change it. No matter what change you make, France still has a brittle, inadequate fiscal system held in place by very strong forces of social inertia. The Seven Years’ War is still going to push that system to its limit, no matter how you change the war’s outcome; and French participation in the next general European war (in real history, that was the American Revolutionary War, but even if you somehow remove it, there’ll be a different war to fight in) is still going to push French finances beyond that limit. Therefore the French monarchy will have to initiate some sort of drastic fiscal reform, which will necessarily entail also attempting social reform, which will almost certainly unleash the same revolutionary forces that it did in real history; all this will happen somewhere between five and ten years after the end of the American Revolutionary War or whatever war replaces it.
Similarly, the historical consensus would probably be that the outbreak of the First World War was overdetermined after, oh, probably 1870. After a German victory in the Franco-Prussian War, it becomes almost inevitable that, once Bismarck eventually falls from power (1891, in real history), the European Great Powers will eventually crystallise into two armed systems of alliances; and once that happens (say, by 1905), it becomes overwhelmingly likely that one of the series of crises that gripped Europe during the period will eventually spark a general conflict. It could have happened in the Moroccan Crises of 1905 or 1911; or in the Balkan crises of 1908 or 1912–13. In the event it happened with the Sarajevo Crisis of 1914, but even if it hadn’t, well, Sarajevo was the fifth in nine years, so there’s no reason to think there wouldn’t have been several more such incidents in the next several years to light the touchpaper.
I don’t know if there’s a word to describe the opposite end of the spectrum from “overdetermined”; if not, I recommend overcontingent. An overcontingent event would be an event, not necessarily that was unlikely in real history (though many of them are), but rather that becomes unlikely to the point of impossibility when you change previous events.
It’s slightly harder to identify overcontingent events because we are human and therefore inevitably subject to confirmation bias—that is, we inevitably feel like most events, even the genuinely overdetermined ones, were more determined, to one degree or another, than they actually were. But I’ll throw out one possibility: the Mexican–American War of 1846–48, by which the United States conquered from Mexico about one third of the area of the contiguous forty-eight states (the presentday states of Texas, California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Colorado).
The Mexican war only broke out because of series of events in Texan, Mexican and American history of the preceding decade, plenty of them producing fairly unlikely outcomes. This starts with Texas even managing to win its independence in the first place in 1836, which only happened because of a combination of a wise commander (Sam Houston) and an exceptional stroke of luck at the Battle of San Jacinto. Then you’ve got the defeat of Mexico’s one serious attempt to reconquer Texas during the next nine years (in 1842), despite outnumbering the Texan army by eight to one. There’s the death of President William Henry Harrison from pneumonia one month into his term, after insisting on delivering his two-hour inaugural address in the freezing rain; without succeeding Harrison as President, Vice President John Tyler would never have had the standing to make Texas annexation the major issue of the 1844 election, and the election would have been contested by two anti-annexationist candidates (Henry Clay and Martin Van Buren). And even with annexation as the election’s major issue, 1844 was still one of the closest elections in American history; give Clay only 2600 of his opponent James K. Polk’s votes in New York (out of half a million cast), and he wins the state and the presidency. Even once Polk won the presidency and annexed Texas, war didn’t become inevitable until he decided on pursuing his territorial ambitions against Mexico in the most brusque, aggressive manner he could.
Most people assume the American Revolution was an overdetermined event, and from time to time to time I’ve talked about why I think they’re wrong and that the Revolution was, quite the contrary, fairly overcontingent. I’d also give the Allied victory in the First World War as an outcome that, while not necessarily overcontingent, was at least contingent, in that it was a conflict where (unlike alternate history favourites like the Second World War and American Civil War) it was a fairly evenly balanced affair and the losing side had about the same chance to win it (by taking Paris in September 1914, by winning the Battle of Verdun in 1916, by not adopting a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917, by taking Paris during Operation Michael in Spring 1918) as they did of losing it.
So I guess I’m curious what other people think, what other events people think are particularly overdetermined or overcontingent. What do you think was bound to happen, and will show up in timeline after timeline? What do you think was a fluke of history, and will take only a small tweak to abort?
So, the question I’m pondering today: why does it never seem to have occurred to anyone—not the French, nor the British, nor apparently even the Quebecois—that France might have demanded the return of Quebec at the end of the American Revolutionary War?
Historiography of the Revolutionary War tends to concentrate solely on the fighting in mainland North America. This is understandable, inevitable, and completely appropriate—and, incidentally, just as true of British histories as it is of American. But it obscures how much of a global conflict France’s entry into the war in 1778 (and Spain’s in 1779 and the Netherlands’s in 1780) made it into.
The American Revolutionary War was fought in the Thirteen Colonies and Canada, but it was also fought in Florida, in the West Indies, in India, in Spain and in the English Channel. The Great Siege of Gibraltar was part of the war. The Second Anglo-Mysore War, in which the native state of Mysore came close to sweeping Great Britain from southern India, was part of the war. During the war, France picked off a series of British islands in the Caribbean Sea (the Revolutionary War is the only war of the last three hundred years during which the Royal Navy has lost its customary naval superiority) and Spain occupied the Bahamas, though Lord Rodney’s victory at the Battle of the Saintes prevented a Franco-Spanish invasion of Jamaica. The Franco-Spanish alliance’s attempts to launch an invasion of Great Britain in 1759 and in 1805 make it into all the history books, but their invasion of 1779, despite coming closer to success than either of the others (in that it actually put to sea and roamed around the English Channel), gets much less mention. (Though I’d like a citation for Wikipedia’s assertion that France intended to retain Portsmouth as a naval base after the war.)
