Monday, June 13, 2011

Harriet Beecher Stowe

I just took a quick glance at this story over at regarding a review of a recent book about Harriet Beecher Stowe.  I think the history described by the author is, well, a bit wrong.

Generally, and let's be clear about this, slavery was indeed one of the twin pillars that formed the foundation (you like mixed metaphors, well there you go) of the U.S. Constitution.  That does not mean that there was any sort of agreement about slavery other than the fact that the mercantilist Northern elite agreed to allowing slavery to persist in exchange for the physiocratic Southern elite's agreement to accept tariffs.  Go back and read the Constitution (without the Bill of Rights, which was added later) and the compromise between tariffs and slavery is starkly obvious.  Indeed, in the run up to the Civil War, there was a book that made precisely this point.

What I find disturbing about the laudatory praise of Ms. Stowe is the notion that she was somehow "liberal" for her age.  The fact is that many Northern states had abolished slavery within their borders before ever entering into the Constitution, an argument that was made by Dred Scott's lawyers to the Supreme Court.

When you look at the historical pressures that led up to the Civil War, what you see is the fact that the Southern states were using the Constitution as a club to force Northern states to support and perpetuate the institution of slavery.  Abolitionism wasn't really an attempt to do away with slavery as much as it was an attempt to hold the line on slavery in the Northern states.  The abolitionist movement would never have arisen but for the fact that Southern states were constantly seeking to force Northern states to support slavery through fugitive slave laws, etc.  Indeed, the first proposed "papers please law" required freed slaves to carry papers with them to prove they were not fugitive slaves.  The failure to have such papers would have allowed fugitive slave hunters to kidnap free black men and women and "extradite" them to the Southern states, which they apparently did quite often.

Bottom line: the smaller Southern states had succeeded for decades in browbeating the larger Northern states into accepting and expanding the institution of slavery much more broadly than contemplated by the Constitution.  In this sense, the Civil War was really a war of aggression by the slaveholding Southern states: the abolitionist movement arose as a bulwark against extra-constitutional encroachment of slavery into the Northern states, something that the Dred Scott decision all but assured.  The Southern states could not abide a reversal of their fortune.

Against this backdrop, I have a real problem with the concept of portraying Ms. Stowe as some kind of "liberal" hero that the current "progressive" movement can take lessons from.  She was merely a representative of one of the dominant forces in the United States.  Yes, she was a particularly effective propagandist-- and I say this as somebody who enjoyed her book and agreed with her message-- but to lionize her as some kind of hero is to confuse the effectiveness of her presentation with her real aims.  Like the "pro-life" advocates of the present era, she did not care about or take responsibility for ensuring the quality of life of those she claimed to represent and protect.  She was far more interested in limiting the options available to her opponents than she was to helping the pawn she used to achieve that end.

And I say all this as somebody who believes that Harriet Beecher Stowe actually performed a real service to our country.