Sanders' Campaign Is American as Apple Pie

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tags: election 2016, Bernie Sanders



Manisha Sinha, Professor of Afro-American Studies and History at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is the author of The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition.

Who said this? "I am writing in Wall Street, where the money-changers congregate, and where affluence and beggary are seen side by side....It is rightly named--Wall Street--for those who habitually occupy it in quest of riches at the expense of mankind, are walled in from the sympathies of human nature, and their hearts are as fleshless and hard as the paving-stones on which they tread, or the granite and marble buildings which they have erected and dedicated to their idol Gain." 

No, it is not Bernie Sanders. Nor is it the presidential candidates of the defunct American Socialist Party of the early twentieth century, Eugene V. Debs and Norman Thomas. William Lloyd Garrison, one of the preeminent leaders of the abolition movement, penned this prescient critique of finance capitalism in 1840. Never the sanctimonious, bourgeois paternalists caricatured by some scholars, abolitionists linked the emancipation of slaves with other wrongs that afflicted their society. Senator Sanders' brand of socialism is firmly rooted in a long but forgotten history of American democratic radicalism exemplified by the abolition movement. And like the abolitionists, he is often dismissed as too radical and overly idealistic in his views. But the abolitionist vision did succeed in effecting the destruction of slavery. 

Abolitionists were avid critics of the ills of their society, pace their slaveholding opponents, who accused them of shedding tears at the plight of slaves while remaining immune to the travails of the working poor closer to home. William Jay, the president of the New York Anti-Slavery Society and son of founding father John Jay, condemned the criminal prosecution of labor unions in the early American republic. He compared it to the widespread toleration of anti-abolition violence in the north led by "gentlemen of property and standing." Charles Sumner, the antislavery Senator from Massachusetts, denounced the unholy economic alliance between New England's "lords of the loom" who depended on the slave-grown cotton of southern "lords of the lash." Sumner became a leading Radical Republican advocate for black rights during Reconstruction, recently mischaracterized by Hillary Clinton as a punishment for the defeated south. Rather, it was an abolitionist experiment in interracial democracy whose overthrow inaugurated another long racial nightmare in the nation's history. 

The north's mercantile and banking elite remained staunchly conservative on the slavery question until the very eve of the Civil War. Abolitionists argued that northern "Money Power" bolstered the "Slave Power." Garrisonians flirted with utopian socialism and even relatively cautious evangelical abolitionists like Lewis Tappan admonished that the "rich would be better off if half or two thirds of their wealth were distributed among their poor fellow men." 

The religious right today is a far cry from the progressive abolitionist evangelicals whose mantle but not ideas they want to adopt. Political abolitionists associated with the Liberty party, a precursor to the antislavery Free Soil and Republican parties, also supported land reform and workingmen's rights. Gerrit Smith, the abolitionist land magnate in upstate New York, was a convert to George Henry Evans's crusade against land monopoly. In 1846 Smith deeded thousands of acres not just to blacks but also to the landless and poor, men and women. One of them was the abolitionist John Brown, who lies buried in the farm given to him at North Elba. 

The early labor and abolition movements shared a discourse of oppression. Working-class activists adopted the term wage slavery to describe the abysmal conditions of workers, as slavery remained the benchmark of oppression. But labor leaders such as Evans differed from abolitionists like Garrison and Smith in insisting implausibly that wage slavery was worse than chattel slavery. 

This claim especially outraged former slaves and black abolitionists like Frederick Douglass. The difference in priorities seems to be replicated in the Sanders' campaign's stress on general economic inequality and Ta-Nehisi Coates' argument for reparations for centuries of enslavement and systematic state sanctioned racial discrimination in law and practice. Like the black abolitionists of yore, Coates insists that any democratic movement should specifically take up the issue of racial redress. Such a debate, however, as in the case of abolition, is possible only in a movement animated by quintessential democratic ideals of equality and fairness. 

While Douglass and Garrison formalized the alliance between the working classes and abolition abroad with the formation of the Anti-Slavery League in Britain, they were unable to replicate their success at home. The incorporation of most of the immigrant working class into the southern-leaning Democratic Party, which was staunchly anti-abolitionist, alienated them from abolition and instigated mob violence against blacks. (Everything the reader knows about the ideological nature of the Republican and Democratic parties today can simply be flipped for the mid-nineteenth century.) While immigrants' hostility to abolition was also the result of a process of Americanization through which they sought to accrue the benefits of "whiteness" and hyper-nationalism or demonstrate loyalty to their adopted country, abolitionists deplored nativism in principle and appealed to immigrants to join their movement. In 1841, black abolitionist Charles Remond brought with him an "Address from the People of Ireland, to their Countrymen and Countrywomen in America," composed by Irish abolitionists and signed by the great nationalist Daniel O'Connell, urging immigrants to unite with the abolitionists. When some proslavery Irish American leaders rebuffed the appeal, O'Connell admonished them, "It was not in Ireland you learned this cruelty." Perhaps the rightwing talk show maven, Bill O'Reilly, who has threatened to immigrate to Ireland if Senator Sanders is elected President, should heed O'Connell.

Abolitionists' opponents, southern slaveholders and proslavery ideologues, despised abolition as akin to socialism. According to Senator James Chesnut of South Carolina, "red republicanism" in America had merely "blacked its face." Jefferson Davis, the future President of the Confederacy, described abolition as the first phase of socialism. Senator James Henry Hammond, also of South Carolina, in his famous "Cotton is King" speech recommended an alliance between northern capital and southern reaction to keep their respective "mudsill" classes in check. All such talk was anathema to that antislavery champion of free labor and American democracy, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln vindicated the dignity of labor, "Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration." The present crop of big business and xenophobic Republican presidential candidates probably has him turning in his grave. As Lincoln wrote of the nativists of his time, "When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty -- to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy." Perhaps we should take Mr. Trump's admiration for Mr. Putin's strong man tactics at face value. 

But one might well ask, which Presidential candidate is un-American here? Before the "red scare" engulfed the country after the First World War and the Cold War that followed the Second, socialism or social democracy was hardly thought of as a subversive, foreign import. Theorists of revolutionary republicanism, the principles on which the United States was founded, had long diagnosed inequality as the greatest threat to representative government. Abolitionists and President Lincoln tied the emancipation of the slaves to the fate of American democracy. Political pundits posit a false equivalence between the extreme right personified by Trump and the democratic vision represented by Mr. Sanders. In fact, Mr. Sanders's campaign for economic and social justice is as American as apple pie. The abolitionists would be proud of him.

The writer is the author of The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition.




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