Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Glenn Beck, The World's Greatest Authority on Slavery

I saw a clip on Keith Olbermann’s Countdown program last night that made me want to bang my head on the table, even though my head already hurt.

He played a clip of Glenn Beck, America’s own Roderick Spode, discussing slavery. I reproduce Beck’s monologue below under the Fair Use doctrine:

The President is exactly right when he said ’slaves sitting around the campfire didn’t know when slavery was going to end, but they knew that it would. And it took a long time to end slavery.’ yes it did. But it also took a long time to start slavery.

And it started small, and it started with seemingly innocent ideas. And then a little court order here, and a court order there and a little regulation here and a little more regulation there. And before we knew it, America had slavery.

It didn’t come over in a ship to begin with, as an evil slave trade. The government began to regulate things because the people needed answers and needed solutions. It started in a court room then it went to the legislatures. That’s how slavery began. And it took a long time to enslave an entire race of people, and convince another race of people that they were somehow or another, less than them. But it can be done.

I would ask you to decide, are we freeing slaves? Or are we creating slaves? That’s a question that must be answered.

Now I know from having heard Beck’s monologues, rants, sermons, and Jimmy Swaggart-style tearful breakdowns that he really just doesn’t know much about history. He’s demonstrated his remarkable gullibility and willingness to make stuff up more times than I can count. Case in point, his disingenuous claim that Thomas Jefferson intended the US to be run on Christian principles by citing one-countem-one example of a document dated "in the year of our Lord Christ.” Never mind that this document was a pre-printed form issued by the Dutch government, not the United States, and which Jefferson merely filled in.

As a side note, one would think that a nation run with Biblical law and Protestant customs well in mind would have had a rather more ‘old-fashioned’ take on one Joseph Smith, founder of Beck’s own Mormon religion. Old-fashioned, perhaps, in the sense of John Calvin’s regime in Geneva, under whose authority the philosopher and astronomer Michael Servetus was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1553.

Still, this comment about slavery really pushes the envelope—but then again, when you’re in the middle of a midterm election season that many conservatives see as a war for the preservation of civilization, and if you want to keep your audience well-fed on populist bile, and if you’re really just not that bright to begin with, you have to be able to take any topic and relate it back to conservative talking points. It’s Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon with history, politics, economics, philosophy, religion, you name it.

In typical Beck fashion, he manages to avoid any specifics—he speaks of court orders and the like. What court orders? Without data, it’s just hot air from another right-wing blowhard. Then again, most if not all of what Beck says, week in and week out, probably can’t survive facts.

The fact is, slavery is a result of the free market. More precisely, it is the product of what we today would consider to be a part of the free market, since the concept of the free market didn’t really exist in the modern sense in the early 17th Century.

Many of the colonies that later became the United States were the result of land grants by European governments, made to aristocrats, speculators, and other parties (what we might term venture capitalists), by which the rulers hoped to turn a profit from all this trackless wilderness. William Penn, for example, was given what is now Pennsylvania (and much else besides) as repayment of a 16,000-pound debt floated to Charles II, the perpetually profligate king of England. Never mind that Penn didn’t want land, he wanted cash, and had no idea at first what to do with the land.

The point was simple—give someone land, charge him with the responsibility for populating it and making it productive, and then get some tax revenue out of it. Welcome to capitalism, even when it was cameralism or mercantilism.

Most of the Hudson River valley in New York State, for example, was originally settled under the Dutch government of New Amsterdam, and was divided into vast ‘patroonships,’ where absentee landlords rented land out to tenant farmers on terms only slightly better than serfdom (for example, the tenants could only bring complaints against landlords in the courts run by the landlords). Many of these quasi-feudal landlords’ rights lingered on well after the American Revolution, until the Anti-Rent movement of the 1840s. Some of these estates were immense almost beyond belief—the “Manor of Rensselaerswyck” covered almost all of present-day Albany and Rensselaer counties and parts of present-day Columbia and Greene counties.

Good arable land was perhaps cheaper than at any time in history; Charles II, James II, William III, Anne, and George I all handed out vast tracts without a second thought, and often without even knowing where the borders were. Many of the colonies were originally chartered to extend all the way to the Pacific Ocean. In some areas, such as New England, land could be had in freehold simply by building a house on it and filling out the appropriate paperwork, provided you had all the livestock, tools, seed, and other necessities for making a go of farming. One bad crop, though, and you would probably have to sell your land and continue as a tenant or hired hand.

