The party of Jefferson Davis

Having decided more or less unanimously that war, torture, and indefinite imprisonment without trial are good (provided, of course, we talking about actions of the US), the Right may finally have opened up a topic where they can find some disagreement. Was slavery (in the US, of course) all that bad? Michael Medved at TownHall says No, and gets plenty of support from TownHall readers and other rightwing bloggers (here, here, here, here, here and here. But there’s at lest one dissenter, and some qualifications here.

Of course, leftwingers have been looking for the great split, in which real conservatives repudiate the rightwing radicalism of the Republican party, for longer than I can recall, and it’s never really happened. Every now and then someone like Andrew Sullivan or Bruce Bartlett peels off, and the rest of the Right circles the wagons a little closer. My guess is that the final abandonment of the anti-slavery tradition on which the Republican Party was founded cannot be far off, and that the party of Lincoln will become, once and for all, the party of Jefferson Davis (in some places, this has already happened).

19 thoughts on “The party of Jefferson Davis

  1. It depends on what you mean by slavery. In his book, Alan Greenspan is quoted as saying: “In coming years, as the globalization process winds down, [he predicts] inflation will become harder to contain”. This is no more than an admission that the supply of cheap labour in China is big, but not endless.

  2. PrQ,
    At least from my reading I think you have mis-interpreted what Medved said. He is clear that it was “brutal” and includes such lines as

    …a hundred years of Jim Crow laws, economic oppression and indefensible discrimination followed the theoretical emancipation of the slaves…

    He is not (IMHO) saying that slavery was not “bad”, just that some of the more extreme ideas of it are wrong and that some of the attempts to sue the US States and Federal government are, at best, misplaced.

  3. Do you even believe your own propaganda JQ?

    The article you link to is avowedly anti-slavery. Your attempt to portray it as otherwise is just silly.

    Is this what happens after spending half a lifetime on the losing end of every political argument?

  4. I’m impressed by your partisan solidarity here. Medved plays down the evils of slavery, and AR and Mugwump rush to back him up. I’d be particularly interested in a more explicit endorsement from you two of paras like the one AR quotes the word “brutal” from beginning:

    “THOUGH BRUTAL, SLAVERY WASN’T GENOCIDAL: LIVE SLAVES WERE VALUABLE BUT DEAD CAPTIVES BROUGHT NO PROFIT.” This is in the context of an attempt to excuse the hundreds of thousands of deaths in the shipping of slaves acroess the Atlantic.

  5. PrQ,
    I would just like to be clear here, PrQ – I strongly believe slavery anywhere and everywhere to be wrong, on moral, economic and every other viewpoint I can think of.
    The case against it, though, does not need to be bolstered by falsehoods or overstatement. Medved is (IMHO) clear in his condemnation of it. His statement here is just the plain truth. There were no organised attempts to wipe out whole nations that would constitute genocide (at least by the Europeans – the African kings that were the suppliers probably had other aims in addition to monetary profit).
    I would also suggest you review the history of the slave trade out of the west African region. A large majority of those enslaved went across the Sahara to what was probably at least as bad a fate – service in the slave armies, harems and fields of the North African and Middle Eastern rulers.
    The major difference between those who went north to those who went west is that those who went west have had at least part of their story told.

  6. The stuff that gets published day after day on demonstrates how impossible it is even to communicate with the more extreme wingnuts. Their arguments are grounded in so many fundamental errors of fact and logic that it’s impossible to know where to start in responding to them. The sensible thing to do therefore is to close the door quietly, tiptoe away and leave them to it.

    Unfortunately this leaves them in a position to claim that their arguments, because unanswered, must therefore be unanswerable. This would be fine if they represented only a tiny fringe element in public discourse, like the followers of Davids Icke and Irving, but disturbingly, they appear to have powerful influence within the US political establishment, certainly up to the level of the vice president and possibly higher.

    Medved’s example is typical, offering so much misleading unsourced ‘evidence’ and flawed logic that it would take a piece 10 times as long as his to point them all out … by which time, needless to say, he would have some other demented piece of historical revisionism out there.

