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Was slavery really on the way out in the antebellum USA?

Was slavery really on the way out in the antebellum USA?

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Gail Jarvis, in an encomium to the Dunning School writes:

William A. Dunning fervently opposed slavery but his reading of the trends of the times led him to the conclusion that the institution was coming to an end. The slave trade itself ended in 1808, so for more than 50 years before Fort Sumter was fired on, no new slaves had been imported. Southern slaves began obtaining their freedom in the 1700s by saving money to purchase their freedom; by performing services for the state or the local community (some were freed for assisting in the Revolutionary War) and many were manumitted by the last will and testament of their owners for "faithful service."

However, I have received a different impression from my reading so far. In particular, if slavery was really fizzing out by itself, how to explain the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Dredd Scott decision which are usually understood as the slavers' onslaught?

Are there objective statistical studies on this issue? Jarvis' words sound like fine rhetoric but I find it suspicious that he carefully eschews quoting any figures.

UPDATE Another influential historian who espoused similar views was Ulrich Phillips:

He concluded that plantation slavery was not very profitable, had about reached its geographical limits in 1860, and would probably have faded away without the American Civil War, which he considered needless conflict.

No, slavery was not on its way out. Historians like Dunning and Phillip are writing half a century before the cliometric revolution in economic history, which has completely changed how we view this question. Fogel and Engerman's 1974 "Time on the Cross" was quite influential in showing how profitable slavery was for those who practiced it. In particular, plantations were more efficient economic institutions than smaller farms.

Many more cliometric studies have been done since Fogel and Engerman. They may vary in details, but most economic historians agree that slavery was not on its way out, at least not in any timely manner. Remember, there was still a domestic slave trade, and so we know exactly how much the market valued the South's slave stock as commodities. Based on those prices, we get estimates such as these:

Enslaved people were the capital: four million people worth at least $3 billion in 1860, which was more than all the capital invested in railroads and factories in the United States combined. Seen in this light, the conventional distinction between slavery and capitalism fades into meaninglessness.

This graph from Ransom and Sutch indicates that the market value of America's slaves was growing at an ever increasing clip. This makes clear why the Southern elite was willing to expend so much blood and treasure to defend their peculiar institution: the market considered their stock of human property to be as valuable as ever.

One argument that slavery would have died eventually is that the slave system wanted, even needed, to expand, and we know that the American Southwest was not suited to cotton agriculture. But we can't conclude that this would have led to slavery's demise either. There were strong expansionist factions in the prewar Democratic Party that wanted to conquer the rich, tropical lands of Cuba and Mexico and make them the new cradle of American slave culture. A good source for these expansionists is Yonatan Eyal's "The Young America Movement and the Transformation of the Democratic Party, 1828-1861."

No, not even close.

Alan T Nolan lists this as one of the components of the Lost Cause Myth in his essay "The Anatomy of the Myth", collected in the book The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History (ed by Gary Gallagher and Nolan, Indiana University Press, 2000). McPherson says in Battle Cry that slavery was more firmly entrenched in 1860 than it had been in 1820. By 1860 the "stock" of enslaved persons was the single most valuable concentration of wealth in the US - more valuable than all the railroads and manufacturing concerns in the country PUT TOGETHER. The Mississippi History Now website has a page that says:

[C]otton was America's leading export, and raw cotton was essential for the economy of Europe. The cotton industry was one of the world's largest industries… In many respects, cotton's financial and political influence in the 19th century can be compared to that of the oil industry in the early 21st century.

Groups don't typically just give up that much wealth/power, without an objection.

By 1860 it was illegal in the South for antislavery literature (including many Northern newspapers) to be sent in the mail: Southern inspectors were opening mail. (See for example here and here and here and here.) Free speech was infringed upon: it was illegal to voice antislavery opinions. By 1860 it was illegal in many Southern states to even BE a freed Negro: if you were an enslaved person and somehow were given your freedom, you'd better get the hell out of the state FAST. Kenneth Stampp writes in The Peculiar Institution (1956) that by 1860, many Southern courts had started reviewing wills where a dying slaveowner freed his enslaved persons, and overruling the will, ordering that the enslaved persons be kept in slavery. It seems that in the South, a slaveowner could do anything with his enslaved persons except free them. So the laws in the slave states were tighter by 1860 than they had ever been.

The Federal situation was even worse for enslaved persons (and freed blacks). The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was more draconian than anything in effect back in 1820: it was quasi-legal kidnapping. The 1857 Dredd Scott decision purported to make Negros ineligible for citizenship in any state - INCLUDING in the 5 states where blacks had held citizenship and been able to vote during the Constitional ratification era. In other words, the 1857 Supreme Court ruling took away black citizenship in 5 states where they had held citizenship since 1789. There was a very real fear in the North that the next ruling from Roger Taney's court could make it unconstitutional to EXCLUDE slavery from any state. Lincoln stressed this in his "House Divided" speech at Springfield in 1858, quoted on the Dred Scott wikipedia page. That same page contains a reference to Southern radicals boasting that the coming decade (after the Dred Scott decision) would see slave auctions on Boston Common. (Lemmon v. New York might have supplied the Court with an opportunity.)

And of course the slave states were looking to expand slavery into Mexico and Cuba. Many Southerners could foresee a paradise of slavery extending all around the Carribean basin. See here and here.

This census.gov link shows the actual number of enslaved persons growing from just under 700,000 in 1790, to just under 4 million in 1860:

That does not look like an institution that is dying out. It's an average growth rate of 2.5% per year, 28% per decade. The ending of the slave trade is not even a blip on this growth chart: 293,000 more slaves in 1810 over 1800, and 347,000 more enslaved persons a decade later. (And, of course the ending of the slave trade would not make a dent in this growth, once it was established. A few shiploads, or few dozen, is nothing compared to how many children 893,000 people can have.) The "delta" grew every decade, as you would expect with exponential growth. In 1860 there were 750,000 more enslaved persons than there had been in 1850, the highest delta ever. At that rate, there would have been over 5 million enslaved persons in 1870, an increase of 1.1 million over 1860.

Gail Jarvis and the Dunning school present an outrageously deceptive misinterpretation of some facts. First:

"Plantation owners and their families were well aware of the slave revolts in Haiti and other Caribbean island where hundreds of Whites had been slaughtered. These stories, coupled with reports of slave uprisings in the American South, certainly must have conciliated many a hardened pro-slavery stance."

Yes, Southern slaveowners were well aware of the revolts in Haiti and the Carribean, and reports of uprisings in the south. Stampp documents that in fact they were hyper-aware of them. That awareness created at atmosphere of suspicion and suppression. This did the exact opposite from "conciliating" hardened slavers. Instead, those reports induced periodic panics and reprisals, where slave patrols tortured and murdered enslaved persons who were suspected of plotting. This was an integral part of the regular pattern of terror and oppression that kept enslaved persons in line. The exact opposite of conciliation.

