Part 6 in Clyde Wilson’s series “African-American Slavery in Historical Perspective.” Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

“He who controls the past controls the future.  He who controls the present controls the past.”  George Orwell

“Live asses will kick at dead lions.”  Admiral Raphael Semmes

In the long run of history, the story of America is the settlement by Europeans of a continental wilderness and their establishing of free institutions and a widespread prosperity that has been the envy of the world.  African American slavery is a sidebar to this history.

In what became the United States, bondage of people of the black African race existed for about two and a half centuries—in other parts of the New World longer.  The subject  of slavery is today so entwined with unhealthy and present-centered emotions and motives—guilt, shame, hypocrisy, projection, prurient imagination, propaganda, vengeance, extortion, virtue signaling—as to defy normal historical discussion.

Enslavement of black Africans by others of their own race, which has lasted much longer, almost never enters public discussion at all. Nor do Americans seem to recognise that blacks were enslaved in the Caribbean and South America, from well before until well after the North American episode, in much greater numbers and  worse conditions. Nor recognise that a significant number of blacks in Africa and the New World participated in their societies as slave owners.  And especially Americans do not admit the salient and undoubted fact that the antislavery campaign and war in the United States was tainted with racism and cynical political opportunism as well as being a great humanitarian happening.

The position of Africans in America has long presented moral challenge.  But the resolution of racial conflict in the present has nothing to do with the history of slavery in the United States or with rendering justice. All the verbiage and kneeling and foot-kissing and apology for slavery by prominent people is a costless (to them) sham and counter-productive if our goal is social peace. No one alive has suffered slavery and very few have any knowledge entitling them to make declarations about the society of America two centuries ago.  Even Jim Crow is now only a memory for the oldest of us. The emotions engendered by the subject of “slavery” among African Americans, one suspects, have much more to do with genuine resentment of discriminatory conditions after emancipation than with historical slavery.

Some recent European visitors remarked to me how friendly are the every day relations of white and black in South Carolina—in contrast to the Northern cities where the atmosphere of racial conflict is thick enough to cut with a knife. It is an important neglected historical fact that Southern people have adopted in good will to the massive, coerced change in our society. Mainstream America was happy when righteous change could be enforced on the South.  Now that the rest of the country is experiencing some Reconstruction of its own, the attitude has changed. The stance of mainstream America remains today as deluded as before race became a national issue.

The lamentation about slavery as the main thing in American history means that genuine good will and justice are displaced by costless moralizing —an old habit with some Americans.  Thorny problems of the moment receive a pseudo-solution by projection of guilt onto long dead Southern slaveholders. But since those long dead Southern slaveholders are also a majority of Founding Fathers and finest men of early America, their rejection logically calls for the repudiation of all of real history before our time as hopelessly tainted—which is exactly the end sought by the Cultural Marxists wishing to gut existing culture and institutions and move America out of Western Civilisation.  It also conveniently finesses the interesting question: if present-day pathologies are a result of past enslavement of the black race in the South, then why are the pathologies more rampant in Detroit than in Mississippi?

Remove the statue of Stonewall Jackson from the Virginia Military Institute? Jackson is a widely admired world historical figure associated with VMI, indeed a major figure in American history. And he had more close and humane relationships with African Americans than Abraham Lincoln ever dreamed of.  Destroy the monument to Lee, the erection of which was attended by 100,00 people, white and black, and where hundreds of his former soldiers slept on the grass to be present at the dedication.  People now in power without any merit in learning or character have trashed American as well as Southern history. Even worse than the ignorant fanaticism is the malicious pettiness.

African American slavery was not a crime, it was a condition created by the circumstances of a hard world and by the natural actions of many people living in those circumstances.  It was one of the least onerous of the many and varied institutions of servitude that have flourished nearly throughout the history of the human race.  When Americans express guilt (usually other people’s guilt) over slavery they are engaging in the too common American penchant of substituting abstractions for historical reality.  The Yankee, one strain of Americans, has a long history of demonizing other people for their supposed guilt. Joined with the Marxists and the hustlers for government payoffs, they make an element in American public life powerful enough to claim slavery as the main theme of American history. It is safe to say that the word “slavery” invokes in most minds these days imaginings of things that never existed if it invokes anything at all besides greed and hatred.

Some have resorted to likened the plantation bondage of antebellum America to Nazism. It is hard to imagine anything more dishonest and ignorant. The Old South was not a totalitarian state, or even much of a modern state at all. It did not have an ideology to spread, it did not invade other countries. Those in servitude belonged to and lived with families. They were not inmates of a concentration camp in a militaristic state. When the South finally went to war it was as a self-governing American people defending themselves from invasion, economic exploitation, and intolerably hypocritical interference and domination.

The proper analogy to Nazism is with the U.S. government and its war of conquest to punish disobedience to  centralised government.  If Americans knew anything real about the faction who forced through and carried out the war against the South other than a few pretty phrases from Lincoln’s speeches, they would see how strong the motivation was related to greed and the will to power and how little to humanitarian thought and action.