Indeed, so much did the Revolutionary War take on the character of a European war to outside observers once France entered that when Spain entered a year later, she did so with an alliance with France but without signing an alliance with the United States or even recognising the United States as a legitimate, independent nation.
And the peace settlement at the end of war—while its most important provision was British recognition of American independence and cession to the United States of the Old Northwest—also involved the colonial and European territorial transfers customary between European states at the end of these things. Britain ceded Florida and the strategically vital Mediterranean island of Minorca to Spain, and Tobago to France; the Netherlands lost their Indian port of Negapatam to Britain.
And yet nowhere is there any mention of Quebec. I can understand why France would ultimately decide not to pursue the return of Quebec—it wasn’t particularly lucrative (in fact it was a money sink, even with its dominance in the fur trade), it was difficult to defend, it had what was guaranteed to be a hostile power on its southern border. But I don’t feel like I should have to assume that that was the thinking. I don’t like that there doesn’t seem to have been any actual thinking going on. I don’t like that I can’t find any evidence of French Canadian agitation for it after France entered the war—after all, in 1778, Quebec had only been British for fifteen years; anyone older than twenty-five could remember being a French subject, could remember the campaigns of invasion and conquest by armies of Britons and Americans.
Any attempt to Google about this gets swamped by results wondering why Quebec didn’t join the Patriots and become the Fourteenth State. That’s a perfectly reasonable question for those with only a casual understanding of the American Revolution to ask, but it’s also one with some fairly obvious answers once you start studying the subject and realise the mutual antipathy the French Canadians and les Bostonnais—their word for Yankees—felt toward each other. The Americans, particularly those of New England and New York, were so anti-Catholic that on Bonfire Night every year, the people of Boston burnt not Guy Fawkes in effigy, but the Pope; and they were so anti-French that when a French army arrived in New England in 1779 to help them win their independence from Britain, the people of Newport rioted and the Boston mob murdered a French officer. The British were plenty anti-Catholic and anti-French, too, but they had also given the French Canadians the Quebec Act 1774, guaranteeing the freedom of Roman Catholic worship and preservation of French civil law in Canada—an action the Patriots found so odious that it’s included in the Declaration of Independence as a justification for the Revolutionary War. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the Quebecois never mustered up much sentiment in favour of throwing their lot in with the Continental Congress.
(“Why didn’t Quebec become the Fourteenth State?” also swamps most results for another question I’ve wondered about from time to time: why didn’t Nova Scotia become the Fourteenth State? Nova Scotia, after all, was English and Protestant in population—the French colonists having been violently and forcibly deported during the French and Indian War, in an action by the British government that would qualify as a war crime under modern definition—and, indeed, most of the settlers in the province had emigrated there from New England, where Revolutionary sentiment was strongest. I did eventually find an answer to that question, albeit an unsatisfactory one.)
But just because the French Canadians found the British preferable to the Americans on their doorstep is still no reason why they’d have found them preferable to the actual French under whose governance most of them had been perfectly content. I can understand why France ultimately decided that retrieving Canada wasn’t much of a priority, but I have harder time believing there wasn’t anything to decide in the first place.
I’m continuing on with Crucible of War. I’ve reached the summer of 1758 and the siege of Louisbourg, but I want to head back and point out something from 1754.
The Albany Congress, a gathering in upstate New York of delegates from the northern colonies and representatives of the Mohawk. Its purpose was to achieve a treaty between Britain and the Mohawk, and to establish a basis for intercolonial cooperation in the war that everyone knew was coming with France for control of the Ohio Valley. It’s famous in American history because of the proposal put forth by a Pennsylvania delegate, one Benjamin Franklin, in conjunction with Massachusetts governor William Shirley, to create a political union of the British colonies. The Albany Plan of Union would have created a national legislature to which each colony elected representatives, with executive power vested in a President-General appointed by the Crown. In its support Franklin created America’s first political cartoon.
From Crucible of War’s chapter on the Albany Congress:
Of all those present at the congress, perhaps the least self-interested delegate was the leading commissioner from Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson. Hutchinson was, in his way, as remarkable as Franklin: a gifted historian, Hutchinson was also rich, talented, as clearly marked for advancement in the administration of the empire as any American provincial could be. He had been only slightly less precocious in politics than in trade, a calling at which he had made a small fortune even before he graduated from Harvard at age sixteen.
Moreover he, like Franklin, was hardly indifferent to the prospect of taking a leading role in such a union himself. Thus Hutchinson worked closely with Franklin in creating the Albany Plan, but less to promote his own immediate interests than to forward those of his governor and his province. For Hutchinson also knew that the Bay Colony had borne the brunt of the fighting and the expense of King George’s War [the War of the Austrian Succession], and he wished to see the obligations of any future conflict shared more equitably among the provinces.
