In the fury that followed the murderous rampage in a South Carolina church back in June, we Americans found our attention diverted from yet another gun incident to the ubiquitous Confederate battle flag and the unhealed wounds that its presence calls to mind. And in the ensuing noisy debate, I happened to see a right-wing meme in my Facebook stream that gave me pause. It complained about what today’s schoolkids aren’t taught, and it ended with this provocative statement:
Whites were the first people to stop slavery in modern times, whereas slavery continues in Africa to this day.
Presumably, the author of this bit of copy-and-paste truthiness couched this statement with “in modern times,” because he or she knew that Chinese governments had banned slavery at least twice in ancient times. Even at that, China did not permanently free its slaves until the 1720s in the Yongzheng emancipation, and de facto slavery continued for decades.
The long road to emancipation
In fact many nations took steps, however slowly, toward abolition throughout the 18th and 19th century. We can’t be entirely sure what the author meant by “stop slavery,” but I would argue that it must encompass participation in the slave trade and the use of slaves in colonial territories; it has to include more than just the abolition of bondage in the homeland. Nor can we forget serfdom. For while we may marvel at Russia’s abolition of slavery in 1723, we must also note with dismay that its serfs weren’t freed until 1861. (See the Abolition of Slavery Timeline at Wikipedia.)
We could cite the 1777 constitution of the so-called Republic of Vermont, but the slavery ban contained therein had rather spotty enforcement. Moreover, Vermont was a “reluctant republic,” and sought absorption into the Union as soon as it could do so.
The United States itself, of course, did not eradicate slavery nationally until the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865. Before that, several nations in the Western Hemisphere had already freed their slaves. Even Great Britain, which had taken halting steps toward full emancipation in the late 18th century, did not effectively end all slavery in the empire until 1837.
We could possibly point to Norway and Denmark as the first two countries to halt participation in the transatlantic slave trade (effective 1803); however, Denmark still allowed slavery in its colonies until 1848. We might also note France, whose revolutionary government briefly outlawed slavery, only to see its return under Napoleon.
A successful revolution
But clearly, of all the places in the world with well-entrenched, industrial-scale slavery, Haiti (originally, the French Colony of Saint-Domingue) is one of the first, if not the first, in which immediate and permanent emancipation took place. And the African slaves did it themselves. In The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, Edward E. Baptist describes how the revolution started:
In 1791, Africans enslaved in the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue exploded in a revolt unprecedented in human history. Saint-Domingue, the eastern [actually, western] third of the island of Hispaniola, was at that time the ultimate sugar island, the imperial engine of French economic growth. But on a single August night, the mill of the first slavery’s growth stopped turning. All across Saint-Domingue’s sugar country, the most profitable stretch of real estate on the planet, enslaved people burst into the country mansions. They slaughtered enslavers, set torches to sugar houses and cane fields, and then marched by the thousand on Cap-Français, the seat of colonial rule. Thrown back, they regrouped. Revolt spread across the colony. (Baptist, 2014, Kindle Location 1238, emphasis mine)
Eventually, by 1804, the revolutionaries declared themselves the sovereign state of Haiti with a constitution that absolutely forbade slavery. Before that, however, Saint-Domingue had to fight off waves of foreign invaders, Europeans who wanted to see the island turned back into what it had been: A massive slave gulag for the production of sugar.
Napoleon had every intention of winning back this valuable colony.
In 1801, he sent the largest invasion fleet that ever crossed the Atlantic, some 50,000 men, to the island under the leadership of his brother-in-law Charles LeClerc. Their mission was to decapitate the ex-slave leadership of Saint-Domingue. “No more gilded Africans,” Napoleon commanded. Subdue any resistance by deception and force. Return to slavery all the Africans who survived. (Baptist, 2014, Kindle Location 1268, emphasis mine)
At the same time, he sent a second expeditionary force to New Orleans with orders to take over Louisiana, as part of a secret treaty with Spain. That force contained as many as 20,000 men, far larger than the entire army of the United States.
The forces under LeClerc suffered heavy losses and early on resorted to total war and genocide. Eventually, fierce combat, along with yellow fever and malaria, took their toll on the first wave of French troops, forcing Napoleon to divert the New Orleans contingent to Saint-Domingue. In the end, they were decisively defeated as well.
On hearing the news, Napoleon knew his plans for the Western Hemisphere were dashed. He reportedly shouted, “Damn sugar, damn coffee, damn colonies!” Baptist writes:
And on April 11, before [James] Monroe’s stagecoach could reach Paris, a French minister invited [Robert] Livingston [Jefferson’s envoy] to his office.
