The Historiography of Slavery
To the Editor:
Wilfred M. McClay presents two competing views of slavery in the American South (“How the New York Times Is Distorting American History,” October). One held it to be a quasi-feudal institution practiced by a decadent plantation-owning class (having mutated from English service in husbandry in the 16th century and indentured servitude in the Chesapeake during the 17th), and the other, as McClay states, a “source of added wealth for the relentlessly profit-seeking proto-capitalist Southern planters.” Early-19th-century abolitionists promulgated the first interpretation, because although they regarded slavery as morally repugnant (largely motivated by their evangelical Protestant faith), to advance their cause they thought it best to argue that slavery threatened the economic self-interest of Northern whites, and not rely on appeals for equality, human dignity, and freedom. They cast slavery as inherently backward, unproductive, and unprofitable, and as retarding the economic development of the United States as a whole.
American historians of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, including Charles and Mary Beard, Ulrich B. Phillips, and Woodrow Wilson, would later draw heavily on this description. Keen to facilitate reconciliation between North and South, they contended that what precipitated the Civil War was a combination of high-minded principles such as states’ rights and practical issues such as tariffs—an interpretation that lent the two sides a degree of both nobility and culpability. Ending slavery did not necessitate a bloody conflict, as slavery’s very inefficiency implied it would have peacefully died out once Southern aristocrats could no longer afford to sustain it. Offered as a partial justification for the Confederacy, this view echoed almost precisely Karl Marx’s earlier analysis in 1861.
Robert Fogel (Nobel Prize, 1993) debunked all this. Protecting slavery dominated the actions of Southern representatives in Congress throughout the antebellum period. Waves of immigrants arriving in the North fueled its growing demographic dominance, which not only made Lincoln’s election victory possible, but augured the ascension of even fiercer opponents of slavery in the future. Only secession could guarantee slavery would survive.
Moreover, sifting through plantation accounts, Fogel (together with his collaborator Stanley Engerman) demonstrated that by and large, plantation owners were neither cruel sadists nor benign paternalists, but amoral rational economic actors. Far from backward, southern plantations were highly profitable and models of economic efficiency. To extract more labor at the lowest possible cost, plantation owners pioneered time-motion studies and the scientific study of nutrition. As exploiting slaves generated higher surpluses than could be achieved by relying on free labor, plantation owners would never have voluntarily chosen to free them. The Civil War and its outcome were necessary to ensure slavery’s demise.
It is no small irony that false depictions of slavery invented by those who wished to abolish it would later be revived by those asserting an equivalence between the two sides to the Civil War, or that apologists for the Confederacy would rely on many of the same arguments made by Marx and his disciples. The New York Times’ “1619 Project” is not the first time that inaccurate portrayals of slavery in the American South have been deployed to further a risible political agenda.
University of London
Wilfred M. McClay writes:
I’m grateful to Professor Ben-Gad for his thoughtful and interesting response to my article about the 1619 Project. I don’t think that, at bottom, we disagree about the main things. I would say, though, that he organizes the historiography of slavery a bit differently than I would. I would want, for example, to point out that a strictly economic analysis of the profitability or unprofitability of slavery never was and never would be sufficient to decide its fate. The religious element in abolitionism was not incidental but absolutely central and essential, especially in the antebellum years. Evangelical religious zeal was the propulsive force that drove the abolitionists of that time; they saw their movement as a holy war, with God’s prophets battling against clear and present evils.
In any event, I want to stress that my intention in my article was not to sort out the great tangle of slavery historiography, but simply to point to the existence of that tangle, as proof that the study of slavery has for many years, the better part of a century, been one of the most vibrant and active areas of American historiography—contrary to the 1619 Project’s assumptions. Those debates will continue, scholarship will continue to develop, and presumably many different flowers of interpretation will continue to blossom. That process will go better if organs like the New York Times stay out the matter and allow the subject to be treated with a minimum amount of politicization and publicity-seeking.
Antifa and Communism
To the Editor:
My family lives in Tacoma, Washington, and we have relatives in Portland, Oregon. Naturally, we see and hear a lot about Antifa. My thought on Warren Henry’s well-written article is that Antifa is not as amorphous as many journalists and others seem to believe (“The Curious Case of Andy Ngo,” October).
Those in Anftifa are well organized and well funded, and they have cells all over the country. A review of photographic and video news stories shows several of their leaders appearing in multiple venues around the United States. They have learned that if they lie about their organization and hide the identity of the leadership, then journalists, most of whom are unwilling to do any stories critical of leftist individuals or groups, will not do much investigative research to find more facts. Even a cursory reading of the written and online materials distributed by Antifa, however, show they are not “anti-fascists”; they are Communists.