Crucible of War, then, here singles Thomas Hutchinson out as being—through a combination of his natural talents and his attitude of service to Massachusetts—the most praiseworthy individual present at Albany. I find this remarkable for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because he gets that assessment in competition with Benjamin Franklin—and not just with any old Ben Franklin, but the Ben Franklin of the Albany Congress. This is Franklin venturing out of Pennsylvania into national and imperial politics for the first time; it is Franklin as the guiding force behind the first ever initiative to unite the British colonies under a common domestic government. It is, in short, the moment Ben Franklin became the United States’s first Founding Father.
Secondly, it’s because in American historiography, Hutchinson is irredeemably a villain—possibly he is the single great villain of the American Revolution (though that might be Sir Banastre Tarleton). And his specific villainy is that his support of the Intolerable Acts is viewed as him siding with Great Britain and against the people of Boston. Even Lord North, the British prime minister from 1770 to 1781, blamed him for increasing tensions between Parliament and the people of Massachusetts. But his description here firmly fixes him as a Massachusettsian (totes a word), and a loyal and devoted one at that; and by extension, an American, insofar as such a thing as an American could have been said to have existed in 1754. Yet find me the adaptation of Johnny Tremain that presents Hutchinson, who was born and lived his entire life in Boston, as speaking with an American rather than a British accent.
It is, of course, all a matter of context and perspective. Nowadays we might conclude that, when he had to choose, Hutchinson saw himself as more British than Massachusettsian, and so sided with Great Britain against Massachusetts. But maybe he didn’t see a conflict between the two.
In 1754, he partnered closely with Benjamin Franklin on the drafting of the earliest direct precursor to the United States Constitution. Because the influence of the Plan of Union is so clearly visible in the Constitution, and because the Plan is so closely associated with Franklin, we tend to see it as an early signal of a growing colonial maturity and nascent American national identity, and therefore as a signpost that the colonists were getting ready not to need British government anymore. But it’s important to remember that for the proponents of the Albany Plan, including Hutchinson and William Shirley and very definitely Ben Franklin, one of its great benefits is that they expected it to bring the colonies more closely under British control, which they thought would only be to the colonies’ benefit.
Twenty years later, Benjamin Franklin had changed his mind. Could it be that Thomas Hutchinson simply never did?
I’m reading Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754–1766, a history of the French and Indian War by Fred Anderson. The first thing I noticed about the book was the date range—specifically, that the book covers up to 1766. That’s well after the British conquest of Canada (1760) and the end of the French and Indian War; it’s after the Treaty of Paris (1763), which ended the Seven Years’ War between Britain and France of which the French and Indian War was a theatre; it’s after Pontiac’s Rebellion (1764), the bloody American Indian uprising against British rule in the Old Northwest that usually forms the epilogue of American histories of the war.
In fact, it’s a broad enough period that it firmly includes the Stamp Act 1765 and the crisis that followed it, the first instance of Parliament attempting to tax the British colonies and the colonists responding by uniting against such taxation, a pattern that would repeat itself regularly, as we all know, until the Second Continental Congress declared the colonies’ independence on 4 July 1776. As such, the Stamp Act is pretty much never considered as a part of the Seven Years’ War but, rather, is always the first chapter of any history of the American Revolution.
Anderson’s introduction to the book explains why he chose to place the endpoint of his narrative so long after the war’s end: so that it would allow him to include the war as an early cause of the Revolution and, by extension, bring forward the starting date for “causes of the American Revolution” from 1763 to 1754.
This immediately put me on my guard. I already think 1763 is too early a starting point for the teaching of the American Revolution, not because I don’t think the Stamp Act and the Stamp Act Congress weren’t important first steps in Parliamentary overbearance and colonial cooperative resistance—they were—but because treatments of “the causes of the American Revolution” always assume that the Revolution and American independence were the obvious and most logical outcomes—indeed, even the only logical outcomes.
But you can only assume that if you’re starting with another assumption, that the British, in Britain, and the Americans, in the colonies, were already two distinct peoples in 1763 with two distinct national identities, and that independence was therefore an inevitable recognition of that. That’s an easy assumption for us to make; after all, we live in a world where Britons and Americans are quite obviously two separate peoples, and have been for over two hundred years. But those two separate national identities were a product of the Revolutionary War; they didn’t exist in the 1760s. For the most part, the men attended the Stamp Act Congress and the First Continental Congress and who authored Letters From a Farmer in Pennsylvania and organised committees of correspondence would have vigorously (and truthfully) denied that independence was either a desirable or a likely outcome of their efforts.
When we miss that, we misunderstand the American Revolution and we misunderstand the men who undertook it. We divide them into Americans and British, a distinction they wouldn’t have liked and that they certainly wouldn’t even have understood the way we apply it—Tom Paine was no more an American than William Franklin was British.
