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Disputing the Jefferson Davis Theory

Jefferson Davis, painted by Daniel Huntington in 1874

Jefferson Davis, painted by Daniel Huntington in 1874

In his memoirs, published in 1881, ex-Confederate President Jefferson Davis cast secession as a wholly constitutional move designed to restore government to what the founding fathers had intended. The goal of secession, the late President wrote, was to protect the rights of “sovereign states” from “tremendous and sweeping usurpation” by the federal government. “The truth remains intact and incontrovertible, that the existence of African servitude was in no wise the cause of the conflict, but only an incident.” The problem is that Davis’s  interpretation was not consistent with case for secession made by southern politicians in the 1850s.

On June 10, 1850, the people of Georgia passed the Georgia Platform and it contained five grievances of the state. One of the main points of contention between Georgia and the Federal Government was related to slavery and its future. For the Georgians, the “ the establishment of a boundary between the latter and the State of Texas, the suppression of the slave trade in the District of Columbia, and the extradition of fugitive slaves, the rejection of propositions to exclude slavery from the Mexican territories and to abolish it in the District of Columbia (“Georgia Platform”) ” were all controversial. The fourth clause in the Platform made it clear that when it came to the subject of slavery, there would be no compromise. It clearly stated that it would oppose any action, “upon the subject of slavery in the District of Columbia, or in any places subject to the jurisdiction of Congress incompatible with the safety, domestic tranquility, the rights and honor of the slaveholding States, or any refusal to admit as a State any territory hereafter, applying, because of the existence of slavery therein, or any act prohibiting the introduction of slaves into the territories of New Mexico and Utah, or any act repealing or materially modifying the laws now in force for the recovery of fugitive slaves. ” Thus, they were clear about what they were fighting for.

Mississippi too was clear about why were seceding from the Union in A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union. “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth,” they stated. Mississippi too was incensed by the dangers to the institution, the refusal of admission of new slaves states to the Union, the nullification of the Fugitive State Law and the proposal for slave equality. They felt that, it was worth seceding from the Union rather than face the loss of four billions dollars of money

The inspection and sale of a slave, 1854

The inspection and sale of a slave, 1854

.The same spirit about slavery was echoed in the Cotton is King speech of James Henry Hammond in 1858. According to Mr. Hammond, though people claimed that slavery had been abolished, it was in name only and “all the powers of the earth cannot abolish that. God only can do it when he repeals the fiat.” Unlike the Northerners who had kept White men as wage earners, the Southerners, he felt, had “a race inferior to her own, but eminently qualified in temper, in vigor, in docility, in capacity to stand the climate, to answer all her purposes.” Every society, he argued required a class of people, “do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life” with a “ low order of intellect” and with such people, they were able to produce massive amount of wealth. The new developments, he thought were threatening the business and if required, the South was ready to go to war for it.

The Southerners knew that the admission of a large number of free states would change the balance of power in the Congress. As they struggled to the secure the future of slavery, the edifice on which their wealth was created, they realized that the slavery could soon be abolished. The admission of new states into the Union always resulted in a debate over slavery and they often resulted in a compromise. For the Southerners it was evident that the tide was not going their way and secession was the only option available to preserve their wealth.

The important point to note is that the statement from Jefferson Davis was written in 1881, much after the South lost the war and thus a post-justification for the war they lost. As you read the statements from Mississippi, Georgia and from James Henry Hammond, it is clear that slavery and not the state rights were the cause of secession.

(This was one of the writing assignments for the course History of the Slave South at Coursera)

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From a Society with Slaves to a Slave Society

Recreated Powhatan village at the Jamestown Settlement

Recreated Powhatan village at the Jamestown Settlement

In 1621, an Angolan named Antonio was captured by an enemy tribe and sold to an Arab merchant who eventually sold  him to the Virginia Company. The company was chartered in 1606 by King James to grab land in Virginia and propagate Christianity and it was the Virginia Company that established the Jamestown colony. It was during the initial settlement of Jamestown that the myth of John Smith and Pocahontas was created. After the initial hiccups, where they had to resort to cannibalism, the colony had survived.

