Is Freedom White?Roundup
tags: slavery, racism, libertarianism, Edmund Morgan, liberty
Jefferson Cowie is the James G. Stahlman Chair in the Department of History at Vanderbilt University. His most recent book is The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics.
“Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” Alabama governor George Wallace’s most famous sentence fired through the frigid air on the coldest day anyone in the state could remember. His 1963 inaugural address—written by a Klansman, no less—served as the war cry for the massive, violent response to the nonviolent civil rights movements of the 1960s. Wallace’s brand of right-wing populism would reconfigure U.S. party politics, making him, as his biographer put it, the “invisible founding father” of modern conservatism. As so many pundits have pointed out, when Donald Trump talks about “domination” today, he is talking the language and politics of Wallace.
Yet Wallace’s famous speech was less about segregation than it was about freedom—white freedom. Other than its infamous applause line, the inaugural mentions “segregation” only one other time. In contrast, it invokes “freedom” twenty-four times—more times than Martin Luther King, Jr., used the word during his “I Have a Dream” address the following summer at the 1963 March on Washington. Freedom is this nation’s ill-defined but reflexive ideological commitment. Winding through the heart of that complex political idea, however, is a dark and visceral current of freedom as the unrestrained capacity to dominate. Today’s Black Lives Matter protesters may have to go beyond tearing down Confederate monuments and ending homicidal police brutality and stand before the challenge of untangling one of this nation’s central ideological commitments.
Oppression and freedom are not opposites. They are mutually constructed, interdependent, and difficult to separate. As African American historian Nathan Irvin Huggins put it, “Slavery and freedom, white and black, are joined at the hip.” We remain burdened by the question posed by eighteenth-century English poet and essayist Samuel Johnson: “Why do we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of negroes?”
In American mythology, there exists a gauzy past when white citizens were left alone to do as they pleased with their land and their labor (even if it was land stolen and labor enslaved). In the legend, those days of freedom and equality were, and still are, perpetually under assault. Most often the entity threatening to steal or undermine freedom in the American melodrama is the federal government. In the federal government’s checkered—perhaps “occasional” might be the better term—history of protecting minority populations from white people’s dominion, it presents a constant threat to the liberty of white people. That is why, as southern historian J. Mills Thornton put it, southern history—I would say U.S. history—displays an obsessive “fear of an imminent loss of freedom.” Understanding the anxious and fearful grind produced by threats to the domination-as-freedom complex helps us understand what Richard Hofstadter called the “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” of the “paranoid style” in U.S. politics. The government is not just coming for your guns, its coming for your freedom—the freedom to dominate others.
The ancient republican societies to which the American revolutionaries looked for ideas and inspiration also had a problem with the fusion of freedom and slavery. As classicist Moses Finley explains about the ideological development of the old republics, “One element of freedom was the freedom to enslave others.” This had legal and political ramifications that rippled through Western history. The United States, from colonial times to the Civil War, inherited and reinvigorated the ancient republican values but did so in a setting of chattel slavery and settler colonialism, which caused white freedom to take its most virulent form. As Edmund S. Morgan explains in American Slavery, American Freedom (1975), white people could extol the entire republican package of equality, freedom, and democracy more effectively in a slave society than they could in a free one. As he puts it, what developed was “a rough congruity of Christianity, whiteness, and freedom and of heathenism, non-whiteness, and slavery.”