Slavery remains one of the most uncomfortable subjects in the history of the United States of America. Indeed, it can hardly be relegated to being only American “history” as we’ll soon see in greater depth. There are large groups of historical revisionists that have a vested interest in trying to downplay it or reshape it in a way that’s more comfortable for their agendas. There are also some people that have grown up with overly simplistic versions of slavery in the past and its current state. We here at TopTenz will strive do our small part to push back against both.
10. “Abolitionism was a Popular Northern Movement”
The idea that Union armies marched with the intention of freeing slaves is integral to the romanticization of the American Civil War and the lionizing of Abraham Lincoln, as seen in speeches like the one that Jeff Daniels gives in film Gettysburg. It gave a long, grueling war a sense of purpose that was meant to help everyone feel better about the end result.
It’s also not really what the situation actually was like in the North. The New York Times reports that as recently as 1860 an abolitionist movement called the Liberty Party ran a candidate that didn’t win a majority in a single county. The largest abolition newspaper in the country only had a circulation of around three thousand at a time when the combined population of the Northern states was more than twenty million. Even among the black population that joined the Union Army, the vast majority were former slaves recently freed by the army they joined. When the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1862, it led to a spike in desertions among Union troops, some of whom were explicit about how emancipation was the motivating factor. In brief, it could hardly have been said that the average soldier would have been moved by a speech about freeing slaves.
9. “The American Civil War was Not About Slavery”
In order to defend fetishizing the Confederate flag (or rather the Army of Northern Virginia’s battle flag) and other aspects of America’s confederate heritage, the lie has been spread that the Civil War was fought over the rights of States, not the freeing of slaves. There are a number of aspects that can be cited to support this claim, such as the fact Lincoln himself denied that the war was about slavery in the early days since, as said, many people in the North were opposed to the idea of fighting a war to end slavery.
However, the Southern states all included in their Declarations of Causes for their rebellion that it was either the “superiority of white races” or the issue of slavery. South Carolina, the first state to secede, charged the North with the crime of “…elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens…” Mississippi’s called slavery “the greatest material interest in the world.” However much people today might try to muddy the waters, back then the motivation for the rebellion was crystal clear.
8. “Slaves Fought for the Confederacy”
When someone wants to claim the American Civil War was about defending homes instead of slavery (more on this later) they would be in line with common revisionist rhetoric to say that slaves and black people fought rank and file with their white associates. After all, who could deny the need for white people to defend their home state if even black people and slaves would set aside their differences for it?
The problem is that for the longest time, the Confederate government wouldn’t have it. All black people, even those free born, were banned from serving as soldiers in the Confederate armies for almost the entire war. They served as camp followers that had to cook and clean as slaves, but they were not permitted to take up arms. When the Confederacy tried desperately to create black regiments in 1865, it was with the offer of freedom instead of to defend the South, and it happened so late in the war that they were never able to see combat.
7. “Slaves were Rarely Killed by Labor”
The logic of this one is pretty straightforward and seemingly sound: Since a slave is likely going to be expensive, it’s in the best interest of the owner to treat them well to make sure they can get more years of relatively less grudging work out of them. Noam Chomsky described how a prevailing argument among slave owners was that industrial wage workers had it worse than a slave because “we take care of our slaves. You only rent them.”
However, it wasn’t an approach that actually appealed to slave owners going by the available information. A slave owner in Louisiana named Bennett T. Barrow was unremarkable in describing almost daily beatings and torture for slaves. Food and housing standards were generally minimal, as much for a show of power as a means of cutting costs. A slave cemetery that was discovered in 1997 showed that many slaves died before the age of twelve, and of those that survived into adulthood, many had lesions in their bones where their labors literally wore away the muscles to the bones. It seems that for most people rich enough to own slaves at all there was enough income that even expensive human labor was disposable.
6. “Freed Slaves Took Control of Southern Governments After the American Civil War”
For a century this lie was used in the South for policies designed to take away voting rights from black people. The narrative essentially boils down to how, after slaves were freed, they immediately began voting for politicians that were so vile that they had to be forcefully removed from office for the good of all, exemplified by the fact the majority of the new elected leaders were black. The landmark film The Birth of a Nation from 1915 is basically devoted to this falsehood.
The truth was that during the high point of African-American power during the South in the late 1860s, they only had a legislative majority in South Carolina. Other than that, it was much closer to Mississippi, where only roughly 17% of elected legislators were black. What was actually happening was a wave of terror in the South where black people and sympathizers were being murdered basically en masse, particularly black servicemen. In Louisiana alone in 1868 more than a thousand people were murdered for this reason. In short, the truth was much closer to terrorism we mostly associate with the Middle East today being inflicted on freed slaves.
