Sunday, February 03, 2008

Without Slaves:Jeffersonian Agrarianism and the Question of Slavery

Writing a book called _A Nation of Farmers_ and arguing for Jeffersonian democracy brings you, sooner or later, bang hard up against the question of slavery. And it is not possible to address that question either by eliding the problem of slavery, as many of Jefferson's advocates do, or by claiming, as many anti-agrarians do, that Jefferson's slave holding makes the whole question of agrarian society so irrevocably tainted that it cannot be useful to us any longer. That is, Aaron's and my opinion is that the only answer we can come up with is to go towards this vexed question full steam ahead.

Jefferson made quite a number of statements arguing that independent farmers were the best candidates for democracy. He claimed in "Notes on the State of Virginia," "Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of god, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. " Speaking slightly less effusively, he went on to say in a 1785 letter to John Jay, "Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, & they are tied to their country & wedded to its liberty & interests by the most lasting bands."

His opposition to Alexander Hamilton's plan to create large state supported financial institutions and move towards industrialization represents one of the great philosophical battles at the founding of our nation. Henry Cabot Lodge famously called it the founding debate of our society. And it would be easy for agrarians to see Hamilton, and Hamiltonianism as the bad guy - that is, Hamilton supported the notion of concentrating wealth in the hands of an elite, and moving the nation towards trade and manufacturing.

But the undercurrent of their debate, less popularly considered, was slavery. Hamilton was an abolitionist who regularly attended New York Abolition Society meetings. He believed that manufacturing was the only alternative to an agrarian slave society - wage labor, he felt, would end slavery. Jefferson, of course, was a plantation owner and slave holder. That he was ambivalent about slavery and at times worked for its overturn does not erase that at times, he also supported it, and he had no desire, to see, as Hamilton did, African-Americans working alongside white people in independent agriculture or factories. Jefferson imagined that freed slaves would be sent to Africa or Haiti, rather than they would grow independently alongside white people.

Roger Kennedy, in his Book _Mr. Jefferson's Lost Cause_ argues that in fact, Jefferson's agrarianism struggled with two conflicting impulses, and ultimately operated to reinforce slavery in our society. Jefferson's agrarianism, he argues, wasn't quite what it seemed to be. While independent, largely self-sufficient farmers with good educations and a great deal of civic engagement were a norm in the North, the South was largely divided between white, wealthy plantation owners, and small backwoods farmers, mostly illiterate, who Jefferson regarded with a great deal of distaste. When Jefferson claimed, for example, "Ours are the only farmers who have read Homer" he was not, in fact, referring to the Southern Scots-Irish self-sufficient farmers of his region, but to Northern farmers (who had a 100% literacy rate in the Colonial period by some accounts, higher than it would ever be again), or plantation owners.

Kennedy makes a compelling case that Jefferson's vision of agrarianism, which included the slave plantations, enabled westward expansion, and the subjugation of the Native population - he does a fascinating analysis of the rate at which plantation owners destroyed their soils, almost three times the rate of non-slave holding southern farmers and five times the rate of Northern farmers, and argues that Jefferson's rhetoric, and the Louisiana Purchase, were predicated on a notion of ever expanding slavery, and the depletion of the soil.

This is a compelling critique, and to Kennedy's enormous credit, it is a nuanced critique. He does not claim that Jefferson cynically manipulated the plantation owner vote, so much as argue that Jefferson both believed in the notion of independent farmers and was unable to bring about the society he imagined.

Here, I think, is the beginnings, not of a rehabilitation of Jefferson, but of a way of thinking about agrarianism and slavery. Because it would be foolish to argue, as Thom Hartmann does in his book _What Would Jefferson Do?_, that Jefferson figures largely as a helpless opponent to slavery. Hartmann, whose arguments are otherwise well taken seems to belong to the category of Jeffersonian advocates who rehabilitate him by only looking at the anti-slavery writings. But to do so is to ignore the fact that Jefferson's legacy to us was more than just his principled objections - it was his practices.

That is, to find a way towards Jeffersonianism, we must not erase slavery, but face it. One of Hartmann's own arguments, however, directs us usefully to the urgent larger question. That is, Hartmann argues that instead of eliminating slavery, the US merely moved it elsewhere. I think Hartmann is wrong to use this argument to defend Jefferson. He says,

"Yet how many of us would willingly free our slaves? I'm typing these words on a computer containing many parts made in countries where laborers are held with less freedom and in conditions worse than those of Jefferson's slaves." Hartmann has a point, but also recognizes that this is a rationalization - Jefferson did more than simply hold slaves, he enabled slavery on a large, public scale. This argument does not work as a defense of Jefferson.