Napoleon’s minion shocked Livingston almost out of his knee breeches with an astonishing offer: not just New Orleans, but all of French Louisiana—the whole west bank of the Mississippi and its tributaries. Now the United States was offered—for a mere $15 million—828,000 square miles, 530 million acres, at three cents per acre. This vast expanse doubled the nation’s size. Eventually the land from the Louisiana Purchase would become all or part of fifteen states. It still accounts for almost a quarter of the surface area of the United States. By the late twentieth century, Jefferson’s windfall would be feeding much of the world. (Baptist, 2014, Kindle Location 1297, emphasis mine)
Few Americans, myself included, learn in school that the Louisiana Purchase depended directly upon the Haitian Revolution. If Napoleon had had his way, the French would have seized the port of New Orleans, gaining control of the Mississippi and ready access to the Gulf of Mexico. The United States would have found itself encircled by Britain to the north and France to the west, unable to expand.
Most of the white planters who managed to escape Haiti gravitated to French-speaking New Orleans, where they told horror stories of slave revolts, panic, widespread destruction, terror, and ruin. The lessons of Saint-Domingue were reinforced by other slave revolts that came before and those that followed in its wake. But American planters had learned their lessons well. They built a robust slavocracy fueled by cash crops (eventually, “King Cotton”), made safe by force of arms and the willingness to use extreme violence, torture, and terror to maintain stability.
Slave states are police states
A slave state is by necessity a police state, or in some cases a garrison state. Contrary to the myths still taught in many American schools and universities, the slave populace in the antebellum South was far from docile; it took an iron fist to keep them in their place. A well-organized militia, they found, was essential to their safety. And, as the Second Amendment to the Constitution explains, that well-organized militia required an armed citizenry.
The prevailing myth today is that the Second Amendment enshrined gun rights to individuals in order to prevent the imposition of tyranny. However, at the time of its adoption, that was not its primary intent. In fact, a close study of how those state militias were used — in quelling uprisings and defeating slave revolts — demonstrates their primary purpose: the imposition of order to protect property, the lives of property owners, and the associated rights of those owners.
As Carl T. Bogus explains in “The Hidden History of the Second Amendment“:
The Second Amendment was not enacted to provide a check on government tyranny; rather, it was written to assure the Southern states that Congress would not undermine the slave system by using its newly acquired constitutional authority over the militia to disarm the state militia and thereby destroy the South’s principal instrument of slave control. In effect, the Second Amendment supplemented the slavery compromise made at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and obliquely codified in other constitutional provisions. (Bogus, 1998, p. 321, emphasis mine)
In the prolonged struggle for ratification, Southern states worried that the new Constitution did not sufficiently protect their “way of life” from Northerners who wanted full emancipation. Even the very few Southerners who supported manumission opposed setting Africans free unless those emancipated slaves were also deported. Ending slavery could well have dire consequences. Bogus writes:
Even Virginians who wanted to end slavery had to tremble at such a prospect. Virginia was a state living in perpetual fear. Fully forty-four percent of Virginia’s total population was black, and in some areas, particularly in the eastern part of the state, blacks constituted the majority. Whites were ever mindful that if the right opportunity presented itself, blacks might cut their heads off.
This is not hyperbole. On a Sunday morning in September 1739, for example, a group of about twenty blacks broke into a store near Stono, South Carolina for guns and powder. They decapitated the two storekeepers, displayed their heads on the front steps, and then headed South, sacking and burning homes and killing whites on their way. They marched while flying banners, beating drums, and calling out “Liberty!” to attract more slaves to the rebellion. According to one account, their numbers “increased every minute by new Negroes coming to them, so that they were above Sixty, some say a hundred.” But for a coincidence, the rebellion may have grown considerably larger and perhaps even succeeded. (Bogus, 1998, pp. 332-333, reformatting and emphasis mine)
By lucky coincidence, South Carolina’s lieutenant governor happened to catch sight of the rebels while traveling to Charleston. He was able to muster a militia of perhaps 100 armed men on horseback who drove back the slaves and quelled the rebellion.
As a warning against future insurrections, the militia decapitated black rebels and placed their heads “up at every Mile Post they came to.” However, at least thirty blacks escaped. The entire white population was ordered under arms, and a desperate manhunt was conducted to find the remaining rebels. It was not until a week later that a militia company located the largest remnant of the insurrectionist band and killed most of the group in a second battle. Perhaps a half dozen blacks escaped from this second battle,” and one of the leaders of the rebellion was not captured until three years later. (Bogus, 1998, p. 333, emphasis mine)
The purpose of the militia
The story of the Stono Rebellion and its lesson, that the safety of a slave society requires a well-armed militia, remained uppermost in the Southern mind.
