The Russian Word on American slavery
Looking at how slavery was shown in Russian and American literature has made me curious how Russians in the nineteenth century saw American slavery, and to what extent they felt Russian serfdom was equivalent. One piece of that question is what the radical camp had to say in the 1860s. If I’m not mistaken, Chernyshevskii wrote a lot about Southern planters in The Contemporary, partially as a way to criticize anti-emancipation Russian conservatives in Aesopian language. Joseph Frank wrote that Varfolomei Zaitsev, supported by Pisarev, argued in The Russian Word for white supremacy in Darwinian terms, going so far as to “defend the enslavement of the colored races on the grounds of their natural inferiority” and to criticize the “sentimental enemies” of slavery. A piece in The Russian Word called “The Development of Slavery in America” (1865) seems to take Zaitsev on by making an unsentimental anti-slavery argument.
The author, who may be an American (one “Е. К—ди,” perhaps “Kennedy”?), stresses how American slavery grew out of local economic and geographic conditions, which trumped ideological commitments to freedom and equality:
The monstrous phenomenon of slavery, like any other phenomenon, must have been formed organically, must have its raison d’être, its history, which will explain the development and the results of the phenomenon better than official proclamations of freedom or philanthropic lamentations. (91-92)
The argument goes like this: slavery had deep roots by the time the United States became independent, going back to Columbus enslaving Native Americans (93-96). There were few slaves in New England and many in South Carolina because the different soils and climates led to different economic possibilities in agriculture (97). Cold economic incentives overcame the ideologically anti-slavery aspects of English law in the Yorke-Talbot slavery opinion (96); of early Georgia under James Oglethorpe, where slavery was outlawed (97-99); of the self-evident truths in the Declaration of Independence (99-100). Later the Louisiana Purchase (105-07) and the invention of the cotton gin (with a surprisingly long biography of Eli Whitney, 107-12) reinforced the economic logic of slavery. When the African slave trade was banned, high demand for slaves in the Deep South drove prices up and made slaves a valuable export for the Upper South (112-13).
There’s a place for contingency in the author’s view of history, too. K—di tells the story of Thomas Jefferson, in 1784, proposing a law that would have abolished slavery in western territories both north and south of the Ohio River, beginning in 1800. Most of the bill passed (as the Territorial Governance Act), but a representative from North Carolina demanded that the provision against slavery be removed. The vote was 16-7 to keep the anti-slavery provision, including 6 states in favor and 3 opposed. However, a majority of states were then required for anything to pass, so the bill fell short, but would have passed if a New Jersey representative hadn’t been absent by chance. In 1787 the Northwest Ordinance passed, but with the anti-slavery plank restricted to the north side of the river (101-03). (Compare a 2008 article on that 1784 close call.)
I’m not a historian, but it seems to me that much of this falls within mainstream views of U.S. history today. When I read nineteenth-century science, I expect it will be all phlogiston and phrenology, and usually find it’s not as strange and dated as I thought; I had the same reaction to this piece of nineteenth-century history.