But it does give us a useful direction to point our own analysis at - that is, if we are to imagine, as Hamilton did, as many anti-agrarians have since, that the debate between industrialization and agrarianism can come down to the question of slavery, we need to ask, how good has industrial society been at freeing its slaves. That is, do we have fewer slaves right now than we did in an agrarian society? How many slaves are there in the world today?

When you add up the numbers, the results are surprising. At present, according to the UN, the world has 27 million literal slaves - that is, people who are presently held as slaves, owned as objects, and treated like them. Add to that 218 million child laborers, which UNICEF documents are almost always forced laborers. Then add 100 million adult women prostitutes (the child prostitutes are included in the previous number) who according to the UN committees on human trafficking can be said to lack control over their lives, bodies and earnings, and the minimum of 400 million poor workers who live in conditions of effective slavery, either in debt to the company store or given a choice between starvation and working in unsafe, dangerous conditions for virtually no money, and we end up with between half and 2/3 of a billion people on this planet in slavery, or effective slavery. That means that one out of every 10 to 13 people on the earth is enslaved or as near as to make no difference.

This figure is almost certainly too low, however - these are estimates, and low estimates in many cases. For example, at least 300 million women worldwide engage in prositution of one sort or another throughout the world, and it stretches the imagination to conceive that the 200 million that the UN does not consider to be effectively enslaved are all fully willing participants who simply chose prostitution as their career. Nor does this figure include involuntary military conscripts all over the globe, many of whom (including a substantial number of children), are used for forced labor or cannon fodder in conflicts all over the world. In _The Age of Extremes_ Eric Hobsbawn estimates that there are more than 200 million involuntary conscripts at any given time, worldwide.

The child labor figures are hotly disputed - for example, the International Textile, Garment and Leather Worker's Union estimates that 250 million children, more than half under the age of 14, are at work in clothing and textile manufacture alone (Naomi Klein, _No Logo_). Since these constitute only about half of the UNICEF figures, that would raise the estimate up dramatically, towards one billion people in slavery, at least 1/3 of them children. Far more than half are female - because women are often poorer than men, less well educated and more likely to be encumbered by children, they are diproportionately likely to end up in sweatshops, domestic service, or in the sex trade from lack of other options.

Some may protest that those adults who are not literally enslaved shouldn't be included here. For example, adult sweatshop workers. I'll conceed that their conditions aren't quite the same as slavery. But res ipsa loquitor - that is, the thing speaks for itself. This is testimony taken from a single sneaker plant (producing Nikes and Adidas in 1998 in El Salvador,

"...12 hour days in hot, unventilated conditions. Workers are given backless wooden benches from which to work. Cushions are not allowed. Supervision is brutal, with constant verbal abuse aganist those who do not keep up the required pace, physical violence and sexual harassment. Permission is required to drink water or use the batrhoom. The drinking water is not purified and comes from the cistern into which the toilet empties. No toilet paper is available and the toilets are filthy. Male supervisors come into the women's toilets regularly to harass the women back to work. Talking is not allowed. Workers leaving the plant are subject to humiliating body searches. Workers are expected to work when they are sick. One or two days pay is deducted for any visit to the clinic. Women are made to undergo monthly pregnancy tests which they have to pay for themselves. Pregnant workers are fired instantly. In some plants superivisors give depo-provera contraceptive injections to women who are told they are getting anti-tetanus jabs." ("Labour" by Mark O'Brien in _Anti-Capitalism_ ed. Bircham, Charlton)

Both effective and literal slaves have little control of their own lives. They are subject, in the literal sense of the word, to the whims of their masters. They experience physical violence, control of the full range of their lives including sexual activity. They are subject to degradation and told that they deserve their conditions. They are not free to leave or to stop their work, and often do their work under the terror their families will be harmed, or that their children will starve to death.

As historian Kenneth Stampp, writing of American slavery points out, "the predominant and overpowering the majority of slaves was neither love nor hate, but fear." (Stampp, _The Peculiar Institution_). Those who live in constant fear of their bosses or masters are always slaves.