Anthony Johnson

Anthony Johnson

In Virginia, Antonio worked as an indentured laborer and after a period of time — after he had paid off his dues — he was freed. His wife, Mary, too was freed and as was normal for free indentured people, granted land.  Thus, 20 years after he arrived in Virginia, he took the name Anthony Johnson and became the owner of a 250 acre farm with his own servants. Thus an African man becoming a landlord himself may look unusual, it was not odd because slavery was not codified during this period. Though African slaves were present in Jamestown few years at least a decade after its founding, people like Anthony Johnson could buy their freedom and become property owners.

During this period, there was not much of a difference between the White indentured servants and Africans; the difference between slavery and indentured servitude was fuzzy. The slaves and servants would revolt and run away together. Initially the colonies had more indentured servants consisting of poor English folks who were willing to risk everything for a prosperous life. Though the Africans formed less than 5% of the population in Virginia, they were more balanced in gender and age while the indentured Whites were mostly male. The Africans had families and since there was no ban on interracial marriage, free blacks even married Englishwomen. They were also able to court to settle disputes. In this early phase, Virginia was a society built by slaves and servants, but it was not a slave society.

 Map depicting major slave trading regions of Africa

Map depicting major slave trading regions of Africa

By the 1660s, there was a demographic shift. There was a decline in servant population.  The mortality rate began to drop and the White population started increasing and more African slaves were required. According to the Slave Trade voyages database, while Virginia imported a hundred slaves from Africa in the period 1628 – 1650, that number increased to 4754 in the fifty year period after that. To concentrate the powers among the landowners, only the landed were allowed to vote. In one instance, one governor even banned general elections for 15 years.

There were two events that happened which caused a dramatic shift in how the slaves and servants were viewed. The first was passing of the Enactment of Hereditary Slavery Law Virginia in  1662 and the second, the Bacon rebellion of 1676.

Under English law, a child received his or her status from the father. The new  colonial law of 1662 made the child of an enslaved mother also a slave for life. Thus this race making piece of legislation ensured that reproductive capacity of the African women was used to feed into the slave system. Slavery was thus codified on the woman’s body. This also made sure that even if the father was one of the English slave owners, their child would still be a slave.

The rebellion of Nathaniel Bacon started when he wanted a commission to fight the native Americans to kill them and drive them off the land. The governor declared him a rebel, but Bacon was resourceful. He built an army with slaves and servants and plundered the region. They took control over Jamestown and burned it to the ground. The rebellion had a surprise ending when Bacon died of dysentery and the armed vessels returned regaining control. This incident showed Virginia’s elite that the slaves were a politically unstable and a dangerous force.

Soon the slave code was enforced by singling out people of African descent from the Christian white servants.  Free blacks were stripped off their rights  and the rights to marriage. A master had the right to “correct” a slave, and if the slave died during the “correction” process, he would be acquitted. A similar experiment was carried in the English colony of Barbados earlier and the concept of Whiteness and Blackness had been introduced. Due to similar changes, the slave category was codified into law and by the first quarter of the 18th century, Virginia had become a society of slaves.

(Based on the lectures of Prof Stephanie McCurry, University of Pennsylvania for the course History of the Slave South at Coursera)

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Napoleon, New Orleans and British in India

Colonial empires in 1800 (via Wikipedia)

Colonial empires in 1800 (via Wikipedia)

By the 1800s, the British had occupied Calcutta, Madras, Bombay, and Northern Circars with the noble goal of personal enrichment. Large parts of the country still lay outside British control with the Marathas, the Nizam of Hyderabad and Tipu Sultan. There was a nominal Mughal emperor who ruled over a vastly shrunk empire. Once forces under Arthur Wellesley, the man who would defeat Napoleon years later, eliminated Tipu Sultan in 1799, it opened up the path for British supremacy in India. While all of these was happening in India, another geopolitical game was being played in the Western hemisphere involving a Spanish playboy, a French emperor, an enlightened American President who kept slaves and actual slaves who defeated two empires. A fortuitous turn of events changed the history of United States and the colonial European powers shifted their gaze to the East.

Political Map of India 1805 (via Wikipedia)

Political Map of India 1805 (via Wikipedia)

When Napoleon evaluated the French position towards the end of the 18th century, it looked terrible. The Egyptian invasion had failed, so had the creation of the Mediterranean empire. The French position in India did not look promising and they had already lost the vast territories of Canada to the British. But much more important was the development in their colony Saint-Domingue — the richest colony in the Western hemisphere — where the slaves had revolted. The Austrians and the Russians formed an alliance to stop France and war was happening in Switzerland and Germany. From these data points he decided what had to be done: France needs to reclaim Saint-Domingue as well as create an empire in United States.