Southern awareness of Haiti et al extended to the decision to secede. Southerners told each other that Black Republicans would turn the South into another Haiti. (See Apostles of Disunion by Charles Dew, 2001) They said they had to secede to protect their families and especially their daughters.


"there were more than 250,000 Free Persons of Color in the South, not only in major cities like Charleston and New Orleans but in smaller towns."

250k free blacks in the South is a drop in the bucket compared with the 4 million enslaved persons: just 6% It is only one-third of the number of NEW enslaved persons in 1860 over 1850. The argument is absurd, maintaining that the 6% is "representative" while ignoring the other 94%. It is a deliberate distortion.

Stampp also writes about the profitability of slavery. He says that slaveowners typically claimed that they lost money on enslaved children whom they fed and clothed thru childhood, and then later sold. Those slaveowners would deny that they were in the business of "farming slaves", which had negative connotations. They fed those enslaved children out of the goodness of their hearts, and lost money on the deal. But Stampp reviews the sale prices for those enslaved persons, as recorded in various contemporary publications, and concludes that raising & selling enslaved persons was big money for those plantation owners large enough to do it. He does not go into specific numbers; but this directly contradicts Ulrich Phillips' assertion. The profitability of plantation slavery was not tied only to the production of cotton, but to "farming slaves" also.

No, the idea that slavery was somehow on its way out in the antebellum USA is a complete fabrication by the Dunning school, without a shred of evidence supporting it. It's so at variance with the demonstrable facts that it has to be an outright lie, an attempt to deceive. And in fact, that's what the whole Dunning School of history was: propaganda to support & justify the Jim Crow system. Here is Eric Foner on it 10:

The traditional or Dunning School of Reconstruction was not just an interpretation of history. It was part of the edifice of the Jim Crow System. It was an explanation for and justification of taking the right to vote away from black people on the grounds that they completely abused it during Reconstruction. It was a justification for the white South resisting outside efforts in changing race relation because of the worry of having another Reconstruction.

All of the alleged horrors of Reconstruction helped to freeze the minds of the white South in resistance to any change whatsoever. And it was only after the Civil Rights revolution swept away the racist underpinnings of that old view - i.e., that black people are incapable of taking part in American democracy - that you could get a new view of Reconstruction widely accepted. For a long time it was an intellectual straitjacket for much of the white South, and historians have a lot to answer for in helping to propagate a racist system in this country.

It is interesting to speculate on when slavery would have ended, absent the civil war. Two possible "outer boundaries" for when plantation slavery would have ceased being profitable are the boll weevil infestation in the early 1920s, and the invention of the first really successful mechanical cotton picker or combine, the International Harvester model "H-10-H", in 1942. It's difficult to imagine slavery in America in the 20th century: those suggestions are just pure speculation about the absolute latest possible dates when plantation slavery might still have been economically viable. But of course enslaved persons could work in factories and mines, too.

Lincoln and the Republicans wanted to put slavery "in course of ultimate extinction", by limiting it to the existing slave states and keeping it out of the territories and any new states. The idea was that if slavery was kept where it was, then it would eventually die out, maybe with the aid of "compensated emancipation" where the government would pay the slavowner some discounted value for the freed slaves. I read somewhere that Lincoln's own estimate for how long it would take for that to happen was around 50 years. (I will update if I ever find my source for that.)

This of course is exactly what the slave states were afraid of, and why they seceded. Ironically, secession started the ball rolling that did in fact end slavery. But before secession slavery was still going very strong, with no end in sight.

Here is another interesting complement to the excellent answers I have already received. In a recent article in Aeon magazine Matthew Karp unearthes the following very pertinent information:

And for antebellum Southern writers, the destiny of the US was manifestly both imperial and slaveholding. Their future was a future where slavery would continue to thrive. The black slave population would reach 10.6 million in the year 1910, according to the calculations of the New Orleans editor (and later US Census superintendent) James D B De Bow. Later, an Alabama politician quoted another estimate that put 31 million American blacks in chains by 1920. The Richmond-based Southern Literary Messenger, in an 1856 article exploring 'the condition of the slavery question in the year 1950', offered the most grandiose prediction of all, that the US slave population would 'amount to 100,000,000 within the next century'.

His article is aptly called "In the 1850s, the future of American slavery seemed bright".

Yes, slavery was ending. That's why the South seceded to preserve slavery. The South had been through a nearly 90-year political struggle over protecting their legal right to keep slaves and they had lost. Secession was their last-ditch hail marry pass at trying to preserve it. If succession had been successful, then perhaps the abolitionist cause would have been rolled back for a time; however, even the Southern leadership was forced to address Emancipation as the war turned against them. (see Cleburne-Davis proposal Southern Emancipation.

if slavery was really fizzing out by itself, how to explain the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Dredd Scott decision which are usually understood as the slavers' onslaught?

You put your finger on why slavery was doomed. The Kansas-Nebraska Act took all previous restrictions on the growth of slavery off the table. It also took all previous guarantees of slave states maintaining their political equilibrium with free states off the table. The Kansas Nebraska Act stated all new states would decide for themselves whether to be free or slave and not have this decision dictated too by the Federal Government as a condition of statehood. While that doesn't sound anti-slavery, that was the net effect. The problem for supporters of slavery were that new states would primarily be populated by the more populous northern states and immigrants from slave-free-Europe. Additionally, folks willing to relocate and endure the hardships of the frontier states were overwhelmingly more likely to be poor laborers. Poor laborers were less likely to be slave owners, and more likely to see themselves in competition with slaves for jobs. For these reasons cultural, and economic; given a choice new states would vote to be free as both Kansas (January 29, 1861) and Nebraska (March 1, 1867) did when they entered the Union. This effect of the Kansas Nebraska act became very apparent to the South. South Carolina, the first state to leave the Union in the prelude to the Civil War, did so about a month before Kansas entered the Union as a free state. The two events free Kansas entering the Union and pro Slavery South Carolina leaving, were directly related.

Kansas Nebraska Act meant that as the west opened up, the vast majority of new states would be free. The south which had enjoyed an equilibrium in the Senate that allowed it to block any legal challenge to slavery for the first 90 years of the union would lose that ability.

The Kansas Nebraska act(1854) had replaced the Missouri Compromise(1819) which legislatively protected the balance between slave and free states. Kansas Nebraska Act blew apart the South's political power, not in 1854, but the writing was on the wall and everybody knew it, and one of the important pieces which ultimately lead to the first wave of southern secession.

As for the Dred Scott decision (1857) again, why slavery was doomed. You are right, on its merits the Dred Scott decision would seem to support slavery. It effectively legalized slavery in the North. It allowed southerners to travel in the North with their slaves protected from local laws. It meant federal agencies could be employed in the free North to repatriate run-away slave even when doing so violated state laws. In some cases, it meant the kidnapping of free African Americans and impressment into slavery as all that was required to name a person an escaped slave was an affidavit.

