Channelling George Washington: What If ... Slavery Ended Peacefully?


Mr. Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians. This is the latest in a series of articles, "Channelling George Washington."

“Do you enjoy playing my favorite historical game, what if?”

“All historians do.  Do you play it in Elysium?”

“All the time.  We can take the long view up here.  It’s amazing what you can see was a possibility, if people hadn’t been too impulsive, or crazed, or just plain stupid.”

“What’s your favorite topic?

“What if we avoided the Civil War?  Could slavery have ended peacefully?”

“That one is pretty popular down here too, General.  There’s a growing suspicion among our historical fraternity that if we could have waited another forty or fifty years, slavery would have disappeared peacefully, the way it did in Brazil and other countries.”

“Exactly what I—and some others think.  Jimmy Buchanan demurs.  He has no confidence in people recovering from diseases of the public mind.  But I’m an optimist on such matters.  In 1787, we overcame a huge prejudice against a strong central government.  The doomsters like Pat Henry and Sam Adams shouted themselves hoarse, but we beat them.”

“What were the signs of hope for a peaceful end to slavery in 1861?”

“The number of free blacks was growing every year.  In 1860, they totaled a half million!  Not many people know that.  Talented blacks were running plantations all over the South—even while they were enslaved.  Do you know the story of the real Uncle Tom?”

“Tell me about him.”

“His name was Josiah Henson.  He was the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s fictional black hero.  Harriet admitted it on numerous occasions.  But she never mentioned that he was totally different from the character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

“Different in what way?”

“Stowe knew almost nothing about slavery.  She was outraged by the institution—that gave her book its enormous appeal.  She mentions almost casually that her Uncle Tom ran his master’s farm.  But she never described him at work.  Instead, there were endless pages describing him as a good-natured simpleton who loved everybody, white and black.”

“Then Tom falls into the hands of Simon Legree?”

“His original master sells him to Legree, who starts working and beating him to death, while Tom forgives him ad nauseam, as the professors say.  It’s why being called an Uncle Tom became an insult among blacks.”

“The real Uncle Tom wasn’t like that?”

“He couldn’t have been more different.  From the beginning of his enslaved life, as Henson tells it in his autobiography, he set himself to ‘out-hoe, out-reap, out-husk, out everything every competitor.’  He was soon master of every kind of farm work.”

“Amazing stuff!”

“When Henson caught the white overseer defrauding Isaac Riley, the owner of the plantation, he reported him and the grateful Riley gave him the job.  He doubled the production of the farm’s various crops, took them to market and bargained skillfully with wholesalers, soon making Riley one of the most affluent farmers in Maryland.”

“Were there other blacks like Henson in the 1830s?”

“Definitely.  By that time dozens of overseers were black.  Soon only 30 percent of the plantations with one hundred or more slaves had white overseers.  Farming was not the only skill blacks acquired.  Twenty-seven percent of the adult male slaves in Charleston, SC were blacksmiths, carpenters, coopers—skilled artisans.  They operated like free men, negotiating contracts, and even living in their own houses.  They paid only a percentage of their incomes to their white masters.”

“Did some of them begin buying their freedom?”

“This became more and more common as the century advanced. These black entrepreneurs testified to the triumph of the human spirit over adversity.  They also bore witness to the injustice of slavery.  They would have become leaders and spokesman for reconciliation if slavery had ended peacefully.”

“At the very least, this new information makes us aware that blacks are NOT inferior to whites and never were.”

 “I never doubted that fact after I saw how well black soldiers fought in the army of the Revolution. By the end of the war, one out of every seven soldiers in the ranks was black.  They were as brave and committed to independence as any man in the army.  Do you know the story of Lafayette’s valet?”

“You tell it, General.”

“It’s my favorite story about a black American.  The Marquis, who was all of 23, was trying to defend Virginia against Lord Cornwallis and his army of 7,000 men.  The Marquis wrote me a plaintive letter, saying he wasn’t even strong enough to get decently beaten.  He barely had 1,000 men. 

