Book Review: America’s Longest Siege

Joseph Kelly’s America’s Longest Siege: Charleston, Slavery, and the Slow March Toward Civil War is a splendid book, one of those books that takes a familiar story and fills in gaps you hadn’t previously thought existed.  Essentially, it’s the history of an ideology.  It’s the story of a big, powerful, compelling, (at the time) convincing and utterly Satanic idea.

The idea it traces is the ‘positive good’ theory of slavery. This is the idea that slavery was inherently beneficial.  For everyone.

Anyone who studies American history knows how many of our Founders practiced slavery: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Rutledge, George Mason, many many others.  And they managed their cognitive dissonance–the notional gap between ‘all men created equal’ and the peculiar practice they relied on for their fortunes–with varying degrees of discomfort.  But discomfort there was, for all of them: for Washington certainly, who freed (some of) his slaves in his will, for Jefferson, who put a clause accusing King George of promoting it in his Declaration.  That very discomfort, of course, looks very much like hypocrisy to us, today.  It complicates, morally, our celebration of their accomplishments.  But generally, the Founders’ generation believed that slavery was morally wrong. And they believed that, in time, it would go away, if left alone. Ultimately, they believed it would prove economically (and morally) unsustainable.  In time, it would hold back regions that practiced it, keep them locked in agrarian economies that wouldn’t have incentive to industrialize.  And slavery was bad for slave-owners. It was degrading, to own other human beings and profit from their unrecompensed toil.

By 1860, though, this view of slavery, this idea that it violated fundamental human rights, that it was bad for slavers and slaves alike, that it was economically unsustainable, that statements like ‘all men created equal’ meant something important and profound, all those Founders’ ideals had come to be regarded as embarrassingly naive, backward, unscientific.  The new ideology was ‘positive good.’  Slavery was good for everyone, according to this formulation.  Slavery was beneficial.  Slaves prospered under it, if slaves could be drawn exclusively from a backwards and inferior race incapable of managing on its own. Slavery was a ‘positive good.’  For everyone.

Where did that come from?  Who invented it, who taught it, how were those ideas promoted?  Well, that’s the subject of this book.  And the answer is surprising.  This view of slavery, that it was beneficial for slaves and slave-owners alike, that it was genuinely positive for everyone in society, basically traces from the 1830s, not really earlier.  That’s not to say that the idea of slavery as a positive good was previously unknown.  But it became an ideology in the 1830s, something widely believed and taught.  An idea, in fact, so important that every challenge to it had to be ruthlessly confronted.  Public safety committees had to form and intimidate anyone who questioned ‘public good’ orthodoxy.  School curricula had to be examined, and heterodox notions expunged.  Freedom of the Press had to be curtailed.  And any suggestion that maybe, perhaps slavery wasn’t actually terrifically beneficial had to be met with immediate and decisive shows of violence.  And all this started, and spread from, one town in one state.  Charleston, South Carolina.

So we read about William Gilmore Simms, a newspaperman banished from Charleston for opposing South Carolina’s first attempt to secede, in 1832.  But he changed, converted, became a novelist, and an exceptionally popular one, with book after book which established the comforting lies about black inferiority and black contentment under slavery.  No one today reads The Yemassee, or The Sword and the Distaff, or Magnolia.  But they were wildly popular in their day.  Mark Twain thought the novels of Sir Walter Scott were to blame for the Civil War, for the inflated romanticism of mainstream Southern plantation culture.  Kelly makes a more convincing case for William Simms.

Familiar figures make an appearance, like John C. Calhoun, twice Vice-President and one of the great political giants of the early-to-mid 19th century.  But Kelly brilliantly deconstructs Calhoun’s South Carolina Exposition and Protest (1828), calling it “the most pernicious disquisition on the Constitution ever authored by an American statesman.”  You don’t need to look further than Calhoun to find the philosophical roots of ‘positive good’ theory.

