By Ta-Nehisi Coates
About five years ago, I began a deep dive into the Civil War, most of it chronicled here. That dive culminated in an essay in our commemorative Civil War issue, much like my deep dive on housing and “colorless” policy culminated in The Case for Reparations. The earlier piece built toward the later one. The Civil War revealed to me the price, and the bounty, of enslavement in this country. The things I focus on in the reparations piece—housing and 20th-century policy—all spring from that period of American history. I could not have understood 20th-century discrimination without understanding its 19th-century manifestations. My entry into this period was idiosyncratic and the reading list below reflects that. Again, nothing here is definitive. I can only show you the path I walked.
Before I took the dive into the Civil War, I understood the enslavement as a moral catastrophe. I also had some vague sense that that enslavement had helped shepherd America into being. Finally I knew that the Civil War was somehow related to slavery. All three of these notions ultimately had to be revised. That enslavement in America was somehow more than a moral problem became apparent while reading the grandfather of all Civil War histories, James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom. Battle Cry is ostensibly a history of The Late Unpleasantness, but it is also an expression of the centrality of enslavement in American history.
The first 200 pages or so show that the War was about not only the perpetuation of “African slavery,” but its expansion. McPherson quotes directly from the mouths of secessionists who have no problem laying out bondage as their primary casus belli. McPherson shows the essential place enslavement held in the economy of the South and in America at large. Thus the conflagration that follows does not appear out of thin air. Thus when McPherson begins detailing double-timing and flanking maneuvers you have some sense that you are doing something more than watching people play out a violent football game.
Conservatively speaking, 600,000 soldiers lost their lives in the Civil War, two percent of the American population at the time. Twenty percent of all Southern white men of military age died in the War. Until Vietnam, more people had died in the Civil War than all other American wars combined. An interest which compelled that amount of death and suffering must be something more than vague disagreement over a “way of life.”
While I was reading McPherson, I was listening to recordings of David Blight’s course at Yale, The Civil War and Reconstruction. The great thing about this was I could listen to it while I was gaming, cooking, cleaning, or driving. Blight helps me put the economic portions that McPherson’s work talks about in perspective. This stunning quote, for instance, blew me away:
…by 1860, there were more millionaires (slaveholders all) living in the lower Mississippi Valley than anywhere else in the United States. In the same year, the nearly 4 million American slaves were worth some $3.5 billion, making them the largest single financial asset in the entire U.S. economy, worth more than all manufacturing and railroads combined. So, of course, the war was rooted in these two expanding and competing economies—but competing over what? What eventually tore asunder America’s political culture was slavery’s expansion into the Western territories.
I quote that a lot, because it contradicts this idea of enslavement as ancillary to American history, and establishes it as foundational. Blight was pulling from Roger Ransom’s incredible paper, The Economics of the Civil War. Again, the numbers are simply mind-bending—in a state like South Carolina, almost 60 percent of the people were enslaved. Beyond the numbers, Blight’s lectures brought to life the words of the actual people who were enslaved. Pulling from a great number of oral sources, Blight bids us not to forget that there were actual humans, not abstract figures, who were being enslaved.
In understanding the humanity of the enslaved, I don’t know if there is a better book than The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Because Douglass wrote three autobiographies, and Life and Times is the longest, it tends to get short shrift. But, for my money, it’s the best of the three and one of the most beautiful autobiographies ever written by an American. Douglass’s portrait of slavery is just gripping. Forgive me for quoting at length:
The close-fisted stinginess that fed the poor slave on coarse corn-meal and tainted meat, that clothed him in crashy tow-linen and hurried him on to toil through the field in all weathers, with wind and rain beating through his tattered garments, and that scarcely gave even the young slave-mother time to nurse her infant in the fence-corner, wholly vanished on approaching the sacred precincts of the “Great House” itself. There the scriptural phrase descriptive of the wealthy found exact illustration. The highly-favored inmates of this mansion were literally arrayed in “purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day.”
The table of this house groaned under the blood-bought luxuries gathered with pains-taking care at home and abroad. Fields, forests, rivers, and seas were made tributary. Immense wealth and its lavish expenditures filled the Great House with all that could please the eye or tempt the taste. Fish, flesh, and fowl were here in profusion. Chickens of all breeds; ducks of all kinds, wild and tame, the common and the huge Muscovite; Guinea fowls, turkeys, geese and pea-fowls; all were fat and fattening for the destined vortex…
Alas, this immense wealth, this gilded splendor, this profusion of luxury, this exemption from toil. this life of ease, this sea of plenty were not the pearly gates they seemed to a world of happiness and sweet content to be. The poor slave, on his hard pine plank, scantily covered with his thin blanket, slept more soundly than the feverish voluptuary who reclined upon his downy pillow. Food to the indolent is poison, not sustenance. Lurking beneath the rich and tempting viands were invisible spirits of evil, which filled the self-deluded gormandizer with aches and pains, passions uncontrollable, fierce tempers, dyspepsia, rheumatism, lumbago, and gout, and of these the Lloyds had a full share.
Douglass is a masterful narrator, and one of the things he communicates is that slavery is not a sanitized form of forced labor, but first and foremost, a system of violence, an assault on black bodies, black families, and black institutions. This all gets lost in the talk about economics and robbing people of their work. That robbery was abetted by the destruction of people. For me no book better captures this then Thavolia Glymph’s Out of The House of Bondage. Glymph is specifically interested in the violence that allegedly mild slave-mistresses visited upon their slaves. By focusing on what people think of us as the mildest form of slavery (the domestic) Glymph reveals that enslavement is not violent sometimes, but is, itself, a form of violence.
Picking up from yesterday’s readings on racism as a “done thing,” as a choice, these readings helped me understand why that choice was made and how essential it was to the American project. And if that is the case, if enslavement was essential, how could it be that its effects faded in 1860? Douglass says “a man is worked on by what he works on.” For 250 years, Americans worked on the breaking of people for profit. What I found, going forward, is that enslavement had worked on us too. You can see its ghost all over American policy, especially in the realm of housing.
And so the sources:
1.) Battle Cry of Freedom, by James McPherson
Just a beautiful read. One of my favorite books of all time, and a book that does not entertain Neo-Confederate dissembling.
2.) “The Civil War and Reconstruction,” David Blight’s lecture series
Blight is a great lecturer and covers the essentials of both periods.
3.) “The Economics Of The Civil War,” by Roger L. Ransom
This is a really short but essential read. Perhaps more than any article I’ve read it explains the forces that led us to war.
4.) The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass
Just beautiful. Don’t just read this to understand enslavement; read it because it is an incredible work of literature.
5.) Out Of The House of Bondage, by Thavolia Glymph
I actually came to this after the reparations article was in the queue, but it crystalizes something that Douglass demonstrates–the horrific violence that was slavery. You can not divide the two. The Cliven Bundy fantasy of black people happily picking cotton, and living in two parent homes with food and shelter provided is the exact opposite of what slavery was. You can not plunder a people nonviolently.