And who are they enslaved to? Well, directly speaking, they are enslaved to pimps, factory owners, industrial farmers, large companies, mining corporations, private entrepreneurs, local warlords, private slaveholders in countries that largely turn a blind eye to this sort of thing (including our own - there have been a number of high profile liberations of effectively enslaved immigrants in domestic service, garment factories and agriculture in the US, and that's almost certainly only the tip of the iceberg).

But, of course, the economy moves up the chain - who motivates these slave owners to enslave people? Sometimes human beings are the only thing there is left to traffic in. Sometimes slaves merely serve the evils of their immediate society. For example, the nation of Mauritius outlawed slavery only last year.

But often, their work and its proceeds moves up the economic food chain, and the people who profit are us.. That is, the appetites of people rich enough to travel around the world seeking out prostitutes (there are many of these trips advertised in the US and other rich nations for business people and men who can't have sex with children as easily here), the appetites of people who want cheap coffee and bananas, the appetites of people who want cheap t shirts, diamonds, energy and oriental rugs.

That is, most of the work we enslave people to do is work that the rich world directly or indirectly benefits from. Our cheap bananas come from the Ecuadorian plantation where whole families, including children, are so indebted to the "company store" that they can never hope to do anything else. And you and I eat their bananas. We wear the fancy sneakers, put the diamonds on our fingers, burn the Nigerian oil in our cars, decorate our homes with the labor of small children. We do not benefit from every slave, and responsibility exists all down the line, but it is also true that the economic function of slavery is to make masters rich.

Still, we might overall say we're doing pretty well with abolitionism, if we compare ourselves to the past. After all, the best guess is that maybe 1 in 10 people are enslaved, but in Ancient Athens, it was almost 1-1, and in the American south, in most plantation regions, slaves outnumbered free white people by between 2-1 and 10-1.But if you look at the society as a whole, Ancient Greece at the height of its slaveholding was about 4 free people to every slave and the US in 1850 had about 2.5 million slaves and just over 23 million people (Meltzer, _Slavery: A World History_. That is, in 1850, America as a whole had about the same percentage of slaves that we have right now worldwide.

If we recall that much of Northern Industrialism profited from slavery, turning cotton into cloth in the mills of Massachusetts, for example, the percentages are surprisingly similar. That is, the basis of rich society rests, roughly speaking, on the backs of about the same number of slaves that 19th century American wealth did. We're doing better than ancient Greece, but that's not saying much. We've not so much abolished slavery as offshored it, as Hartmann rightly observes.

So one answer to the question of whether agrarianism is irretrievably bound up in slavery would be to say yes - but no more so than industrialism. Both are slave societies. In one, we see our slaves, in another, we hide them, so that we can feel righteous, and not be confronted with their suffering.

Looked at in this like Jeffersonian agrarianism is no better - and no worse - than industrialism, which of course, depends on colonialism and enslaved labor. So the question becomes, how would we get out of slavery altogether, in either system - that is, which system can best be adapted to be truly slave free?

There's one kind of slavery we haven't included, but probably should, our energy slaves.
These slaves aren't people, of course, although they too come with a moral freight that we might want to consider, as millions of our slaves in the poor world, besides their horrible lives, now are in increased danger of death because of our warming the planet.

Equally importantly, fossil fuels have enabled most rich world denizens to live their lives as though they have slaves - not just far away slaves making their clothing and growing their coffee, but in the house slaves to do things like wash their dishes, carry them places they want to go, and cook their food. I'm not sure if James Kunstler coined the term "energy slaves" but it is a useful way of thinking about our lives now - that denizens of the rich world are living like slaveowners of prior days, dependent on fossil fuels and a good bit of globalized distance to seperate us from the ugly name.

It is certainly true that we shouldn't look on energy slaves with the same degree of horror we look on human slavery. But it is also the case that we might look on a lifestyle that requires human slaves and the equivalent amount of non-renewable energy with the same repugnance one might look at the lives of southern plantation owners. Because when the non-renewable energy runs out, we'll have created a generation of people who lack the essential skills, the physical fitness and the mindset to do their own work. The future of people trained only to be masters is not bright - either they remain rich, and do evil by enslaving more people to compensate for their diminishing resources (think what we're doing to the Iraqi people to get their oil), or they do quite badly indeed when they first have to pick up the work they have so long avoided.

Because, of course, the work that isn't easily mechanized, the work we can no longer afford to fuel - the manufacture of clothing is notoriously part of this - is still done by people. If we estimate, as Kunstler does in _The Long Emergency_ that the average rich world denizen uses fossil energy as the equivalent of 40 or more human laborers, and then add in the 1 in 10 actual slaves, it turns out that the world is actually using a much higher percentage of human labor or human equivalent labor without actually paying the real price for it - that is, without paying a fair and living wage, or the full, unexternalized costs of our fossil fueled "slaves." It also means that we have more slaves than anyone in history, broadly construed.

