We’re Still Living and Dying in the Slaveholders’ Republic

The pandemic has brought the latest battle in the long American war over communal well-being.

Protesters in Huntington Beach.
Kyle Grillot / Reuters
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He became a founding father. He coveted his freedom. But for most of his political career, he turned away from talk of founding or fathering a new nation to secure his freedom.

As a South Carolina legislator, Christopher Memminger took a more moderate approach to secession in the 1830s and ’40s than Senator John C. Calhoun, the ironclad attorney general of South Carolina slaveholders. But in the 1850s, Memminger changed. He likely feared the growing resistance and density of enslaved Africans. He feared poor southern whites “would soon raise the hue and cry against the Negro, and be hot abolitionists—and every one of those men would have the vote,” as Memminger wrote. After John Brown’s insurrectionist antislavery raid on a federal armory in Virginia in 1859, after Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, Memminger thought the freedom to enslave was slipping from his grip in the United States.

On Christmas Eve in 1860, South Carolina legislators adopted their declaration of independence from the federal union, drafted by Memminger. He based his justification of secession from the “non-slaveholding States” on those states’ “increasing hostility” to “slavery,” on their permitting of abolitionist societies “whose avowed object is to disturb the peace,” on their inciting of “thousands of our slaves to leave their homes,” on their “elevating to citizens, [black] persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens”—on their incessant “submersion of the Constitution.” The slaveholder’s constitutional freedom to enslave rang in every secessionist declaration that followed that winter, and it rang in the Provisional Constitution of the Confederate States of America, drafted by Memminger in early February 1861.

Slaveholders desired a state that wholly secured their individual freedom to enslave, not to mention their freedom to disenfranchise, to exploit, to impoverish, to demean, and to silence and kill the demeaned. The freedom to. The freedom to harm. Which is to say, in coronavirus terms, the freedom to infect.

Slaveholders disavowed a state that secured any form of communal freedom—the freedom of the community from slavery, from disenfranchisement, from exploitation, from poverty, from all the demeaning and silencing and killing. The freedom from. The freedom from harm. Which is to say, in coronavirus terms, the freedom from infection.

The slaveholder’s freedom to seceded from Lincoln’s “house divided against itself”—divided between the freedom to and from. Memminger was named the Confederate secretary of the Treasury. Americans went to war. Americans are still waging this same war, now over COVID-19. There is a war between those fighting to open America back up for the sake of individual freedom, and those fighting to keep America closed for the sake of community freedom. A civil war over the very meaning, the very utility of freedom.

From the beginning of the American project, the powerful individual has been battling for his constitutional freedom to harm, and the vulnerable community has been battling for its constitutional freedom from harm. Both freedoms were inscribed into the U.S. Constitution, into the American psyche. The history of the United States, the history of Americans, is the history of reconciling the unreconcilable: individual freedom and community freedom. There is no way to reconcile the enduring psyche of the slaveholder with the enduring psyche of the enslaved.

Slaveholders hardly seemed to care that secession was going to condemn the non-slaveholding southern community to war, to mass injuries and death on battlefields and in contraband camps. Slaveholders hardly seemed to care that the Confederate States would have been a veritable hell for poor, non-slaveholding whites and the hell of hells for enslaved blacks. Too many Americans today hardly seem to care that withdrawing states from stay-at-home orders too soon would scarcely free their communities from the viral war, from mass infections, and deaths on hospital and bedroom beds, a veritable disaster for innumerable white Americans and a disaster of disasters for innumerable Americans of color.

“They want their freedom. They want to be able to run their businesses and run their lives,” said Stewart Jones, a Republican South Carolina legislator.

Memminger, too, spoke for South Carolinians who wanted their freedom to run their lives and businesses unrestrained, unregulated, uncontrolled, uninhibited by any local or federal government. Damn community control if it is not supporting the freedom of the individual to harm the health and wellness of the community. Damn stay-at-home orders restraining the individual for health of the community. The individual is king.

Narcissism has cursed America long before Donald Trump, long before the red hats, long before the white sheets, long before the gray coats, long before the slaveholding founding fathers of the Confederate States of America and the United States of America.

“LIBERATE MINNESOTA! LIBERATE MICHIGAN! LIBERATE VIRGINIA,” Trump tweeted not long ago, echoing secessionists long ago.

Liberate the states from stay-at-home orders when there is a near consensus among public-health experts that reopening virus-ravaged states will lead to more deaths? Then and now, some Americans care more about their own political economy than the public health of the community. “In order for the Oklahoma economy to recover, we need those people back in the workforce. We need businesses open,” said Chad Warmington, the president of the State Chamber of Oklahoma.

The longer the delay in reopening states, the longer the delay in business owners or stockholders recovering revenues. The longer the delay in the economy recovering, the longer the odds that Republicans retain political power in November. But what about the tens of millions of Americans who don’t possess businesses or stocks or political offices and are facing unspeakable hardship now? What about the community?

Trump and his GOP disciples seem to be banking on more and more Americans blaming stay-at-home orders for their woes. Over the past few days, Republican operatives organized more than 100 demonstrations against stay-at-home orders in 32 states. They seem to want Americans to view Republicans as freeing the individual, and Democrats as confining the free individual.