Because, as Kelly consistently points out, the idea that slavery was good for everyone was the considered, widely accepted scientific opinion of the day.  Opposition to slavery was considered sentimental, fanatical, wildly emotional and untrustworthy.  Rationally considered, it was obvious that blacks were inferior to whites.  The mid-19th century proved it: measured skull sizes, compared gaits and posture, conducted rudimentary intelligence tests.  Whereas the Jefferson generation believed that the black races had been degraded by the treatment to which they had been subjected, and were as capable as white races given similar opportunities and education, the Calhoun/Simms generation knew better.  Racial differences were innate. Biological.  Demonstrable.

Of course they knew it wasn’t true.  Of course ‘positive good’ was a psychological adjustment to cognitive dissonance.  Kelly’s great there too, showing the hysterical overreaction to the most benign moments of black independence, and the complete hypocrisy of ‘positive good”s most outspoken proponents.

See, for example, James Hammond, US Congressman and Senator, and author of pamphlet after pamphlet extolling the Southern way of life, the generous and kind treatment of slaves, the care taken by slaveowners.  Hammond’s own slaves died at far higher rates than other Charleston slaves, beaten to death and starved.  He fathered multiple children by them, telling his appalled wife that it wasn’t adultery, as they were only slave women.  Oh, and he was also a pedophile, sexually molesting his own nieces.

White supremacists did have their opponents.  One consistently courageous soul was an amiable eccentric named James Louis Pettigru, a anti-slavery advocate of almost unimaginable bravery.  But we also read about Angelina Grimke, a Charleston woman who became one of the greatest of abolitionists, but who was, let’s face it, maybe a little fanatical.  She was easy enough to dismiss, along with William Lloyd Garrison, and other prominent abolitionists, who were, frankly, pretty extreme in their opposition to slavery. They weren’t moderate, they weren’t reasonable, they weren’t willing to compromise.  They thought slavery was a moral evil, and said so.

And so, when 1860 rolled around, and the Democratic party made the insane decision to hold their national convention in Charleston, prominent white supremicists like William Lowndes Yancey and Robert Barnwell Rhett (both native South Carolinians, both born in Charlestown, though Yancey had moved on to Alabama), were able to hijack it, call for a vote on secession, derail the candidacy of Stephen Douglas, and make certain the election of Abraham Lincoln.  The Civil War inevitably followed, as Yancey and Rhett knew it would.

But then Kelly introduces us to his real heroes.  Like Robert Smalls, a slave who had been trained as a river pilot, and given the responsibility of piloting a Southern steamship, the Planter.  In 1862, the officers of his ship went ashore to a tavern, leaving the ship under Smalls.  He filled it with other slaves intent on escaping, added his wife and children, and took off.  He steamed past five batteries, any one of which could have sunk him, but he also had learned the recognition signals and pass codes, and steamed to sea unmolested.  Finding a Northern ship, Smalls ran up a white flag, and told the astonished captain, ‘I thought this ship might be of use to Uncle Abe.’  Smalls later commanded the Planter in battle, playing a significant role in capturing Charleston.  Post-war, he sold the ship, using the money to set himself up in business. I’d never heard of Robert Smalls before, and now regard him as one of the unsung heroes of the Civil War.

Kelly’s book isn’t just great because it’s well-researched, or because it’s about a fascinating subject, or because it’s written with wit and energy and eloquence.  It’s all that, but that’s not why I loved it so much.  It’s great because it’s so angry.  Kelly doesn’t just want us to understand where the ‘positive good’ ideology came from.  He wants us to be as pissed off about it as he is.  And he wants us to look at our day, at the vestiges of ‘positive good’ ideology that surface from time to time in our public discourse and in our politics.

There are, face it, still people today who argue that slavery wasn’t all that bad, that it had a beneficial side, that slaves were basically contented and slave-owners generally benevolent. It tends to spoken quietly, privately, in code, but ‘positive good’ ideologues still exist. But those ideas were never true. Never even a little bit true.  An historian like Joseph Kelly performs a great public service of reminding us of that.  We can only cope with our own, uniquely American brand of racism by looking to our history.  And then expunging it, root and branch. Kelly’s book helps.


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