The major problem was labor. Colonial America was chronically short of manpower, since most of the potentially valuable land was trackless wilderness inhabited only by Native Americans. Whether you are growing sugar cane or tobacco, or growing foodstuffs rather than cash crops, you need people to do the work and extract the valuable stuff from the land. Without workers, land was worthless, and each worker represented an investment. This was a time period when “human resources” would have meant something rather different to what it means now.

Workers—slaves, freeholders, hired hands, or indentured servants—were industrial capital, the equivalent of manufacturing equipment or the tractors and combine harvesters on an agribusiness facility (after all, a 16,000-acre tract of land, staffed by 150 people from veterinarians to mechanics, with an operating budget in the millions of dollars and owned by a Delaware corporation can hardly be called a farm without laughing).

As bad as things were in Europe for many in the lower social classes, in the absence of a motivator like ready plunder (the Spanish colonies) or religious fervor (the Pilgrims) it is a tough prospect to encourage hundreds of people to pack up and move to a wilderness on the other side of the planet, likely never to see home again. It’s also expensive to ship them and all the necessary equipment across the Atlantic, so establishing a colony was a major undertaking, usually underwritten by stocks or bonds sold in London or Amsterdam.

Indentured servants were an attempt to recruit manpower for the nascent agribusinesses of the New World, and something over half of the immigrants to the English New World between 1650 and 1750 were indentured servants. In theory, a plucky young volunteer from Dorset or Lincolnshire would sign up, sail across the sea, work on a plantation for some years in order to pay off the cost of his trip, and muster out with enough savings to set up on his own freehold. Unfortunately, the prospect of selling oneself into a life of unremitting toil to pay off your sea passage’s cost never recruited as many willing hands as the venture capitalists of the 17th and 18th Centuries had hoped, and certainly nowhere near enough to keep up with the demand for tobacco, the fortune-making boom product of the English New World’s agribusiness.

A finite supply of labor meant that the supply of commodities was limited—if you have X field hands, you can only grow Y tobacco—which thus limited the amount of tobacco you could sell and the amount of money you could make. Expanding production meant expanding the labor force.

Slave labor had been an option in the New World for centuries—the Spanish and Portuguese dominions had been shipping Africans to the Caribbean since the early 16th Century, within decades of Columbus’ first voyage. British and French colonies in the Caribbean had followed suit in the late 17th Century, when establishing sugar plantations on islands such as Jamaica, which was essentially one immense sugar plantation by 1700. The first slaves to be shipped to Virginia arrived in 1619, the year before the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

The London business community had been waist-deep in the slave trade since the 1570s, but by 1700 the London Exchange saw sufficient potential revenue in a monopoly of the slave trade that gaining control over the asiento, or the official contract to supply slave labor to the Spanish New World, became a major policy goal of the English government. The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, which ended the War of the Spanish Succession (known in most of the English-speaking world at the time, and to two centuries worth of beleaguered high school students, as Queen Anne’s War) granted the asiento to the United Kingdom, who promptly turned it over to the South Sea Company, a London-based corporation, most of whose stockholders and directors were members of Parliament or otherwise creatures of the British establishment.

This accomplishment was actually one of the biggest and most remarkable financial shenanigans in history The British government (no longer English, the Act of Union with Scotland having been passed in 1707) took advantage of the historically fuzzy line between the British government and the financial community to create the South Sea Company in 1711, as part of an elaborate scheme to bankroll the national debt and keep the nearly bankrupt government afloat during wartime. The Lord Treasurer Robert Harley and a number of other government officials, acting in what was officially their private capacities as businessmen in the London Exchange, chartered the company, sold stock, and used the proceeds to buy up 11.7 million pounds sterling worth of the government’s debts, keeping the government solvent for the last several years of the war. Once the war was won and Spain signed over the Asiento to the government, the government promptly signed the Asiento over to the South Sea Company. The effect is similar to, say, the US Secretary of the Treasury or the Chairman of the Federal Reserve conniving with Wall Street to buy up federal bonds during the occupation of Iraq and receiving in exchange a monopoly on the Iraqi oil industry.