“The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire,” Trump tweeted Friday morning in response to an armed demonstration the previous day in the Michigan capitol building. “These are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal.”

Slaveholders could have responded to apocalyptic antislavery resistance by abolishing slavery and redistributing land and rights and resources to black and white and indigenous peoples alike. Likewise, Trump could have responded to deepening economic pain from stay-at-home orders by imploring Congress to provide enough public assistance that the community could be free of economic and bodily worry as people ride out the pandemic in homes, or outside homes as essential workers thoroughly protected. But then and now, not all Americans value communal freedom. They do not see them, do not talk to them, do not make deals for them.

South Carolina did not take the lead this time in subjugating the community for the freedom of the individual. “Georgians are now the largely unwilling canaries in an invisible coal mine, sent to find out just how many individuals need to lose their job or their life for a state to work through a plague,” The Atlantic’s Amanda Mull explained.

Georgia was the classic case of a state not ready to relax social distancing. As a prerequisite for opening states back up, public-health officials have almost universally called for widespread testing and contact tracing. They must grasp the extent of the spread to safely usher people out of their quarantines. But Georgia’s per-capita testing rate has been one of the lowest in the country.

Worse still, neither the viral pandemic nor the racial pandemic was under control in Georgia when Governor Brian Kemp relaxed restrictions on April 24. The day before, five of the nation’s top 10 counties with the highest deaths rates per 100,000 were in southwest Georgia. Black people were the largest racial group in all five of these counties, in and around Albany, Georgia.

On Wednesday, in a study of hospitalizations in Georgia, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than four-fifths of hospitalized coronavirus patients were black. As of Friday, black people composed 40.76 percent of the known coronavirus cases in Georgia and 53 percent of the coronavirus deaths, while making up 32.40 percent of the population, according to the COVID Racial Data Tracker.

Public-health officials fear a surge in deaths in states that open prematurely. If current racial disparities are any indication, then people of color are likely to bear the brunt of the infection and death surges in the 18 states that have reopened, as of Friday. In 13 of the 16 reopened states that have made racial-demographic data available, people of color are suffering disproportionate harm from COVID-19.

In Alabama, black people compose 43.51 percent of the cases and 45.82 percent of the deaths, while making up a mere 26.8 percent of the population, resembling disparities in Mississippi, Tennessee, Colorado, and South Carolina. In Texas and Maine, black people are disproportionately infected with the coronavirus. In Iowa, the black infection percentage is quadruple the black share of the population, while Latinos may be faring even worse because of a coronavirus outbreak in meatpacking plants. In Utah, Latinos are 14.2 percent of the population, but 36.48 percent of coronavirus cases. In Alaska, the Asian infection percentage is more than double the Asian population share, as it nearly is in Tennessee. In Idaho, the death disparity for Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders is the highest for any group. In Wyoming, Native Americans make up 2.7 percent of the state, but 18.49 percent of the coronavirus cases, one of the most dreadful racial disparities in the country, according to the COVID Racial Data Tracker.

Only in Montana and Oklahoma are white residents faring disproportionately worse than other racial groups, assuming those states are not underreporting cases among Native residents. In Minnesota, white people are dying of COVID-19 at a slightly higher rate than their population share, while Latinos and blacks are infected at more than triple their population shares.

Almost all of the reopened states are facing a pandemic within the pandemic. But instead of ensuring that the racial pandemic and the larger viral pandemic are under control, these 18 reopened states—and the six more planning to reopen soon—are effectively refusing to provide their communities with freedom from infection.

The war continues, from the days of the Memmingers, from the days of the Jeffersons. Again and again, white Americans have sacrificed the freedom from in pursuit of the freedom to. Again, and again, the price of those decisions has fallen on the heads of people of color.

In winning the Civil War, the Union effectively restarted the civil war that has lasted until this day. The psyche of the slaveholder never left the American, is constantly striving to wield his freedom over the community, is constantly battling all those restricting his freedom.

This is not to say that individual freedom is heresy. This is not to say that the individual’s longings to go back to her favorite restaurant and bar and stadium and nightclub and mall and lecture hall are wrong. This is not to say that the individual is immoral when she yearns to stop homeschooling, to go back to her business or nonprofit, or to hang out with loved ones she hasn’t seen in a while. This is not to say that the individual’s hunger to free her social self from the agony of social distancing is antihuman. This is to say that the freedom of the individual should never come at the expense of deaths in the community. No individual should have the freedom to infect a community right now. No one. Not me. Not you. Not even Vice President Mike Pence. He should not have the freedom to stroll through the Mayo Clinic without a mask.

The individual should be restricted from harming the community. The individual should be free to aid the community. When the community is king, the individual is no longer subjected, but protected.

But some Americans want to live in a society that frees them, as individuals, by subjugating the community. That was the psyche of the slaveholder, who believed he was free only if the community was enslaved.

I want to live in a society that frees me, as an individual, by freeing my community. That was the psyche of the enslaved who knew she was enslaved only because her community was enslaved.

There is something about living through a deadly pandemic that cuts open the shell, removes the flesh, and finds the very core of American existence: the slaveholder clamoring for his freedom to infect, and the enslaved clamoring for our freedom from infection.