‘It was a kind of secret which we all knew and were too clever to tell’

‘It was a kind of secret which we all knew and were too clever to tell’ February 8, 2019

Over at the Anxious Bench, Philip Jenkins* continues his thoughtful series on slavery, history, and memory. The first two posts in that series were here: “Slavery, History, and Relativism,” and “Should the Fact of Slave-holding Ruin Historical Reputations?

I think that concern with “reputations” is a mistake — a way of distracting ourselves from the meaning and implications of the very important questions Jenkins is grappling with there. I discussed that last week in this post: “Bad Reputation: The right subject, the wrong question.”

Jenkins latest post — “Remember Lord Dunmore!” — involves the last British royal governor of the colony of Virginia, John Murray. (Murray was the fourth Earl of Dunmore, but his side lost the war so I, as an American, am free not to call him that or to even bother understanding what it means.) As the colonies began their revolution, Murray responded with a proclamation offering emancipation to every slave or indentured servant willing to take up arms to join “His Majesty’s Troop.”

The post is a good discussion of a moment in history that represents an unlovely but important aspect of the American Revolution. It makes me think of Samuel Johnson’s pointed question about the Revolution: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”

Johnson makes an appearance back in that first post from Jenkins, who discusses him as a kind of exception that proves the rule. Jenkins is arguing that while there may have been a widespread, well-established moral consensus against slavery developing by the mid-1800s, no such consensus existed a century earlier. The early and mid-1700s was the time when the Founding Fathers of American evangelicalism, Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, were casually involved in human trafficking:

Shift the focus a century earlier, to an equivalent slave owner in the early 18th Century. To say the least, no such consensus existed, whether social, moral, religious, or legal – not in the English-speaking world, nor in the larger Europe, nor the Atlantic and imperial realms. Insofar as a consensus did exist, it was entirely in favor of enslavement and the slave trade as a foundation of national prosperity, without serious moral qualms. … We can certainly find abolitionist sentiment around the British Atlantic, but usually confined to religious groups that were regarded as far on the social and cultural fringe, such as the Quakers.

You could also point to isolated Anglicans like Samuel Johnson, who was strongly anti-slavery from the 1740s onward. He even spoke out in favor of the slaves’ right to armed resistance against their captors and oppressors. He appalled respectable Oxford with his toast, “Here’s to the next insurrection of the Negroes in the West Indies!” But in this as in so much else, Johnson was a cranky eccentric in this regard.

… At least before about 1770, opposition to the slavery system as such was rare and sporadic. At that particular time and place, we might reasonably ask how or why someone could have been expected to go against that social current. And that consideration should surely affect how we judge that person’s character, and fitness for historical commemoration.

The problem with this thesis, though, is that Jenkins himself hints at why it fails it in his post on Lord Dunmore. There he writes this:

In the context of a slave-owning society terrified of slave revolt and bloody insurgency, this was invoking the nuclear option, and as such, the Proclamation was widely and furiously condemned.

Granted, Dunmore’s proclamation came in 1775 — well after “about 1770.” But this description of “a slave-owning society” as being marked by perpetual terror “of slave revolt and bloody insurgency” remains just as accurate if we’re talking about earlier generations in the time of Edwards and Whitefield (and also the time of Woolman and Benjamin Lay).

Consider again the mass hysteria that swept through New York City in 1741 — a longer, deadlier, wilder frenzy of lawless show-trials than anything seen in Salem 50 years earlier. This is sometimes referred to as the “slave revolt of 1741,” but there’s no evidence there ever was any such revolt or even the barest outlines of a plot for one. Basically, there was a fire and white New Yorkers freaked out and began screaming “Aieee! The revolt is here! Our slaves have started to burn the city!

And then they spent the next several months torturing false confessions out of every slave they could get their hands on before executing them in the most excessively grisly and public manners they could manage. (Torturing and killing a bunch of white Jesuits, too, for some reason.)

One factor in the mindless panic of these white New Yorkers may have been the memory of the very brief “slave revolt” that occurred in the city 29 years earlier. The “New York Slave Revolt of 1712” started with a building set on fire. (About two dozen slaves were involved — many more than that were tortured or executed in reprisal. Nine white New Yorkers were killed in the short-lived revolt.)

That revolt came four years after New York had passed the first law in the colonies mandating the death penalty for any slave involved in such a thing. The premise for that 1708 law — the “Act for Preventing the Conspiracy of Slaves” — was the killing of a Queens slave-owner. But that wasn’t the whole reason, and it wasn’t close to being the main reason.