Over time the South had developed an elaborate system of slave control. The basic instrument of control was the slave patrol, armed groups of white men who made regular rounds. The patrols made sure that blacks were not wandering where they did not belong, gathering in groups, or engaging in other suspicious activity. Equally important, however, was the demonstration of constant vigilance and armed force.
The basic strategy was to ensure and impress upon the slaves that whites were armed, watchful, and ready to respond to insurrectionist activity at all times. The state required white men and female plantation owners to participate in the patrols and to provide their own arms and equipment, although the rich were permitted to send white servants in their place.
Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia all had regulated slave patrols. By the mid-eighteenth century, the patrols had become the responsibility of the militia. (Bogus, 1998, pp. 335, reformatting and emphasis mine)
Thanks to well-regulated state militias who engaged in regular slave patrols, what happened in Haiti could never happen in Virginia or Georgia. Even if a rebellion should happen to break out, as they did from time to time, none could ever gain sufficient momentum to topple a government.
Southerners noted with some trepidation that the new Constitution (Article 1, Section 8) granted the federal government the power to raise a national militia “to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions.” Where would that leave state militias? Given that in the South the militia and the slave patrol had become synonymous, that was a pressing question. At the convention Patrick Henry put it this way:
By this, sir, you see that their control over our last and best defence is unlimited. If they neglect or refuse to discipline or arm our militia, they will be useless: the states can do neither — this power being exclusively given to Congress. The power of appointing officers over men not disciplined or armed is ridiculous; so that this pretended little remains of power left to the states may, at the pleasure of Congress, be rendered nugatory.
“Defence” against what? Henry and the rest of the men in Philadelphia knew that the state militias had performed rather poorly in the recent war against Britain. Washington had called them “ungovernable.” They were unreliable as reinforcement troops, and most of them weren’t even good shots. Against any organized force, they proved useless.
What was Henry driving at? In 1788, Americans did not fear foreign invasion. Nor did Americans still harbor the illusion that the militia could effectively contest trained military forces. [T]he militia had performed woefully during the war. Virginia’s militia, in particular, had disgraced itself by bolting before firing a single shot in the critical battle of Camden, South Carolina. The militia were the last and best defense against slave insurrection but practically useless against a professional army. (Bogus, 1998, p. 346, emphasis mine)
Militias must be armed
Southern delegates feared that the North would use the new Constitution to bring emancipation to the South via subterfuge. George Mason rose to condemn any such nefarious, backdoor plan.
The [state] militia may be here destroyed by that method which has been practised [sic] in other parts of the world before; that is, by rendering them useless — by disarming them. Under various pretences [sic], Congress may neglect to provide for arming and disciplining the militia; and the state governments cannot do it, for Congress has an exclusive right to arm them, &c.
As Bogus correctly points out, Mason’s interest in the matter was not merely academic. As the owner of 300 slaves, his personal safety as well as the safety of his property depended upon his state’s well-organized militia.
Patrick Henry put it more bluntly. He said the new Constitution left the South vulnerable, because only the federal government could declare war and call up the militia, and then only in the case of war. He asked, rhetorically, what this clause means.
Not domestic insurrections, but war. If the country be invaded, a state may go to war, but cannot suppress insurrections. If there should happen an insurrection of slaves, the country cannot be said to be invaded. They cannot, therefore, suppress it without the interposition of Congress . . . . Congress, and Congress only, can call forth the militia.
If members of the audience were previously uncertain about the meaning of Mason and Henry’s warning, this had made it plain. Congress might want to leave the South defenseless against its slaves. (Bogus, 1998, p. 350, emphasis mine)
The roots of the Second Amendment
In the ensuing argument between Patrick Henry and James Madison, Henry claimed to be solely interested in the provisions by which the militias should be armed, saying, “This is my object. I only wish to bring it to what they themselves say is implied.”
Henry had suggested that all he wanted was this one modest and reasonable change in the Constitution, to allow the states to arm the militia if the federal government failed to do so. Henry’s real objective, of course, was to destroy rather than reform the Constitution. . . Madison may well have been thinking that Henry’s point had merit — the states ought to have a concurrent authority to arm their militia. What harm would there be in it, especially if it would relieve some of the anti-Federalist paranoia about Congress emasculating the militia? Two years later Madison would write the Second Amendment, which has essentially the same effect as the provision that Henry claimed to be advocating. (Bogus, 1998, p. 352, emphasis mine)
Anti-federalists, seeing the tide turning in favor of passage and ratification, turned their attention toward attaching a bill of rights in order to further limit the power of the federal government. In that spirit, Virginia put forth a long list called the Declaration of Rights. In it, a sort of nascent Second Amendment exists, calling for the right of people to “bear arms” within the context of a “well-regulated militia.”