    One of my favourite bits of his idiocy is that the USA was actually MORE opposed to slavery than those milquetoast Europeans because Americans were prepared to kill a few hundred thousand people in a civil war over the issue whereas the spineless Euros just abolished it using due process. It seems to escape Medved that the USA is the only country in the modern world where a large proportion of the population was prepared to go to war to DEFEND the institution of slavery, suggesting that quite a lot of them actually, ummm, approved of it.


    I really think Captain Brough would do well to adopt this line in dealing with those troublesome coloured folk in the Northern Territory. “You might think you’ve got it tough here in the townships,” he could argue in that wonderfully commanding voice of his, “but there’s no reason to believe you’d be any better off if Europeans had never settled your lands.” Hey, I’m convinced … although I’m not sure of what.

    But probably the most troubling thing about Medved’s piece is that he felt he had to write it in the first place. It’s one more in the endless series of straw man pieces run on places like, which consist of seizing on some trivial artefact like a blog comment, misrepresenting it as the considered opinion of ‘liberals’, and trumpeting “See how much they hate America!!!”

    Medved’s piece reflects his outrage – a condition that seems to afflict these people pretty much all the time – about ‘Those who want to discredit the United States and to deny our role as history’s most powerful and pre-eminent force for freedom, goodness and human dignity’. I mean who’s making the list, dude, apart from you? Take the friggin’ gold medal and piss off for god’s sake, nobody else is interested.

    But no, these cretins want to flaunt American exceptionalism to the rest of the world (and the bulk of their own rather apathetic countrymen) over and over and over. And if anyone gets cheeky – like some Iranian president who doesn’t know his place – then watch out. They will recognise virtually no limits on the measures that are justified to extract the obeisance due to the world’s bestest, most powerful, pre-eminent yadayada.

    They’re deeply deranged and very very scary.

  7. There’s lots to attack in this article, Ken having pointed to some aspects. However, I do think you’ve exaggerated Medved’s position. He’s not defending slavery, merely trying to claim that America did less of it than other nations. He is also, like many right-wingers, arguing for a narrow definition of genocide, which I think leads to a fairly unproductive semantic debate.

    However, I think your more general point is right. The Republicans are moving towards a position where they’ll eventually openly endorse slavery as a historical institution. However, I don’t think this specific article is evidence of the trend.

  8. SL, I don’t claim Medved is defending slavery, but he is denying and minimising the scale and the evil of America’s involvement in slavery. This is a necessary step in the trend I’ve pointed to, along with revisionism about Davis and others.


    Happy to endorse that statement. Genocide is mass murder of an entire racial group. Slaves are no use when they are dead. Ipso facto, slavery is not genocide. Of course, it was a reprehensible practice and often brutal, so I also endorse that aspect of the quote.

    You’re blowing smoke here JQ. And this:

    [The Right] Having decided more or less unanimously that war, torture, and indefinite imprisonment without trial are good (provided, of course, we talking about actions of the US)

    Yeah sure.

    Grow up.

  10. Stephen L,
    I think the definition of genocide is clear from the 1948 convention – and even without the limitations that were put in there (ironically, for your argument, by a group normally determined to be on “the Left”) – I would find it difficult to see slavery as genocide.
    Just to remind myself I re-watched “Amazing Grace” last night. Doing that served to remind me that slavery was bad enough not to need the sorts of over-statement it gets.
    As for a “strawman” argument a quick look through the sorts of debate in US academia on this subject is enough to see that there is no need to create a strawman on this.

  11. Remember this quote?

    ‘The Spirit of Jefferson Davis lives in the 1984 Republican Party platform’. Trent Lott.

    How could anyone doubt that the modern Republican Party, the Party of the “Southern Strategy”, the party that even today rubs black voters off the electoral role to get themselves elected, is KKKonfederate to the core? This is the party of Trent Lott, Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond. Why did the Republican hero Ronald Reagan choose to launch his 1980 Presidential campaign on a platform of “States Rights” in Philadelphia, Neshoba county, Mississippi, the obscure little town best known as the place where three civil-rights workers were murdered in 1964? A not-so-subtle message to the GOP’s white-supremacist base – “I’m your type of guy”. I’m sure these crackers also approved of Reagan laying a wreath at a memorial to the Nazi SS in Bitburg Germany in 1982. Lovely!

    Let’s look at the track record of the former Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (yes, that’s right – out of 50 odd senators, they chose this notorious racist to be their SENATE LEADER, what does that say about the party??)