By giving the South all this power over the north, and superseding state laws, the federal government made slavery a central political issue in the north. The north could no longer ignore it as something which was happening somewhere else. Now it was happening in their own states. This unified and focused the north to politically oppose slavery. That lead to the popularity and mainstreaming of the abolitionist movement in the North. It lead to the dissolution of the Whig Party and condemnation of it's 90 year track record of compromising on the slave issue. It lead to the rise of the new Republican Party, a party dedicated to the political destruction of slavery.

Dred_Scott vs Sandford
Although (US Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B.)Taney believed that the (Dred Scott) decision represented a compromise that would settle the slavery question once and for all by transforming a contested political issue into a matter of settled law, it produced the opposite result. It strengthened Northern opposition to slavery, divided the Democratic Party on sectional lines, encouraged secessionist elements among Southern supporters of slavery to make bolder demands, and strengthened the Republican Party.


Dred Scott Decision
The decision inflamed regional tensions, which burned for another four years before exploding into the Civil War.


Reaction to the Dread Scott Decision
This loaded decision, which was supposed to solve the slavery question once and for all and more importantly mitigate the nation's growing sectional crisis, ended up creating more tension in the country between the North and South. The reaction to the decision varied by region and political party, with it being criticized by northerners and Republicans, and praised by southerners and Democrats. The nation's intense reaction to the Dred Scott decision not only had an effect on politics in the late 1850s, but would also serve as one of several precipitates for the ultimate breakdown in American politics, the southern secession and Civil War.


Dred Scott Decision Still Resonates Today
The decision also made the Republican Party a national force, and led to the division of the Democratic Party during the 1860 presidential elections.

The growing power of the Republicans, who received considerable support from the northern states, directly led to fears in the South that slavery would be ended, and those fears started the momentum for secession and the Civil War.

Dred Scott enraged and radicalized the North.

Granted the question wasn't to fight the civil war and end slavery in 1865, or to not fight the war and end slavery in 1866. Without the civil war slavery may have taken decades more to end. But without legislative protection in the Senate, it could not have long continued. Supreme Court Dred Scott decision was so outrageously out of step and offensive to the majority it set the stage for the confrontation. The decision escalated the collision course the two sides were on and removed much of the room for compromise which had existed in the north since revolutionary war days. The South could not hope to preserve slavery. Dred Scott made the institution the pre-eminent issue, and the Kansas Nebraska act had removed it's most reliable protection. There was now no neutral ground which could support compromise and the most popular political party in the north now had the elimination of slavery as one of their core founding principles.

The South was check mated, and they knew it. That is why the whig party which had participated in the great compromises which had allowed slavery to prosper became defunct, and was replaced by the abolitionist Republican Party with the mandate to end slavery. That is why the South they refused to participate in the 1860 election. That is why the North elected an abolitionist President even knowing could mean war. That is ultimately why the South left the Union. Because the Union was no longer a place which would support the institution which their society and economy was organized around, slavery.

The book Slavery by Another Name (Douglas Blackmon) argues compellingly that, post-Reconstruction, laws were put in place that both allowed prisoners to be used as slave labor (which arguably continues to this day) and that new laws that made it extremely easy to incarcerate people (vagrancy laws being an example) and keep them incarcerated were enacted. This suggests that slavery would have continued without the Civil War -- the economic incentive to have cheap laborers who have no alternative (which arguably, again, exists in modern America -- not just prisoners but also illegal aliens and simply poor people who are unable to break out of the cycle of poverty) is a powerful one.

No, Slavery Did Not Make America Rich

Without slavery you have no cotton without cotton you have no modern industry…cause slavery to disappear and you will have wiped America off the map of nations.

As with most of his postulations concerning economics, Marx was proven wrong.

Following the Civil War and the abolition of slavery in 1865, historical data show there was a recession, but after that, post-war economic growth rates rivaled or surpassed the pre-war growth rates, and America continued on its path to becoming the number one political and economic superpower, ultimately superseding Great Britain (see Appendix Figure 1).

The historical record of the post-war economy, one would think, obviously demonstrated slavery was neither a central driving force of, or economically necessary for, American economic dominance, as Marx thought it was. And yet, somehow, even with the benefit of hindsight, there are many academics and media pundits still echoing Marx today.

For instance, in his essay published by The New York Times’ 1619 Project, Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond claims the institution of slavery “helped turn a poor, fledgling nation into a financial colossus.”

“The industrial revolution was based on cotton, produced primarily in the slave labor camps of the United States,” Noam Chomsky similarly stated in an interview with the Times. Both claims give the impression that slavery was essential for industrialization and/or American economic hegemony, which is untrue.

The Cotton Economy In The South

In the South, cotton plantations were very profitable, at least until overplanting leached most of the nutrients from the soil. Advances in processing the fiber, from Eli Whitney’s cotton gin to the development of power looms and the sewing machine, increased demand for cotton to export from the South to England and the mills of New England. Plantation owners were able to obtain large tracts of land for little money, particularly after the Indian Removal Act was passed in 1830. These plantations depended on a large force of slave labor to cultivate and harvest the crop—most white farmers in the 19th century wanted and were able to obtain their own farms as the U.S. expanded south and west, and slaves not only provided a labor source that couldn’t resign or demand higher wages, their progeny insured that labor source would continue for generations.

The demand for slave labor and the U.S. ban on importing more slaves from Africa drove up prices for slaves, making it profitable for smaller farms in older settled areas such as Virginia to sell their slaves further south and west. Most farmers in the South had small- to medium-sized farms with few slaves, but the large plantation owner’s wealth, often reflected in the number of slaves they owned, afforded them considerable prestige and political power. As the quality of land decreased from over-cultivation, slave owners increasingly found that the majority of their wealth existed in the form of their slaves they began looking to new lands in Texas and further west, as well as in the Caribbean and Central America, as places where they might expand their holdings and continue their way of life.