Now there's an obvious connection between slavery and fossil fuels, and a number of wise people have pointed out that it is no accident that the abolitionist movements of the 19th century arose at precisel y the same time as industrialization - just as machinery began to reduce the sheer numbers of bodies required to make and do things, it became possible in many senses to really imagine a society without slaves. The dualism we Americans all learned about in high school, the industrial north vs. the slave owning, agricultural south only tells part of the story.

Which brings me, of course, to the real question. Is it possible for human beings to imagine a society in which no one is enslaved to anyone else and we also don't burn fossil fuels? In which human beings cannot be commodified? Is it possible to imagine a low-input world in which there are no slaves? To some degree, of course, we can build renewable energies that allow us (and in an ideal world, more of the world's populace) to retain some of our energy slaves. But the larger issue of abolitionism must take center stage as we do this - that is, it is not enough to say "when we have all the power we need, we'll free our slaves" because, of course, that day never comes. The only choice is the choice of abolitionism itself, to acknowledge that it will cost us something to give up such a profoundly immoral structure, and that we will do it anyway, because it is right.

Last year at the Community Solutions Conference, someone asked me about the dangers of going back to a slave society in the absence of fossil fuels, and the question has haunted me since. I said then that we were still a slave society, and that we had to undo both evils - both fix the broken infrastructure in a society that can't imagine life without infinite cheap energy and also eliminate our slaves. But my answer has struck me as woefully insufficient ever since. How, after all, do we disengage from slavery? How do we face a future with less energy that doesn't lead to a permanent, huge, underclass of people, on whom a few people's wealth depends entirely? Because in that situation, the rich must always fear the poor, and have every incentive to reduce them to slavery.

Neither capitalism (which institutionalizes the disparities that encourage slavery and depends on reducing the value of human labor and resources, ideally to nil) nor communism (which outright controls humans and their labor) can provide us with an economic model. Fortunately, these are hardly our only choices. But it should remind us that the traditional dichotomy between these two "poles" and discourse in which there is nothing between or beyond Marx and Smith is a false one, designed to distract us with only a few choices. That both our "choices" lead to the enslavement of peoples should, I think, be sufficient to dismiss them.

Gandhi's Swaraj or "self-rule" movement offers one piece of the puzzle for a life without slavery. The notion that self-rule contained elements of political, economic and social theory meant that the system did not compartmentalize labor in ways that enabled slavery. It is a difficult system, because it places enormous faith in the independent good will of individuals, for, as Gandhi put it, "In such a state (where swaraj is achieved) everyone is his own ruler. He rules himself in such a manner that he is never a hindrance to his neighbour" - and yet, all deeply democractic systems depend on precisely that faith, that trust that ordinary people can and should hold in their hands the most essential details of our lives. It is Utopian, of course, but in the best sense. As Gandhi himself said, "It may be taunted with the retort that this is all Utopian and, therefore not worth a single thought... Let India live for the true picture, though never realizable in its completeness. We must have a proper picture of what we want before we can have something approaching it"

The idea that democracy can be separated out from the way we earn our livings or treat our soils is false, and Jefferson was right articulating this. The idea that we can also seperate out our agrarian ideology from its history of racism and slavery is also false - we cannot erase the inconvenient parts of our history, or minimize them. But what we can do is create our own sort of Swaraj, and take the complex legacy of our agrarianism, and make it into something else.

How might this come about? Well, a nation made up not of plantation owners, but of true small farmers might be able to do so. A distributist model, a la Chesterton, in which most of the land is held by very small farmers, is a potential beginning. And in fact, we have already done much of the inconvenient work of chopping up land and putting small houses on it - we call it suburbia, and most suburban lots come with a piece of land, perhaps not quite sufficient to sustain a family, but often enough to render them independent of a host of created needs, and able, because of that independence, to make their choices based not on their fears and dependencies on corporate entities, but from a dispassionate consideration of what is best for the society as a whole. Small suburban farmers cannot need slaves - their land is too small to require them. Intensive agricultural techniques mean that small lots can come close to supporting a family, or do so entire. It isn't necessary to take seriously the distributist's focus on biological family units here - we can create these "family" structures in other ways, and imagine cooperative ownerships that work in concert with distributism.

