Pulitzer Prize winning historian Michael Kammen in his book People of Paradox does a better job than any other author that we know of in explaining the seeming contradictions of American history. From declaring that all men are created equal to creating a specific class of men – slaves – who were not equal through a generation that went to school and bought their homes thanks to GI benefits and retired with Social Security and Medicare AND who complain unceasingly about socialism we proclaim the freedom isn’t free but you better know I’m going to get my share of mine.
The fundamental problem with this book is that it looks exclusively at slavery as an evil whose opponents could do no wrong and whose advocates could do no right. Since the institution lasted for two centuries it could not have endured if it was nothing but cruelty and violence heaped upon injustice. There was a necessity for cheap labor that endured long after its abolition and endures today – often at the cost of injustice. The abolitionists were not driven by a singular purity of justice and inclusion – large parts of their efforts were guided towards repatriation without respect for consequence.
The secondary problem with this book is the systemic problem of all books that declare that the War of Northern Aggression was fought to suppress slavery. Immediately before the war the effort was to ratify a 13th amendment to the Constitution that would have codified slavery perpetually in the South – a measure that had Lincoln’s active support. But again you have to look beyond the public facade and realize that Lincoln was a railroad lawyer whose supporters demanded a northern route for their transcontinental railroad and enough cheap white labor to build it and populate the route to create markets – the Homestead Act. Neither of these things could happen with Southern congressional delegations insisting on fair treatment for their constituents and so a causis belli had to be found and how convenient slavery proved.
No one is arguing that slavery should have ever existed – or should be allowed to exist now or in the future – what we are arguing is that Mason’s book is neither accurate nor a useful contribution to the discussion. What should have been a fundamental discussion was in fact always a tangential one and once that is recognized the real reason that abolition was two hundred years in the making on this continent may be better understood.
Slavery and politics in the early American republic Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, c 2006 Matthew Mason Slavery Political aspects United States History 19th century Hardcover. 1st. ed. and printing. xii, 339 p.: ill., maps; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. -330) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG
Giving close consideration to previously neglected debates, Matthew Mason challenges the common contention that slavery held little political significance in America until the Missouri Crisis of 1819. Mason demonstrates that slavery and politics were enmeshed in the creation of the nation, and in fact there was never a time between the Revolution and the Civil War in which slavery was not an issue.
The American Revolution put slavery on the political agenda of the new nation and its British antagonists and set in motion the split between slave states and free states just as they tried to enlist slaves against the colonists during the combat portions of the war. Mason shows that these intersections of slavery and politics took on even greater importance in the early nineteenth century and so pervaded politics that the issue became a weapon even in tangential debates between free and slave states.
Mason details some incidents of the social and political histories of American slavery that collided in the early republic, tracing the impact that rebellious slaves had on the politics of slavery. Even as the plantation system was spreading across the continent, says Mason, the defenders of slavery were on the defensive against a population that had always been ambivalent about property rights. Offering a picture of the politics of slavery in the crucial years of the early republic, Mason asserts that partisans and patriots, slave and free — and not just abolitionists — should be considered important players in the politics of slavery in the United States.