Monday, July 20, 2009

Daily Kos: Behind the white folks who built this country...

by David Waldman

Sun Jul 19, 2009 at 10:02:03 AM PDT

By now, you've doubtless heard about Pat Buchanan's infamous appearance on MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show discussing the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor:

It was during this interview that Buchanan answered Maddow's question thus:

Maddow: Why do you think it is that of the 110 Supreme Court Justices we've had in this country, 108 of them have been white?

Buchanan: Well, I think white men were 100% of the people who wrote the Constitution, 100% of the people who signed the Declaration of Independence, 100% of the people who died at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, probably close to 100% of the people who died at Normandy. This has been a country built, basically, by white folks in this country, who were 90% of the entire nation in 1960, when I was growing up, Rachel. And the other 10% were African Americans who had been discriminated against. That's why.

This has already been examined, I feel sure, from a hundred different angles. But there's one more I'd like to look at -- and I can't at all guarantee that this one hasn't been examined already, too.

It has of course been pointed out that much of the actual "building" of the country was performed by slaves, in the sense of the manual labor that went into the physical construction of public buildings like the Capitol, in terms of the building of the southern plantation economy, etc. Even Buchanan would have to acknowledge that. And he probably would, too, because that's not really what he's talking about.

Looking at how Buchanan prefaced that particular part of his statement, it's clear that he's talking about the acts generally pointed to in the "great men" theory of American history and Western civilization. The Revolutionary War. The founding documents. The Civil War. The World Wars. And in that sense, Buchanan is right. The "great actors" here were in fact white. But that's as far as his analysis goes. The "great actors" were white, and as great actors, they "built" the important institutions that made the country what it is, regardless of who actually built the buildings housing those institutions. That's not the important part, to Buchanan's way of thinking. And there's a great deal of sense in that, obviously, though it might be wise to acknowledge the physical labor involved, too. And perhaps the irony of the great institutions of freedom being built by captive slaves.

But there's more to it than that. To a great extent, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and others of the founders were largely free to do the things they did because they had slaves to run their households, cook their food, and do everything short of, well, let us say, perform certain acts of personal hygeine, while they put their minds to the thinking of mighty thoughts, or led the Continental Army, or whatever their individual contributions happened to be. And their individual contributions were great ones, to be sure. It'd be ridiculous for me to sit here and somehow diminish the incredible task of leading the Continental Army through the Revolutionary War. I wouldn't think of it. But it's something that becomes harder to pull off if you're also personally responsible for painting the fences, harvesting the crops, and fixing the stew.

To the extent that Jefferson, Washington, etc. are examples of the "white folks who built this country," and to the extent that "built this country" means fomenting the Revolution, writing the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, etc., these were things they were able to participate in because the things that actually built the country -- like, you know, building these peoples' things -- were delegated to slaves. Jefferson was free to write revolutionary theory because he didn't have to stop to paint the house, or cook his dinner, or wash his clothes, etc. He could leave home and go to Philadelphia for months at a time, go to France as Ambassador, go to DC as President, etc. because he had a giant, free labor force to take care of his house, harvest and sell crops for cash, etc. in his absence.

And no, it wasn't "free" to keep slaves. It was enormously expensive. But providing rudimentary food and shelter needs in exchange for free labor is still a pretty sweet deal, and buys you a lot of time and freedom for doing great things.

Thomas Jefferson certainly made good use of the time. George Washington, too. And James Monroe. And Madison. And Jackson. And on and on through abolition. (And even afterward, really, though they shifted to a cash basis.)

I couldn't prove to you that it had anything to do with it, but it is interesting that almost all of the first presidents -- the politicians who found themselves fortuitously enough positioned to seek and win the presidency -- almost all were slaveholders.

I wonder how much time they'd have had to "build the country" if they didn't have slaves at home building their particular part of it?

Just as the old saw goes about who's behind every great man... in those days, it was usually slaves behind the great men. And in cases where it wasn't, such as with John Adams -- the only one of the Founder-Presidents not to employ slave labor -- it was as the old saw says: there was a great woman behind him. John Adams didn't own any slaves, but he owned Abigail.

Even today, the great actors of society are supported by staff who make it all possible. But only in the time of the founding, when white folks "built this country," were "staff" relegated to that status by the color of their skin.

There were, of course, all kinds of white indentured servants in the early days, especially. And non-slaveholding whites who built their own homes and farmed their own farms with their own hands, without ever even dreaming of owning a slave. But they didn't often become history's "great actors." While I'm sure that, if pressed, Buchanan would insist that he meant to include the nameless, white "frontiersmen" as well as history's "great actors," they were nowhere mentioned in the preface to his statement. Were there hard-working white people who did their own work and build this country? Sure there were. Most of them did that, really. But that's not who Buchanan is talking about.

And that doesn't even reach the question of what would have happened had an impeccably educated and cultured free black man presented himself at Philadelphia to offer his contributions to the great acts that occurred there. He would surely have been considered by at least some of the delegates present to have his uses. A skilled hand to perform work as a secretary or to keep the books would surely have been welcome. But to be seated as a delegate? Even if he'd somehow arrived fully credentialed (which itself magically skips over another important and impossible barrier)? Not on your life. And why not? Well, we all know the answer to that.

So, were the signers of the Declaration of Independence 100% white? Sure. But Buchanan never bothers to ask himself why that is. That's the difference in views on affirmative action that Maddow hints at here:

Buchanan: Affirmative action is basically reverse discrimination against white males, and it's as wrong as discrimination against black females, and Hispanics and others, and that's why I oppose it.

Maddow: Obviously I have a different view of it. But I want to give you a chance to explain what you...

Buchanan: But why do you have a different view?

Interesting question. "Why do you have a different view?" That's the first indication from Buchanan that he's considered the question, "Why?". That's something he appears to have left out of the analysis entirely, right up until the point where someone has the temerity to announce to him that they disagree with him on the importance of opening up the elite institutions of society to a broader slice of America. He's largely uninterested in the question of why 100% of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were white. They just were. Liberals, of course, are interested in the why. For conservatives, facts are facts, and that's that. They don't ask the question of "Why?" until you tell them you're interested in why the facts are what they are, and how they came to be. Then they're interested. "Why would you want to know that? It is what it is. It's not my fault. Don't look backwards. Look to the future. That's the only thing we can do anything about, anyway."

Familiar stuff.

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