My friend Rebecca, frequent reader of the blog, posted this story on my Facebook timeline last week and wanted to know “So how accurate is this? (I.e. Were textbooks seriously describing slaves as happy?)”
To Rebecca’s specific question, I’d answer “yes,” broadly speaking. The role of the UDC in shaping dominant narratives about the Southern past – and in shaping the landscape itself – is something a lot of historians have dug into. If you want to read more, start with the work of Karen Cox: Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture.
Moreover, as we’ve seen recently, problematic descriptions of enslaved people’s lives and experiences in textbooks are still with us, even repeated by members of the cabinet. Just like “Confederate memorials” that were put up by the UDC, these textbooks reflect the agendas of specific segments of the American public, groups with whom historians often find themselves in conflict.
But we should remember that the UDC didn’t invent narratives out of thin air and hoodwink the white American population into believing them. As the Vox video notes, proponents of the “Lost Cause” ideology – many of whom had been active Confederate leaders – began rewriting the narrative of the war almost immediately. They were able to do so because the threads of the Lost Cause ideology were already woven into white American beliefs about racial difference and enslavement.
The second thread that the Vox video highlights is the one we want to think about. While the text says “Enslaved people were happy,” the voiceover says it was about the idea that slavery was a benevolent institution. We want to be clear about the belief that is at the root of both related ideas: that black people were fundamentally incapable of independence in any sense. Childlike and uncivilizable, they needed the direction and structure of enslavement to be safe, happy, and productive. Therefore, Lost Cause proponents argued, the Civil War had ruined a system of happy relations, where everyone knew their place and was taken care of.
The narrative of the Lost Cause stuck because it played on ideas that had existed before the war to justify slavery’s continuation. While the ideas intensified as the cotton economy intensified, from the 1790s on, we see them from the earliest days of the republic. In 1786, George Washington confronted burgeoning anti-slavery sentiment by worrying about “slaves who are happy and contented with their present masters, [who] are tampered with and seduced to leave.”
My own research subject, a white woman from New England who held moderate anti-slavery sentiment, noted upon her first visit to a Virginia plantation in 1841: “They talk about the negroes being such a happy set of people, but I had not seen one in the district who, if they did not look too utterly stupid to have any expression at all, did not appear from their countenances to be…miserable.” Even if this woman didn’t buy that enslaved people were happy, she didn’t see them as intelligent people equal to her, as least in their present context.
All of this is also mixed up with the fact that enslaved people were also legally property. For white Americans, whether slave owners, slave traders, or young white girls working in New England cotton mills, the privilege of racial power meant thinking of and treating enslaved people as property or people, whichever was beneficial in a given moment.
Imagining slavery as a benevolent institution is only possible if you imagine black people were not and are not fully people. This is key to the three elements of the Lost Cause ideology that has so profoundly shaped white American remembrance of the Civil War. If enslaved people weren’t people, the institution was benevolent. If enslaved people weren’t people, it wasn’t horrific to take up arms against your country to defend a system of enslavement. If enslaved people weren’t people deserving of freedom, the root cause of the war can be about a “lack of compromise,” in the words of General John Kelly, our current White House Chief of Staff.
Kelly believes the Civil War came because “men and women of good faith on both sides” could not compromise, suggesting that had they compromised, war could have been avoided. True compromise involves each side giving something up, but Kelly knows as well as anyone that the real compromising in the decades before the Civil War was done on the backs of the enslaved black population. Their rights and freedoms and bodily autonomy and happiness were compromised away.
We should not simply write off Kelly’s words as historically ignorant, nor should he be allowed to claim ignorance; no one who was truly that ignorant of the American past should be permitted to continue holding the office he holds. He was espousing Lost Cause ideology, which only “makes sense” if you do not believe that black people are fully deserving of and capable of the human and civil rights that white people – particularly white men – have long enjoyed in the United States.
Either John Kelly believes black Americans were better off and happy in slavery, and therefore “compromise” would not have harmed them, or he just thinks they didn’t (and don’t) deserve equality, and therefore “compromise” would not have harmed them more than they deserved.
Neither Kelly nor any other American can blame this on bad textbooks. The narrative pushed by the UDC through textbooks and memorials found fertile ground in the minds of white Americans throughout the United States who already believed black Americans to be inferior and undeserving of equality. With statements like those he gave last night, Kelly was watering and cultivating these deeply-rooted ideas.