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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Keepin’ ‘em Down in the Swamp

A startling new look at our history that every American should read

Philosopher with Feet of Clay

I thought I knew John Locke. I’ve studied and taught, intensively, the second of his Two Treatises on Government (the first, also, but not with anywhere near the rigor) and felt close to the political John Locke encountered there. The empirical Locke of the Essay on Human Understanding I also found congenial. Though not #1 in my philosophical pantheon (that honor belongs to Henri Bergson), he was one of “my guys.”

Now along comes Nancy Isenberg, who shows me a horrid little man behind the curtain, “a founding member and third-largest stockholder of the Royal African Company, which secured a monopoly over the British slave trade” and the anonymous author of the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, a document granting “ABSOLUTE POWER AND AUTHORITY” of “every Freeman in Carolina ... over his Negro Slaves”! John Locke!

Yes, I knew that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, but John Locke was a philosopher. Not just any philosopher, either, but one who imagined the State of Nature as a state of perfect freedom, “wherein all the Power and Jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another.” Natural equality! A State of Nature “not a State of Licence,” but governed by natural law, every human being equal before God. Even mothers and fathers, as Locke imagined the State of Nature, would have had equal authority over their children. Nothing else made sense.

“Much better,” wrote John Locke in the Second Treatise, for human beings to remain in the state of nature than “to submit to the unjust will of another.” What democrat could resist that John Locke?

But how are two so different Lockes to yield to a single key?

Peter Laslett, Fellow of Trinity College and Locke scholar, feels that efforts to make Locke consistent through the body of his writings are doomed. Locke, Laslett believes, wrote differently when speaking for himself and when speaking for his patron, Lord Shaftesbury, another adventurer in the North American colonial enterprise.

Does chronology help at all? Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina saw daylight in 1669. Laslett believes the Two Treatises were written a decade later, in the period 1679-80 (but not as late as “established dogma” would have it, i.e., in 1688). Could Locke’s political thinking have mellowed sufficiently in ten years for him to have renounced slavery? Well, he never did so publicly, and Laslett himself says Locke is hardly the spokesperson for a rising middle class, let alone an egalitarian who would do away with all distinctions. He remained “the determined enemy of beggars and the idle poor,” and at the same time “profoundly mistrusted commerce and commercial men.”

That “unjust will of another” to which it would be so unreasonable to submit – that would have been the will of an absolute monarch. The will of a household head, a property owner, even the owner of slaves had “justice” on their side, it seems. For John Locke was, first and last, an English gentleman, with all the prejudices of his class and his era.

War Between What and Whom?

Only other philosophers and maybe a handful of political historians will be as shaken as I was by the toppling of my formerly revered John Locke, or even care about his views, but the Civil War, or War Between the States, remains relevant in American politics today, a century and a half beyond the official end of armed hostilities. And so Isenberg’s seventh chapter in White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America bears very careful reading (though it would be a serious mistake to skip to Chapter Seven, “Cowards, Poltroons, and Mudsills: Civil War as Class Warfare” without first reading six preceding chapters, which lay a groundwork back to colonial days).

“Mudsills” was a Southern epithet used by James Henry Hammond of South Carolina to denigrate Northern democracy and a Union army made up of “a foul collection of urban roughs, prairie dirt farmers, greasy mechanics, unwashed immigrants, and ... insolent free blacks.” Menial laborers, stuck in the mud from which they would never emerge, were the base of all civilizations, in Hammond’s view of the world, but Southern slavery kept only slaves of African descent in this lowly condition, while the North “debased its own kind,” i.e., white men.

Isenberg reframes the Civil War conflict (though there is no reason to think she has distorted or misrepresented what anyone of the times thought, said, or write) as one of class rather than race or geography. As much as the South rebelled against the North, it was also those who saw themselves as aristocrats rebelling against others they saw as beneath them -- Davis “born to command,” Lincoln a “rude bumpkin,” whose very honesty was grounds for class suspicion. As Isenberg puts the Southern case against Lincoln,
His Kentucky home made him white trash, and his chosen residence in Illinois made him a prairie mudsill.

But Northerners took up the “mudsill” epithet as a badge of honor, a sobriquet of independence and stark contrast to the tired, dead, Old World aristocratic ideals of the South. Many Union officers felt the war would liberate not only black slaves but the South’s poor whites, as well. “They too needed emancipation,” declared Ulysses S. Grant. Secession, after all, except in Texas, had never been subject to a popular referendum, and the sons of large landowners (planters with 20 or more slaves) easily gained exemption from service, while the suffering of poor recruits and of their families left at home fueled discontent and led frequently to desertion. In the South, the wealthy held all the good land, slave labor made poor white farm workers redundant, and terrible poverty often resulted. The North was the land of economic and political opportunity and must prevail in the end.