The question, of course, is how larger agriculture will be enacted. Reallocation of fossil fuels means that we are unlikely to require literal slaves to produce our food for a long time, during which our job is to create such a loathing for notion of holding either immediate or distant slaves that we would no more consider it than we would consider eating human flesh.

As for the rest - the simple fact is that industrial agriculture depends on our willingness to buy its products. The ethanol boom depends on our willingness and dependence on gas. Industrial corporate farms depend on our willingness to buy their products. Stuart Staniford has recently demonstrated that industrial agriculture will remain profitable under the current model long into the future, and that it is likely to starve millions or even billions of people in the biofuels rush. All of which is best answered that markets alone are only as powerful as the people who accept their parameters. Industrial agriculture could remain powerful - unless we do not allow it to be. And then, the question becomes only what should take its place.



Anonymous said...

Add those in jail who do labor for their prisons.

teicher said...

But it should remind us that the traditional dichotomy between these two "poles" and discourse in which there is nothing between or beyond Marx and Smith is a false one, designed to distract us with only a few choices.

There is another way--libertarian socialism. It has been articulated by William Godwin in the 18th century (An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Political Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness, by Peter Kropotkin in the 19th century (Conquest of Bread, Fields, Factories, and Workshops, Mutual Aid)and by Murray Bookchin in the 20th (Ecology of Freedom, Re-Enchanting Humanity, The Philosophy of Social Ecology: Essays on Dialectical Naturalism.

Anonymous said...

Yes, slavery is alive and well throughout the world and in many of our communities in the US. Our affluence, avarice, and hunger for industrial foods feeds the corrupt system which would implode if we withdrew our support.

Agribusiness is the only kind of farming where I live. It pollutes our aquifers and air with their chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. I have awakened at 5 a.m. with the smell and bitter taste on my lips of methyl bromide (agricultural pesticide) inside my home due to being downwind from corporate farms. We can no longer sleep with our windows open.

No one can fight corporate farms/agribusiness. They have bought off the local Pollution Control Department, EPA representative, and the county commissioners.


CIW - Coalition of Immokalee Workers


Anonymous said...

Interesting train of thought. I've been wondering about slavery too.

Apparently, it is an uncommon basis for societies. An online Marxist reference work has it that:

"Slavery has been practiced throughout the world at various times, but only in exceptional circumstances have there been attempts to create actual "slave societies"; notably in the Americas (1492 - 1865) or during the Roman Empire (150 BCE - 350 CE).

" is more accurate to describe the general evolution of human history as passing from tribal to feudal to capitalist society. While history is certainly not that simplistic, and there is a lot of uneven and blurred development, when looking at the essence of the productive system, slaves are not unique, nor is slave society common."

Moses I. Finley is a classical scholar with a special interest in slavery. In his seminal Ancient Economy (1973, 1985, 1999), he seems to think that slavery only predominated in the Ancient World during the Greek and Roman classical periods.

Thus slavery may not be the most likely prospect as a means for exploitation. Instead, we may see subtler forms such as debt-bondage and feudalism.


tk said...

beautiful, sharon. i read and digested the whole thing, i love your long posts.

Amanda said...

Wow. I have been reading, fascinated, for a couple weeks now, and I am learning so much. I admit, I am ignorant. And tonight, I wept.

My children have voluntarily given up Happy Meal toys "for the children in China." But I really had no idea of the breadth of the atrocities so many of our weekly purchases are connected to.

It makes me want to do something drastic, but I'm sure what I can do that will really impact at this point. Sell everything I don't need to survive, and donate the proceeds? We already eat mostly local and organic. Haven't bought bananas in two months, since I finished "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle." We are starting our garden again soon. And I'm trying to reduce my car use by several days a week.

I don't know if you're aware of unschooling, but it is a homeschooling philosophy based on the understanding that children know how to learn and don't need us coercing them into it, and it means also having faith that they will do what's right given good information and support, and often leads to a much more peaceful, democratic home life.

Also, I'm not sure if you've written about breastmilk, but obviously it's the most locally produced, environmentally sustainable, life-giving renewable resource there is. I'm sure you have readers who haven't thought much about it. :)

And, there are some radical Christian anarchists who are interesting at

I plan to keep reading your blog, and am anxious for the first book to come out. Thank you so much for the efforts you are making for a better future for all of us.

Anonymous said...