    In 1978, after his election to the US House, Lott led a successful campaign to have the US citizenship of Jefferson Davis restored.

    During the 1980 campaign, after Thurmond spoke at a Mississippi rally for Ronald Reagan, Lott said of the old Dixiecrat: “You know, if we had elected that man 30 years ago, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are today.”

    In 1981, when he was lending his prestige as a member of the US Congress to an effort to preserve the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University [the Nazi university that shot to fame when the current President Bush spoke there during his campaign]– the notorious South Carolina college that was under fire for prohibiting interracial dating — Lott insisted that, “Racial discrimination does not always violate public policy.”

    Despite the fact that he represents the state with the largest percentage of African-American citizens in the US, Lott has throughout his career been an active supporter of the Sons of the Confederacy, a group that celebrates the soldiers who fought to defend the “right” of Mississippians to own African-Americans as slaves.” Lott even appears in recruitment videos for the group.

    Speaking at a 1984 convention of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Lott declared that “the spirit of Jefferson Davis lives in the 1984 Republican Platform.” Asked to explain his statement in an interview with the extreme rightwing publication Southern Partisan, Lott said, “I think that a lot of the fundamental principles that Jefferson Davis believed in are very important to people across the country, and they apply to the Republican Party… and more of The South’s sons, Jefferson Davis’ descendants, direct or indirect, are becoming involved with the Republican party.”

    Lott gave the keynote address at a 1992 national executive board meeting of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a successor organization to the old white Citizens Councils, segregation-era groups the Southern Poverty Law Center refers to as “the white-collar Ku Klux Klan. The C of CC may have changed its name, but it remains a passionate “white racialist” group that condemns intermarriage, integration and immigration by non-whites.

    In 1997, Lott was photographed meeting with national leaders of the C of CC in his Washington office. At his side were two prominent C of CC leaders: Gordon Baum, a former field organizer for the Citizens Councils in the days when they were referred to as the “uptown Klan,” and William Lord, who has acknowledged using the mailing lists of the Citizens Councils to build the C of CC in the 1980s and 1990s. That same year, the C of CC used an endorsement quote from Lott in recruitment literature.

    NOW this segregationist cracker, after being forced to resign as House Majority Leader after another one of his Thurmond-boosting pro-segregationist remarks in 2002, has recently been elected by the Senate Republicans as minority whip!! That is the Number 2 leadership position of Republicans in Congress!! Yes, it is unbelievable.

    What party would elect a person with a record like that to a position of leadership?

    A party of racist KKKonfederates!

    And remember one of the final acts of John “Bonkers” Bolton, ambassador to the world at large?

    Less than two weeks before the White House announced his resignation, Ambassador John Bolton’s U.N. mission blocked an effort to celebrate the end of slavery in our hemisphere.

    Next year marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. As far as anniversaries go, it seems like a good one to recognize, doesn’t it? It should not be a real bone of contention to say that one is against slavery; and, upon hearing of the anniversary of its abolition in one region, to acknowledge that as a good thing; to recognize the cost of the practice in the millions of lives uprooted and forced into extreme suffering; and to celebrate the efforts which ended the horrific practice.

    To do so, a number of Caribbean countries got together to propose a commemorative resolution before the United Nations.

    Guess who refused to sign? That’s right: Ambassador John Bolton’s United States.

    Plus: recommended reading on the Nazi (yes, this is not hyperbole, they are REAL Nazis) “ethnic outreach arm” and the “Republican Nationalities Council”,M1

    The GOP: vile, revolting party of fascist pondscum!

  12. Before we devolve into calling each other nazis and communists again, the obvious source of truth is from a guest from an old episode of Jerry Springer:

    Outrageously Dressed Pimp: “Do you have a job? DO YOU HAVE A JOB? Then you’ra HO! And Uncle Sam is yo’ PIMP!”

  13. gerard, the US did not refuse to sign that declaration, they simply asked for a two-word change. Who was being obstinate, the US in asking or the UN in refusing to grant the change?

    But please carry on: we wouldn’t want the facts to get in the way of a good Right-bashing now would we?

  14. Haha mugwump, seriously, what purpose on earth was that two-word change serving, other than a pathetic and transparant excuse to avoid signing the declaration? I mean, honestly, do you really think they cared about those two words? they couldn’t just come out and say “we’re not signing it”, they had to have some sort of excuse, no matter how lame.

