Tuckered Out: Let’s Correct the Record on the History of Slavery and Abolition

Tuckered Out: Let’s Correct the Record on the History of Slavery and Abolition

Screenshot from Tucker Carlson Tonight, August 15, 2017. Courtesy of Fox News.

The contemporary moment is witnessing a disgraceful outpouring of violent racism, emboldened by an erratic President who has made the White House a bully pulpit for white supremacy. As disheartening as this is, it is occasioning an extraordinary amount of history education, as scholars and commentators work feverishly to counter the myths and lies being espoused on the streets and in the halls of power.

Amidst Donald Trump’s historical malfeasance, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson offered yet another nugget of bad history lending aid and comfort to white nationalism. His August 15 commentary argued against the removal of statues honoring slaveholding Americans, suggesting that if slaveholding is to be the standard by which historical figures are to be honored, “nobody is safe.”[1]

Carlson then went on to point out that slavery is an old institution, practiced by African tribes and American Indians, as well as figures such as Plato, Mohammed, and Simon Bolivar. If slaveholding bars us from honoring historical figures, Carlson asserts, there would be few left to honor. “If we’re going to judge the past by the standards of the present, if we’re going to reduce a person’s life to the single worst thing he ever participated in, we had better be prepared for the consequences of that.” Many who signed the Declaration of Independence held slaves, Carlson notes, but “does that make what they wrote illegitimate?”[2]

Personally, I don’t care for historical hero worship and am not a fan of using public spaces to make reductionist arguments about historical figures who deserve nuanced investigation. But Carlson has it all wrong. For one, it is untrue that there’s a “movement” among “Leftists” to reduce the Founders to nothing more than “racist villains,” or have slaveholding Founders such as Jefferson “purged from public memory, forever.”[3] Aside from the obvious caricature here, it is clear that statues honoring historical figures represent a mere fraction of our public memory, which is nourished in myriad realms ranging from classrooms and museums to popular literature and feature films. We are in no danger of forgetting the Founders.

Though he fears the implication of his own concerns, Carlson is right to worry that the Founders’ slaveholding throws their words into question. What does “all men are created equal” mean in a society that has constantly and systematically denied the equality of so many?  From the time those words were penned, marginal Americans have asked this question. Indeed, from the very start of the Revolutionary crisis, African Americans raised the specter of hypocrisy, as when Massachusetts slaves petitioned the colony’s legislature in 1773: “We expect great things from men who have made such a noble stand against the designs of their fellow-men to enslave them. We cannot but wish and hope, Sir, that you will have the same grand object—we mean civil and religious liberty—in view in your next session.”[4] Questioning the country’s fidelity to its founding principles is as American as the Declaration of Independence itself, and as relevant today as in 1776. For two and a half centuries the promise of equality inherent in the Declaration has been ignored or denied. Perhaps they are empty words, platitudes useful primarily for those already secure within the civic community.

Carlson is also wrong in posing the slaveholding of men such as Thomas Jefferson as incidental to their lives rather than as a central feature. Indeed, slavery served as a crucial element in the political philosophy of all of the Founders, who could argue against colonists’ political enslavement to Britain largely because they were so familiar with the practice at home. George Washington made the connection explicit in the midst of the revolutionary crisis, writing: “We must assert our Rights, or Submit to every Imposition that can be heap’d upon us; till custom and use, will make us as tame, & abject Slaves, as the Blacks we Rule over with such arbitrary Sway.”[5] The morality of slavery was thus not a given in the late eighteenth century, but a subject of intense debate. Jefferson himself famously worried that his fortune and his country owed to an unjustifiable moral outrage. “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just,” he wrote, departing from his customary Deism to predict that “supernatural interference” might bring about “a revolution of the wheel of fortune”—his euphemism for a massive slave revolt. He lamented that “the Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.”[6]

Carlson, like many other self-professed conservatives, lauds an American history of expanding freedom. Yet that history was bequeathed to us not by the conservatives who stood against liberty—men such as John C. Calhoun and George Fitzhugh—but the progressive activists who sacrificed life and limb to make the nation adhere to its principles. Enslaved African Americans protested their status through the limited means available to them, while nominally free ones founded a tradition of protest that propelled white abolitionists into action. Those courageous men and women were the most radical social thinkers of their day. They spearheaded the early labor movement, campaigned for women’s rights, embraced pacifism, stood against the death penalty, and experimented with utopian communities. It is hard to imagine Tucker Carlson, were he alive in 1850, giving such people the time of day. Instead, he would prefer to take credit for progressive reforms in the past while opposing them in the present.

Carlson makes a final claim that demands refutation. It is true that slavery has been a feature of a great many societies throughout history, just as it is true that the nation-states of the modern West abolished slavery through a long and arduous process—one that in the United States uniquely required a bloody civil war that cost up to a million lives. But the slavery pioneered by the emerging nation-states of Europe assumed a distinct form.