5. “Slaves Were Only Owned by the Wealthiest”
As evidence that the average Southern soldier didn’t fight in the Civil War to defend the institution of slavery, it’s put forth that the vast majority of them couldn’t begin to afford a slave. The average price of a slave in 1860 was $800, which certainly sounds above the pay grade of a soldier making $11.00 a month as the average Confederate private was when they first enlisted, so it sounds even more reasonable.
However, you have to consider that among the people that fought for Southern armies such as the Army of Northern Virginia, slave ownership was much more common than you think. One in ten soldiers owned slaves. Another twenty-five percent of the soldiers, who did tend to be only around the age of twenty-six and naturally wouldn’t have saved up to buy their own, lived in slave-owning households. In the officer class, half were slave owners. That’s not even factoring how many aspired to own slaves, worked on plantations as overseers or related jobs, or the number who felt that keeping black people in chains was the proper order of things. If there were soldiers that fought only for states’ rights, they certainly were not the overwhelming majority.
4. “Even if the South Won the Civil War, Slavery Would Have Ended Shortly After”
As part of the argument that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, some claim it was dying out on its own. For one thing, the fact that every major trading partner for the Confederacy had outlawed slavery (and that it was unpopular enough that the South wasn’t officially recognized) is offered as a sign international pressure would have led to it being banned. Also, advances in technology would have allegedly made slavery obsolete.
In fact, slavery was so profitable at the time that an average slave owner could expect a 100% return on their investment within ten years, and considering the light costs, that meant each slave was almost pure profit for decades if they lived to even middle age for the time. And nearly a century later, Nazi Germany put millions of people into highly profitable slave labor. Even today some countries still find use for it. So if the Southern states had indeed become a separate nation, it would have meant a long time where millions of people lived and died as property.
3. “The First Slaves in America Were White People!”
An argument used to downplay the atrocities of the slavery of black people in America is the claim that Irish immigrants were an overlooked group that also got enslaved. Irish people certainly were put into forced labor under the more sophisticated sounding label “indentured servitude,” and doesn’t that show just how phony and shallow the feelings of people opposed to slavery of black people are?
However, there were significant, immediately tangible differences between indentured servants and slaves. Indentured servants still retained basic human rights such as the fact neither they nor their children were designated property. It was contractually possible to get out of indentured servitude through labor, something no slave could hope to get through anything more than their master’s whim.
2. “Slavery was a Southern Problem”
For the average American the first instinct when the issue of slavery in America is brought up is to imagine a slave being worked to death on a plantation while the enlightened Northern states were their only hope of freedom. It helps natives from those states feel that their hands are much cleaner of the peculiar institution and allows unambiguous condemnation of the South as just a bunch of racists.
In truth, many Northern states didn’t merely tolerate Southern slaveholding for a long time. There were many active participants. Almost all the ships that brought slaves through the infamous Triangle Trade originally set sail in New England even well after it was banned in that region. Northern states also allowed slavery much later than history textbooks usually admit. In Pennsylvania, for example, there were still hundreds of black slaves in 1850 even though it had been banned under state law in 1780 because the Gradual Abolition of Slavery Act allowed them to remain slaves until their twenty-eighth birthday. So the taint of slavery is much more prominent on Northern states than a passing knowledge of history indicates.
1. “Slavery is Illegal in America”
As a means to try and put the openly slave friendly time behind us, revisionists that want to downplay slavery will mention that it became illegal more than 150 years ago, so why continue to claim it’s still important? Indeed, Steven Spielberg’s biopic Lincoln treats the passing of the 13th Amendment to outlaw slavery as an unambiguous triumph.
Unfortunately, as made clear in Ava Duvernay’s documentary 13th, the 13th Amendment contains a loophole that allows people to be put into forced labor as a form of punishment for being convicted of a crime. While chattel slavery was outlawed by Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940s to prevent it being used for Japanese propaganda in WWII, the amendment is still in place. Duvernay’s documentary also points out that 25% of all people that are incarcerated in the world are in the US and thus vulnerable to being pressed into slavery. Indeed, in January 2017, Sheriff Thomas Hodgson in Massachusetts offered local inmates as slave labor to help build the border wall with Mexico. So it’s not so much a dirty secret that slavery is still legal in America as it’s an unpleasant truth hidden beneath the surface that we’re only now shining a light on.
Dustin Koski can be found on Facebook.