In 1800, Spain controlled a vast amount of territory which included large parts of what is now United States (Florida, Louisiana), Mexico, Central America, Cuba, and the entire Western and North parts of South America. In spite of this, Spain was seen as a weak empire due to misrule by Charles IV, who did not want to govern and was happy to delegate the responsibility to someone else. That someone was Manuel de Godoy who became the Prime Minister mostly because he was the Queen’s lover and thus was able to quickly become powerful and influence the King.

Map of the course, watershed, and major tributaries of the Mississippi River (via Wikipedia)

Map of the course, watershed, and major tributaries of the Mississippi River (via Wikipedia)

Among all the possessions of Spain, the port of New Orleans, was of special interest to Napoleon. During that period, when the United States did not have highways or railroads to transport goods across the nation, but they had rivers. American agricultural goods like wheat, corn and cattle were transported down Ohio river and the Mississippi to the port of New Orleans. At the port, the goods were moved to bigger ships and taken to the East Coast as well as to other countries across the Atlantic. Even though the port was under Spanish control, they had a relatively peaceful policy towards American shipping. No tariff duties had to be paid to Spain before the goods were moved to larger ships. Napoleon knew that if he controlled New Orleans with his new army, he could choke United States and control its fate.

To realize his vision, Napoleon came up with a three point plan.

  1. Make peace with Austria and Britain. He had problems with Britain during the Egyptian invasion and if he made peace with them, his fleet could cross the Atlantic without collateral damage.
  2. Create secret deal with Spain
  3. Assemble a large expeditionary force with hundreds of ships for the conquest of Saint-Domingue and holding on to New Orleans.

Everything went as planned. He made peace with Austria and Britain. Godoy wanted some property in Tuscany and in return he was willing to give Louisiana to the French. The Third Treaty of San Ildefonso was made in secret exactly as Napoleon wanted. The large force was assembled and Napoleon was ready to execute his vision. The United States under Thomas Jefferson was shocked as the country did not have an army to fight Bonaparte. Even though New Orleans was under the control of Spain, Jefferson was sure that he would not have the same business relation with a French controlled New Orleans.

Two events saved United States. First Thomas Jefferson threatened France that if such an event happened, they would join forces with Britain. This was a particularly bold statement because Britain and United States were fighting a war just more than a decade back. Maybe , he was borrowing the enemy of my enemy concept from Chanakya. Then Jefferson had no other choice; he had an army of 1500 men, an unreliable militia, and a navy which was no match against the French. For the security of the nation, he had to align himself with a bigger power.

Toussaint L'Ouverture (1802) (via Wikipedia)

Toussaint L’Ouverture (1802) (via Wikipedia)

Second and probably what sealed the fate of the French invasion were guns, germs, steel and something Jared Diamond would not have written about: slaves. When a 10,000 strong French army, under the leadership of Napoleon’s brother-in-law arrived at Saint-Domingue, the slaves gave them a good fight. Napoleon wanted to establish slavery in the colonies and for the slaves, it was a battle for their future. L’Ouverture, the slave leader, was captured through trickery and sent to France where he died in prison. But soon yellow fever stuck and the French army never recovered from it. Those who survived the machetes fell to the germs. Napoleon’s brother-in-law, Charles Leclerc, too died from the disease.

This was unexpected and Napoleon fell into despair. He had to make a critical decision. Should he proceed to the American mainland or does he withdraw back to Europe? Some of his advisors suggested that he go forward with his plans, but he decided to go back to Europe and continue his wars against the British there. If the United States aligned with the British, that would be a formidable power and in case there was such a battle, he could lose his Caribbean possessions.

What was surprising was another decision he made: he decided to sell Louisiana to the United States at a cheap price of 3 cents per acre. He could have returned it back to Spain, but instead he decided to sell it to the country he was coming to build his empire. There were few reasons for this strange decision. First, the secret deal he made with Spain got bogged down over details. Second, Godoy fell out of favor with the Emperor and compared to this fool, Napoleon found the Americans more palatable because New Orleans would make America more powerful and a powerful America would keep the British busy to his favor. Third, he needed money for his wars in Europe.

