Root of all Evil
“I am from a slave-breeding state—where slaves are reared for the market as horses, sheep, and swine are.”—Frederick Douglass, 1846
The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry (Lawrence Hill Books, $35) by Ned and Constance Sublette is immense, intense, and passionate. It is scrupulously researched, well-written, and, unlike so much scholarship about the South, offers not a hint of apology for slavery or for “southern institutions.” Everything in the book’s 668 pages flows from the assessment that “The paradox of liberty versus slavery at the nation’s birth is no paradox at all. Liberty was the right to own property. Slaves were property. Liberty for slave owners meant slavery for slaves.”
“We remind our reader,” the Sublettes add, “that ‘southern institutions’ centrally included the legal right to force-mate adolescent girls and sell the resulting children.”
The American Slave Coast takes slave-breeding out of the historical shadows and places it front and center in United States history. The book describes how 389,000 imported African slaves, bred like horses or sheep, became four million enslaved African-Americans, a population explosion of great commercial importance. Slave owner Thomas Jefferson wrote that: “a child raised every two years is of more profit than the crop of the best laboring man… it is not their labor, but their increase which is the first consideration with us.”
The forced mating of slaves was also of great political importance. Despite attempts at the 1787 Constitutional convention to require direct national elections, an electoral college was established instead. It gave slave states more voting power based on the number of slaves they held captive. Virginia, the largest slave-breeding state, was the big winner with 12 out of a total of 91 electoral college voters, more than a quarter of the 46 needed to win the presidency. As a result, Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson was elected president in 1800.
With the tide of abolitionism rising around the world, election-rigging was essential in maintaining the rule of slave breeders, who continued to be elected after the founding fathers faded away. Andrew Jackson personally drove a slave coffle and owned 160 slaves while in the White House. James Polk owned a plantation and, when not busy launching a war against Mexico in order to expand slavery, directed the purchase of slaves from his high-backed chair at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Zachary Taylor died in office in 1850, leaving behind an estate of 131 slaves.
Under pressure from domestic slave breeders, the United States enforced a ban on the international slave trade. But the end of slave imports from Africa was no victory. It simply meant that “plantations could only grow as fast as the enslaved women of the South could turn out babies.”
A lot of babies were required, as the number and size of plantations continued to grow in order to provide cotton to the British textile industry, which was expanding exponentially. “Enslaved wombs” nurtured the captives who would pick the cotton and who were the most essential element in the worldwide network of cotton, industry, and finance that quite literally gave birth to the capitalist world we live in today.
As slave-breeding spread to more states, new slave territories were needed to serve as markets for them. We are taught that the Louisiana Purchase was something that essentially just happened, but the reality is not at all mysterious. Once Louisiana had been purchased and become a territory of the United States, it meant that only slaves bred in the U.S. could be sold there. This greatly increased the value of every North American slave owner's human capital. The same scenario played out later with the so-called Republic of Texas.
The Sublettes present both the most gruesome details of slave-breeding and its full context--European and Caribbean politics, the run-up to the Civil War, and the role of slaves as money.
What if the money in your wallet could multiply all by itself? This was the position the slave-breeders were in. They controlled the nation economically and politically and their slaves were collateral for loans, a liquid currency in a country that didn’t yet have an effective form of paper money, and the foundation of credit for financial empires.
Over time, northern industries based on free labor clashed with an agricultural capitalism based on slavery. “Our country is a theater which exhibits in full operation two radically different political systems,” said future Secretary of State William Seward in 1858, “the one resting on the basis of servile or slave labor, the other on the basis of voluntary labor of freemen.”
This was fought out in many ways, including a struggle between two forms of money.
“The discovery of gold was a turning point on the way to Southern secession…the world’s economy was transformed by the new money, the specie failed to go South. Ultimately, the California gold strike was the death knell for an archaic modality of agrarian capitalism. But the South was locked into holding its wealth in the form of slaves, with human fecundity still the road to monetary increase.”
The irrepressible conflict between slavery and free labor ultimately found expression in the Civil War. The Sublettes describe the outcome: “When slavery was abolished and the on-paper value of flesh and blood capital disappeared from the balance sheet, the wealth of the South evaporated. The security for hundreds of millions of dollars in debt walked away, leaving the obligations valueless, the credit structure imploded, the hundred dollar Confederate notes trampled in the mud, the planters owning worthless land.”
