15 July 2015

George Mason on Slavery & History's Complications

The background image for this blog was taken from a digitized version of George Mason's first draft of Virginia's Declaration of Rights:

    The Declaration of Rights drafted in 1776 by George Mason for the state constitution of Virginia influenced both Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. It clearly states that rights are "the basis and foundation of government." The Virginia Declaration of Rights also influenced the drafting of the Bill of Rights added to the U.S. Constitution as the first ten amendments.
Yes, you read that correctly. Mason views states rights ("the good people of Virginia") as "the basis and foundation of government." This shows how much our history has been twisted by so-called historians who are little more than moral critics advancing a modern political agenda cloaked by their "profession."

But Mason had more to say. He was one of the more vocal opponents of slavery stating:
The infernal traffic originated in the avarice of British merchants. the British government constantly checked the attempt of Virginia to put a stop to it…Slavery discourages arts and manufactures. The poor despise labor when performed by slaves…Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of heaven on a country.
Yet Mason owned slaves all his life and did not free any of them in his will. This contradiction is explored briefly, here, in Mason's own words.

This is just one example of the complicated history of slavery in our country. But it's good to be reminded by these examples that history is far more nuanced than what we're seeing argued in the current "discussion" over Confederate American monuments and names related to our history - back to our very founding. The over-simplification being promoted by "professional" historians is, in many cases, juvenile and embarrassing. I'm confident their own profession will, at some point in the future, judge them harshly.


Robert Moore said...

Good one, Richard. I'm coming to think the "paternalism" of slave owners, often heavily criticized, might possibly, in some, be a sense of "responsibility". Of course, I need to be clear... "responsible" as in not simply wishing to free and set them on their own,,, often a course of disaster (this is the example I've seen with the folks in the American Colonization Society). The only problem is, Southern society was so at odds with itself (we can see this in regional differences in the South) that it took way too long to see a positive change, and that "best intent" never saw the fruition of emancipation without war. The Southerners who were active in the ACS, for example, seemed as if they didn't want to step on too many toes, but really wanted to see action. They, of course, weren't well received by all, and in some ways, I believe were misunderstood. Of course, there is also the push by abolitionists, which clearly exacerbated the situation. Then too, would we see much later resolution of the issue were it not for abolitionists? In short, I can really see how this was just a freight train wreck waiting to happen.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

"I'm coming to think the "paternalism" of slave owners, often heavily criticized, might possibly, in some, be a sense of "responsibility".

Yes, of course. I do believe it was, in many cases, out of a sense of responsibility. I discuss this in the Jackson book. Understandably, it was also demeaning to African-Americans. But I don't think the "paternalism" was inherently (in and of itself) motivated by "evil" intent. Slavery was certainly evil but like a kidnapper extending acts of kindness to a captive, evil and kindness can sometimes co-exist.

The "kindness" (for lack of a better term) certainly does not excuse the evil, but its a reality of human interaction.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

I meant to add - this irony and contradiction is explored in even greater detail in David Johnson's biography of John Randolph (LSU Press) - I'll send you those pages later this evening. Johnson spends some time in exploring the obvious contradictions. Very interesting.

Robert Moore said...

Thanks! I'm greatly enjoying my journey into the early 19th century in Virginia.

Robert Moore said...

"But I don't think the "paternalism" was inherently (in and of itself) motivated by "evil" intent."

I agree that it didn't prove so in every situation.

I have found a rather large irony in the Valley... with Clarke County. Though it was the highest (unless my mind is slipping and I've forgotten the stats), in percentage, slave-holding county in the Valley, it's also where there was a strong presence of the American Colonization Society.