Sharon--Many Americans are debt. Why do you think people work so many hours per week? Their living conditions are more comfortable than those in third-world countries, but they are still slaves. Only when you are debt-free, own your home outright, and can make an independent living are you truly free. That image is the one Jefferson had in mind for his gentleman farmer, which is ironic, because he lost Monticello when he died to debt collectors. He kept his slaves because they were some of his only financial assets. Do you know Monticello nearly fell into ruin in the nineteenth century?

Interesting post as always,

Anna Marie

Britta said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Tiecher, really great site here, thanks

Sharon, this sounds like what you and Aron are striving for?


katuah said...

Sharon, the first anonymous commenter had a good point: Not only have we "outsourced" our slavery thru globalization, there are a fair number of locations in the US that are increasingly dependent upon prisoner labor for those things that can't be outsourced. Check out this article:
specifically, on page two:

"Local governments and charities, meanwhile, have come to depend on inmate work crews to clear snow from fire hydrants, maintain parks and hiking trails, mow the lawns at cemeteries and unload trucks at food pantries.

Every winter, the crews help build an ice palace in the nearby village of Saranac Lake, cutting thick blocks of ice that can weigh up to 700 pounds. The palace is the main attraction of the village’s Winter Carnival and attracts thousands to the area.

“All those services, when you put that into dollars, there’s no way we’d be able to hire people to perform them,” said Mary Ellen Keith, supervisor of the town of Franklin, which relies on the crews to cut overgrown brush from the sides of 67 miles of local roads, among other tasks."

The US has proportionally more prisoners than any other industrialized nation, and many of them are put to work doing all sorts of jobs. The prison-industrial complex is just one more aspect of the overall unsustainable system, but one that we've allowed to run out of control, out of fear. I recommend we think also at why we as a society think it's OK to lock up a young person for marijuana, and then make him clean our roads, mow our lawns, etc. for "free," instead of paying him a living wage to do it by choice.

It's my hope that true relocalization will also offer us the opportunity to rethink some of these astonishingly awful systems we've been perpetuating and growing.

Anonymous said...

Sharon another good and thoughtfull post.

I think it unsound to rely on previous agrarian philosphy in expounding neo-agrarianism / re-localisation for post peak society in that:-
1. the reason to rely on local sources of food is through a potential inability to import it from afar through lack of energy; and
2. The need for more farmers stems from a lack of energy - IN THE LONG TERM - to continue to use machinery.

What must be stressed is that so called solutions like using LNG in stead of diesel fuel or using price to continue to use diesel fuel while it remains available (Ah La Stuart S..) is very temporary, while localisation and agrarian society is a permanent solution to the problem.

The NEO-AGRARIAN solution also holds within it the ability for us all to be healthier in that we have the opportunity then to have more nuitritious food by using more natural production systems. Foods higher in polyphenols and other phytonuitrients are a strong determinant of bodily health.


Anonymous said...

""Ours are the only farmers who have read Homer" he was not, in fact, referring to the Southern Scots-Irish self-sufficient farmers of his region, but to Northern farmers"

I wonder what your source for this might be, other than possible regional elitism.

My own rural SW Virginia grandfather shortly postdates Lincoln and not only was his name Homer, he fluently quoted Homer, Aristotle, Franklin, Jefferson and a host of other writers. Nor was he unusual or alone. The Ulster-Scots (misnamed Scots-Irish) of the south were by no means illiterate and passed along a strong tradition of self-education from Jefferson's time until living memory.

jewishfarmer said...

Eleutheros, literacy levels in the US rose steadily during the Colonial period. Laurence Kremin's book _American Education_ covers this in some detail.

Such levels are highly debatable, since the standard measure is whether people were able to sign their own wills or not. But literacy levels among white men at 1800 were nearly 100% in the North, and about 70% male in the South. In the north, according to Kremin, female literacy rates were also 100%, whereas about 50% among women in the Southern colonies.

Kennedy estimates literacy as well (based on that region's particular documents, and also levels of literacy reported in Scotland in the same period (Colonial emigrants generally had higher levels of literacy than the general population) that the backwoods population averaged no more than 50%, which is extreme illiteracy by the period's standards. Whether he's right or not is up to debate, but he's hardly the only person to portray most of the rural population of VA as illiterate - a quick survey of my American history library shows that among others, David Fischer makes thes same claim. If this is prejudice, which it may be, it is rather far reaching. Personally, I'm not sure it is - a good portion of my family farmed in rural VA and Maryland during this period, is of Scotch-Irish descent (a term my family has been proud enough of to hold onto), and probably were illiterate. So?

