Mediocre Song, Lousy Cause

When I wrote about "The Slavers," what was bugging me was the "cheap thrill" of feeling morally superior by being anti-Confederate. How about condemning a war fought, at least in part, for slavery when it's actually unpopular to do so? For instance, what people were roused to war by their enemy "plying up the Rivers... using every Art to seduce the Negroes [to throw off their bonds]"? What people were moved to fight because their enemy had raised an army that wore the words "Liberty to Slaves" on their chests?

"In the famous case of Somerset vs. Stuart (1772), British jurist Lord Mansfield ruled that slavery could not be sanctioned by the common law. It was... incompatible with the 'natural rights of mankind" and the "mild and humane precepts of Christianity." Once a slave stood on British soil, the very air he breathed gave him legal protection and made him free. A writer in the New-York Journal assumed this would produce 'greater ferment' than had the Stamp Act..." -- Burstein and Isenberg, Madison and Jefferson, p. 24

The damned oppresive English were trying to interfere with our right to own slaves! And not only that:

"Pendleton's eagerness to declare Virginia independent in May 1776, and to instruct its delegates in the Continental Congress to vote for national independence, was related to the landed gentry's urge for western land... These tensions existed because the Proclamation of 1763, issued by the British Parliament, expressly prohibited western migration." -- Madison and Jefferson, p. 28

So those tyrannical Brits were trying to stop us from robbing and killing the Injuns as well!

OK, sure, there were greedy "slavers" who were anxious to steal yet more land from the Indians. But at least we had noble leaders like Jefferson around, who chastised them as follows:

"Nothing will reduce the [Indian] wretches so soon as pushing war into the heart of their country. But I would not stop there. I would never cease pursuing them while one of them remained on this side of the Mississippi." -- Madison and Jefferson, p. 29

Ooh, that wasn't chastisement at all, was it? That's downright enthusiasm for genocide and ethnic cleansing on the scale of half a continent!

So, Professor DeLong, are you with me here? "The Star Spangled Banner": Mediocre song, lousy cause.


  1. The Star Spangled Banner's cause is probably better summed up as:

    "HA! You didn't burn down all of Baltimore!"

    I'm not sure if that's better or worse...

  2. And you give the British far too much credit, at least in the west. They just didn't want the colonists to drum up another expensive war. I'm not sure preventing genocide was high on their priority list.

    If they could manage to do their genocide on the cheap, and without pissing off France, I'm sure the British would be fine with it.

  3. Also a little unfair to Jefferson on the slavery point. He blamed the British for that, after all, and called it "cruel war against human nature itself" in the initial draft of the Declaration. But we had to keep SC and GA on board (do we see a pattern here... reasonable Virginians, unreasonable deep South???).

    1. But I only mentioned Jefferson in relation to the Indians!

    2. You and your reasonable self-defenses!

    3. That brings an interesting question to mind: what was the pressing evil that the dirty Brits were perpetrating that made allowing slavery to continue the lesser evil? He can go ahead and blame the British for starting the institution in the colonies, but then, by that time, who was more likely to put a stop to that particular cruel war against human nature? I think Gene's first quote gives you some idea.

  4. Here is a fuller excerpt from Jefferson's letter: "I am sorry to hear that the Indians have commenced war, but greatly pleased you have been so decisive on that head. Nothing will reduce those wretches so soon as pushing the war into the heart of their country. But I would not stop there. I would never cease pursuing them while one of them remained on this side the Misisippi. So unprovoked an attack and so treacherous a one should never be forgiven while one of them remains near enough to do us injury."

    Not a noble sentiment, but it's more dark gray than black.

    1. I guess the neo-cons are closer to the vision of the founding fathers than I thought.

    2. Dark gray is probably about right. It's never good to buy into the "noble savage" myth.

      The fact is that Native Americans, like Africans at the time, were savages. The mistake is that the Europeans at the time failed to realize that they were savages too.

  5. For the record: I don't think fighting to defend the United States against invasion and conquest is a lousy cause. You do. That's your right--it is, after all, a free country.

    But you really should use the strike key on this as well: you are not doing yourself any favors.

    1. Um, Brad, I'm clearly talking about the Revolutionary War above. Before that war, there was no United States to be invaded, and as we were British at the time, Britain certainly was not attempting to "conquer" us. You are really not doing yourself any favors with these senseless comments!


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