End of the American slave trade Edit

The laws that ultimately abolished the Atlantic slave trade came about as a result of the efforts of British abolitionist Christian groups such as the Society of Friends, known as Quakers, and Evangelicals led by William Wilberforce, whose efforts through the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade led to the passage of the 1807 Slave Trade Act by the British parliament in 1807. [3] This led to increased calls for abolition in America, supported by members of the U.S. Congress from both the North and the South as well as President Thomas Jefferson. [4]

At the same time that the importation of slaves from Africa was being restricted or eliminated, the United States was undergoing a rapid expansion of cotton, sugar cane, and rice production in the Deep South and the West. Invention of the cotton gin enabled the profitable cultivation of short-staple cotton, which could be produced more widely than other types this led to the economic preeminence of cotton throughout the Deep South. Slaves were treated as a commodity by owners and traders alike, and were regarded as the crucial labor for the production of lucrative cash crops that fed the triangle trade. [5] [6]

The slaves were managed as chattel assets, similar to farm animals. Slave owners passed laws regulating slavery and the slave trade, designed to protect their financial investment. The enslaved workers had no more rights than a cow or a horse, or as famously put by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Dred Scott decision, "they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect". On large plantations, enslaved families were separated for different types of labor. Men tended to be assigned to large field gangs. Workers were assigned to the task for which they were best physically suited, in the judgment of the overseer. [7] [8]

Breeding in response to end of slave imports Edit

The prohibition on the importation of slaves into the United States after 1808 limited the supply of slaves in the United States. This came at a time when the invention of the cotton gin enabled the expansion of cultivation in the uplands of short-staple cotton, leading to clearing lands cultivating cotton through large areas of the Deep South, especially the Black Belt. The demand for labor in the area increased sharply and led to an expansion of the internal slave market. At the same time, the Upper South had an excess number of slaves because of a shift to mixed-crops agriculture, which was less labor-intensive than tobacco. To add to the supply of slaves, slaveholders looked at the fertility of slave women as part of their productivity, and intermittently forced the women to have large numbers of children. During this time period, the terms "breeders", "breeding slaves", "child bearing women", "breeding period", and "too old to breed" became familiar. [9]

Planters in the Upper South states started selling slaves to the Deep South, generally through slave traders such as Franklin and Armfield. Louisville, Kentucky, on the Ohio River was a major slave market and port for shipping slaves downriver by the Mississippi to the South. New Orleans had the largest slave market in the country and became the fourth largest city in the US by 1840 and the wealthiest, mostly because of its slave trade and associated businesses. [10]

In the antebellum years, numerous escaped slaves wrote about their experiences in books called slave narratives. Many recounted that at least a portion of slave owners continuously interfered in the sexual lives of their slaves (usually the women). The slave narratives also testified that slave women were subjected to rape, arranged marriages, forced matings, sexual violation by masters, their sons or overseers, and other forms of abuse.

The historian E. Franklin Frazier, in his book The Negro Family, stated that "there were masters who, without any regard for the preferences of their slaves, mated their human chattel as they did their stock." Ex-slave Maggie Stenhouse remarked, "Durin' slavery there were stockmen. They was weighed and tested. A man would rent the stockman and put him in a room with some young women he wanted to raise children from." [11]

Personhood to thinghood Edit

Several factors coalesced to make the breeding of slaves a common practice by the end of the 18th century, chief among them the enactment of laws and practices that transformed the view of slaves from "personhood" into "thinghood". In this way, slaves could be bought and sold as chattel without presenting a challenge to the religious beliefs and social mores of the society at large. All rights were to the owner of the slave, with the slave having no rights of self-determination either to his or her own person, spouse, or children.

Slaveholders began to think that slavery was grounded in the Bible. This view was inspired in part by an interpretation of the Genesis passage "And he said, Cursed be Canaan a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren." (Genesis 9) Ham, son of Noah and father of Canaan, was deemed the antediluvian progenitor of the African people. Some whites used the Bible to justify the economic use of slave labor. The subjugation of slaves was taken as a natural right of the white slave owners. The second class position of the slave was not limited to his relationship with the slave master but was to be in relation to all whites. Slaves were considered subject to white persons. [12]

Demographics Edit

In a study of 2,588 slaves in 1860 by the economist Richard Sutch, he found that on slave-holdings with at least one woman, the average ratio of women to men exceeded 2:1. The imbalance was greater in the "selling states", [ clarification needed ] where the excess of women over men was 300 per thousand. [ clarification needed ] [13]

Natural increase vs systematic breeding Edit

Ned Sublette, co-author of The American Slave Coast, states that the reproductive worth of "breeding women" was essential to the young country's expansion not just for labor but as merchandise and collateral stemming from a shortage of silver, gold, or sound paper tender. He concludes that slaves and their descendants were used as human savings accounts with newborns serving as interest that functioned as the basis of money and credit in a market premised on the continual expansion of slavery. [14]

Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman reject the idea that systematic slave breeding was a major economic concern in their 1974 book Time on the Cross. [15] They argue that there is very meager evidence for the systematic breeding of slaves for sale in the market in the Upper South during the 19th century. They distinguish systematic breeding—the interference in normal sexual patterns by masters with an aim to increase fertility or encourage desirable characteristics—from pro-natalist policies, the generalized encouragement of large families through a combination of rewards, improved living and working conditions for fertile women and their children, and other policy changes by masters. They point out that the demographic evidence is subject to a number of interpretations. Fogel argues that when planters intervened in the private lives of slaves it actually had a negative impact on population growth. [2]

The first use of the word in America related to plantation architecture found in the Old South during the 1800s, and eventually assumed a broader reference to other cultural elements of the pre-Civil War South.

The word has taken on heightened importance this year, with Americans now focusing on its meaning and importance. Just recently, country group Lady Antebellum decided to change its name to ‘Lady A,’ based on the word’s negative connotations. But what does ‘Antebellum’ really mean and convey to Americans, and why is it so controversial?

Antebellum architecture is the plantation in the header image – a large house and trees draped in Spanish moss is a familiar design. Greek columned estates overlooking plantations and a stately manor is a stereotypical look associated with the antebellum South. It’s an aesthetic that began to define and romanticize this era of Southern history, especially in media like Gone With the Wind. But romanticizing the South’s antebellum period has drawn sharp rebuke for marginalizing an entire group’s struggle during the period.

Antebellum romanticization often portrays white plantation owners as noble landowners – effectively glorifying a painful period for black Americans. It marginalizes the enslavement of a people for more than 300 years, which was a cornerstone of the region’s economic strength during that period.

It’s especially controversial in the South, where the ‘Cult of the Lost Cause’ has been accused of attempting to rewrite history. According to historians, the Cult of the Lost Cause has its roots in the Southern search for justification and the need to find a substitute for victory in the Civil War.

The theory is that by attempting to deal with defeat, Southerners have created an image of the war as a great heroic epic. Fiction like Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind further solidified this idea among many Southern whites. Glorifying the antebellum period in Southern history helped the defeated paint the Civil War as a clash between two civilizations — one honorable and one greedy.

It paints the North’s struggle as “materialistic, grasping for wealth and power.” By contrast, the Southern position was one of the tragic heroes, “waging a noble but doomed struggle to preserve their superior civilization.” Effectively, the same people that fought to keep black Americans in chains and disguised it as a battle of state’s rights.

Lady Antebellum chose the name because it sounded Southern – but ended up changing it because it glorifies a painful period in our nation’s history.

The band chose the name after dressing in Civil War clothing as a nod to their Southern heritage. But now they feel that contributing to antebellum romanticization is problematic, to say the least. Perhaps the difference in experience can be summed-up like this: while white women read Gone With the Wind and wonder what it would be like to be Scarlett O’Hara, black people read it and wonder how awful it would be to be Mammy.