To broaden that misconception to also include the Seven Years’ War, then, makes me pretty leery, since the war is pretty much the height of the colonists’ identification with the British Empire. When George Washington led a war party into the Ohio Country in 1754, and when he returned a year later as the aide-de-camp to a British general at the head of two regiments of Irish soldiers, he didn’t think of himself as securing Ohio as American territory; he thought of it as securing it as British territory. (He did think of it as securing it for Virginia, but that’s something different.) When Benjamin Franklin proposed a common federal government for the British colonies to the Albany Congress, with a grand council elected by the colonial legislatures and a president for all of British America, he proposed it as a measure that would strengthen Britain for her coming war with France, and he did it with the hope that such a union would be enacted by Parliament in London, because he thought that the colonies could only ever be united if it happened under Parliament’s guidance. When General Wolfe—an Englishman from Kent who had spent his entire career fighting in Germany and Scotland—was killed on the Plains of Abraham, commanding the British assault that conquered Quebec from France, he became the American colonies’ greatest national hero just as he became a national hero in Britain, because the colonists knew that they were just as much a part of the Britain he conquered Quebec for as were the people of the Isles.
Then I read the introduction and I discovered Anderson agrees with me on that, and that’s exactly why he’s written a history of the war that runs all the way up to 1766:
Virtually all modern accounts of the Revolution begin in 1763 with the Peace of Paris, the great treaty that concluded the Seven Years’ War. Opening the story there, however, makes the imperial events and conflicts that followed the war—the controversy over the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act crisis—into precursors of the Revolution. No matter how strenuous their other disagreements, most modern historians have looked at the years after 1763 not as contemporary Americans and Britons saw them—as a postwar era vexed by unanticipated problems in relations between colonies and metropolis—but as what we in retrospect know those years to have been, a pre-Revolutionary period. By sneaking glances, in effect, at what was coming next, historians robbed their accounts of contingency and suggested, less by design than inadvertence, that the independence and nationhood of the United States were somehow inevitable.
(I love that phrase “By sneaking glances … at what was coming next”.)
Anderson writes a history of the Seven Years’ War and the Stamp Act, then, not to include the war in the “pre-Revolutionary” narrative, but rather to reframe those “pre-Revolutionary” events into their proper context, not as the prelude to a revolution, but as the aftermath to a war that had redefined the entire North American continent. “Examining the period from a perspective fixed not in 1763 but in 1754 would necessarily give its events a different look and perhaps permit us to understand them without constant reference to the Revolution that no one knew lay ahead, and that no one wanted.”
This hits on something really important in history: perspective. It’s difficult and counterintuitive to divorce our understanding of historical events from our knowledge of what comes next, but if we fail to do so, we cannot have a real understanding of the people we’re learning about or of how they might have seen the events as they participated in them.
This is one of the reasons I love alternate history, but it’s also one of the challenging things about alternate history. Alternate history can get you to look at things differently than the conventional view has them, can get you to reevaluate your preconceptions and try to place yourself in the heads of the people you’re considering. But that can also be really hard to do, and it can be almost impossible to notice that we’re failing to do it because we’re too anchored in our own preconceptions to realise that they are simply our own preconceptions rather than How Things Were.
The American Revolution is my favourite example of this because it’s such a glaring instance of us imposing our own image on the “pre-Revolutionary” timeline instead of seeing on its own, postwar terms. By insisting on seeing Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and George Washington in 1765 as nascent Americans, foreigners to Great Britain, rather than as men united by “their common connection with what they thought of as the freest, most enlightened empire in history”, we, as Anderson puts it, “rob [them] of their contingency”—we impose 4 July 1776 on them beforehand, rather than respecting the transformative journey it took for them to get there on their own.
Yesterday I finished The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square by Ned Sublette, a history of the first hundred years of the Crescent City, from its founding in 1718 through 1818. It was a topic I went seeking out, I freely admit, because I’d been playing Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, which is set in New Orleans in the 1760s and has as its hero a femme de couleur libre.
Sublette opens his book by telling us that it’s “not about music per se, but music will be a constant presence in it, the way it is in New Orleans.” This if anything understates the presence of music in the book, which shouldn’t be surprising for a city that has for two hundred years been known for the vibrancy, uniqueness and Africanness of its musical traditions (just like its religious and cultural traditions), through which it birthed the art form that is modern American music. The book definitely comes across as a work written by someone who was brought to the history through a love of the music, rather than someone who was brought to the music through a love of the history; but as such, it gives you a perspective on the history of New Orleans that’s absolutely necessary and couldn’t have been achieved the other way around. Sublette occasionally assumes that his readers will find a certain specific commonality between the musical/dancing traditions of New Orleans and Trinidad, or Cuba and Guadeloupe, as prima facie fascinating as he does, but that’s a small price to pay for that.
(The other small price to pay is Sublette’s insistence on referring to foreign monarchs by their names translated into their own national languages, even for those monarchs who are known in English only by their English-language names. So he refers to Felipe II of Spain, not Philip of Spain, and to Carlos III, not Charles III, making it tough to follow the fact that he’s talking about individuals who already have established names and identities in English-language historiography. Maybe he worked for NBC during the 2006 Winter Games.)
(No, I’m never going to let that go, NBC. We speak English, so we call the city Turin.)
The book’s title is an accurate one—this is a book about the world that made New Orleans, and as much time is spent on history elsewhere as is spent on the city itself. This could well be because, for most of its first century, New Orleans was a small, distant outpost, and there wouldn’t be much more with which to fill four hundred pages than there would be for a history of the first century of Charleston, South Carolina, or Bridgetown, Barbados. So what we get instead are introductions to all the distant places and events that poured themselves into New Orleans and forged the city’s unique character.