70 years later is a big jump - my claim is not that all of the people in question were illiterate, but that generally speaking, any claim about universal Homer reading (bound to be an overstatement anyway) was about more generally literate populations.


jewishfarmer said...

Thank you to those who reminded me about prisoners - this is an important addition.

On the other hand, I don't think modern middle class wage slaves, or students doing algebra when they don't want to constitute variations on slavery - and I worry about diluting the term by calling it that.


Anonymous said...

Dear Sharon,

I regularly read your posts which are excellent. However, it is not correct to say that it is only last year that the nation of Mauritius outlawed slavery. Mauritius is a small island in the Indian Ocean which gained its independance in 1968 from the UK. Slavery was abolished by the British in 1835 after they conquered the place from the French. The constitution of 1968 specifically outlaws slavery. Of course your mistake is minor one.

Anonymous said...

"Scotch-Irish descent"

I'm only bringing up that term, not because I object to it in any way, but only because it is inaccurate. It gives the impression that the people in question were some of them Scottish and some Irish, some admixture of those. The Ulster Scots were Scottish people who were expatriated from Scotland and settled en masse in Ulster, whence when they were ushered out of there, came largely to America. Few people understand that Scots-Irish meant Scottish people who came from a sojourn in Ireland and not ethnic Irish.

As to literacy rates there is no doubt prejudice that enters into the reporting and assumptions of the reporters as well. Another boggle factor is that in the North 'farmers' were the land owners and during the period in question slavery was on the wane and eventually eliminated as a social phenomenon. But indentured servitude was not. Indentured servants were not counted as 'farmers' and so didn't enter into the count for the literate. In the backwater rural south, especially the Appalachian region, slavery was rare and indentured servitude was rarer still. The very independent minded Scots stood as individual small holders no matter how small that holding might be. Counting all those as 'farmers' one might tend to get a greater rate of illiteracy, although taken as a whole of the population regardless of status, it would not be so. In fact, might be reverse!

(Sorry to comment so long on your post but ...)

It also speaks to the issue of slavery. Slavery was a social institution held over from the clannish structure of Celtic society. Extended family, croppers, and slaves all belonged to an extended family and the farm or farmer had a deep obligation to their welfare from cradle to grave. In the north the social order was Anglo and workers on farms and in factories were indentured for a certain number of years, in which they were little better than slaves, and then at the end of the servitude could be dismissed with no further obligation to them.

Which was worse? Wouldn't want to be under either system myself, but spending seven to fourteen years as chattel and then turned out to start over on your own must have been pretty grim.

Makes me wonder. People who lived under slavery must have looked upon it as being the norm, one's lot. Are people now of days much different? They indenture themselves to debt and a corporate patron and the only way out of that suggested by so many is that they win the lottery. The door away from servitude is open, and yet it is by and large untrodden.

We have a tendency to gasp and be indignant when anyone compares anything to 'slavery' as we conceive it. I wonder 150 years from now people will look upon our age of cubicle dwellers and dare anyone to find a way of life worse than that!

vegan_satori said...

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Indeed, the prison system in the U.S. is a blatant reincarnation that comes close to chattel slavery -- especially through privately held, for profit prison corporations, such as Corrections Corporation of America, the GEO Group, Inc (previously known as Wackenhut), and Cornell Companies. Investors are reaping profits from imprisoned, exploited workers -- legally. From Wikipedia: " the south, after the end of the Civil War. Farmers and businessmen needed to find replacements for the labor force once their slaves had been freed. Beginning in 1868, convict leases were issued to private parties to supplement their workforce." While that system was revised in the early 20th century, it survives to this day in metamorphized forms. It is still legal today in the United States of America to profit from the work of prisoner/slaves. In a dysfunctional, disconnected society, personal greed often supercedes compassion and long term stability and sustainability. Such malignant systems extract for the masters maximum short term 'returns' from human labor and the environment, while disregarding both short and long term costs and consequences to both. Even the masters suffer in a toxic society and a suppressed environment, while they fear for their necks.

jewishfarmer said...

Eleutheros, I appreciate your clarification about the term Scotch-Irish, which again, for my own grandfather (who considerably post-dates Lincoln) was a term of some pride and useful descriptiveness. I didn't think it meant what you claim the popular meaning is, but I can well believe that others don't know it.