This turned out to be a blessing for the Americans. This video shows the population growth of United States through that period; with New Orleans secure, the country started moving from the Atlantic border to the West and the future of North America changed.

A decade earlier the British had made a bid to conquer Saint-Domingue, but they were defeated by the slaves and yellow fever. Then they tried to conquer Buenos Aires and that costly expedition failed as well. The retreat of the French, the stability of United States and Wellesley’s growing Indian empire made the British pay more attention to the East and shift the base of their operations. They would still fight the Americans in the War of 1812, but their shift to India paid rich dividends for them. Following the defeat of the Marathas, they had much of India under their control.


  1. Lecture titled “The Lucky Americans” by Prof. Philip D. Zelikow at the University of Virginia
  2. Lectures by Prof. Michael Parrish at UC San Diego on America and the World
  3. Keay, John. India: A History. Grove Press, 2001.
  4. Sivers, Peter von, Charles A. Desnoyers, and George B. Stow. Patterns of World History: Since 1750. 1st ed. Oxford University Press, USA, 2011.
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Cooking acorns in 1750 CE

Mortar and Pestle, 1750 CE (photo by author)

Mortar and Pestle, 1750 CE (photo by author)

This is a mortar and pestle dating to 1750 CE, used by the Ohlone people. They used this to ground acorns (not this one) into a coarse powder. The powdered acorns, their major plant diet, was soaked in water to remove their natural bitterness. After that they cooked it into a gruel, made cakes and then baked them in an oven

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Two Fiction Writers


In 1863, six years before the birth of Mahatma Gandhi, Mark Twain was working as a journalist in Virginia City, Nevada. Mr. Clemens had adopted a new pen name and according to his own words was, “the most conceited ass  in the Territory.”

Ron Powers’ new biography, Mark Twain: A Life, narrates what happened in October when he published a newspaper report  titled,”A Bloody Massacre near Carson .” It was a the description of the murderous rampage of one Philip Hopkins of Ormsby County, who after killing nine children and his wife, killed himself as well. It shocked people due to the graphic description of the corpses and was reprinted in newspapers from Sacramento to San Francisco.

There was one problem though: the Hopkins family did not exist. In his defence, Mark Twain said that he had invented the story to expose a system of companies tricking investors into buying overpriced stock. He also explained that the only way to get such a story into San Francisco newspapers was through some tragedy.


In the May 6th, 2002 edition of Outlook, novelist Arundhathi Roy, wrote about the murder of Congress MP Iqbal Ehsan Jaffri in Gujarat. According to Roy, the mob stripped Jaffri’s daughter’s and burned them alive as well.

Nicole Elfi asks:

Wait a minute. Jaffri was burned alive in the house, true — is it not awful enough? Along with some other 41 people. Not enough? But his daughters were neither “stripped” nor burnt alive.Nobody knew my father’s house was the target (Asian Age, May 2nd, Delhi ed.), felt obliged to rectify:

There we are, reassured as regards Ehsan Jaffri’s children. He had only one daughter, who was living abroad. No one was raped in the course of this tragedy, and no evidence was given to the police to that effect. [GODHRA: THE TRUE STORY]


The Gujarat Government sued Outlook magazine. In its May 27th issue, Outlook published an apology  to save its face. But in the course of its apology, the magazine’s editors quoted aclarification from Roy, who withdrew her lie by planting an even bigger one: the MP’s daughters were  not among the 10 women who were raped and killed in Chamanpura that day! From Smita Narula to Arundhati Roy, four or five girls had swollen to “ten women, equally anonymous and elusive.[GODHRA: THE TRUE STORY]


The police investigations revealed that no such case, involving someone called Sayeeda, had been reported either in urban or rural Baroda. Subsequently, the police sought Roy’s help to identify the victim and seek access to witnesses who could lead them to those guilty of this crime. But the police got no cooperation. Instead, Roy, through her lawyer, replied that  the police had no power to issue summons.[6][GODHRA: THE TRUE STORY]


When he found that people were outraged over his fictional news reports, Mark Twain published a brief byline, “I take it all back.”

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