Compensation

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III. Violence

We have, thus far, established that Ron Paul's version of the Civil War is wrong on chronology, and wrong on economics. But what of Paul's contention that slavery was ended in every other country without the violence that swept over America:

Slavery was phased out in every other country of the world. And the way I'm advising that it should have been done is do like the British empire did. You, you buy the slaves and release them. How much would that cost compared to killing 600,000 Americans and where it lingered for 100 years? I mean, the hatred and all that existed. So every other major country in the world got rid of slavery without a civil war.

I think we can grant the technicality here--that the specific sort of violence. a civil war launched by slave-holders to establish an empire of White Supremacy, makes America different. But if Paul's point is simply one of nomenclature, or specimen, it doesn't has little import on his greater argument--that the horrific violence that attended America in 1860 was, somehow, preventable. 

 I'm fairly sure, for instance, were we to use the terminology of some of Paul's fellow travelers "The War Of Northern Aggression" his point would remain. His argument is about violence and war--that "every other major country" somehow managed to purge itself with a minimum of bloodshed or through magnanimous nonviolence. As with virtually everything else Paul says about the Civil War, the facts have taken leave.

The obvious counter-example is Haiti, where black people fought a bloody two year war of liberation against the French, and then a second war against the French under Napoleon. The Haitians triumphed in each instance and thus authored one of the few (if only) successful slave rebellion in world history. I spent some time, via twitter, talking with Laurent Dubois, author of Avengers Of The New World, one of the most heralded histories of the Haitian Revolution. We have a source here putting casualties at over 100,000, in era before the minie ball.



But in talking to Dubois, (I really wish I had storyfied our convo) it became clear that comparing figures obscures a larger reality--from the time slavery was introduced to Haiti to the time it left, there was violence. Slavery is violence and any survey of its history violence at its onset, violence at its height, and violence attending its end. 

Be it in Haiti, or Jamaica:

The most important was the Baptist War of 1831 in Jamaica, a full-scale slave rebellion that was put down thanks to the maintenance of a force of British regulars in Jamaica, in recognition of several prior wars and rebellions by the slaves (and the populations of free blacks who needed to be bought off in order to maintain peace). The Baptist War was the one that broke the system and led to nominal emancipation in 1834 and freedom in 1838. Simply put, insurrection and the inefficiency of a slave labor system had made slave labor too expensive, the sugar economy of the British Empire was in ruins, and it was recognized that garrisoning every slave society in the Empire would be necessary to preserve it, and simply too expensive for the state to maintain.

Or Brazil:

"[The] prospering coffee planters in Sao Paulo province seemed determined to resist all antislavery measures until 1887, when slaves themselves took the initiative and began to flee the great coffee fazendas (farms). Nothing in the history of slavery (except in the Hebrew Bible) approximates this mass exodus of thousands of bondspeople, who had no invading army, as in the American Civil War, to give them shelter. Antonio Bento, a radical pentecostal abolitionist - a Brazilian version of America's John Brown - encouraged slaves to escape and created a large secret network that provided shelter on trains and in shanty towns and in some cases even found jobs (326).


Bolívar once again issued a manifesto explaining his view of the failure of the republican cause in Venezuela. His famous Letter from Jamaica, though ostensibly written to one man, was an appeal to Great Britain specifically and the European powers in general to aid the cause of Spanish American independence, but it found no significant response. So he turned to the small and isolated republic of Haiti, that had freed itself from French rule, but being composed of mostly former slaves, received little aid from either the United States or Europe. Bolívar and other Venezuelan and New Granadan exiles were warmly received by the Haitian president Alexandre Pétion. 

The growing exile community would receive money, volunteers and weapons from the Haitian president enabling them to resume plans to continue the struggle for independence. There was debate, however, over who should be in charge, but his ability to win over Pétion and a Curaçaoan sea merchant, Luis Brión (he is traditionally referred to by the Spanish form of his name), who had just acquired a much-needed warship in England to aid the embattled Cartagenan Republic, forced the other Venezuelan leaders to grudgingly accept his leadership. Pétion, for his part, convinced Bolívar to expand the fight for independence to include the liberation of slaves.

If you are faced with a system which was--at its core--rooted in horrific torture. murder, and human trafficking, and then told that it was all made to go away via faerie dust, you should be skeptical. If someone then generalizes and says that this system was ended everywhere by such means, you should be double so. Ron Paul's rendition of history depends on a lack of that skepticism among his audience, and a faithful belief that they know nothing of Nanny, Toussaint, or Zumbi and have no sincere interest in finding out. Ron Paul is banking on your incuriosity.

We should always be weary of lapsing into morbid worship of violence, and we should be equally weary of rendering violence as the only shade of resistance. I learned that lesson many years ago, as a Malcolmite. Part of my intense scrutiny of Paul is that (as I've said) I see something of an earlier self in his young followers. I know what it is to hunger for a Comfortable History, but more importantly I know what it means to attempt to shoehorn history into the your particular ideological values. 

I wrote, in comments, the other day about being a young Malcolm disciple, and having to come to grips with all that he was wrong about, with having to say, "No, it would not have been intelligent to start running guns to Selma. And, yes it was right, ruthless, and effective to meet Southern resistance with nonviolence." That notion ran counter to all the values of my family, my neighborhood and my life. It was deeply wounding, for it meant abandonment of a One True Belief System. But it exposed to me that a strange brew of saviorism, and presentist history can make you a lazy thinker. Laziness, too, was against the values of my world. 

The Civil War didn't happen to justify or nullify Iraq.  It can inform your chosen ideology, but it can't make it right. History has to be more than debate club and extrapolation. Malcolm X and Dessalines can not be gods.
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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. More

Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.

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