There’s a chapter on French court life during the regency of the duc d’Orleans (during the childhood of Louis XV, the only French king ever to rule over New Orleans), since it was the duke who first sent French settlers to the mouth of the Mississippi and for whom their settlement was named. There’s a chapter on life in prerevolutionary Haiti and a chapter on the revolution itself, which led so many refugees, eventually, to resettle in New Orleans—white men and the black slaves and mixed-race concubines they brought with them. (Those chapters made me look forward to playing Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry, whose hero is an escaped slave washed up on the shores of prerevolutionary St-Domingue.) And when we get to 1803, there’s a chapter on Thomas Jefferson, architect of the Louisiana Purchase, and another on the booming American slave trade of which the Big Easy suddenly found itself the fulcrum.
These last two were the chapters that blew my mind.
First, Jefferson. Sublette spends a chapter voicing, eloquently and incisively, exactly the same reaction I have whenever the morality or virtue or greatness of Thomas Jefferson is discussed. Yes, Jefferson was the primary author of the most famous affirmation of political self-determination ever written. Yes, he forcefully and repeatedly articulated that the only way for Americans to practise the freedom of religion that we hold so dear is for us to maintain a government that is wholly free from religion and entirely secular. Yes, throughout his life he wrote against slavery and wrote of it as an evil that does harm to everyone it touches.
He also owned other human beings, his entire adult life. He lived a life of leisure and comfort, made possible only by the labour (and lives and good health and children) he stole from them every day, a life in which he generated huge debts that he knew quite well would be paid by the breakup and sale of the families he owned after his death. He raped at least one of his slaves. (And yes, it is rape to have sex with a human being you own, full stop, and it deserves to be called out as such. And the fact that the woman he raped was his dear deceased wife’s half-sister only makes it creepier.) And through the Louisiana Purchase, as Sublette points out, not only did he significantly increase the extent of American slavery’s territorial grasp, but he gave the slave industry a crucial shot in the arm that was a major factor in allowing it to boom right up until the Civil War.
Whenever the moral hypocrisy of the man is pointed out, the first half of all that always gets brought up as if it somehow alleviates him of the moral responsibility of the second half. I’ve never understood why that would be, and apparently neither has Sublette. Rather, the second half negates whatever praise he might have earnt from the first. Sublette explains at length why that is, and my original idea for this post was simply to transcribe the entire Jefferson chapter verbatim, until I considered, you know, the law. (Also all that typing.) So I’ll content myself with just two paragraphs:
No, we don’t know absolutely for certain if Master Tom did impregnate Sally or not. If the matter were tried in a court of law, with a presumption of innocence and an expensive law firm to defend Jefferson (which is how a number of mainstream American historians seem to have seen their role in this case), we might have to let him off the hook for lack of definitive proof. On the other hand, if he were a poor man with substantial circumstantial evidence against him and a public defender, he’d accept a plea bargain, the way some 95 percent of criminal cases in the United States are resolved now, and get off with a guilty plea and a reduced sentence.
But then, no one has accused Jefferson of a crime. After all, you can do with your property as you like.
And so we come to the chapter on the American system of chattel slavery. I’ve done a bit of research on slavery in the past few years, though (like most Americans) I still don’t know nearly as much about it as I should. I do have it on my reading list to read a book devoted to the institution, but I haven’t got there yet; so it’s entirely possible (hell, even likely) that the points Sublette makes, which have significantly shifted how I looked at American slavery, are points that are very commonly made in the literature about it.
I did already know a few things. I knew that both abolitionists and slavery advocates believed strongly that slavery had to continually expand in order to survive. This means, for instance, that when Abraham Lincoln reassured the South that he did not want to abolish slavery, merely contain it within its present extent, both Lincoln and the slaveowners were well aware that that “containing” slavery was code for “condemn it to a slow, gasping death without the need for legislation”. And I knew that, generally speaking, the American slave population expanded from the northern and eastern states of the South into the southern and western states. And I knew that Congress forbade the slave trade—the importation of slaves from locations outside the United States—in 1808, the very earliest date allowed by the Constitution.
But I hadn’t put those three things together and carried them out to their logical extreme. We all know—or we all should know—that Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1793 revitalised the American slave trade. It industrialised the processing of cotton for its use in manufacturing, and so it vastly increased the demand for unprocessed cotton; and unprocessed cotton, because of the intensity of labour, miserable conditions and lack of education required to harvest it, is something that lends itself readily to slave labour. Then, following close on the heels of the cotton gin was the Louisiana Purchase, opening up vast new lands to plantation cultivation, and therefore to the slave trade.
It’s easy, therefore, to see slavery and its hold on the South as an unfortunate accident of history—tragic, monstrous, criminal, but still also accidental. Slavery, such an argument would go, only took such economic hold because it was needed to prop up the cotton industry, and it was to cotton that the Southern economy was dedicated.
