Friday, November 25, 2016

Herronvolk Rising

As the certainty of Union victory hit home in the Confederacy in the spring of 1865, a small but sizable number of Confederates contemplated emigration to other nations in the Western Hemisphere where slavery as a legal institution still existed. Mexico and Cuba were attractive options, but Brazil topped the list of desired destinations. It had a tropical climate and fertile soil, a promise of paradise to these Southerners intent on building anew a slave-holding plantation society. The Old South may have been a smoldering ruin, but they believed they could resurrect it, even perfect it, in Brazil. It was the 1865 equivalent of "Make America Great Again," but on foreign soil.

One of the most pernicious myths in American History is that the cause of Southern secession was rooted in republican ideals, that an overreaching, tyrannical federal government had trampled the rights of Southern states. This explanation, along with all the other "slavery-did-not-cause-secession" theories (tariffs!), has been widely discredited by historians. The South seceded to protect their enormous economic and cultural investment in racial slavery. When Confederates believed republicanism protected white supremacy, they invoked republicanism. When they believed authoritarianism protected white supremacy, they extolled autocrats. They were racists first and foremost and they dressed this up in whatever political science was fashionable.

So when emigration advocate Frank McMullin, scouted locales in Brazil and reported back to a readership of potential Confederate emigres, here's how he described the Brazilian government, ruled by Emperor Pedro II:
We have the best system of government known to man; while it combines all the elements of strength requisite to insure its stability against every emergency, it guarantees practical equality to all its citizens, and administers justice with a firm and willing hand. We have a monarchy (thank God!) in name, and a true Republic in practice; and under the wise administration of our good Emperor, our destiny must be onward and upward to a degree of prosperity unknown to other countries.
For Southerners who had celebrated secession as the Second American Revolution, extolling imperial monarchy might seem like an extraordinary evolution, but McMullin knew what his audience of aggrieved white Confederates wanted to hear. Brazil was a land where an authoritarian leader would ensure that no radical administration could take power and deprive white men of their slaves.

Most of the emigres returned to the United States, if they did not perish in the Brazilian wilderness. (They were terrible colonizers. Their nostalgia-driven plans were utter fantasy.) As it turns out, they eventually found in the redeemed American South precisely what they had sought abroad, a land where a racial hierarchy with whites in control was reasserted by any means necessary. The postwar United States may not have recognized legal slavery after the passage of the 13th Amendment, but its transformation into a herronvolk democracy was swift. Whites maintained power ruthlessly through legal and extra-legal mechanisms.

Jamelle Bouie of Slate made this argument right after the election, observing the many moments in the nation's past when progress towards a pluralistic, open democracy was thwarted by white tribalism. Surely, Trump's election after 8 years of President Obama is another. In that sense, perhaps we should be less surprised at what happened November 8. Authoritarianism is nothing new in American history.

We ought to acknowledge the results of the 2016 election with apprehension and resolve. Yes, the shift towards fascistic politics is deeply disturbing. Dismay at Trump's ascendency is fully justifiable. But we can also draw renewed strength from the long traditions of resistance that have challenged the herronvolk and steadily eroded the foundations of white supremacy. If the Union chooses to march again—and we will—Trump and Trumpism will not be able to stop it.

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