A War of 'All Against Them'

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This weekend, while reading about the brutal treatment of Jarm Logue, I remembered a quote from Hobbes which commenter absurdbeats commonly alludes to:

The natural state of men, before they entered into society, was a mere war, and that not simply, but a war of all men against all men.

What Hobbes is arguing (correct me if I am wrong) is that without a sovereign, without a social compact, without the tools of governance, without civic mores, mankind quickly descends into a state of chaos and war, a period of "going for delf," as my people would say, or a war of "all against all" as the philosophers have rendered it.

I've turned that phrase, "All against All," around in my head for some time now. It's a deeply poetic rendering of violent anarchy, and it also has something to tell us about the 250 years between the onset of American slavery and the Civil War. 

Hobbes expands some on how the world looks in a time of All Against All:

Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man... 

In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

I think this definition gives too much weight to violence, and too little to the resourcefulness of humans. Nevertheless, Hobbes' description of a time when "the fruit thereof is uncertain" when there is "continual fear, and danger of violent death" and life "poor, nasty, brutish and short" is a very good summation of the lives of enslaved black people during those 250 years. 


Those years did not simply visit great violence upon black people, they invented our modern American concept of whiteness. Effectively they created the borders for the tribe we today call "White People." Thus whereas the 250 years preceding 1865 brought suffering to black people, they brought a nationhood to white people, fashioning them into collective, singular "All" rooted in the manufactured privilege un-blackness. One of war's great powers is the promotion of this sort of cohesion, and it is often attended by the naming of a "Them"--the foreign, the contemptible, the justly warred upon. 

What if we thought of those pivotal 250 years, not simply as War against black people as I have argued, but as a time when the great American "All" united in massive violence against the great American "Them?" And what if we  considered this period, in some Hobbesian sense, as not simply a war, but as means of sociological, economic and political construction brought about through a long period of war against the black body--an time of "All Against Them."

Now, I would argue, we can move away from the notion that the most important, and significant violence, happened on battlefields, that the violence which matters can only occur between two states, as well as the unfortunately popular notion that in 1860, mass existential violence was suddenly and tragically visited upon an otherwise peaceful and sleepy American republic.

Instead what actually happend in 1860 is the "All" (temporarily) shattered.  The Fugitive Slave Act is instructive here. It did not simply mandate that slave-catchers had the right to pursue black people into free states, but that white Northerners--as dutiful members of the "All"--must assist in their recapture. The Law was met with much resistance from whites, thus exposing the fractures in the All's social compact. 

Every failed compromise, every attack by John Brown, every assist given by whites to fugitive blacks, is another fracture in the All, until 1860 when Abraham Lincoln wins the presidency on an  explicitly anti-Slavery platform. 

My thoughts are still raw here and I'm trying to pull together a lot. Please forgive me for the messiness of the logic here. This is public thinking. 

For those who are new to this you can see a great deal of our conversations on the subject, which now span some four years, here. You can see the specifics of this particular argument, gradually being engaged herehereherehereherehere and ultimately here. It's also worth checking this reaction to Edmund Morgan rendering slavery not as an American birth-defect, but as its mid-wife.

More to come. 

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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