But that ignores the facts. Slavery very quickly became an industry in and of itself, an industry that was perpetuated just for its own sake. Those plantations in Virginia and North Carolina and parts of Kentucky had been under cultivation for a hundred years—in the case of Virginia, two hundred. Their soil was spent. They could be more profitable planted with cotton than with tobacco, sure, thanks to the cotton gin; but they still wouldn’t be nearly as profitable as the cotton plantations in the virgin soil of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana or Arkansas.
But those new plantations presented an opportunity to the planters—to turn their existing slave populations into a source of profit, by using them as seed stock from which to breed the slaves who would fill up the new lands. (Does that sound horrible and dehumanising? Good.) It’s not just that slavery thrived because it supported the thriving cotton industry; the cotton industry thrived because it supported the thriving slave industry. We can talk of cotton plantations in Virginia and Carolina and Kentucky that operated on slave labour; but we might also talk of slave plantations that happened to grow cotton. The cotton there was grown not as an end in itself, but as something for the slaves to do during the ten or fifteen years it took to raise a baby up into a saleable field hand.
That’s why slavery “needed always to expand in order to survive”; because as plantation lands filled up with slaves, their owners needed new, virgin lands opened up in which to sell their children. That’s why Congress outlawed the importation of foreign blacks on literally the very first day allowed by the Constitution: because, like a tariff on foreign manufactures (the existence of which the Confederacy would denounce as being the other reason they were seceding), it kept the cost of the domestic good artificially high. And that is why slave migration followed a basic north and east to west and south pattern: because slaveowners in the more settled regions were actively breeding slave populations who were always intended to be sold on down to newer plantations. (In countless cases, the slaveowners were of course actively fathering parts of the population that they always intended to sell.) We know that slave trading frequently caused the separation of families and we think their owners were monstrous for allowing this (the scene between Benedict Cumberbatch and Paul Giamatti in Twelve Years a Slave touches on this), but we are perhaps less cognizant of the idea that many families were created so that they could then be broken up—so that their children, when they reached an age where they’d be capable of a full day’s work, could be loaded onto flatbottom boats in Wheeling or Louisville and floated thousands of miles downriver, to be displayed in a showroom and sold on an auction block.
The World That Made New Orleans has twenty-two chapters, and those are only two of them. The book had its weaknesses, but on the whole I’m glad I read it—and I’m really glad I read those two chapters, because they’re going to inform how I look at their topics for a long time.
I’ve always felt strongly that denial of marriage equality is an attack not just upon the rights of LGBTs but also upon marriage itself. And I’ve always found it incredibly galling that the very people who cloak themselves so self-righteously in the mantle of marriage’s defenders, even as its martyrs, are exactly the ones who are attacking it–are the only ones who are attacking it. How dare they tell me that they’re defending the marriage Lisa and I have built, when they are the ones who are cheapening it? When they are the ones turning it from a celebration of loving and lifelong commitment into a symbol of the majority’s privilege over the minority? From something beautiful into something ugly?
When two loving adults choose to make a formal declaration of the exclusive, lifelong nature of their commitment to each other; when they choose to seek state sanction for their relationship; that is what makes marriage stronger. That is what makes all marriages stronger. That is what preserves and strengthens and renews the institution of marriage for our children–all our children, theirs and mine and yours–and increases the chance that when the time comes, they too will be able to find a partner they can build their life with, because it fosters a society that values love and monogamy and consent and fidelity and stability and self-expression.
This is what privilege does, of course. It coarsens us as human beings, makes all of us worse off. It lessens our humanity.
Privilege is, at heart, a denial that the unprivileged are fully human–in the case of marriage equality, a denial that LGBTs possess the same right to marry the person they love that we amongst the straight majority take for granted. Simply by accepting such privilege without speaking or acting against it, we would undermine our own humanity; but those who seek actively to maintain it, those who claim to be “defending” marriage, are doing themselves far more harm. They have turned themselves, whether to a greater or lesser extent, into smaller, pettier, more jealous, more resentful, more outraged human beings than they could otherwise be, people who feel entitled to form an opinion on what rights others are allowed without it ever even occurring to them that they could be subjected to the same judgement themselves. Whether they are consciously aware of it or not, whether they would phrase it this way or not, they have somehow come to believe that the quality of their own marriage is undermined in any way simply by another couple having the right to marry each other, if that couple happen to look the same naked. They have come to believe that their own marriage matters less if it is part of a right everyone enjoys rather than a privilege they can content themselves is denied to others.
This is what privilege does. It convinces us that we are doing the honest, fair, praiseworthy thing by denying others their rights, denying them their humanity. It’s as if we have some idea that once the minority get that right too, there will be less of it left for us to enjoy, that we won’t be able to partake of it to the same extent as we did back when it was a privilege just for us. But it’s exactly the opposite that is true.
I feel sorry for them. I do. But that doesn’t mean I ever lose sight for one second of the fact that they are hurting people–real, live people. They are hurting LGBTs the most, that’s unquestionable, but by attacking marriage itself, they’re hurting the rest of us, too; they’re hurting me, and they’re even hurting themselves.
Get involved in any sort of community or discussion forum for alternate history, and sooner or later, the American Civil War’s going to come up. It has to; at least among Americans, it’s the second most popular topic in the genre. And if you’re in the sort of discussion that approaches the topic rigorously and historically, sooner or later someone’s going to bring up that will face the Confederacy in any sort of Southern Victory timeline: slavery.