Personally, I say all this as a person who grew up in the South and witnessed racism more often than not. It’s discouraging to hear so many Southerners say this ‘dishonors’ their heritage, to remove statues and flags of traitors to the United States. But it also dishonors our black American brothers and sisters to continue to honor the symbols of their oppression.

In August, an organization called the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee announced that prisoners in at least 17 states had pledged to stage a strike to protest prison conditions. It is unclear how many inmates actually took part in the 19-day strike, but organizers said “thousands“ refused to work, staged sit-ins, and turned away meals to demand “an immediate end to prison slavery.” Nationwide, inmates’ labor is essential to running prisons. They cook, clean, do laundry, cut hair, and fulfill numerous administrative tasks for cents on the dollar, if anything, in hourly pay. Prisoners have been used to package Starbucks coffee and make lingerie. In California, inmates volunteer to fight the state’s wildfires for just $1 an hour plus $2 per day.

The link between prison labor and slavery is not merely rhetorical. At the end of the Civil War, the 13 th amendment abolished slavery “except as a punishment for a crime.” This opened the door for more than a century of forced labor that was in many ways identical to, and in some ways worse than, slavery. The following is an excerpt from my new book, American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey Into the Business of Punishment. The book details my time working undercover as a prison guard in a for-profit prison in Louisiana. It also traces the ways in which our prison system evolved out of the attempt of Southern businessmen to keep slavery alive.

A few years after the Civil War ended, Samuel Lawrence James bought a plantation on a sleepy bend of the Mississippi River in Louisiana’s West Feliciana Parish. It was known as Angola, named for the country of origin of many of the people who were once enslaved there. Before the war, it produced 3,100 bales of cotton a year, an amount few Southern plantations could rival. For most planters, those days seemed to be over. Without slaves, it was impossible to reach those levels of production.

But James was optimistic. Slavery may have been gone, but something like it was already beginning to come back in other states. While antebellum convicts were mostly white, 7 out of 10 prisoners were now black. In Mississippi, “Cotton King” Edmund Richardson convinced the state to lease him its convicts. He wanted to rebuild the cotton empire he’d lost during the war, and, with its penitentiary burned to ashes, the state needed somewhere to send its prisoners. The state agreed to pay him $18,000 per year for their maintenance, and he could keep the profits derived from their labor. With the help of convict labor, he would become the most powerful cotton planter in the world, producing more than 12,000 bales on 50 plantations per year. Georgia, whose penitentiary had been destroyed by Gen. Sherman, was leasing its convicts to a railroad builder. Alabama had leased its convicts to a dummy firm that sublet them for forced labor in mines and railroad-construction camps throughout the state.

There was no reason Louisiana couldn’t take the same path. Black Americans were flooding the penitentiary system, mostly on larceny convictions. In 1868, the state had appropriated three times as much money to run the penitentiary as it had the previous year. It was the perfect time to make a deal, but someone beat James to it. A company called Huger and Jones won a lease for all of the state prisoners. Barely had the ink dried on the contract before James bought them out for a staggering $100,000 (about $1.7 million in 2018 dollars). James worked out a 21‑year lease with the state, in which he would pay $5,000 the first year, $6,000 the second, and so on up to $25,000 for the 21 st year in exchange for the use of all Louisiana convicts. All profits earned would be his. He immediately purchased hundreds of thousands of dollars of machinery to turn the state penitentiary into a three‑story factory. One newspaper called it “the heaviest lot of machinery ever brought in the state.” The prison became capable of producing 10,000 yards of cotton cloth, 350 molasses barrels, and 50,000 bricks per day. It would also produce 6,000 pairs of shoes per week with the “most complete shoe machinery ever set up south of Ohio.” The factory was so large that the Daily Advocate argued it would stimulate Louisiana’s economy by increasing demand for cotton, wool, lumber, and other raw materials.

In 1873, a joint committee of senators and representatives inspected the Louisiana State Penitentiary and found it nearly deserted: “The looms that used to be worked all day and all night, are now silent as the tomb.” The warden and the lessees were not at the prison. “It is pretty difficult to find out who are the lessees or, indeed, whether or not there are any,” the inspectors wrote in their report. Where were the convicts? Almost as soon as James’ prison factory was running, he’d abandoned it. He’d discovered that he could make a lot more money subcontracting his prisoners to labor camps, where they were made to work on levees and railroads. A convict doing levee and railroad work cost one‑twentieth the labor of a wage worker.

Some in Louisiana’s Reconstruction legislature tried to rein in James. In 1875, it forbade convict labor from being used outside prison walls—senators and representatives were concerned it would deprive their constituents of jobs—but James disregarded the ban and kept his labor camps going. A Baton Rouge district attorney sued James for nonpayment of his lease. James ignored him and made no payment for the next six years. He had become untouchable.

Samuel L. James recorded more about how he himself lived than about the people forced to labor for him. James kept a second home in New Orleans where he and his wife would receive the city’s elite. Their “very elegant toilets and cordial hospitality” would be noted in the paper’s gossip columns. After visits to New Orleans, the James family would ride his steamboat back to Angola, eating delicious meals and playing poker on deck, while transporting convicts in the cargo below. On the plantation, the family kept about 50 prisoners in an ill‑ventilated 15‑by‑20‑foot shack located a half-mile from their nine‑bedroom mansion. During the day, some convicts would tend to the expansive yard, its oak, pecan, and fig trees, and the family’s stable out back.

In the mornings, the convict houseboys would bring James coffee in bed and saddle up his horse, which he’d ride out into the fields at daybreak to see that the work had begun. The few scant accounts reporters recorded from prisoners described a dawn‑to‑dusk work regimen, whippings, and being forced to sleep in muddy clothing. While the fieldworkers ate “starvation rations,” James would return to the big house in the morning to a spread of bacon, eggs, grits, biscuits, batter cakes, syrup, coffee, cream, and fruit. At lunchtime, a “little Negro boy” would sit on the stairs and pull a rope that would spin a fan to keep the family cool. The fieldwork continued through the day, but during the hottest hours, the James family slept, rising later to take a ride around the plantation in their carriage.

Why Get Out Is the Best Movie Ever Made About American Slavery

Jordan Peele's horror film is about the theft of black bodies&mdashbut it isn't set in the Antebellum South.

Get Out is a kind of taut Universal romp, as if Alfred Hitchcock had finally contemplated the existential terror of race. Get Out is really a masterwork of Afrofuturism, the artistic and scientific framework for understanding race as a technology across time and space. Writer-director Jordan Peele unabashedly uses classical Afrofuturist imagery in depicting the theft of the Black body when his protagonist Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) stumbles from his girlfriend's mother's hypnosis far down into the void of space&mdash only able to look up at a two dimensional view of his own life and rendered unable to act. A recurring image in Afrofuturism is the Black body abducted by aliens as an allegory for enslavement in different eras and places.

