July 12, 2010

Slavery and Democracy

Gordon Wood, in his recent history of the American revolution, makes an important point about servants in the United States. White servants in the United States had a reputation for being useless, they ran away, they went to the master who paid best and they felt no sense of noblesse oblige. He links this to an overwhelming sense in America during the early 19th Century that liberty and equality should overcome traditional distinctions. He also implies though that there was something more to this equality and liberty: something denoted by this speech from an American serving woman to a foreign visitor: "I'll have you know man that I am no sarvant, none but negers are sarvants." The distinction between slavery and servanthood and freedom had obviously become overlain with a racial distinction in her mind: this was not uncommon in early America. Race played a crucial part in the creation of democracy- both in obvious ways in that it allowed a faction of the gentry from the south to lead the revolutionary charge, because such a charge would never imperill their position as slave owning aristocrats, but also because at a deeper level it allowed all Americans to assert that they were alike and there was a population who was other to them, the black slaves.

The nineteenth century, if I can speculate a bit more, often saw this kind of division fusing a new democracy together. Robert Lowe commented in the English debates over reform about the lack of respect for rank in his native Australia where no doubt similar issues were true. Immigrant societies were also societies where rank was difficult to assert (Wood has some fantastic examples)- John Adams the President might consider himself an aristocrat, but if so he was that contradiction in terms, a self taught aristocrat. The simple exclusion of blacks from civic life and the racial overtones of that exclusion must have armed poorer whites with a certainty that they, unlike the "negers" were free. One of the most interesting issues at the heart of American history has to be why the South was able to fight in the 1860s: again I'm guessing but I wonder whether alongside the ranchers who came out to fight in order to save their property, there were whites who came out to fight to save themselves from merging into a population of servants. If you see, to take the woman's words, there were no slaves- then she, as a servant, would indeed be a servant, the lowest of the low. The fact that there were slaves below her both gave her the confidence to assert her equality and also may have led some to believe that the institution needed preserving so they could assert their equality.

History works in ironies rather than in pleasing statements and the issue of slavery in the US and its affect on politics during the post revolutionary period is unendingly complex: slavery sustained the south, the suffering of slaves calls into question the acheivements of the founders and of America itself. As a historian, looking dispassionately if such a thing is possible, slavery gave a character to the politics of the US. It is instructional to think that democracy before the twentieth centuries originated in societies with slavery: Athens, Rome, the Americas. In all of them one wonders whether, just as in Sparta where equality was sustained by a hatred of the oppressed helots, equality and democracy were supported because a group was left outside of both. In that sense modern democracies which have a rhetorical commitment to complete equality are more unique than possibly any of us imagine.


Crushed said...

Of course. Only modern democracies are founded on the logical fallacy that you can actually have a TRUE democracy and retain private property.

The ancient greeks despised true democracy because they felt it would become anarchy. In part of course, they are right.

Previous 'democracies' were no such thing; they were aristocracies. As is ours, just cleverly hidden by the rhetoris.

Gracchi said...

Crushed- if its you welcome back to commenting here!

As to your comment, I disagree. Most of these regimes- Athens for example- appear to have paid a price particularly in rhetoric to other states so there must have been something that distinguished them from the aristocracies and oligarchies that they lived amongst. So there must be something that distinguishes them from aristocracy: there was a cost to being a democracy in the ancient world or the modern world until the 20th century.

As to the ancient greeks- we have to bear in mind that the texts we have from them are the texts that oppose democracy. Its as though the only texts that survived in today's England were conservative newspapers- its not sensible to infer from that that all Englishmen are Tories. Similarly its not right to infer that all the Greeks had contempt from democracy just because those are the documents that survived.

The questions you raise about democracy are fascinating- both the property issue and the stability of democracy. I think there are several things that changed in the modern world to create the possibility of democracy- mass media for example just didn't exist in the ancient or early modern world or before the 20th Century. I think I'd agree with you that we are currently in a process and that there is no end fo history- where that process is leading I have no idea!