Southern leaders, for their part, saw inequality as a natural condition. Large plantation owners of good bloodlines and the benefit of education were clearly born to rule. To the Southern mind, a Northern economy had poor white men working like slaves, and the Northern political system that allowed those same poor whites to vote like gentlemen was an outrage against natural law. Such a debased system could only devolve into squalor and anarchy. The South, therefore, with its culture firmly rooted in established classical principles, must in the end prevail.

And so both sides, North and South, saw the other as “an alien culture doomed to extinction.” And yet, Isenberg notes --
Little separated northern mudsills from southern trash. Neither class gained much when reduced to cannon fodder.

Over and over, it is the different groups on the bottom of the heap – be they mudsills, squatters, crackers, “white trash,” black African slaves or displaced Native Americans – who have the most in common. Over and over these groups without franchise must be kept apart, made to see each other as enemies, so that the wealthy and powerful of North and South, old East and new West, can claim their allegiance to ensure an open road ahead for their own continued self-enrichment.

Who Dwells in the Swamp?

Along the boundary between Virginia and Carolina was a large and forbidding wetland known as the Dismal Swamp. ... 
 Virginians viewed the twenty-two-hundred-square-mile wetland as a danger-filled transition zone. The seemingly endless quagmire literally overlapped the two colonies. There were no obvious routes through its mosquito-ridden cypress forests. In many places, travelers sank knee-deep in the soggy, peaty soil, and had to wade through coal-colored, slimy water dotted with gnarled roots. 
...The Great Dismal Swamp divided civilized Virginia planters from the rascally barbarians of Carolina.
The story of the Carolinas and the reality and potent image of the “swamp” comes chronologically long before the Civil War. So now let us return to colonial times.

William Byrd II, a wealthy Virginian, had an idea: Drain the swamp! Ditch it and create farmland!  Such a wild, uncivilized country was not, however, easily tamed and became the natural refuge of poor whites crowded out of the good land. With little farming experience or knowledge, many lived in rags and starved. They certainly had no wherewithal to pay the rents demanded by landowners, who held large tracts, in absentia, by royal charter. In pockets of desperation, rebellions formed.

Enter Lord Shaftesbury! Yes, the patron of John Locke. The disorder of “Culpepeper’s Rebellion,” Shaftesbury argued, was no “rebellion” at all, since Albemarle County had no government worthy of the name and, so, remained in – yes! -- a State of Nature, and as such its inhabitants could expect no protection from civil law!

In 16th-century colonial America, the “swamp” was basically North Carolina, a buffer between prosperous Virginia plantations and the South Carolina seacoast, gradually undergoing civilization. It was inhabited by the poor, the uneducated, the hopeless and landless. Could the “swamp” have been sufficiently “drained” in colonial days, the newly homeless poor whites of its wilderness would have been forced elsewhere, along with Native American tribes, instead of remaining in their remote Appalachian communities. So much for historical precedent.

Our recent U.S. election went to a candidate who promised once again to “drain the swamp,” but with important differences in the phrase as it was used in 1728 and then in 2016. This time around, last year, the reference was to Washington, D.C. and the promises seemingly given to “forgotten” poor whites. It would not be they swept down the drain this time, but the “elites.” Did that mean the rich and powerful? Doesn’t look like that so far. Instead, career government workers and appointees with education and background in their fields are being run out of town, their places taken by a wealthy business and industry elite.

So how about the big swamp-draining promises? Will those who have been at the bottom of the heap for 400 years finally catch a break? Or will the most rich and most powerful smash to pieces the flimsy ladder of worker protection, educational opportunity, health care, and hope for cleaner air, soil, and water so painfully constructed for all Americans in the decades since 1929? Will the “forgotten” finally prosper, or will they be pushed yet deeper into the mud?

What do you hope for? What do you fear? What do you expect?

You can probably tell how it looks to me, but then, Americans have never been of a single mind on anything, have we?


Locke’s Two Treatises on Government: A Critical Edition with Introduction and Notes, by Peter Laslett, 2nd edition. Cambridge University Press, 1967

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, by Nancy Isenberg. NY: Viking, 2016


Mr G said...

I love this post.
You really nailed It!

Phil said...

Our capacity to compartmentalize or otherwise separate our own interests from our ideals, or rules for others is great. "Do what I say. . ." Where does our blindness to the reality of class originate? Our long-standing embrace of individualism? Or the claim of opportunity for all, that we've somehow escaped the 'old world.'

Sarah Shoemaker said...

This post is worth saving and savoring! Thanks, Pamela! And save me a copy.

P. J. Grath said...

Belated thanks to all of you for the comments. It encourages me to keep on doing what I do.