The structure and language of the Declaration of Rights provide further evidence that the right to bear arms was linked to the militia. Both concepts are incorporated in the same provision. Moreover, the phrase “to bear arms” was a term of art that meant participating in military affairs, not merely carrying weapons. As Garry Wills put it: “[O]ne does not bear arms against a rabbit.” (Bogus, 1998, p. 357, emphasis mine)
Fast-forward to the writing of the Bill of Rights. Madison had originally opposed such a laundry list of rights, but now put himself in the forefront of writing the them, committed to the fight to keep the Constitution intact and the infant republic from being smothered in the crib. If he searched the existing states’ bills of rights, he had no lack of examples.
Eighteenth century America reverberated with a cacophony of proclaimed rights. The thirteen state constitutions collectively contained a total of more than four hundred separate provisions, what Gordon S. Wood calls “a jarring but exciting combination of ringing declarations of universal principles with a motley collection of common law procedures.”
But for the events at Richmond, it is doubtful that Madison would have included a right to bear arms in his proposed list of rights. Only four of the thirteen state constitutions — Massachusetts, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Vermont — contained a right to bear arms provision. Moreover, these documents were divided on the scope of the right.
The Massachusetts and North Carolina declarations of rights guaranteed a collective right only; they spoke, respectively, of a right to bear arms “for the common defence” or “for the defence of the State.” The declarations of rights of Pennsylvania and Vermont, on the other hand, guaranteed citizens a right to bear arms “for the defence of themselves and the State.” Thus, over two-thirds of the state constitutions did not contain a right to bear arms, and the minority was divided on the essential purpose of such a right. (Bogus, 1998, pp. 364-365, reformatting and emphasis mine)
Bogus’s history of the Second Amendment that follows is well worth reading, and I encourage you to do so. Suffice it to say here that Madison’s original draft used the term “free country,” which Congress changed to “free State.” Madison also had appended a clause exempting those with religious objections to “bearing arms,” which was dropped in the final draft. In any case, the implied actor in the passive voice construction — “shall not be infringed” — was clearly always construed to be the federal government. Hence, the purpose of the amendment was to provide an unambiguous affirmation to slave states that the federal government could not interfere with their ability to maintain and arm their militias.
Moreover, the evidence from the history leading up to the Second Amendment strongly implies that it was part of a package of provisions set forth in order to protect the South from abolition. These provisions included:
(1) [T]he fugitive slave provision, requiring that runaway slaves escaping across state lines be returned to their owners;
(2) the provision prohibiting Congress from abolishing the African slave trade until 1808 or imposing an import tax of more than ten dollars per slave; and
(3) provisions counting slaves as three-fifths of free persons for the purposes of apportioning congressional representation and direct taxation.
In effect, Madison proposed that the slavery compromise be supplemented by another constitutional provision prohibiting Congress from emasculating the South’s primary instrument of slave control, and Congress acceded to that request. (Bogus, 1998, pp. 371, reformatting and emphasis mine)
On 17 June 2015, 21-year-old Dylann Roof entered the Charleston Emanuel AME Church carrying a .45 caliber Glock along with eight magazines loaded with hollow-point bullets. He shot and killed nine people.
In the ensuing debate over the Confederate flag (since, of course, we can’t do anything about our gun problem), I happened to see a conservative meme that lamented our ignorance of the history of slavery. As examples, it complained that “the average school student” today may not realize that whites were not the only people who kept slaves and that whites “were the first people to stop slavery in modern times.”
But digging into the past to find out what we don’t know is a dangerous enterprise for conservatives. The thousands of incensed white people who forwarded that meme in emails or shared it on Facebook, slapping one another on the back for “ending slavery,” would be surprised to know that Haiti banned slavery over 70 years before the United States would do so. They likely have no idea that Haiti can attribute its current status as an economic basket case on the embargo and the continuous malicious intervention by white nations following their revolution.
They certainly know nothing about the true history of the Second Amendment. They have no idea why it’s easier to buy a Glock and several cases of ammunition than it is to buy decongestants. Nor do they have any idea that American gun culture, slavery, the Confederate flag, the Civil War, and our persistent and intractable racism are all intertwined. Our fanatical worship of firearms has its roots in the need to put down slave revolts, in the fear that the tortured and persecuted Africans who created America’s wealth will rise up one day and “cut our heads off.”
The past is a disturbing and dangerous thing. In it we may find that our ancestors were on the wrong side of history. Fortunately, in the United States, we’re content to remain ignorant.
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