The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

‘The Negro Problem,’ Then and Now

Posted on | September 28, 2021 | Comments Off on ‘The Negro Problem,’ Then and Now

For about four decades, Nathaniel Southgate Shaler (1841-1906) was among the leading professors of science at Harvard University. In 1884, Professor Shaler published in The Atlantic Monthly a lengthy article entitled “The Negro Problem,” which begins with this paragraph:

When the civil war determined by its result the political position of the black people in the Southern States, there was a general belief among their friends that the race had thereby received a complete enfranchisement as American citizens; that they were made free to all our national inheritances; that all the problems of their future involved only questions of a detached nature — such slight matters as their rights in hotels and railways, in fields of labor, or at the polling booths. But those who by their eagerness to bid the negro welcome to his new place in the state did so much credit to the spirit of hope and friendship of our time could not see the gravity of this problem. Never before in the history of peoples had so grave an experiment been tried as was then set about with a joyous confidence of success. Only their great military triumph could have given to our hard-minded, practical people such rash confidence. Here, on the one hand, was a people, whose written history shows that the way to the self-government on which alone a state can be founded is through slowly and toilfully gained lessons, handed from father to son — lessons learned on hard tilled and often hard fought fields. The least knowledge of the way in which their own position in the world had been won would have made it clear that such a national character as theirs could be formed only by marvelous toil of generations after generations, and an almost equally marvelous good fortune that brought fruit to their labor. There, on the other hand, was a folk, bred first in a savagery that had never been broken by the least effort towards a higher state, and then in a slavery that tended almost as little to fit them for a place in the structure of a self-controlling society. Surely, the effort to blend these two peoples by a proclamation and a constitutional amendment will sound strangely in the time to come, when men see that they are what their fathers have made them, and that resolutions cannot help this rooted nature of man. . . .

You may read the rest, and I suppose both the current editors of The Atlantic and the current leadership of Harvard University would vehemently disavow the entirety of Professor Shaler’s arguments. Nevertheless it is always helpful, in studying the origins of social problems, to consult in the original text the opinions of our predecessors, rather than to rely on modern interlocutors to summarize or interpret those views. One of the problems with the teaching of history nowadays is that most students just absorb the Cliff Notes summary of the past — reading only whatever is assigned, as necessary to obtain the desired grade — and thus we have millions of “educated” Americans who are almost entirely ignorant of vast amounts of history, despite having gotten A’s in the subject, even at our most prestigious universities.

Professor Glenn Reynolds today calls attention to a dispute between Princeton Professor Sean Wilentz and Nikole Hannah-Jones of the infamous “1619 Project.” The latter’s authorial purpose was to impugn the United State, per se and in toto, as hopelessly stained by “white supremacy.” Wilentz’s criticism is that Hannah-Jones goes too far — indeed, she goes so far as to completely outrace the historical evidence, which does not support her outlandish claim that our War of Independence was waged to prevent a threat to slavery from the British homeland (a fictitious threat that Hannah-Jones manufactures from whole cloth, a threat which the Patriots in such places as Vermont and Massachusetts certainly never mentioned). Wilentz is correct in this. However, I would argue that the real issue is not that Hannah-Jones goes too far, but rather that she is going in the wrong direction.

Hannah-Jones’s argument is wrong because her intentions are wicked — motivated by a hatred of America which is, in turn, informed by a hatred of white people (never mind or, at least, leave to examination by psychoanalysts, the fact that her own mother is white). Hannah-Jones began her project with an anti-American (and anti-white) agenda, and having made hatred the premise of her argument, everything else followed logically. Wilentz speaks of Hannah-Jones’s argument as exhibiting such “perversity” that, if it were submitted as a high school history paper, would automatically receive an “F” grade.

It can be easily demonstrated that Hannah-Jones is factually wrong about America, but why and how did she get it so wrong? And the answer is that her hateful purpose led her into these errors. She is wrong because she wants to judge the America of 1619-1776 by a standard of radical egalitarianism by which our forefathers are condemned as racists, and never mind that the word “racist” did not even exist at the time.

Anyone familiar with the history of England would see, in the Patriot cause of 1776, a sentiment that can be traced back through the Whig cause in the Glorious Revolution — principles delineated by John Locke — and further to the Parliamentary cause as exemplified by the heroic figures of Algernon Sidney and John Hampden, among others.

What the Patriots believed was that the home government was denying to them the rights which their English ancestors had fought so hard to obtain. Even while proclaiming it to be a “self-evident” truth that “all men” were “endowed by their Creator” with these rights, the signers of the Declaration were aware that such rights were not recognized in most of Europe, to say nothing of the lack of recognition of these “self-evident” rights in more remote regions of the globe. But I digress . . .