New World slavery entailed the forced migration of over twelve million souls across the Atlantic—the largest forced migration in history—in the stinking holds of ships designed for a complex trade network dedicated to the purpose of turning people into things. It consigned millions more to be born into bondage and die from disease and overwork. It erected intricate legal systems designed to uphold the right of property in man, warped Christianity and science into ideological justifications for the otherwise unthinkable, and turned slaveholding societies into racialized police states. The key ingredient here was capitalism—a form of economic, political, and social organization in its nascence in the fifteenth century. The new values of profit and property transformed widely disparate practices of human servitude into a modern state mechanism for the ongoing exploitation and degradation of an entire people and an entire continent.[7]

Thomas Nast, “Worse Than Slavery,” Harper’s Weekly, October 24, 1874. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The end of slavery owed to the evolution of capitalism, as new forms of industrial manufacturing and labor control displaced the plantation model. But true to the liberal ideals of the age, freed slaves across the Atlantic were given “nothing but freedom” (in historian Eric Foner’s memorable phrase).[8] Released into competitive economies with nothing but negative social capital and a degraded status in both custom and law, the freedpeople foundered, at which point the liberal state quickly washed its hands of their plight. They fell victim to underdevelopment and exploitation through legal means.[9] In the United States, the white settler population around them banded together to deny their rights through vigilante violence, segregation, and later lynching.[10] It took a century, and yet another progressive movement’s sacrifice of life and limb, to secure the rights promised to the freedpeople upon their emancipation. And as contemporary crises over matters from wealth inequality to police killings of African Americans to the dismantling of statues honoring the Confederate cause demonstrate, the fight is not yet over.[11]

Conservatives like Tucker Carlson may fabricate a past they can live with, but that will not change the truth. Thoughtful readers may decide for themselves the degree to which the country should pat itself on the back for such humanity.


[1] “Tucker on Fate of Slaveholders Washington, Jefferson: ‘If That’s the Standard, Nobody is Safe,’” Fox News, accessed August 18, 2017, http://insider.foxnews.com/2017/08/15/tucker-carlson-washington-jefferson-slave-holders-memorials-go-next.

[2] “Tucker Carlson Attempts to Defend America’s History of Slavery by Pointing Out the Aztecs, Africans, and Mohammed Had Slaves Too,” MediaMatters, August 15, 2017, https://www.mediamatters.org/video/2017/08/15/tucker-carlson-attempts-defend-americas-history-slavery-pointing-out-aztecs-africans-and-mohammed/217649.

[3] “Tucker on Fate of Slaveholders.”

[4] “Four Petitions Against Slavery (1773-1777),” History Is A Weapon, accessed August 18, 2017, http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/fourpetitionsagainstslavery.html.

[5] “From George Washington to Bryan Fairfax, 24 August 1774,” Founders Online, accessed August 18, 2017, https://founders.archives.gov/GEWN-02-10-02-0097.

[6] Thomas Jefferson, “Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVIII,” American Studies at the University of Virginia, accessed August 18, 2017, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/jefferson/ch18.html.

[7] Robin Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800 (New York: Verso, 1988); Robert William Fogel, Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery (New York: W.W. Norton, 1994); Ira Berlin, Generations of Captivity: A History of American Slaves (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003); Dale Tomich, Through the Prism of Slavery: Labor, Capital, and World Economy (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004); David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Stephanie Smallwood, Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from African to American Diaspora (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007); Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013); Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman, eds., Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

[8] Eric Foner, Nothing But Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983).

[9] Thomas C. Holt, The Problem of Freedom: Race, Labor, and Politics in Jamaica and Britain, 1832–1938 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992); Sylvia R. Frey and Betty Wood, eds., From Slavery to Emancipation in the Atlantic World (London: Frank Cass and Co., 1999); Frederick Cooper, Thomas C. Holt, and Rebecca J. Scott, eds., Beyond Slavery: Explorations of Race, Labor, and Citizenship in Postemancipation Societies (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).

[10] Leon F. Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery (New York: Knopf, 1979); Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Business, 1863–1877 (New York: Harper and Row, 1988); Leon F. Litwack, Trouble In Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (New York: Knopf, 1998); Douglas Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (New York: Anchor, 2008).

[11] Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996); Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010).

Patrick Rael

Patrick Rael is Professor of History at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. He is the author of Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North (North Carolina, 2002), which earned Honorable Mention for the Frederick Douglass Prize from the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. He is also the editor of African-American Activism before the Civil War: The Freedom Struggle in the Antebellum North (Routledge, 2008), and co-editor of Pamphlets of Protest: An Anthology of Early African-American Protest Literature (Routledge, 2001). His most recent book, Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777-1865 (University of Georgia Press, 2015), explores the Atlantic history of slavery to understand the exceptionally long period of time it took to end chattel bondage in America.

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