Conventional wisdom of  the  moment  tells  us that the great war of 1861—1865 that is at the center of American history was “about”  slavery and nothing but slavery,  or was  “caused by”  slavery.  I submit that this is not a historical judgment but an ideological slogan.  What a war is about has many answers according to the varied perspectives of different participants and of those who come after. To limit so vast an event as that war to one cause is to show contempt for the complexities of history as a quest for the understanding of human action.  Advocates of the war as “caused by” slavery say that the question has been settled by “experts” and that any disagreement is from discredited “Neo-Confederates” deceiving themselves with “The Myth of the Lost Cause.”

Two generations ago, the most perceptive historians, much more learned than the current crop, said that the war was “about” economics and was “caused by” economic rivalry of Northern and Southern elites.  The war has not changed one bit since then. The perspective has changed.  It can change again as long as people have the freedom to think about the past. History is not a logical proposition, a mathematical calculation, or a scientific experiment.  It is a vast drama of which there is always more to be learned.  The interpretation of the past can never be closed out by self-appointed “experts.”

African American scholar Barbara Marthal has insisted on the importance of people’s stories in understanding history. I entirely concur. History is the experience of human beings.  History is a story, and a story is somebody’s story.  It tells us about who we and who other peoples are.  History is properly not a political, ideological slogan like “about slavery.”   Ideological slogans are accusations and instruments of conflict and domination. Stories of real people are instruments of understanding and peace.

In fact, no great historical question can ever be closed off by a slogan as long as we are allowed to think.  Howard White and I put out a book about the war, with 16 well-supported essays by learned and serious people. Immediately it appeared on amazon, someone wrote in: “I am so tired of the Lost Cause writing.  Don’t believe the bullshit in this useless pamphlet.” He could not have had time to actually acquire and read the book.  It can be dismissed unread because he has the righteous cause and we do not.  This is not historical debate.  It is the Leninist propaganda trick of labelling something you do not want people to know so that it can be suppressed.

This Leninist approach is all too typical of historical discussion these days (as well as media reportage).  Those who want the war to be about slavery and nothing but slavery are often hateful, disdainful, ignorant, and unwilling to engage in honest discussion.  Reason, evidence, and fair discussion do not enter the question for them.  Even worse are the professors, plutocrats, politicians, and even high-ranking military officers who have taken a recent occasion to announce that Robert E. Lee was “a traitor.”   One wonders why Eisenhower had a portrait of Lee in the Oval Office while people without any observable merit of accomplishment, intellect, or character gloat over destroying his monuments.  Fortunately, Lee is so much greater than his current critics that in the long view of history he will always stand tall.

People who reduce the complexities of American history to “Lee, a traitor,” as many of high rank are doing, are really too ignorant of human affairs to be trusted with legal, diplomatic, and military power.  They are pygmies and clowns in intelligence, ethics, and patriotism to anybody who is familiar with Lee and the leaders of his time and earlier.

I am sure I think the same as many, perhaps several million others when the attempted destruction of Lee fills me with anger and despair.  It has been estimated that a fourth of the American people are descended from Confederates, though that percentage is doubtless in steady decline from the open border policies of the U.S. elite intent on changing the American population.  We are the only remaining large group of Americans with blood connection to the Founding. We are now officially non-people with no reason to feel allegiance to the present government.  Particularly are we annoyed by the New Immigration people who think that by trashing the Confederacy they somehow become good Americans. Actually, by trashing the Confederacy they are trashing and trvialising American history.  I am tempted to say to Hanson, Esolen, Guelzo, Borritt, and other such people:  “Shut up, you didn’t have a dog in that fight!”  But that would be unjust to many truthful scholars who have contributed wisdom to the question of The War.  Particularly Italian Americans who, like Southerners, do not have souls corrupted by Northern materialism and abstraction.

And of course we have the perennial cause of “reparations” for slavery.  Descendants of American slaves may have cause for reparations, not for slavery but for the brutal and callously  expedient manner of their emancipation.  Reparations are simply a criminal extortion racket, which does not prevent it, of course, from becoming a major party platform.  Many politicians will vote for it because it makes them feel morally superior.  Besides, it’s not their money they are spending and they or their clients will probably get some administrative payola and graft out of the thing. It will accomplish nothing except perhaps to generate more demands.

Recently a black man in Los Angeles murdered an innocent young white woman, explaining his act by the fact that he had not received “his reparations.”  He seemed to think that his race had built America and been robbed of their just benefits.  Possibly he was told this lie by someone in an expensive suit with an air of authority.  Interestingly this fellow was from Jamaica and not even a descendant of U.S. slaves.  It is now reported that 10% of African Americans present today originate in the West Indies and Africa and never suffered from U.S. slavery.  Do they qualify for reparations as this murderer seems to think?