“Plus his valet?”

“He was given this young black man named Jim as a bodyservant, as they called them in Virginia in those days.  It sounds awful to your era, I know.  I hoped valet was more acceptable.  At any rate, Jim was very intelligent.  He offered to infiltrate the British army camp at Yorktown, pretending to be a runaway.  He brought back valuable information—the British were planning to spend the winter there.  Lafayette rushed this report to me, up north.  It helped me decide to march to Yorktown in the hope of trapping Cornwallis.”

“And it worked.  One of the miracles of military history!”

“The French fleet arrived from the Caribbean as they had promised they would—and we had a victory that more or less decided the war.  Lafayette was so grateful, he persuaded the Virginia legislature to free Jim.”

“Did you meet Jim—congratulate him?”

“I’m afraid not. There were too many things going on.  French generals and admirals to deal with, worries about how to feed our army.  But Lafayette saw him again, more than forty years later.”

“Jim got to France?”

“No.  Lafayette came back to America in 1824 to help us celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.  He visited almost every American city from Boston to Savannah.  There were all sorts of parades and tributes and salutes.  In Richmond, he was in his carriage, waving to a cheering crowd, when a black man rushed up to him.  ‘Jim!’ Lafayette cried.”

“It was really Jim?”

“Lafayette had an amazing memory for names and faces.  Jim told the Marquis he was now known as James Lafayette, and was a respected citizen of Richmond, with a wife and family and legions of friends.”

“You’re convincing me that a peaceful end to slavery is a what if that was a real possibility.  It’s a heartbreaking—but somehow deeply consoling thought.”

“I feel the same way. “

“Any other what ifs on your mind, General?”

“I’ve got a really good one.  You’ll be hearing from me soon!”

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More Comments:

William J. Stepp - 9/5/2010

He has no confidence in people recovering from diseases of the public mind.

"Diseases of the public mind"?

Where is Thomas M. Szasz, MD, and author of The Myth of Mental Illness, when we need him?

Thomas Holloway - 8/31/2010

Like other toss-off lines in this fantasy, the reference to Brazil's supposedly peaceful end to slavery is way too facile. For one thing, it was not so peaceful after all. In the last two years or so from 1886) mass escapes, burning of cane fields, and general chaos in rural areas became increasingly frequent. Also, the onus of being the last western nation with slavery, more than 20 years after it ended in the USA, was pressing. Finally, Brazil's racial/demographic history from c. 1500 to the 1880s was quite different from English North America, c. 1619-1860s.

Ephraiyim ben Yisrael - 8/30/2010

"In 1787, we overcame a huge prejudice against a strong central government. The doomsters like Pat Henry and Sam Adams shouted themselves hoarse, but we beat them.”

Greatly enjoyed the article with one exception. Pat Henry and Sam Adams have been proven to have been more than correct. Strong central government is one of the greatest tragedies of this nation and is the cause of most of our domestic as well as international problems.
Central banking, Washington meddling in peoples personal affairs and endless warmaking are only a small token of the problems that we have as a result of ignoring the warnings of those two great men.

John D. Beatty - 8/30/2010

What if slavery wasn't the problem: what if it was the social order and political economy of the states in the southern part of the country that enabled and encouraged slavery?

Then merely going after the practice of "slavery" itself would be putting a bandaid on an amputation, wouldn't it?

One should ask first why the institution existed and was defended so zealously. There was far more to it than that, and it wasn't civil rights. The 1861-65 war in the US was an extension of the civil wars of England dating back to the 1600s, that tested the supremacy of the value of land over the value of capital.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/29/2010

The ability of Mr. Fleming's voices to ignore history in creating his fantastical fables is even greater than his skill at writing dramatic dialogue. Not that it's a high bar, mind you.

The selective retelling of Josiah Henson's life is pretty pitiful stuff, too. I've heard a lot of criticism about the quality of Stowe's novel, but it would never have been as widely read or influential as it was, were it not for the widespread acknowledgement that she'd gotten the basic principles of Southern slavery pretty much right.