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Correction: In comments, I've written that slaves were worth 75 billion in 1860 dollars. That is wrong. It's 75 billion in today's dollars, and three billion in 1860 dollars. My apologies.

One of the more unfortunate aspects of blogging about the Civil War is that a great deal of time is expended on debunking, as opposed to discovery. Instead of looking at, say, Unionism in Tennessee, or Native American participation in the Confederate Army, we end up revisiting black Confederates again. I've tried to avoid this. But history is political and the deployment of comfortable narratives is a constant malady. Moreover, I get something out of these repeated debunkings that I didn't realize until this weekend. My wife recently noted that is not unusual for scientist to spend as much, or more, time disproving things, as opposed to proving. She added that sometimes in disproving, they actually make a discovery.

I've been thinking about that some in my posts on Ron Paul, Howard Zinn and the issue of compensated emancipation. To be blunt, I am unsatisfied with my rebuttal. I have a case which demonstrates, on a surface, why compensated emancipation as an alternative to the Civil War, is ridiculous. But it isn't complete. It doesn't attack at all angles.

The problem debating this sort of thing is the side of dishonesty and intellectual laziness is at an advantage. It will likely take more effort for me to compose this post, then it took for Ron Paul to stand before the Confederate Flag and offer his thin gruel of history. Those attempting to practice history need not only gather facts, but seek out facts that might contradict the facts they like, and then gather more facts of context to see what it all means. 

But Comfortable History is asymmetrical warfare it needs only a smattering of facts, and need not guard against a lack of context, presentism, or other facts that might undermine its arguments. Instead it breezily proceeds through hypotheticals and abstract thought experiments  which somehow satisfy our desire to be in possession of a dissident intellect. Comfortable History is like the computer virus that poses as the shield -- it positions the espouser as a brave truth-teller, even as it infects us with lies. 

All this fueled by the fact that are real viruses, that we are often lied to. The government didn't invent HIV, but Tuskegee happened and people who believe the former are always about the business of citing the latter. The Comfortable History is surely cynical -- but it gives us a pattern of broad paranoia which we can obey. In the way that a lawful evil dictatorship will always be preferable to a chaotic evil anarchy, cynicism gives us bright lines. It gives us patterns and thus avoids the atheistic truth--that there are no patterns, that there is no Law Of History, that all of it is chaos.

Against that chaos, we have the light of our critical thinking skills and in applying them, in working harder those who seek only to comfort, we are rewarded with deeper insights. It is from that perspective, that I'd like to address this question of "Compensated Emancipation" and enlist the help of this knowledgeable group of readers to fill in the gaps. Consider this an advanced Talk To Me Like I'm Stupid. (It will be edited. Think before you write. Also, please don't just throw in links, with a "Check out this." Or "read this book," Not that we're opposed to books, but we need actual comments. It is permissible to say nothing.)
Let's start with what we know:

We know that as early as 1837, slaveholders in the South were no longer arguing that slavery was a "necessary evil," but a "positive good." We know that Alexander Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederacy, argued that slavery was a "great physical. philosophical and moral truth." 

We know that slaves were, far and away, the most valuable asset in the country, such that a town like Natchez, Mississippi, by 1860, had more millionaires per capita than any other city in the country. We know that all of that wealth was built off of slavery, and slave-trading, We know that slavery was not merely an economic system, but a social system which transformed white Southern men into the broadest aristocracy in world history. As Daniel Hundley put it, slavery means that "every free white man in the whole Union has just as much right to become an oligarch."

We know that John Calhoun claimed:

With us the two great divisions of society are not rich and poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.

We know that his junior colleague John Henry Hammond argued:

In a slave country, every freeman is an aristocrat. Be he rich or poor, if he does not possess a single slave, he has been born to all the natural advantages of the society in which he is placed; and all its honors lie open to him, inviting his genius and industry. Sir, I do firmly believe, that domestic slavery, regulated as our is, produces the highest toned, the purest, best organization of society, that has ever existed on the face of this Earth.

We know that states like Mississippi and South Carolina were, in 1860, majority black and thus compensated emancipation in Hammond and Calhoun's South Carolina would not simply mean the end of this broad aristocracy, but the prospect of a free white populations outnumbered by a free black population. We can thus surmise that it is no coincidence that South Carolina inaugurated the Civil War.

We know that to alleviate fears of black majority, compensated emancipation was usually partnered with a proposal of colonization -- that is the removal of African-Americans from slave states to colonies in Africa or the Caribbean. We know that colonization was a polarizing issue in the black community, and by 1860, much of its popular support had collapsed. Thus we know that any contemplation of compensated emancipation must grapple with how several counties, and some states in the South, would react to finding themselves suddenly outnumbered by free black people.


We know that there is a strong moral case against compensated emancipation -- that slavery is the theft of one person's labor for the benefit of another -- and thus any moral talk of "compensation" should include compensation for the slaves. We know that such talk is presently deemed "reparations" and enjoyed as little currency in the 19th century as it did in the 20th and the 21st.

We know all of this. And yet somehow we don't know enough. Let us set forth "the more" which we should know:

1.) Was there any debate at all about compensated emancipation in the South, before the Civil War, and what was the fate of that debate? Here, I bet the records of the American Colonization Society, might help. But I'd like to know, specifically, about debates around payment for the liberation of slaves.

2.) Was a mass payment toward slave-holders even possible? We know that in 1860, slaves were worth $3 billion in 1860 dollars (75 billion in today's dollars.) Did the American government have access to those sorts of funds? If so, how would they have been garnered?

3.) It is often claimed that only in the United States was war necessary. We know this to be false, given the fate of Haiti. But what about in the rest of the Western hemisphere? Is it correct to argue that abolition happened nonviolently everywhere else? Even if it did, would it have happened without the bloody example of the Civil War? (I'm thinking Cuba, for instance.)

4.) Assuming compensation, how would Southerners have reacted to a substantial black minority in their midst? What would the labor system have looked like? What would have happened with black male suffrage? How would the white working class reacted to finding itself in competition with blacks? 

5.) What was the Southern attitude toward war? Given that South Carolina fired the first shots, was it there expectation that hundreds of thousands of people would die? How did Southern expectations impact on their views of giving up slavery?

6.) Why didn't England have a war over slavery? What were the specific differences between England slave colonies and the Antebellum South?

These are but a few of the questions that extend outside of my purview.I don't do this out of any hope of converting anyone away from Ron Paul. He is, at this point, a savior for people who badly need one. Moreover, I'm not much interested in balancing his view of history with his views on the drug war. Expect that any person who makes his pitch with a Confederate Flag as his backdrop, will have a very hard time making any other pitch to the most suffering mass of the drug war's victims. 

Still the gaps should be filled--not for conversion, but for our own curiosity. Robbed of a Comfortable History, we are all we have. Our prophets are dead. 
Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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