From firstname.lastname@example.org Mon Aug 20 12:09:40 2001
Date: Sun, 19 Aug 2001 11:05:26 -0500 (CDT)
From: Michael Eisenscher <email@example.com>
Subject: Yale and the Price of Slavery
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.--In 1852 a wealthy Mississippi cotton planter, Robert Hairston, suddenly fell ill. With death overtaking him, he frantically dictated a will in which he revealed that he had a child, his only one, a 5-year-old girl who was a slave. With his last breath he commanded his family to have the girl set free and bequeathed to her his entire estate land, cash and slaves worth over $1 million.
Hairston's white relatives, all quite wealthy, could not bear to see that much money pass to a black. They decided to make her disappear and divided up her property among themselves. To cover their tracks, they called the father a lunatic and stuck to that story for generations. They told a judge the girl was dead and sent her off to a distant plantation. One hundred and sixty years later, while researching a book, I discovered through court records and oral history in the area what had really happened.
This tale of theft on a massive scale has a deeper significance; it reveals some of the psyche of the masters. The white family could never claim they did not know what they were doing, that through some defect in their perception they did not comprehend that this slave was a human being. She was one of them. She probably looked like them. But cash trumped blood.
I was reminded of that story this week when three researchers released
a report on Yale University's deep entanglement in slavery. In
response to the report, John H. McWhorter, a linguist at the
University of California at Berkeley, defended Yale's reputation,
Slavery when those people lived was largely an unquestioned
part of existence. It's downright inappropriate to render a moral
judgment . . . based on moral standards which didn't exist at that
time. Yale's administration, in a defensive feint, noted in
responding to the report's publication that
few, if any,
institutions or individuals from the period before Emancipation
remained untainted by slavery.
This is the
presentism defense, which can be useful for almost
any era and almost any misdeed. But it is most commonly deployed when
the morality of slavery comes up: We must forgive them because they
did not know what they were doing.
Presentism is very often advanced in defense of America's founders. It
is comforting to think that their generation, so distant in time from
us, lived in a condition of moral ignorance, and thus innocence,
regarding slavery. But that is not the case. Even Thomas Jefferson,
some of whose statements exhibit an almost demented racism, could see
clearly that slavery utterly compromised the nation:
I tremble for
my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot
sleep forever, Jefferson wrote.
The Almighty has no attribute
which can take side with us.
George Washington was an enthusiastic slaveholder in his early
decades, buying slaves to build himself a plantation empire; but by
the end of his life he found slavery repugnant. In his will Washington
freed his slaves and specified that the children be educated,
believing that with education and training the freed children of
slaves could take a more fruitful and productive place in Virginia
society. If we accept the statement that
inappropriate to render a moral judgment on slavery, we are more
willing to accept slavery than George Washington was.
If the founders had such misgivings over slavery, how is it that they allowed slavery to continue? The answer is not that they didn't know any better, but that they kept slavery so the Southern states would join the union. It was a transaction, a deal, just like the deal that put the national capital on the Potomac in exchange for the federal assumption of states' debts and not unlike the deal the Hairstons made in causing their kin to disappear. With their eyes open, the founders traded away the rights of African-Americans, many of whom had fought bravely in the Revolution, so that the national enterprise could go forward.
This country was founded upon a bargain for which we continue to pay the price. We compound the mistake by draping a veil of innocence over the transaction. The true beneficiary of the presentism defense is not the past but the present it guards and preserves our fervent wish to have sprung from innocent origins.
Henry Wiencek, Yale 1974, won the National Book Critics' Circle Award
The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White. He is
writing a book about George Washington and slavery.