The roots of much of the turmoil in the current Republican Party are, however, centuries old. They go back, in fact, to the twin crimes that have helped shape this country from its very beginning: slavery and imperial expansion.
This year marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival in the British colonies that would become the United States of America of the first enslaved Africans. The New York Times has gathered some of the best recent scholarship on the nature and history of American slavery in an excellent series: "The 1619 Project."
Many white people in this country think of slavery as a “problem” of the distant past. They are mistaken. African Americans live with its effects today (as do the rest of us in different ways) in legacies like mass incarceration and the existential threat of police violence. In 2015, the Guardian reported that “young black men were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by police officers.” In that year, police killed 1,134 people. The Washington Post now keeps a running annual tally of such police-caused deaths. As of November 25th, the number for this year was 829.
The line that can be drawn from slavery to convict leasing to lynching to torture in police stations to police shootings of African Americans is all too direct. It’s impossible, in fact, to overstate the importance of slavery to the economic, legal, and social development of this country. The 1789 Constitution was in many ways a document meant to appease southern slave states and keep them in the union. This included the “three-fifths” compromise, which counted any enslaved resident as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of apportioning members of the House of Representatives to each state. Similarly, the creation of an upper house, the Senate, where each state has two representatives, regardless of population, and the invention of the Electoral College were meant, in part, to enhance the power of southern states. And to this day, those two institutions continue to allow southern and, more generally, rural states to exercise an undemocratic power, disproportionate to their population size. In a very real sense, compromises made in 1789 helped elect Donald Trump in 2016.
The first income-generating crop in the southern colonies was tobacco, initially planted, tended, picked, and packed by semi-free indentured servants from England who worked for a fixed period (usually seven to 10 years) and then were free to start farming on their own. Enslaved Africans, however, soon offered a number of advantages over such contract workers. As a start, their “contracts” never ran out. Indeed, their children and children’s children would also be enslaved workers. They would prove crucial to the way those planters built their wealth (and significant parts of the wealth of the colonies and that of the United States as a whole), both as profit-generating laborers and as capital-building assets against whom money could be borrowed. This history is well-described in a number of books, including Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom, Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told, and Andres Resendez’s The Other Slavery (about the little-studied enslavement of native peoples in what would become the American Southwest), as well as in the autobiographies and collected oral testimonies of hundreds of formerly enslaved people.
In Virginia and the Carolinas, however, those tobacco farmers faced a serious problem. Unlike indentured servants who could look forward to their eventual freedom, newly enslaved Africans had no incentive to work; none, that is, except physical pain. As a result, torture -- real mind- and body-destroying torture -- was part of the American experience from the first moments the slave system was established, with effects that have lasted to this day.
After the revolution and the invention in 1793 of Eli Whitney’s seed-stripping cotton gin, southern farmers turned to another, far more lucrative export crop: cotton. First in Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas, but soon in the lowlands that would become Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas, cheap raw cotton would feed England’s fast-industrializing textile industry and so, for the next two centuries, help make that country’s economy the world’s preeminent one. It also fed the nascent textile mills in the North after Samuel Slater, an early industrial spy, crossed the Atlantic to New England, carrying in his memory plans (embargoed by Great Britain) for a water-powered textile factory.