Saturday, November 20, 2004

History In Red And Blue

An honest-to-God historian taught me something new the other day. I like it when this happens. I like feeling smarter than I was the moment before. Garry Wills in his newest book, Negro President: Jefferson and the Slave Power, explains that Jefferson was only elected, and very narrowly elected, because southern slave-owners got an extra 3/5 of a vote for every slave they owned. A Virginian (like Jefferson) who owned, say, 50 slaves got to cast an extra 30 votes in the Presidential election in addition to his own personal vote; in other words he cast 31 votes to every single vote cast by some Vermonter or Pennsylvanian who owned and ran his own farm or shop. It was a nice rule for southern slave-owners. I’m a little embarrassed that I never knew this, or that I’d forgotten it. I’m glad I know it now. Jefferson wouldn’t have won election over Adams without this slave technicality. Most of the Presidents before Lincoln were slave-owners too. And now I know why slavery held on as long as it did. I’m not less proud of America, nor do I despise Jefferson for this. I’m just glad I have more information. I might, for instance, despise some modern President who used such a racist technicality to win election. We like to think times change.

In Fourteen Hundred and Ninety Two Columbus Sailed the Ocean Blue. I learned this when I was in the first grade. Columbus was a hero who bravely ignored popular opinion, traded his Italian loyalties for Spanish, sailed beyond the horizon and discovered a New World (or rediscovered it) which they later named after somebody else. However you feel about it, it was a great thing, a big deal. Columbus was greeted with appropriate awe and naive generosity by the natives of various islands, whom (and this I didn’t learn until later) he brutally enslaved and in some cases murdered. I didn’t learn all of the gory details in the second grade or in the sixth grade, but I did learn it eventually mostly because historians stopped keeping the unflattering truth from us during the Sixties. Did you know that the native population of the Americas pre-Columbus numbered between 50 and 75 million, which was about the same as the population of the continent Columbus sailed from? The arrival of the Europeans was catastrophic for the Americans who already lived here. I learned this too, eventually. Most of the millions of Native Americans who died shortly after 1492 were not killed by Columbus personally. Most were not killed by the Seventh Cavalry either. Most never lived to see a settler, much less disagree with one. Most died from diseases brought from Europe, particularly smallpox and measles. Some of the diseases, I suppose, might have been brought from Africa with the slaves because half the early population came from there in chains. Does the importation of deadly diseases make Columbus or Walter Raleigh or Miles Standish less brave? Does it make the discovery a bad thing? It certainly makes it less wonderful, a mixed bag. These are the sorts of things that make for lively classroom discussions. This kind of information also makes some people angry and embarrassed and confused about what they should feel or believe.

The Native American Pandemic can also teach us about unintended consequences. The “Oops Factor” worked to somebody’s benefit; in 1492 it worked to the advantage of the Europeans, just as the Oops Factor of nicotine addiction has long worked to the advantage of the makers of cigarettes, and the Oops Factor of illegal contract workers never hurt WalMart’s bottom line, and the Oops Factor of thousands of legal voters accidentally-on-purpose taken off the voter lists in Florida didn’t exactly harm George W. Bush. Was it mean for me to mention all of this in one breath? It wasn’t an accident, so I won’t say “Oops”.

We learn a lot of different lessons in school; not all of them are simple ones. Learning carries unexpected consequences of its own. Education is risky just as democracy is risky. The Founding Fathers knew this about democracy and considered many different ways of tempering it. They never could agree about free public education. A well-informed population is less obedient, but it is also more responsible. A better-informed citizen thinks for himself or herself and isn’t as easy to push around, which can be a nuisance if you are in charge. But isn’t this what we want? It depends on who this “We” is. If the We who are making the decisions are the same We who pull the levers of industry and commerce perhaps We would just as soon the levers (meaning everybody else) behaved more like levers. We (meaning We The People this time) sometimes forget that Capitalism and Democracy are not the same thing at all.

Garry Wills says something else in his new book that I didn’t know before. Did you know that one of Jefferson’s private reasons for founding the University of Virginia, and perhaps his main reason, was to keep the sons of Virginia from going north to Harvard and Yale where too many of them were learning to despise slavery? I’m sure most schools in Virginia don’t teach about the nobility or the common sense of the slave system anymore. Now that Wills has let this last cat out of the bag I would bet they’ll be less inclined to tell stories about happy slaves, even if they were happy sometimes; we are all happy sometimes. We are fools to sugar-coat history. Sad and terrible stories tell us just as much as bright and sunny ones about Presidents throwing dollars across rivers or being pulled up the driveway by their happy but unpaid servants, perhaps more. Even if the truth is a bit embarrassing, it is also a prod to do better and we are happier knowing it.


Blogger Joanna said...

Ciao, Pasquino-
As long as you're on the subject, did you know that the prison population in New York State, where all the prisons are up in the boonies, is used for the headcount to determine the number and boundaries of voting districts? The vast majority of the prisoners are from the urban ghetto areas and, having been convicted of felonies, not allowed to vote. That's the reason a lot of blue states have 'red' governors and lots of 'red' state senators and reps in their state houses. Plus c,a change, plus c'est la meme chose.

11:40 PM  

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