This is where the narrative of The American Slave Coast ends, at the completion of a revolution in which four billion dollars in property was transferred from slave owners to the emancipated slaves themselves. But that revolution, so important and historically necessary, left much to be done. The American Slave Coast details many of the connections between then and now. In fact, if you substitute the words “financial capitalism” for “antebellum slavery” in the book’s next-to-last paragraph, you will have an accurate description of America in 2015.
“Antebellum slavery required a complex of social, legal, financial, and political institutions structured to maximize profits that flowed only to a small elite, while leaving the rest of the population poor….It existed at the cost of everything else in society, including the most basic notions of humanity.”
Slavery remains the time-released poison pill of American history. The exceptional violence that defines the United States has its roots in slave patrols and constant wars to acquire slave territory. Waterboarding and other torture techniques flow from the savagery visited upon slaves to wring out every ounce of profit. In 1830, future president James Polk took to the floor of the House to sing the praises of the lash, just as members of Congress today rhapsodize about drone strikes and bombing runs.
Louis Agassiz was a famous lecturer in the U.S. before the Civil War, his message summed up by the statement that “The brain of the Negro is that of the imperfect brain of a seven month old infant in the womb of a White.” Agassiz married the first president of Radcliffe, received an endowment to fund a Harvard professorship for himself, and founded the National Academy of Sciences. Fast forward to 1966, when the tobacco industry, a direct product of the unpaid labor of countless slaves, gave the American Medical Association twenty million dollars and the AMA dutifully produced a study claiming that smoking increases intelligence. The gross distortion of science continues today with the surge of climate change denial, which finds its organizational center in the states of the Confederacy.
Former slave states dominate the burgeoning prison industrial complex--ten of the top eleven American incarcerators are Southern. Universities, supposedly a moral compass for our country, see private prisons as just another investment opportunity. In response, a movement to force schools to divest from private prison corporations has arisen in recent years and, only under pressure, the University of California has promised to do so. Yet a November 30 press release by the Afrikan Black Coalition revealed that the UC system has a $425 million stake in Wells Fargo, one of the largest financiers of private prisons. So UC’s pledge to divest serves mainly as a fig leaf to cover up continuing massive involvement in modern day slavery. It should be noted that for-profit prisons got their start with the establishment of jails where slaves were held pending their sale into agricultural captivity.
Even American anti-communism has its roots in slavery. At the 1850 Nashville Convention called to begin to plan for secession, South Carolina’s Langdon Cheves denounced abolitionists as communists, a term then coming into use as a result of European upheavals and the publication of The Communist Manifesto. Richmond’s George Fitzhugh, author of Cannibals All! Or, Slaves Without Masters, warned that “abolitionists were really Communists using slavery as a Trojan horse.” That exact same line of thinking was a staple of segregationist propaganda during the Civil Rights Movement.
We cannot escape the lies of the past culturally either. In 2005, the American Film Institute released a list of America’s Greatest Movies, chosen by a “blue ribbon panel” of 1,500 Hollywood insiders. Number 44 on the list was Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffiths’ ode to white supremacy and the Klan.
Slavery was an international system that wreaked destruction on people of all colors, creating a common core in the midst of racialized wealth and privilege. Approximately two million African slaves died on the passage to the New World, but they were not alone. The Sublettes note: “Slave ships were death ships, the bottom of the employment ladder for sailors. Stephen D. Behrendt, analyzing the mortality of 58,778 crewmen on 1,709 voyages out of Liverpool from 1780 forward, found 10,439 deaths, or 17.8 per cent.”
A similar dynamic continues today. In 2015, according to The Guardian, a black person is two and a half times more likely to be killed by the police as is a white person, yet the raw numbers also reveal that 48.7% of those who die at the hands of the police are white.
The American Slave Coast gives us all a moral and intellectual platform to stand on, a place from which we can more fully and clearly see the brutal muck of history. The book also serves as a mirror in which we can see ourselves as we live today, inspiring us to renew our efforts to break the chains which still bind us to our masters.