Starting in 1714, cheap slaves became readily available in the English New World in unprecedented numbers—an estimated 645,000 people over a century’s time. While slaves were present in all of the English colonies, their greatest impact was the southern colonies, where they flooded the labor market and contributed to the rapid increase of the plantation system, which grew as fast as slaves could be shipped and land could be cleared. Plantations sprouted like toadstools between the coast and the Appalachian Mountains before the American Revolution, and spread to the Mississippi and beyond in the half-century after independence, all built overwhelmingly by slave labor, and at tremendous profit.

Slavery meant not just cheap and readily available labor, but labor that was more easily controlled than a group of indentured servants who remembered what life was like in Dorset or Lincolnshire, and who insisted on having personal freedoms and legal rights. Indentured servants, after all, had a notorious habit of pulling up stakes and moving out to the fringe of settlement to start out on their own, understood the concept of a legal contract, and could only be pushed so far.

A slave could be fed the worst food capable of sustaining life, could be beaten nearly to death as punishment, or sold on a whim—in other words, slaves could be subjected to the sort of treatment that no European would put up with. As a simple contrast, the Rensselaers of the Hudson Valley depended on private courts and legal arm-twisting to control their tenants, while slaves in the Carolinas or Virginia could simply be beaten or tortured, or (more rarely) hanged as an example. Hanging slaves in other than extreme circumstances was generally seen as wasteful, akin to shooting a valuable and healthy horse, which is why punishment usually stopped short of death or crippling injury.

By introducing chattel slavery into the economy, the slaveholders created a permanent underclass of biped humanoid who was in many respects outside the definition of ‘human being,’ a legal distinction supported by theological and philosophical sophistry (c.f. the Aristotelian hair-splitting of the Valladolid Controversy), embraced by the financial world because it was useful. Slaves were property except when it suited their masters to claim them as human beings. For example, witness the Three-Fifths Compromise in the United States Constitution, which counted slaves as three-fifths of a human being for electoral purposes, thus granting the southern states an artificially inflated congressional delegation, which was dominated by the slave-owning interests until the Civil War.

Slavery, which was never as prominent in the colonies north of Virginia, died out in the northern colonies shortly after the American Revolution. Even where it wasn’t abolished by popular vote, it faded into extinction because it wasn’t economically viable in a region unsuitable to cash-crop monoculture, and where the main economic sectors were logging, shipping, quarrying, fishing and whaling, and manufactures, which were unsuitable for slave labor.

At the other end of the seaboard, however, the southern ‘plantocracy’ had a good racket going and knew it—with a permanent, cheap (slaves cost money, but did not have to be paid) and tightly-controlled labor force and a near monopoly on several sought-after commodities, such as tobacco, indigo, and of course cotton, they buttressed their financial interests with an enormous legal and regulatory infrastructure dedicated to keeping slaves in their place (literally). State and federal laws were rammed through by slaveowner-dominated legislatures, ultimately culminating in the odious Dred Scott decision, arguably the nadir of American jurisprudence.

In other words, the plantocracy used the ‘freedoms’ won in the Revolution to keep another class of people in chattel slavery, essentially using government to support and maintain their economic arrangements.

The worse part is that the United States was one of the last countries in what 19th-Century Europeans would have considered the ‘civilized’ world to abolish slavery, and the second to last in the Western Hemisphere. Great Britain abolished the slave trade in all Britain’s colonies and possessions in 1807, and abolished slavery itself in 1833. France abolished slavery in 1848. The former Spanish colonies abolished the practice during their wars of independence from Spain. Tsar Alexander II freed the Russian peasantry from serfdom in 1861. Brazil held out until 1888.

Mr. Beck, all of this sounds a lot like series of calculated policy decisions made by educated businessmen who had their eyes firmly on the bottom line, and who knew full well what they were doing and why. How exactly is this not evil?

What regulations are we talking about? The colonists and the Old World didn’t ship free Africans here only to enslave them later. They were slaves when they got on the boat in Africa. They were slaves when they got off the boat in Charleston, Savannah, Norfolk, or Portsmouth, and they were slaves when white colonists bought them for a labor force. That sounds evil from the get-go.

Slavery was the answer to a labor shortage experienced by colonial agribusiness. That’s an answer. That might not be the answer Glenn Beck likes, but at least it has the benefit of being a documentable truth.

The long and short of it, Mr. Beck, is that the analogues of the free market and capitalism from three centuries ago are what brought slavery to North America in the first place, not your boogeyman of government regulation.

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