Slavery in America was much worse than you probably imagined
This August, when Hillary Clinton met with Black Lives Matter protesters, they told her that ongoing violence and prejudice against blacks was part of a long historic continuum where, for example, today’s prison system descended from the old Southern plantations. Slavery, Clinton replied, was the “original sin… that America has not recovered from.”
But how much do modern Americans really know about slavery in colonial America? In the genocide of Native Americans? In the War of Independence or the drafting of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights? Or afterward for decades until the Civil War? Chances are, not very much. Not that slaves, for example, were money in the antebellum South—currency and credit—which led to the enforced, systematic break-up of black families in generation after generation. There was no national currency, and little silver or gold, but there was paper tied to slaves bought on credit whose offspring were seen as a dividend that grew over time.
That’s just one of the riveting and revolting details from a new book, The American Slave Coast: A History of The Slave Breeding Industry, by Ned and Constance Sublette. They trace other telling details that are not found in traditional American history books, where slavery is usually described as an amoral but cheap labor system. For example, have you read about the rivalry between Virginia and South Carolina, which had competing slave economies?
Virginia was the epicenter of a slave breeding industry, in which enslaved women were expected to be constantly pregnant, were sold off if they didn’t produce children, and sometimes were force-mated to achieve that end. The offspring were sold to newer settlers and those migrating west. Charleston, South Carolina, in contrast, was colonial America’s slave importing and exporting port. In the late seventeenth century, Carolina exported captured native Americans as slaves to Caribbean plantation islands, gradually replacing them with imported laborers. As the South was emptied of native Americans and American plantations grew, South Carolina became the major slave importer in the colonies and in the early republic. Virginia eventually won out when Congress, at President Thomas Jefferson’s urging, banned slave importation as of January 1, 1808—protectionism, say the Sublettes, for Virginia’s slave-breeding industry, and sold to the public as protection against the alleged terrorism of “French negroes” from Haiti. After that, a new interstate slave trade grew, propelled by territories and new states that wanted slavery, and by the breeders who wanted new markets. Thus, the slave-breeding economy spread south and west, driving the expansion of the U.S. into new territories.
Slavery, as the Sublettes describe it, wasn’t a sidebar to early American history and a new nation’s growth. It was front and center—protected by law and prejudice, custom and greed. The enslaved were unloaded, sold, and taken (women’s necks tied with rope, men’s necks put in chains) via major roads, steamboats, and passing through cities and villages to their destination. Newspapers, owned by Benjamin Franklin, sold advertising for buying and selling slaves. All of this unfolded in full sight, with prosperous settlers assuming that slaves were a necessity for daily living and accumulating wealth. For generations, the property value of slaves was the largest asset in America.
The authors, Ned and Constance Sublette, are not traditional scholars, but gifted cultural historians. Ned Sublette, who was born in Lubbock, Texas, and lived in Natchitoches, Louisiana as a boy, was trained as a musician and created the record company Qbadisc in the 1990s—featuring top Cuban artists long before Ry Cooder’s Buena Vista Social Club. His book Cuba and Its Music is considered by many to be the most authoritative on the island’s unique mix of African and European traditions and musical heritage. He realized that the conditions of different forms of slavery—French, Spanish, American—accounted for key differences between Afro-Latin and African-American culture. His second book, The World That Made New Orleans, deconstructs how successive waves of slave importation, under Spanish, French and then American rule, created that city’s music. But throughout his research, working with his wife, Constance, the Sublettes realized that the history of slavery—especially its most vicious form that took hold in North America—was largely untold, unknown, and explained much about the violence, racism and exploitation that is at the core of U.S. history. The American Slave Coast is the result of 15 years of inquiry.
It’s an epic volume—668 pages before footnotes and citations—and a lot to digest. But if Americans are ever to come to terms with the anti-black violence that endures today, it is necessary to understand the roots of an economy and culture that has needed and feared Africans. For example, take Jefferson and America’s founding documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Most Americans know that slaves had no rights. Or they know that the slave-owning Jefferson cynically wrote, “All men are created equal” in the Declaration, and owned slaves and had several slave children. But they probably don’t realize how the Constitution and Bill of Rights enshrined into law an economic system where the major form of property was slaves, and created a government to protect the wealth of that system’s upper class.
Today’s right-wing fetish about the Constitution’s perfection ignores input by prominent Virginians and Carolinians, including many signers of the Declaration of Independence, to protect slave property. As their book points out, the gun-toting militias sanctioned by the Second Amendment were a guarantee that slave owners could hunt and kill escaped slaves and Native Americans. The Sublettes stunningly trace how fear (of slave revolts) and self-interest (protecting slave-tied wealth) played a major role in framing America’s founding documents. But they go further and demonstrate why Jefferson is the founding theorist of white supremacy in America.
It’s not just that Jefferson owned slaves, including his own children who were 7/8ths white. Nor was it his letters with the leading men of his day—like George Washington—explaining how owning slaves was better than other investments. Nor was it his ugly and racist description of blacks in Notes From The State of Virginia, where in the 1780s he wrote, “Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions… are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them. In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection.” Mostly, it was Jefferson’s lifelong belief that slaves could not be freed but had to be deported en masse, because sizeable numbers of ex-slaves would take up arms and annihilate slave-owning whites. These prejudices, fears and draconian remedies reverberate today—such as Donald Trump’s bid to deport 11 million migrants.
The American Slave Coast starts with the horrible truth that America—unlike the French and Spanish colonies in the Caribbean—was a slave-breeding society from colonial times through emancipation. There was no path to freedom for slaves, because, say the Sublettes, “no escape from the asset column could be permitted.” Black families were intentionally broken up as part of creating an economic system for a new nation. As Ned Sublette said, “Writing this book revolutionized our understanding of our history.” Constance Sublette adds, “No matter how bad you thought slavery was, it was worse than that.”