Indeed, Antifa is just the street-violence subsect of a larger Communist movement. It follows the well-established practices forged by Communist espionage agents during the Soviet days. Back then, agents were under the control of layers of handlers. So it is with Antifa. Additionally, as with espionage agents, the source of funding for Antifa members is opaque. Somehow, the group is able to send its leaders around the country, provide income and expenses for members who have no visible means of support, maintain websites, and produce written publications. Willem van Spronsen, the man who tried to firebomb the detention center for illegal immigrants in Tacoma, was a particularly violent Antifa member who was able to obtain firearms despite being barred by court order from possessing any. Although many who show up for the periodic riots are not full-time employees of Antifa—in the way that a solider may be a full-time member of an army—they still receive tactical training. Someone is responsible for that training, just as someone is in charge of indoctrination and organization.
Henry’s article was mostly spot-on, but he should not underestimate the ability of Antifa’s handlers to organize and train substantial numbers of violent, and sometimes deranged, thugs and send them to the streets. Perhaps they are just warming up for 2020, hoping that the 1968 riots in Chicago will be nothing compared with what they have in store.
Warren Henry writes:
I thank Lester Farrell for taking the time to respond to my article. The public should be more concerned about Antifa. I mentioned in the lead paragraph that their activities were classified as “domestic terrorist violence” by the Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration to emphasize that the threat is not some bit of hype spun up by Republicans.
That Antifa is in some sense amorphous does not exclude their being well organized, let alone dangerous. In the Internet age, it has become easier to stand up movements as decentralized networks. In the worst-case scenario, this structure can be seen in how al-Qaeda was organized; a more benign example would be the Tea Party.
As for characterizing Antifa as Communist, it may depend on how literally Mr. Farrell means the term. As noted in my article, the name is taken from Antifaschistische Aktion, which was affiliated with the German Communist Party in the early 1930s. Antifa’s tactics borrow heavily from black-bloc groups of the sort that rioted during the 1999 riots against the World Trade Organization in Seattle. The black bloc, like the later Occupy movement, often describe themselves as anarchist. Yet their activism and violence always seem to be directed against global capitalism, with governmental bodies targeted only as an adjunct to global capitalism. However Antifa might self-identify, their politics are the same far-left politics of Communists and the black bloc.
Mr. Farrell also notes that Antifa’s funding and organizational support are opaque, a matter that establishment journalists are not interested in investigating. On this point, I can say only that the left is traditionally more oriented toward and better at political organization and networking than the right, perhaps because the left is more oriented toward collectivist thinking. It is why, for example, one found anti-Zionists among the anti-war movement of the mid-2000s, the Occupy movement, Black Lives Matter, and the Women’s March. The hard left makes efforts to insinuate itself into any left-leaning political project. If contacts between this broader web of the hard left and Antifa were uncovered, I would not be particularly surprised—except by the notion that someone in establishment journalism would devote resources to the story.
To the Editor:
Whatever the reasons for the Senate’s unprecedented decision to hold public hearings on the nomination of Louis D. Brandeis to the Supreme Court, they did not include, as Ilya Shapiro writes (“Crisis at the Supreme Court,” October 2019), “the resignation of a justice (Charles Evan Hughes) to run against a sitting president.” Brandeis was nominated in January 1916 to fill the vacancy created by the death of Justice Joseph Rucker Lamar, and a Senate subcommittee convened in early February to consider the nomination. Justice Hughes did not resign from the Court until June of that year, when he accepted the Republican nomination for president.
Henry D. Fetter
Los Angeles, California
Ilya Shapiro writes:
Henry D. Fetter is right. In presenting my history of Supreme Court nominations, I reversed the order of consequential events in that important year of 1916. There were many reasons that Brandeis’s nomination was so controversial and prompted that first hearing, including anti-Semitism and, as Justice William O. Douglas would later write, that he was perceived as a “militant crusader for social justice.” A then-unprecedented four months passed between Brandeis’s nomination and his Senate confirmation. Charles Evans Hughes, meanwhile, was not just the first and only sitting justice to be a presidential candidate, but he went on to be secretary of state and returned to the high court as chief justice in 1930. In that role, Hughes orchestrated the Court’s realignment along pro–New Deal, government-intervention lines in a way that belied his (overstated) conservative reputation—a key part of the Supreme Court’s constitutional corruption that was the central narrative of my essay.
Harry Truman, Mark Twain, and Israel
To the Editor:
President Harry S. Truman’s wildly exaggerated claim regarding his role in the creation of the State of Israel (“I Am Cyrus,” Meir Y. Soloveichik, October) is quite ironic in view of how small a role he actually played. Certainly Truman’s speedy de facto recognition of Israel following its establishment boosted the morale of many Israelis (and their American supporters). But that recognition was of little concrete help in the face of five invading Arab armies that were vowing to destroy the newborn Jewish state. Truman’s arms embargo against Israel had a much greater impact on the events of 1948 than his recognition of the new state’s existence.
Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett bluntly complained to U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall that the Jews were “carrying on the fight in Palestine ourselves without any aid whatever. We had asked for arms, but they had not been given; we had asked for military guidance, but it had been withheld; finally, we had asked for armor plating for buses, but even this had been refused.” To declare that armor plating, which would have shielded civilians from being massacred (as 79 Hadassah doctors and nurses were, in April 1948), was a “weapon” and therefore subject to the embargo was almost inconceivably cruel.
Truman’s harsh stand forced the Israelis to look elsewhere for the arms and ammunition they needed to survive. The Soviets, for their own reasons, stepped in. “They saved the country, I have no doubt of that,” David Ben-Gurion later said of the Soviet weapons that arrived via Czechoslovakia. “The Czech arms deal was the greatest help, it saved us and without it I very much doubt if we could have survived the first month.” Likewise Golda Meir wrote in her memoirs that without the Soviet weapons, “I do not know whether we actually could have held out until the tide changed, as it did by June 1948.”
I certainly would not conclude that Joseph Stalin deserves to be hailed as a modern-day version of Cyrus, but Harry Truman certainly doesn’t, either.
Herut North America (U.S. Division)—The Jabotinsky Movement
To the Editor:
Rabbi Meir Y. Soloveichik made a mistake in invoking Mark Twain’s masterpiece of impish satire to support his claim that, as his column’s title states, “The Land Waited for the Jews” (September). Is Soloveichik familiar with the prevailing tone of the work? Would he have us regard as serious art criticism Twain’s rant about Michelangelo in the same volume?: “He designed St. Peter’s; he designed the Pope; he designed the Pantheon, the uniform of the Pope’s soldiers, the Tiber, the Vatican, the Coliseum, the Capitol, the Tarpeian Rock, the Barberini Palace, St. John Lateran, the Campagna, the Appian Way, the Seven Hills, the Baths of Caracalla, the Claudian Aqueduct, the Cloaca Maxima—the eternal bore designed the Eternal City, and unless all men and books do lie, he painted every thing in it!”
Does Rabbi Soloveichik believe that the author put aside the satire to adopt the tone of Tocqueville to describe the Holy Land? The visit Mark Twain describes took place in September, during the drought season, when large stretches of the terrain are brown and parched. The location of villages on hilltops, hillsides, and the edges of spurs, away from fields and pasture lands, gave the landscape a markedly different topography from that of the North American farm. Twain very likely knew that. His description is consistent with the recurring gimmick of the book: presenting the American encounter with the Old World by highlighting (for comic effect) the absurdities that result from viewing all through the distorting lens of American manners and expectations. One could, with equal justice, declare Egypt uninhabited after a visit to the Nile Valley in flood season.
Innocents Abroad endures as a comic masterpiece, but in this case the joke is on Rabbi Soloveichik and Commentary. Soloveichik may believe, mistakenly, that the land was uninhabited and desolate before the First Aliyah. Nevertheless, treating Twain’s humorous mischief as if it were sober, serious, and reliable reporting, will not convince those who believe otherwise.
West Hartford, Connecticut
Meir Y. Soloveichik writes:
There has been a recent effort to diminish Harry Truman’s legacy regarding Israel’s founding. Some critics have emphasized Truman’s caustic comments about Jews in the president’s diary, and others, such as Moshe Phillips, point to the United States’ maintaining its arms embargo during the War for Independence. Yet to level these criticisms is to view history anachronistically, in light of the even more robust American-Israel relationship today. The fact remains that Truman overcame not only some of his own prejudices, but also the forcefully expressed view of George Marshall, the man he worshipped, in order to support Israel’s creation at the United Nations and to recognize it at its founding. That he did so is worthy of our admiration and our gratitude; and he did so because he was inspired by the story of biblical Israel, which began with Abraham’s journey and concluded with Cyrus’s call to return.
Could Truman have done more? Certainly. But he could also have done much less, and it is very possible that the administration would have taken a more anti-Israel position had Roosevelt still been alive. When FDR passed away, and much of America could not come to terms with the fact that Harry Truman would replace him, it was Eddie Jacobson who told the media, “I wish they knew him as I do.” Knowing both the virtues and flaws of Truman allows us to judge him gratefully, 70 years later.
Michael Young strangely insists that the barren country that Mark Twain encountered is entirely in character for the Holy Land in September. Yet it is that very time of year set aside by the Bible for the harvest festival. Had Twain visited the region at that time of year, in the biblical age, or during the existence of the Second Temple, he would have seen a Galilee bursting with agricultural abundance. This, of course, is not what he saw in the 19th century. But it is exactly what can be seen in September in Israel today. Moreover: Even once arid areas, such as the Negev desert, where crops never grew, now attract the wonder of the world in its at least partial fulfillment of Isaiah’s prediction that God would make Israel’s “desert into Eden, and its wilderness into the garden of God.”