“The people of the slave holding States are bound together by the same necessity and determination to preserve African slavery,” stated Louisiana.
“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world,” stated Mississippi.
“The election of Mr. Lincoln cannot be regarded otherwise than a solemn declaration, on the part of a great majority of the Northern people, of hostility to the South, her property and her institutions,” stated Alabama, “consigning her citizens to assassinations, and her wives and daughters to pollution and violation, to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans.”
“The servitude of the African race, as existing in these States,” stated Texas, “is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator.”
It wasn’t just the elected representatives of these states who felt this way. The historian James Oliver Horton found plenty of examples of Confederate soldiers saying the same. As he notes, one Southern prisoner of war told the Union soldiers standing watch, “You Yanks want us to marry our daughters to niggers.” An indigent white farmer from North Carolina said that he could not and would not stop fighting, because Lincoln’s government was “trying to force us to live as the colored race.” A Confederate artilleryman from Louisiana said that his army had to fight even against difficult odds because he would “never want to see the day when a Negro is put on an equality with a white person.”
An educator doesn’t have to make up stories about what our Founding Fathers thought of Black people, when they said it clearly themselves.
“Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in Notes on the State of Virginia. “I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”
No teacher needs to lie about how enslavers were allowed to abuse their enslaved workers when the Virginia slave codes made clear that it was permissible under the law for a white person to murder an enslaved Black person:
“WHEREAS the only law in force for the punishment of refreactory servants (a) resisting their master, mistris or overseer cannot be inflicted upon negroes, nor the obstinacy of many of them by other then violent meanes supprest, Be it enacted and declared by this grand assembly, if any slave resist his master (or othe by his masters order correcting him) and by the extremity of the correction should chance to die, that his death shall not be accompted ffelony, but the master (or that other person appointed by the master to punish him) be acquit from molestation, since it cannot be presumed that prepensed malice (which alone makes murther ffelony) should induce any man to destroy his owne estate.”
It is not necessary to dramatize or exaggerate the power imbalance between enslavers and enslaved people—and the violence through which such imbalance manifested itself between enslaved women and white men—when countless examples of slave narratives share stories of the sexual abuse Black women experienced at the hands of their owners. Take this 1937 account from the formerly enslaved W. L. Bost, taken as part of the WPA’s Federal Writers’ Project by a white interviewer, and transcribed in the sort of thick dialect that these writers often ascribed to their Black subjects:
Plenty of the colored women have children by the white men. She know better than to not do what he say. Didn’t have much of that until the men from South Carolina come up here [to North Carolina] and settle and bring slaves. Then they take them very same children what have they own blood and make slaves out of them. If the Missus find out she raise revolution. But she hardly find out. The white men not going to tell and the nigger women were always afraid to. So they jes go on hopin’ that thing[s] won’t be that way always.
Or this excerpt from Harriet Jacobs, in her 1861 book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl:
My master met me at every turn, reminding me that I belonged to him, and swearing by heaven and earth that he would compel me to submit to him. If I went out for a breath of fresh air after a day of unwearied toil, his footsteps dogged me. If I knelt by my mother’s grave, his dark shadow fell on me even there. The light heart which nature had given me became heavy with sad forebodings.
To understand the impact and human toll of family separation, one need look no further than the ads placed in newspapers by enslaved people in the years and decades following the end of the Civil War and the formal abolition of slavery. Like this one from Philadelphia, taken out by Eliza Holmes in 1895:
INFORMATION WANTED OF my husband and son. We parted at Richmond, Va., in 1860. My son’s name was Jas. Monroe Holmes; my husband’s name was Frank Holmes. My son was sold in Richmond, Va. I don’t know where they carried him to. My husband was not sold; I left him in Richmond, Va. and I and five children, Henry, Gabriel, Charles, Dortha and Jacob were sold to a trader who lived in Texas. I am now old, and don’t think that I shall be here long and would like to see them before I die. Any information concerning them will be thankfully received by Eliza Holmes, Flatonia, Fayette Co., Texas.
The intensity of the opposition that Trump and many others display to centering slavery, or even simply reorienting our country’s history so that slavery is no longer peripheral to the founding of the American project, stems from their understanding of the stakes of this debate. So much of the legitimacy of America’s social, economic, and political infrastructure is predicated on an ahistorical myth—one that embraces all that makes America exceptional, without reckoning with the fact that so much of what created exceptional lives for some citizens was made possible by the intergenerational oppression of millions of others. The study of slavery aptly demonstrates these contradictions and entanglements. Trump and others aligned with his message know that once people understand slavery’s entanglement in every facet of U.S. history, the legitimacy of its systems unravels—and with it, the legitimacy of those occupying the spaces of power.