In Peele's hands, I found my eyes looking at Chris's floating body and thinking about stolen Africans who were experimented upon (or thrown overboard), Henrietta Lacks' stolen HeLa cells, Emmett Till's little 14-year-old lynched body, music and sports stars being extracted from Black neighborhoods for white profit, the government not treating syphilis in hundreds of Black men in Tuskegee to study them&mdashand, back to Chris, about to be lobotomized.

I did not experience Get Out as a horror movie as such, but as the best damn movie I've ever seen about American slavery. Our "peculiar institution" was so absurd, I had already found Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained to be a more effective film at depicting its American-style perversity than Steve McQueen's stentorian 12 Years a Slave. But Peele's Get Out does something much more ambitious than either of them: it is a searing indictment of the on-going theft of the Black body, from the NBA draft to the beds of white sex partners who don't treat their lovers as fully human.

I did not experience Get Out as a horror movie as such, but as the best damn movie I've ever seen about American slavery.

Like Peele, I am a mixed-race Black person, and I've been thinking a lot lately about whatRaceBaitr editor Hari Ziyad calls "white partner fragility": the propensity of Black people with white intimate partners to cape for them and be more sensitive about protecting their partner's whiteness than they are about expressing their own Black humanity and anger. Peele, himself married to a white woman, explores this dynamic when Chris keeps apologizing to the whitest of white girlfriends, Rose (Allison Williams), to assure her that she's not implicated in her family's racism.

But the dynamic is most interestingly explored when Chris tries to greet the only other Black guest he sees at what he thinks is a party (it's really his auction): a young Black man named Andrew (Lakeith Stanfield) who is the hypersexualized lover of an older white woman. Chris doesn't know then that Andrew has been lobotomized, and that a white man's brain (presumably the white woman's husband) had been implanted in his Black body. This dramatizes what scholar Ann duCille calls the ultimate "mandingoism" fantasy of white men: to "project their own latent desire for the black male penis onto white women and punish black men for a desire that is finely their own: to fuck a black man, to fuck like a black man, to fuck white women with a black penis."

When the white woman tries to stop Chris and Andrew from speaking to each other, Get Out reveals a real truth of how Black men who date white people are rewarded in white social circles. After all, being with a white partner keeps whiteness centered, while being with (or even talking to) another Black person draws attention towards Blackness, threatening liberal whiteness. But the cost for this reward is high&mdashas we learn when a flash reveals the fraction of Andrew's terrified self which remains, and when Chris is knocked out.

When Chris comes to and learns that his eyes will be given to a blind man (literally stealing his vision to co-opt it for a white gaze), he asks his captors a question: Why do they steal Black people's bodies? Part of the reason is that they're seen as disposable, but it's also because the white thieves consider Black bodies physically superior when&mdashas happens quite routinely with athletes&mdash"Black muscle" can be useful if separated from its Black mind, emotions, and politics. But some of the brilliance of Get Out is how it explores a paradox about slavery: In a way, slavery initially had nothing to do with race, as race didn't yet exist. If you go back far enough in slavery history, you start to understand that it is the theft of bodies that were Black, captured by bodies that were white, which created the concept of race itself. Race is the theft of Black bodies, further developed as white people committed genocide against Native people, colonized Mexican people, and imported Chinese people for dangerous labor (before being excluded).

Peele doesn't allow white liberals to view the theft of Black bodies in a faraway frame of an Antebellum Southern plantation, nor to blame crude Trump supporters.

Furthermore, Peele doesn't allow white liberals to view the theft of Black bodies in a faraway frame of an Antebellum Southern plantation, nor to blame crude Trump supporters. Instead, Get Out blames the theft on contemporary, Northern white Obamaniacs. American liberalism, not just Trumpism, continues to make race by way of bodily theft. Whenever I would critique Hillary Clinton about race in 2016, I would be mocked by white liberals for getting out of my place. It wasn't that I wanted Trump to win, but I wanted Clinton and the Democrats to address and correct how American liberalism also instills fear of Muslims, advocates police control, decries Black children as "superpredators," does shit to upend why white people have twelve times the wealth of Black, violently deports millions, and uses drones to kill Brown people.

When I think about all the political anger and shame voters of color were asked to subsume and swallow by white liberals in 2016, I think of Chris crying as he is told that, after his lobotomy, a part of himself will remain&mdasha tiny sliver of his former self, which will turn him into a mere passenger in his own body. What an apt representation of the social death of Black American life, when your body becomes something for others to profit from while you, yourself, are never allowed to be fully emotive, free acting, in touch with your feelings, loved or loving.

There have been other recent films about the power of interracial relationships (Loving, A United Kingdom) to overcome the odds. More daringly, Get Out does something else: It shows the intimate ways whiteness uses&mdashindeed, the ways in which whiteness needs to use and use up&mdashBlack bodies for its continued existence. Kaluuya's Chris seems to be channeling Brock Peters facing a lynching in 1962's To Kill a Mockingbird much more than Sidney Poitier in 1967's Guess Who's Coming To Dinner.

The period after the Oscars is usually a let down at movie theaters, and 2016 was an especially good year for Black films. But after the exquisite feast that Oscar winners Moonlight and Fences and Oscar nominees 13th, I Am Not Your Negro, and Hidden Figures gave us to dine on this season, Get Out is a most delicious chocolate dessert.

The Proslavery Argument

Proponents of slavery argued that it protected slaves, masters, and society as a whole.

Learning Objectives

Identify the key tenets of the proslavery argument

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Southern slaveholders’ proslavery arguments defended the interests of the plantation owners against attempts by abolitionists, lower classes, and non-whites to institute a more equal social structure.
  • Southern proslavery theorists argued that the class of landless poor was easily manipulated and thus could destabilize society as a whole.
  • The “mudsill theory” of Henry James Hammond argued that there must be a lower class for the upper classes to rest upon.
  • “Positive good” theorists, such as John C. Calhoun, believed that slavery, with its strict and unchanging social hierarchy, made for a more stable society than that of the Northern states where wage laborers of diverse backgrounds engaged actively in democratic politics.
  • William Joseph Harper was a leading proponent of the notion that slavery was not merely a necessary evil, but a positive social good, and his “Memoir on Slavery” reinforced this idea.

Key Terms

  • apologist: One who speaks or writes in defense of a faith, a cause, or an institution.
  • Mudsill theory: A sociological idea that there must be, and always has been, a lower class for the upper classes to rest upon the name is derived from the lowest threshold that supports the foundation for a building.

From the late 1830s through the early 1860s, the proslavery argument was at its strongest, in part due to the increasing visibility of the small but vocal abolitionist movement, and in part due to Nat Turner ‘s rebellion in 1831. Among those most famous for propagating the proslavery argument were James Henry Hammond, John C. Calhoun, and William Joseph Harper. The famous “Mudsill Speech” (1858) of James Henry Hammond articulated the proslavery political argument when the ideology was at its most mature.

James Henry Hammond: James Henry Hammond’s 1858 “Mudsill Speech argued that slavery would eliminate social ills by eliminating the class of landless poor.