You are wrong about how Northern literacy is being calculated, however. The statistics involved included indentured servants, women and free blacks - that is, the North had a near 100% literacy rate across all populations - so no, the comparison is not the one you describe. And while I'll admit some bias is likely, the simple fact is there are only so many ways to skew the reality that people aren't able to sign their wills - that is, the data is there in raw form in the books as well as cited. The simple truth is that the rates of illiteracy in the South were higher.

But that's not an attack on independent farmers in any state - again, my forebears were among them. The fact that Jefferson was a snot (although in many ways an interesting snot) and had anglo prejudices against the Scottish and about the value of certain kinds of education doesn't to me say much, other than that most Scotch Irish farmers hadn't read Homer - so what? Little latin and less greek isn't the worst accusation that can ever be made of someone. Nor do I find the fact that some of my forebears were illiterate to mean that they were ignorant - in fact, in many ways, illiterate people have to use their minds in different and harder ways than literate people. Illiteracy doesn't imply either ignorance or stupidity.

I do think that on slavery, you are simply wrong - being an indentured servant (btw, by 1800 indenture was falling far more rapidly than slavery) sucked badly, but for example, a woman indentured servant had some small legal recourse when raped or abused, and most indenture contracts didn't amount to simply turning people out, but included some economic basis for getting started. This is not a defense of the near-slavery of indenture, merely to observe that say, a woman indentured servant was marginally better off than a slave who could be raped, see her offspring enslaved and unto the whatever generation. I think you articulate an aspect of slavery, but only one aspect - it is simply more complex than that, and more troubling in many ways.

Again, you seem to think that this is for me a "north good, south bad" thing - hardly. But admitting that rural backwoods Scotch-Irish, including my own family, were far more likely to illiterate than my northern yankee forebears, and less likely to be illiterate than my southern slave forebears and Cherokee forebears isn't a judgement - it is just an observation.


Anonymous said...

How interesting your posts and comments are! But I still must say that I think metaphors are being mixed.

The near 100% literacy rates reported for colonial New England are mainly from census data where people reported themselves and their households as literate or not. Apparently there was some stigma to admitting to illiteracy in one's household.

Apart from that is the phenomenon of "signature literacy" where literacy is implied if the person signs their contracts. As to the near 100 percent literacy among indentured servants, David Hall in his book "A History of the Book in America" says that out of 2,792 male indentured servants imported from England between 1718 and 1759, 69 percent signed their contracts (and 34% of women indentured servants did so). That's no where near 100%.

Also Hall reports based entirely on the signature test, the male literacy rate in New England rose from 60% in 1660 to 85% in 1760, at the same time in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina the signature literacy rate went from 77% in 1661 to 79% in 1776, not statistically different for the two groups.

Using just the signature test discounts all sorts of social phenomena. Women were often expected to read, but not always expected to write. Also not taken into account is the reluctance to sign anything even if one could. Wills, even to this day, are often unsigned.


While it is true that persons held as slaves had few rights, it was from a time in our history when many people had few rights. Under many laws then (and even more customs), a man could beat and abuse his children, wife, younger siblings, and often employees and debtors with impunity. Slaves could be treated even worse, I'd imagine, but it wasn't a bed of roses for most other folks either.

This all aside, of course. It doesn't detract from the import of your post. Throughout history, not just Jeffersonian times, agricultural surplus has always been the result of forced or coerced labor, from Sumer, Crete, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Mayan, Incan, Greek, Roman, so called "civilizations" were all built on unwilling agrarian labor.

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One does not mistreat the plow hores that feeds them if plow horses are in short supply.

In the world we approach human life will become more not less dear to any elite as both population and FF diminish.

That's just something to think about and hope to avoid. Swaraj sounds like the kind of anarchy I like, but unfortunately feel is going to be a long time coming.

Possibly taking an intermediate position where the individual in a society considers all the basic work needed done for basic human survival as civic duty would be an attainable educational possibility? To allow a laisse faire society to attain in the misguided feeling that this would lead to freedom etc. leads to a world of rule by specialists as we have now, freedom for some servitude for many..

Not ready fo swaraj or true IMI (in my imagination) anarchy yet, boss

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Damn I hit the wrong button wanted to change something in my post above but oh well nothing is perfect in the world, except possibly in that 'best of all worlds' that of P.G. Wodehouse :)

Take a break guys and gals from the sturm and drang of life and read a bit there ... sorry if I am going on a bit but I just found a Wodehouse that I haven't read.

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