The main reason for the mass hysteria of 1741 didn’t have to do with any actual plots or uprisings, but with white New Yorkers’ understanding that such plots and uprisings were to be expected. More than that, white New Yorkers understood that such plots and uprisings were wholly justified.

Here’s how I described this a few years ago:

White New Yorkers panicked due to their fear of a potential slave revolt. That fear, I think, refutes all the nonsense we often hear about how the stark immorality of the slave system was perceived differently back in those days, and how we should all be more generous toward the defenders and exploiters of slavery because things were different back then and (white) folks just didn’t know any better.

They knew. That’s why they were scared. In 1741 — more than 60 years before Toussaint Louverture shocked the world and nearly a century before the enslaved preacher Nat Turner took up arms — white New Yorkers were wild with fear of a slave revolt because they knew that slavery was an abominable, intolerable injustice. They looked at this brutal system and — even if only semi-consciously — thought about what they would do if they were the ones being crushed by it. And they realized, with utter clarity, that they would want to resist and revolt and to overthrow their oppressors. And they realized, just as clearly, that they would be justified in doing so.

That is why they were afraid.

They knew. They knew with a certainty and clarity that produced an ever-present dread.

“Every white man there [had] this thought stowed somewhere or other in his mind. … It was a kind of secret which [they] all knew and were too clever to tell.”

That cleverness was expressed as a widespread, multi-form social, moral, religious, and legal consensus not to look directly at the thing everyone knew — not to speak of it or to in any way openly acknowledge this dreadful secret. That consensus was not the reason they couldn’t have known better. It was the mechanism by which they managed to pretend they did not know any better.

For those still stuck in the misleading frame of “reputation,” this may seem like a harsh, unforgiving condemnation of people from an earlier time. But, again, the point is not that we should be withholding or extending absolution to them. That exercise isn’t ever really about them. It’s always, rather, about seeking absolution for ourselves.

And we’re gonna need it. Because right now, as Jenkins wisely notes, “you and I are today failing to protest or condemn something that generally appears acceptable today.”

We’re not doing so because we, too, have a powerful, multiform mechanism for allowing ourselves to pretend not to know better. We too have an ever-present dread that persists as a background hum we semi-successfully drown out with the white noise of our social, moral, religious, and legal consensus. We too have thoughts stowed somewhere or other in our minds, secrets which we all know but are too clever to tell. We too have mastered the instinctual applications of categories like “fringe” or “eccentric” as a way of ignoring anyone who speaks such secrets aloud.

So, yes, we’re also going to need absolution. And thus we shouldn’t be stingy about extending it to others.

“What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means!”

We like to think that the folks back then couldn’t have known any better because we like to think that we don’t know any better. But they knew and we know. Or we, at least, suspect. Because, on some level, not looking at something always involves knowing what it is we’re trying not to look at.

Not listening to someone also always involves keeping track of who it is we’re not going to listen to. And that’s maybe the most pertinent point for those of us trying to overcome the narcotizing effect of the social, moral, religious, and legal consensus that keeps us in our sins. Because it doesn’t matter whether you agree with me that “they” knew better or if you agree with Jenkins that “they” couldn’t have known better, this disagreement involves only an exclusively white antecedent for “them.”

Could or should Jonathan Edwards have known that buying and selling human beings was a despicable and deplorable injustice? Regardless, Titus knew. And Venus knew. And Susanna and Joseph. They all surely knew.

And white Christians and white Americans surely knew that black Christians and black Americans like those enslaved persons from Edwards’ household knew. The social, moral, religious, and legal consensus that pretended not to know was a white social, white moral, white religious, and white legal white consensus, and part of that consensus was the agreement not to ask and not to listen to those whom white Christians knew would know better.

– – – – – – – – – – – – –

* Jenkins is one of my favorite bloggers. My qualifications about this recent series of posts doesn’t change that and I heartily recommend subscribing to the RSS feed for the Anxious Bench (or bookmarking the site, or whatever it is kids these days do to ensure they keep up to date with worthy sites) where he’s part of a terrific team of always interesting smart folks.

Jenkins has an appealing knack for off-the-beaten-path realms of knowledge that he explores with insight, wit, and wisdom. Just quickly skimming stuff of his that I’ve linked to I find it includes Lughnasa, Stonehenge, Humanae Vitae, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, St. John’s Eve, The Wicker Man, and Billy Graham and the Hell Bombs. This is why I sometimes — out loud, audibly — say “Ooh, cool!” when a new Anxious Bench post pops up in my feed.


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