Slavery would cripple the Confederacy’s relations with Europe, and probably with the Union, too–which, considering that the Confederacy’s entire economy rested on trade with Europe and the Union, bodes ill for Confederate prosperity. Furthermore, the widespread practice of slavery deadens any drive for progress or innovation, as Alexis de Tocqueville noticed during his tour of the United States in the early 1830s: the spirit of optimism, of an improving world, that drove so much American prosperity vanished as soon as Tocqueville crossed the Ohio River, from the free North to the slave South. The Confederacy would soon have found itself left behind by rising standards of living in the Union and Western Europe, reduced, economically, to an undeveloped, colonial backwater.
So if slavery is so quickly going to become such an albatross around the Confederacy’s neck, the obvious thing would be for them to get rid of it, right? That’s what happened in the North, after all–for all the abolitionist moralising from Northerners about the evils of the practice in the South, the fact is that the Northern states successively abolished slavery because there was little to no economic incentive to keep it. It’s much easier to condemn the moral evil of a system when you get no financial benefit from it.
This is the tack that Harry Turtledove’s recent ten-volume series about a Confederate victory takes. The series opens with a second, brief war between Union and Confederacy, in the early 1880s. The South’s first move when war is declared is to ask for military aid from Britain and France. (In this timeline, it was Anglo-French military intervention that won the war for the Confederacy in the first place.) The two European powers happily agree to enter the war–on the condition that the South abolishes slavery. And the South … agrees, quite readily. It’s covered in one fairly quick scene very early on in the first novel in the series.
But, the obvious objection is going to be, the Confederacy can’t just give up slavery, because it’s too emotionally invested in it. It just fought the bloodiest war in American history to preserve it, after all. White Southerners invested a lot of their identity in the defence of slavery before and during the Civil War–insisting that it was a positive moral good both for whites and blacks; that even if it hadn’t been, it was still their right to own slaves, a right with which no national government–whether in Washington or Richmond–could interfere; that the emancipation of the South’s slave population would lead to the end of civilisation in America and the destruction of the white race. So the Confederacy simply abandoning slavery within twenty years, a la Turtledove, rings just as hollow as any sort of timeline where the Confederacy grows and flourishes while still practising chattel slavery.
With all that as background, therefore, I was fascinated to find a discussion of Southern abolition in the final chapter of Battle Cry of Freedom, James M. McPherson’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning history of the American Civil War. I think it’s fairly common knowledge that in 1865, when it was in its death throes, the Confederacy raised, armed and fielded several regiments of black slaves, who had received the promise of freedom if they’d fight for the South. But this, of course, was in the last days of the war, when Southerners were facing the utter failure of their cause. Desperation makes people do funny things, try alternatives they never would otherwise. The idea of arming or emancipating slaves earlier, when the war was still in the balance, would never have been countenanced, right?
There were those who advocated recruiting slaves into Confederate armies from the war’s earliest days, but they were a fringe minority, an outgrowth of the tremendous cognitive dissonance that Southern whites maintained regarding the peculiar institution–insisting loudly and unceasingly that blacks wanted to be enslaved, that they enjoyed a satisfying and happy existence under white ownership, while simultaneously living in irrational, unthinking fear of what would happen were blacks to gain access to arms, literacy and other things that would allow them to rise up against their masters. (Witness the hysteria that followed John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859.)
By the latter part of 1863, however, there were a lot more voices joining in with this talk. Including editors of Southern newspapers. These quotes are from editorials that originally appeared in the Jackson Mississippian but were reprinted in papers throughout Mississippi and Alabama: “We are forced by the necessity of our condition to take a step which is revolting to every sentiment of pride, and to every principle that governed our institutions before the war. … It is better for us to use the negroes for our defense than that the Yankees should use them against us. … We can make them fight better than the Yankees are able to do. Masters and overseers can marshal them for battle by the same authority and habit of obedience with which they are marshalled to labor.” The editor of the Mississippian conceded that this could lead to abolition, “a dire calamity to both the negro and the white race”, but insisted “that it is a question of necessity–a question of a choice of evils.”
Similar sentiments were being voiced by generals in the Army of Tennessee, the main Confederate force in the Western Theatre. In January 1864, General Patrick Cleburne circulated a memo to division and corps commanders in which he said that slavery “has now become, in a military point of view, one of our chief sources of weakness.” He recommended the recruitment of slave soldiers and “guarantee[ing] freedom within a reasonable time to every slave in the South who shall remain true to the Confederacy”–in other words, the abolition of slavery. He received endorsements from twelve brigade and regimental commanders within his division.
To be sure, most of his colleagues disagreed with him. One division commander called it a “monstrous proposition … revolting to Southern sentiment, Southern pride, and Southern honor.” A corps commander described it as “at war with my social, moral, and political principles”, while a brigade commander declared that “its propositions contravene the principles upon which we fight.”
But the most striking thing to me about these editorials and General Cleburne’s proposal isn’t some idea that it was widely embraced at the time, but simply that it was a substantive part of the conversation. This is late 1863 and the first month of 1864, after all–long before the fall of the Confederacy had come into sight. To be sure, the tide had begun to turn against the South in summer 1863 with the fall of Vicksburg and the Battle of Gettysburg, but the writing was far from on the wall.
