. . . little desire to recall a time. . .

Abolitionist and Cotton Mill Manager?

Abolitionist and Cotton Mill Manager?

Last night I saw the film “Twelve Years a Slave.” The film will likely be awarded Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture of the year honors from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

But the film will not win in the category it most deserves: the best unflinching look at the United States economy and culture then and now.

Henry Kemble Oliver (1800-1885) was a Salem, MA, church musician, educator, and politician. In the 1840s he was one of the civilian overseers of the US Military Academy at West Point. He was appointed to this position because of his leadership in the citizen militia of Salem, whose “exercises” on the Salem Common he describes in his memoirs (which I have transcribed).

In his memoirs he describes his detestation of another of the overseers, a gentleman from Georgia who owned slaves. Oliver brings his full New England Unitarian righteousness to bear on his refusal to share a meal with this man.

In 1849, Oliver moved from his home on fashionable Federal Street in Salem to the gritty industrial city of Lawrence, where he had been hired as manager of the newly opened Atlantic Cotton Mill. He was organist at the Unitarian Church of Lawrence and Chairman of the Lawrence School Board.

Oliver was a Massachusetts abolitionist. He was elected as the Republican Treasurer of the Commonwealth in 1860. He was so devoted to the anti-slavery cause and to the Union that, while he was treasurer, in order for Massachusetts to meet the payroll for its militia fighting in the south, he loaned the Commonwealth money from his substantial private fortune.

Few Americans, both then and now, would make the connection that his wealth from the Atlantic Cotton Mill was a direct result of slavery, from cotton produced in the South by slavery. It is not an exaggeration to say this devoted Christian Republican abolitionist public servant was directly complicit in slavery.

Oliver (for whom I have enormous respect and who is the subject of my PhD dissertation) was part of an economic system that, after Emancipation, created for the economically disadvantaged working class another kind of virtual slavery to which we seem to be reverting today.

Atlantic Mill, 50 years later--the source of the cotton?

Atlantic Mill, 50 years later–the source of the cotton?

The Atlantic Cotton Mill not only depended on slavery for its raw materials, but also created a class of workers—mostly young women from farms of New England—who were underpaid and had almost no freedom of movement once they were trapped in the industrial system. The economic destruction of the culture of small farms and small businesses during the expansion of industrialism in the 1840s was ameliorated somewhat by the relocation of farm girls (and others, of course) to the mill cities to work and send wages home to their families—work in the factories that were dependent on slavery for their means of production.

We don’t want to think about this even though at this juncture we are trapped in an economic reality that is beginning to resemble that era so closely that it is (or ought to be) frightening (1). However,

Polls show that a majority of Americans identify issues other than slavery—states’ rights, the tariff, etc.—as the [Civil] war’s fundamental cause. Yet contemporaries had little doubt that slavery lay at the root of the conflict, as Lincoln put it in his Second Inaugural Address, and the Emancipation was its most profound outcome. . .  Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens declared that the “cornerstone” [of the Confederacy] . . . was the principle that “slavery, subordination to the superior race” was the “natural and moral condition” of black Americans” (2).

We don’t want to think about this. It is too overwhelming to consider that the industrial revolution that made our country into THE economic power in the world was made possible by slavery. We all, it seems to me, left, right, or middle have

. . . little desire to recall a time when. . . the Federal Government actually promoted racial equality. . . [and] nostalgia for the Confederacy survives in the Tea Party and broader right-wing circles. . . a gap remains between historical scholarship and popular understandings of history. . . When Charleston, South Carolina, marked the anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter, the city was bedecked with Confederate flags, and the commemoration made no mention of slavery. . . (3)

I would say Foner is wrong about one thing. The nostalgia does not survive in “right-wing circles” but throughout American society. If enough of us were opposed to the disadvantage of huge numbers of people through the unconscionable, horrifying gap—becoming a chasm that it’s difficult to imagine will ever again be bridged—between the top 1% of the wealthy and the rest of us, the absurd distribution of wealth would end.

"the natural and moral condition"

“the natural and moral condition”

We can blithely believe in economic opportunity, and the American Dream, and all of that nonsense, but it has become a nightmare. Alice Walton (my favorite wealthy person—yes! we do have a right to judge her and her ilk because, by every philosophical or spiritual measure we have, their wealth is unjust) has her billions while, for example, you and I pay for her employees’ health care because she won’t provide insurance for them.

Twelve Days a Slave, while it portrays a monstrous kind of physical captivity that none of us can imagine and a historical reality that none of us can honestly say we relate to, may be a cautionary tale. Are we in process of returning to a time when “subordination to the superior race,” that is, the atrociously and immorally wealthy, is seen as the “natural and moral condition” of those at the lowest levels of economic life?

Are you about to move up to the 1 percent, to become truly wealthy?

If anyone I know personally has done so in the last 20 years, they are keeping it a close secret.
(1) Post, Charles. “Social-Property Relations, Class-Conflict And The Origins Of The US Civil War: Towards A New Social Interpretation.” Historical Materialism 19.4 (2011): 129-168.
(2) Foner, Eric. “The Civil War In ‘Postracial’ America.” Nation 293.15 (2011): 24-26.
(3) ibid.

2 Responses to . . . little desire to recall a time. . .

  1. Pingback: Oh, to be an obviously spiritual (other-worldly?) creature | Sumnonrabidus's Blog

  2. Pingback: Baggage, Eclipse, Raging Capitalism, and the Savior of Christmas | Sumnonrabidus's Blog

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