What is important is that we try to see the past as it actually was, rather than trying to impose our moralistic views on the past, in order to congratulate ourselves on our superiority to dead men who are not here to defend themselves against our accusations of “racism,” etc.

Read the original texts, let dead men speak in their own voices, and you’ll learn a lot more than you can from any tendentious intellectual presuming to interpret (and usually, to condemn) the motives of historic figures. For example, Ibram X. Kendi, author of the popular BLM/CRT diatribe How to Be an Anti-Racist, previously published Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (2016). In the process of explaining how he got the title of his first book, Kendi linked an online text of The Congressional Record from April 1860. What he meant to call attention to was the “Racist Ideas” of one of the senators who was participating in that debate. There was a proposal to use federal funds for public schools in the District of Columbia, a measure that the Senator opposed. But someone (and I haven’t gone through the entire legislative history of that bill) then amended the legislation to specify that the proposed public schools would be for both white and black children.

Here is an excerpt from the Senator’s remarks:

“Mr. President, the propositions, both the main one contained in the bill and that contained in the amendment, I think, rest on two fundamental errors: in the first place, that our Government was instituted for eleemosynary purposes, and in the next place, that it was instituted for a mixed race. This Government was not founded by negroes nor for negroes, but by white men for white men. It was not founded for eleemosynary purposes, but as an agent of the States; and there is no right to take one dollar from the Treasury to appropriate it to public schools. . . .
“The errors are fundamental on which the bill rests; and these errors have been developed by the alliance which it has brought from the other side, developing, as a consequence of the very proposition, this controversy as to the rights of whites, and the equality of the negroes. I do not choose to argue with any one who thinks proper to assert the equality of the negro and the white man. The man who makes the assertion may prove to me his equality with the negro. He proves to me no more; and I accept his argument only for so much.” [Emphasis added.]
Sen. Jefferson Davis, April 12, 1860

The highlighted sentence, you see, is offered by Davis as a statement of fact — the same fact that Chief Justice Roger Taney expressed in the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision. So far as I am aware, no one has ever provided evidence that Justice Taney and Senator Davis were wrong about this. Examine the writings of the Founding Fathers and see if you can find anything indicating that they desired or intended (or even imagined in their wildest dreams) a future in which the descendants of African slaves would obtain, en masse, full political equality with whites.

What has happened, you see, is that most Americans have been taught our own history in such a way that they don’t even recognize the importance of something that was apparent to Professor Shaler in 1884 when he spoke of the “experiment” that necessarily followed emancipation.

If we experience difficulties — political, social and economic — as a result of trying to integrate such diverse people into a single body politic, this should not cause surprise or dismay, simply because no one else anywhere has ever attempted anything remotely like it. Well, yes, you can speak of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as an experiment in “diversity,” but how did that work out? Our problem in America, I suggest, is that our expectations are too high, that we have been encouraged to think it should be easy to arrive at some utopian ideal of Equality (with a capital “E,” denoting its religious significance to liberals).

Utilized as a weapon by dishonest partisan agitators, “Equality” tends to make people unhappy, to cause resentment and suspicion — those evil rich people are exploiting us, we are told, as we sit in our air-conditioned homes with high-speed Internet connections and giant flat-screen TVs. It’s not just racial hatred that is incited by these “Equality” agitators, but every imaginable species of hatred, fear and envy.

We must live in reality, rather than in our political fantasies of an ideal condition of “Equality” that, so far as I know, has never existed anywhere at any time in all of human history. This utopian fantasy is harmful in that it breeds irrational discontentment, no matter how objectively splendid our actual circumstances may be. Some of the most bitter people in America are rich liberals whose affluent lifestyles would have been unimaginable to their grandparents or more remote ancestors. My own grandfather plowed the red clay hills of east Alabama behind a mule team. He had no indoor plumbing or electricity or central heat. Rather than make myself miserable by comparing my situation to that of Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates, I prefer to make myself happy by thinking how much easier my life is than that of my grandfather. Right now, I’m drinking a fruit smoothie and eating a meal I warmed up in the microwave, while preparing to hit the “publish” button and communicate with a readership of thousands. What have I got to complain about, if I pause to compare my situation to my grandfather’s life in rural Alabama?

Couldn’t the same be said for Nikole Hannah-Jones? She’s employed by the most influential newspaper in the world, yet it seems she’s made herself miserable by dwelling upon her alleged oppression.

“The errors are fundamental,” as Jefferson Davis said, and I don’t think Nikole Hannah-Jones is doing much to prove Davis wrong.

But “I do not choose to argue,” et cetera.



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