Indeed, it was a common view at this time that the South had only to hold out another year, and it would secure its independence. As 1864 progressed, the war congealed into two great Union sieges of Southern metropoles: Grant at Petersburg (the gateway to Richmond) and Sherman at Atlanta. And with the Confederate defenders having the best of it in both cases, many observers both Northern and Southern–including Abraham Lincoln–concluded that Lincoln was sure to lose reelection in November, and that his defeat by George McClellan would guarantee the opening of peace negotiations by the Union. (Whether or not McClellan really would have capitulated is immaterial–the actors in question believed at the time that he would.) It wasn’t until Atlanta fell to Sherman in September that Lincoln’s re-election seemed the more likely outcome.
And yet, with Southern victory apparently still obtainable without such measures, general emancipation was already being contemplated in the waning days of 1863. Does that mean I now suddenly think the Confederacy would have been only too happy to chuck slavery as soon as it became more convenient in the 1880s or 90s? Of course not. But it does make me think that many Southerners would have been more willing to come around to the idea of some sort of emancipation more easily than serious practitioners of alternate history often assume.
It occurred to me soon after I became a parent that one day I’d be faced with a dilemma. One day, Boy would come home from school and tell me something he had learnt that day, probably in history, and I would know that what his teacher had taught him is incorrect. Probably it’d be something the teacher believed to be true. If I correct him, then that leads to the strong possibility that he goes back to school and attempts also to correct his teacher, leading anywhere from him being simply dismissed to actually getting in trouble for disrupting the class. (In fact, I’m going to have raise “strong possibility” to “virtual certainty”, given the know-it-all personality he inherited from, well, either one of his parents.) But if I don’t correct him, then he continues labouring under a factual inaccuracy, and he helps perpetuate a widespread myth.
Today, first-grade Columbus Day, we hit that mark for the first time. Because of course today, he was taught that in fifteenth-century Spain, the wise men of the age believed that the Earth is flat, and that Columbus proved them wrong by discovering America. (I’ve never quite understood how the discovery that there’s a land mass west of Europe demonstrates the rotundity of the Earth, as opposed to leading to the more logical hypothesis that the edge of the Earth simply lies west of the Americas.)
And today, I responded to him with, “Oh, that’s really interesting.” There’ll come an age when the best response is to correct that sort of thing, but six ain’t it. Unfortunately.
I talked a while ago about when I realised how much more enjoyable becomes when I avoid spoilers, and the basic principle I derived from that.
Right now spoilers are a big topic, because of the Olympics. If, like me, you’re on the East Coast, you have to wait until 8PM EDT for NBC to start their broadcast of the day’s major events. That’s 1AM BST–in other words, it’s right when actual competition is wrapping up for the day, and it’s hours and hours after many of the events we’re most interested in have finished. You have to wait three hours longer on the West Coast.
But while you’re waiting, lots of your friends on Twitter and Facebook already know the outcome, either because they watched it live in Europe or because they’ve gone online–maybe even to NBC’s website itself–so they don’t have to wait. And they’re talking about it.
I’ve seen both extremes in reaction to this. I’ve had someone in my stream declare that we need to hold our tongues even after this stuff airs on NBC, to accommodate those who are watching on DVR(!). And I’ve had someone tell us all that you either can have Twitter, or you can not be spoilt, but that you’ve got no right to expect people online to consider others when spouting spoilers.
I think they’re both wrong.
I’ve thought about this quite a bit, and I’ve refined my position down to a basic standard:
If there’s a time we’re all supposed to gather together to watch something, I think it’s really rude to spoil it beforehand. What this means, as far as the Olympics go, is that it’s my own responsibility to avoid what’s being said by the people I follow who are actually in Britain–they’ve all seen it live on TV (or in a few instances, in person). But those in America, who are heading online to see it before the rest of us? They should be taking the rest of us into consideration. And I’m speaking here as someone who is far more interested in Team GB than Team USA, so this system leaves far more of the onus on me than it does on others.
Note that this does not mean that you can’t talk about what you know. Just have the politeness to ensure that people are able clearly to see that they’re about to read a spoiler before they read it. Best way to do this is generally to start off with SPOILER in big, obnoxious capital letters.
For TV shows, that rule stands until the episode airs. (Yes, that includes not spoiling things that are being revealed in the adverts.) For a big movie, until it’s been in release for a week. For a book? As long as it’s a new release (ninety days from publication), certainly, and then probably as long after that as it remains a top ten bestseller.
Note also that this is a minimum. I for one have always tried to maintain a higher standard. As far as movies, TV shows, books go? I try always to include a spoiler warning in some form. I was going on thirty the first time I saw The Third Man, and it was over sixty years after the film’s first release. Yet somehow I’d managed never to be spoilt on one of the most famous movie twists of all time, and it was brand new to me. If I’d known what was coming, it’s entirely possible I wouldn’t have nearly the appreciation for what’s now my all-time favourite film as I do. But as far as sport goes? If I’m watching a live event on TV, and I have something to say about it, I say it.
We can talk about the things that engage us. But we don’t have to trample all over everyone else’s engagement with them to do it.