  15. gerard, please read the letter letter sent by the US to the UN concerning that matter.

    It doesn’t read like a transparent excuse to me. If it was, all the UN had to do was call the US’ bluff by accepting the wording change.

  16. Clearly abolitionism is genocidal; it aims at wiping out a cultural group.

    Now some general remarks about slavery, before addressing the US case in particular.

    Leaving aside lags that could last generations, slavery and its analogues most often prevailed when the old land/labour/capital balance had little labour and capital, but lots of unallocated resources (“land”); we subsume land under capital these days not so much from its intrinsic similarity but because – for us – it has almost all been allocated and can more conveniently be dealt with that way. This pattern applies in our recent history and its remoter predecessor, the ancient world, but the muslim world also used slaves for specialised labour, like an Italian clockmaker who wound up in Central Asia; those generally had a better standard of living than free but oppressed peasants like the Tadjiks (think how Janissaries’ headgear included a ladle or soup spoon to signify that they would never starve – a constant possibility for others). In fact, there was a tradition that the elite trained their children in specialties so that if they were ever captured they would be worth keeping rather than killing.

    That brings us back to an often overlooked fundamental fact about slavery: it was often a lesser evil, in that the alternative was even worse. It created an incentive to spare prisoners. Where our common law brought out a case in which an abandoned sick slave was nursed back to health and not returned to his master but freed, the usual pattern of slave laws was that a slave could not be freed against his will (it can be found in Islam and in many US slave laws). The thing was, freeing them only meant good news if they could fend for themselves after that; for those who weren’t young and fit and also – as was usual – lacked skills, freedom meant death by degrees.

    We see this in several situations, in slavery and its analogues. In the British West Indies there was a slave revolt against emancipation, only put down when it was made clear that emancipation would be gradual with a retraining paid period of tutelage; that was accelerated once it became clear it could be done safely and indentured coolies could be brought in, but it cost the local economy greatly (Brazil used a gradual solution too, in the form of “freeing in the womb” until the numbers of slaves fell enough for straight emancipation – but that destabilised the regime to the point of collapse even so). Convicts in French Guiana feared both doublage – administrative doubling of their sentence until they were too old for freedom – and freedom itself in those circumstances; missionaries reported the sad condition of these liberes (sorry, I can’t do the e accute there). Also, V.S.Naipaul described the pitiable condition of realeased coolies in the same areas, after indentures were abolished part way through their terms. Formerly, on completion, they received either a bounty to set them up or passage home – but with reform they suffered from not getting anything.

    The case was different in places where there was effectively free land; usually, that contained a small group of escaped slaves, maroons, in a modus vivendi of poacher turned gamekeeper by which they returned any newer escaped slaves, kicking the ladder away after them, e.g. in Jamaica’s cockpit country. The Cossacks had a similar origin, first vis a vis the Turks and then vis a vis the Tsars. It came down to how fully exploited the geographical area was; Nassau Senior touches on this Malthusian aspect in the introduction to his work on wages.

    Now we can turn to the US case. There had been such maroons, in Florida before the USA seized it from Spain; that was in large part to stop that leak of slaves. Their slave laws provided against involuntary freedom, and also Trollope records that in border states like Kentucky slavery was well along the way to recapitulating a change to serfdom – attachment to land – by the time of the US Civil War. But US emancipation followed the botched involuntary model; there was little land available by then – the frontier was nearly finished, and was anyway not open to freedmen – and there were too many being freed at once. A least worst response was sharecropping, and Henry George records freedmen’s view that they were worse off with that than they had been as slaves (of course, he was selective, but there is no reason to doubt that some such cases existed).

    Conclusion: the US cure was worse than the disease, even without factoring in the effects of the war itself. And they had no excuse for not knowing how to do it.

  17. Oh, I forgot to mention that in the early days of the African slave trade, it was in fact if not in intention beneficial. The existing African practice was to raid for slaves for domestic use and to build the tribe: basically, nubile women. The rest were routinely slaughtered as bycatch whom it was too dangerous to release. The slave trade did indeed save these from certain death – then. This argument was routinely trotted out long after the slave trade started driving the raids, though. Certainly by John Newton’s time it no longer fitted the facts. However, it was never nonsense.

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