These proslavery theorists championed a class-sensitive view of American antebellum society. They felt that the bane of many past societies was the existence of a class of landless poor. Southern proslavery theorists felt that this class of landless poor was inherently transient and easily manipulated, and as such, often destabilized society as a whole. Thus, the greatest threat to democracy was seen as coming from class warfare that destabilized a nation’s economy, society, and government, and threatened the peaceful and harmonious implementation of laws.

This “mudsill theory” supposed that there must be, and has always been, a lower class for the upper classes to rest upon. (The mudsill is the lowest layer that supports the foundation of a building.) James Henry Hammond, a wealthy Southern plantation owner, described this theory to justify what he saw as the willingness of the non-whites to perform menial work: Their labor enabled the higher classes to move civilization forward. In this view, any efforts toward class or racial equality ran counter to this theory and therefore ran counter to civilization itself.

Southern proslavery theorists asserted that slavery prevented any such attempted movement toward equality by elevating all free people to the status of “citizen” and removing the landless poor (the “mudsill”) from the political process entirely. That is, those who would most threaten the democratic society’s economic stability and political harmony were not allowed to undermine it because they were not allowed to participate in it. In the mindset of proslavery men, therefore, slavery protected the common good of slaves, masters, and society as a whole.

In 1837, John C. Calhoun gave a speech in the U.S. Senate advocating the “positive good” theory of slavery, declaring that slavery was, “instead of an evil, a good—a positive good.” Theorists of “positive good” believed that slavery, with its strict and unchanging social hierarchy, made for a more stable society than that of the Northern states, where wage laborers of diverse backgrounds engaged actively in democratic politics.

These arguments asserted the rights of the propertied elite against what were perceived to be threats from abolitionists, lower classes, and non-whites to gain higher standards of living. John C. Calhoun and other pre-Civil War Democrats used these theories in their proslavery rhetoric as they struggled to maintain their grip on the Southern economy. They saw the abolition of slavery as a threat to their new, powerful Southern market, a market that revolved almost entirely around the plantation system and was supported by the use of black slavery.

William Joseph Harper

William Joseph Harper (1790–1847) was a jurist, politician, and social and political theorist from South Carolina. He is best remembered as an early representative of proslavery thought. His “Memoir on Slavery,” first given as a lecture in 1838, established Harper as a leading proponent of the notion that slavery was not in fact a necessary evil but rather a positive social good.

Senator William Harper: Senator William Harper is best remembered as an early representative of proslavery thought. He argued that slavery was not in fact a necessary evil but rather a positive social good.

Harper advanced several philosophical, racial, and economic arguments on behalf of slavery, but his central idea was that “slavery anticipates the benefits of civilization and retards the evils of civilization.” Harper’s assessment of other nations around the world confirmed this point of view. Non-slaveholding civilizations in northern climates, such as Great Britain, were fractured by inequality, political radicalism, and other dangers. Meanwhile, non-slaveholding civilizations in more southerly areas, such as Spain, Italy, and Mexico, were rapidly slipping into “degeneracy and barbarism.” Only the slaveholding Southern United States, Brazil, and Cuba were seen as making “favorable progress.”

As did nearly every other defender of slavery before 1840, Harper nominally conceded that slavery, at an abstract level, did constitute a sort of (necessary) moral evil. Yet his strong, positive emphasis on the social and economic benefits of the institution separate him from the weaker apologists for slavery of earlier decades.

Did slavery create the capital that financed the industrial revolution?

The answer is "no" slavery did not create a major share of the capital that financed the European industrial revolution. The combined profits of the slave trade and West Indian plantations did not add up to five percent of Britain's national income at the time of the industrial revolution.

Nevertheless, slavery was indispensable to European development of the New World. It is inconceivable that European colonists could have settled and developed North and South America and the Caribbean without slave labor. Moreover, slave labor did produce the major consumer goods that were the basis of world trade during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: coffee, cotton, rum, sugar, and tobacco.

In the pre-Civil War United States, a stronger case can be made that slavery played a critical role in economic development. One crop, slave-grown cotton, provided over half of all US export earnings. By 1840, the South grew 60 percent of the world's cotton and provided some 70 percent of the cotton consumed by the British textile industry. Thus slavery paid for a substantial share of the capital, iron, and manufactured goods that laid the basis for American economic growth. In addition, precisely because the South specialized in cotton production, the North developed a variety of businesses that provided services for the slave South, including textile factories, a meat processing industry, insurance companies, shippers, and cotton brokers.

Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South: An Interview with Historian Keri Leigh Merritt

Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney, and the features editor of the History News Network (hnn.us). His articles have appeared in HNN, Crosscut, Salon, Real Change, Documentary, Writer’s Chronicle, Billmoyers.com, Huffington Post, AlterNet, and others. He has a special interest in the history of conflict and human rights. His email: [email protected]

Historian Keri Leigh Merritt

The lords of the lash are not only absolute masters of the blacks, but they are also the oracle and arbiters of non-slaveholding whites, whose freedom is merely nominal, and whose unparalleled illiteracy and degradation is purposely and fiendishly perpetuated.

Hinton Helper, The Impending Crisis of the South (1857)

While the Southern abolitionist Hinton Helper abhorred the cruel institution of slavery, he was also appalled by the condition of poor whites in the South of the 1850s who he saw as suffering a “second degree of slavery” under the dominance of the slaveholding ruling class. Wealthy slaveholders brutally enforced the enslavement of blacks while repressing and degrading poor whites who they saw as disaffected pariahs that could upend the rigid hierarchy of the rich white slave-owning class.

Historian Keri Leigh Merritt presents a comprehensive study of this malignant and overlooked aspect of slavery in her new book Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South (Cambridge University Press). She offers a groundbreaking interdisciplinary perspective that explores economics, law, class, labor, race, social relations, the court system, and vigilante violence, among other issues, to reveal the world of poor whites in the South during the decades preceding the Civil War.

Dr. Merritt details how an underclass of white people grew in the Deep South. By the 1840s and 1850s, the global demand for cotton had skyrocketed, and slaveholders from the Upper South had sold over 800,000 African Americans to Lower South states. This influx of slaves reduced the need for white laborers, whose ranks also grew due to white immigration, particularly from Ireland. As she vividly describes, these whites were landless, jobless or underemployed, and illiterate, and faced involuntary servitude, a hostile legal system, illness, starvation, harassment, and the constant threat of violence—the result of the policies designed to expand the wealth and power of the white slaveholding master class while preserving slavery at all costs in a de facto police state.

Dr. Merritt also dispels myths about this time, including the idea that virtually all whites in the South supported slavery and secession. She concludes by chronicling how poor whites benefited from the end of slavery by gaining the ability to compete in a free economy while, ironically, free black people were excluded from the economic system and became subject to “slavery by another name” with the persistence of white supremacy and a racist justice system.