More importantly, who is to pay?  African American Barack Obama’s father may well have had some connection to slave trading in Africa.  His maternal forebears certainly show some white slave-owners.  African American anchor baby Kamala Harris’s Jamaican father brags that his people were not slaves but slave owners. Do they pay or benefit?  Top black celebrities like Obama and Harris have no connection to American slavery.  They are phony African Americans, phony in the “American” part.

Are descendants of the many Native American slave-owners to be assessed?  Can I be excused from payment because one of my ancestors freed his few slaves?

I encountered a libertarian professor, doubtless speaking the opinion of many, who avowed that he did not owe any reparations because his people were not even here during the time of slavery.  So, he is to enjoy all the benefits created by earlier generations of Americans but not share in any of their burdens.  Some patriotism.  Hardly any evidence of a shared national purpose.

A people, according to St. Augustine, are those “who hold loved things in common.”  Clearly the U.S. is no longer a country, merely a collection of people with shared spending habits, soap operas, and sports enthusiasms, obeying more or less the same indifferent and ever-growing government.  A real people are identified by a shared history and mythology.  The binding myth is probably not strictly true and may be questioned by the literal-minded.  The point is that it be shared and understood with pride to bind people who share it.

For most of the 20th century the United States was held together by shared heroes and ideas:  Washington, Jefferson, Daniel Boone, Lincoln, Lee, the Wright Brothers, Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, G.I. Joe.   Widespread prosperity and upward mobility were a great source of national pride, as were foreign wars that could be claimed as benevolently motivated.

That country is gone and the people have nothing good to replace it. Orwell pointed out: “The most effective way to destroy a people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”

Critical investigation and examination of history has been a hallmark of Western man, not present in other civilisations.  History, of course,  has always been used to bolster various ruling classes and revolutionary movements, but open,  intelligent thinking about the past has never entirely disappeared. We are now getting close to a Soviet-style public interpretation of the nature and meaning of our history, where anything not serving the rulers is suppressed and even punished.  An imagined history of African Americans is the dangerous rock rolling down hill and smashing everything in its path.

Clyde Wilson

Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina where he was the editor of the multivolume The Papers of John C. Calhoun. He is the M.E. Bradford Distinguished Chair at the Abbeville Institute. He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews and is co-publisher of, a source  for unreconstructed Southern books.



    100% correct, except for the use of the word, “country.” You state, “Clearly the U.S. is no longer a country, merely a collection of people with shared spending habits, soap operas, and sports enthusiasms, obeying more or less the same indifferent and ever-growing government.”

    I believe you should have stated, “Clearly the U.S. is no longer a nation, merely…” I believe you were implying the U.S. is country being a geographic area of dissimilar peoples, and is no longer a nation, which is a large body of people united by common origin, history, culture, ethnicity, or language, inhabiting a particular area.

    To this I whole-heartedly agree!

  • Vivian Turnage Leese says:

    Dr. Wilson:
    I have been fortunate enough to have read your work in different publications, but Abbeville Press is my favorite.
    Reading your true history of our South offers these weary eyes comfort in this chaos. Even though I am a native of South Carolina, I am beginning to find myself a stranger in an even stranger land here at home. Columbia regressed from this sleepy, largely conservative city with lovely, Southern ladies and gentlemen to this teeming, liberal landscape, glorifying the unglorious wokeness of its former conservatives. I do not have to remind of you of something I trust that you witness each day.

  • William Quinton Platt III says:

    “In order to defend and protect the women and children who were left on plantations when the white males went to war, the slaves would have laid down their lives.” BT Washington, UP FROM SLAVERY, PAGE 8.

    Who also went off to the war with the white males? We know there were thousands of men from the Five Civilized Tribes, we know there were thousands of free blacks who fought for the South…we have their pictures from Harper’s Weekly and accounts from union officers (General Asboth, a particularly nasty communist Hungarian, for example)…I am not speaking of them…what of the manservants who made up the bulk of blacks in Confederate Service? We are told they weren’t volunteers, they were just the victims of fate, not truly aware of what they were doing at the time…perhaps that is so…BUT THEY WERE THE MOST TRUSTED SLAVES ON THE PLANTATION…WHO WOULD TAKE AN UNTRUSTWORTHY SLAVE AWAY TO WAR? Only a fool would do so…so the dilemma…WHO DO YOU TAKE TO WAR?…WHO DO YOU LEAVE TO PROTECT YOUR FAMILY?

    Or maybe you’ve known these people your entire lives and you’d trust them to watch over your children and wives in your absence AND to support you in your efforts to defend your home.

    Final question…which Alabama legislature funded Tuskegee Institute? Was it the 1868 legislature completely dominated by carpetbaggers, scalawags and former slaves or was it the 1880 legislature completely dominated by former Confederates?

    I am sure you know the answers…and so do your enemies.

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