Because of the illiteracy of most poor white people in the prewar South, they left few written documents. To address this problem, Dr. Merritt conducted extensive original research to uncover their story by studying sources from county court records, jail and penitentiary records, newspapers, and coroners’ reports to slave narratives, accounts from slaveholders and abolitionists and veterans, petitions from laborers, and much more.

Dr. Merritt works as an independent scholar in Atlanta, Georgia. She earned a doctorate in history from The University of Georgia. In addition to Masterless Men, Dr. Merritt is also co-editor with Matthew Hild of Reconsidering Southern Labor History: Race, Class, and Power (University Press of Florida, 2018). She is currently researching books on radical black resistance during Reconstruction, and on the role of sheriffs and police in the nineteenth century South. She has earned numerous honors for her writing and research on inequality and poverty, and she frequently contributes articles to the non-academic press that place current events in historical perspective.

Dr. Merritt generously talked about her book and her work as a historian during a visit to Seattle.

Robin Lindley: Before getting to your new book Dr. Merritt, I wanted to ask how you decided to study history and then specialize in the issues of slavery, labor, race, and economics in the American South of the nineteenth century.

Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: I’ve always been attracted to history. I’ve read history books since I was a young teenager. Growing up in the South and seeing the racism there drew me in even more.

I started studying poor whites and the nineteenth century South as an undergraduate and realized their story was largely untold. They were nearly always left out of history simply due to the fact that they were illiterate. I knew I wanted to go onto graduate school and study this topic, because I believe it adds a lot of nuance to how race and class interact – and how racism is perpetuated in America.

Robin Lindley: And you’ve brought in legal, social and economic history and other aspects of the story beyond the focus of many histories of the period.

Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Yes. I think we miss a lot as historians by just staying within our discipline. For example, what economists have come up on the price of slaves in the last few years that changes the whole dynamics of how we think about the South and slavery. By using interdisciplinary methods and relying on other subjects, we inch closer to the reality of the situation.

Robin Lindley: You’ve done pioneering research on an overlooked aspect of race and slavery in the antebellum South. How would you briefly describe your new book Masterless Men to readers?

Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Masterless Men examines how black slavery - and subsequently, black freedom – affected poor whites in the Deep South. Basically, with the influx of slaves from the Upper to the Lower South in the mid-1800s, poor whites increasingly found themselves unemployed and underemployed, and became cyclically impoverished. While poor whites certainly never experienced anything close to the horrific brutality of slavery, they did suffer socio-economically because of the peculiar institution.

I document the ways in which poorer whites traded and socially interacted with the enslaved, and how the slaveholders were constantly trying to figure out how to achieve segregation between the groups.

I show how poor whites were exploited by slave owners, who used myriad ways, from keeping them ignorant and illiterate to policing and terrorizing them, to maintain an effective system of slavery. Conversely, I also argue that black emancipation “freed” poor whites in certain, very important ways, often at the expense of African Americans.

Robin Lindley: Was there an incident or a reading that sparked your research on poor whites?

Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: I come from impoverished whites myself on my mother’s side. She grew up in an old mill village. My grandmother was only barely literate – she had to drop out of school in the seventh grade to work.

I still remember visiting my grandmother during the summers and seeing not only the poverty of the area but how it affected both whites and blacks in her area of town. All the rest of the town – the upper middle class and upper-class sections - was segregated. But the really poor area was completely integrated. That didn’t mean that the poor whites weren’t racist, but they still lived with black people. They worked with black people. They had an underground economy. It was a story you don’t see told in history—and an interaction of poor people that we don’t talk about.

I was always drawn to the nineteenth century because growing up in the Deep South there are vestiges of slavery wherever you go, especially in the rural areas as in the Mississippi Delta, for example. You feel like you’re back in plantation times.

I realized early on that all types of disparity, from wealth to education to income, were dependent on the fact that, once slavery ended, a whole class of people was freed with zero wealth.

I focus on this period as the genesis of so many of today’s problems.

Robin Lindley: I appreciate the original research you did for Masterless Men. As you write, most poor whites in the antebellum South were illiterate so they didn’t leave behind documentary evidence. What source material did you rely on in your research?

Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Any time we try to study illiterate people, it poses so many more challenges than people realize, so scholars of illiterate people must be more creative and find multiple different ways to figure out the lives of those people.

For me, luckily, I had all the WPA [Works Progress Administration] slave narratives to rely upon. A lot of the questions to these former slaves centered on class and what they thought about poor whites. So there was a lot of information there.

I also used the Tennessee Civil War Veterans questionnaires. While they were given to Tennesseans from 1914-1922, and there were many different southerners who lived in Tennessee then. They talked about the Deep South and slavery and the class issues.

I relied heavily on government records such as county court records and coroners’ reports. How people die tells you a lot about a society. And I also utilized newspapers, petitions to governors for pardons and petitions about labor unions or “associations,” as they were called then. Census records were essential in studying family structures and the mobility of people.

In short, I used any kind of document I could get my hands on to try to uncover the lives of these people.

Robin Lindley: A major theme of your book is that the slave-owning white aristocracy used racism to extend their wealth and power, and both slaves and poor whites were oppressed. Do you have a sense of the percentage of whites who were slave owners?

Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Yes. In the Deep South, the percentages are concentrated, with more slave owners in the Deep South than in the Upper South. The Deep South states I studied are South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. I don’t include Louisiana because it’s too different from a racial perspective and a legal perspective.

In these Deep South states in 1860, you have about one-third of white people who own slaves or live in families who own slaves. About one-third of white people could classify as middling class status – yeomen who owned land and not slaves, or the up-and-coming middle class of merchants, lawyers, and bankers, and then men who were overseers and hadn’t come into their inheritances yet. And the last third are poor whites.

Robin Lindley: I don’t think many people understand how expensive slaves were. What did you learn about the price of slaves then and what this means now?

Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: The economists Samuel Williamson and Louis Cain came out with a paper called “Measuring Slavery.” They looked at the prices of slaves not just in terms of cash value but in terms of what kind of power and status it took to have this kind of cash, to make this kind of purchase. You weren’t just getting lines of credit anywhere.

So, just to have the power to purchase something (or someone) so expensive means that the buyer has to be incredibly wealthy. Williamson and Cain came up with a figure that purchasing a slave would cost something like $130,000 today. That’s a totally different figure than the cliometrician scholars were using in the 1970s to estimate slave prices.

Robin Lindley: Poor whites obviously could never own a slave. You stress that poor whites didn’t have steady incomes and didn’t have land and were illiterate, and the slave owning aristocracy kept them illiterate and impoverished. That may surprise some readers. Why did the slaveholders desire this result?

Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Most slaveholders looked at poor whites as nuisances—as impediments to slavery itself. Not masters, not slaves, they were essentially “masterless men and women” in a hierarchical world. But poor whites were also interacting on a social and economic level with the enslaved and had an underground economy in which they traded together. Primarily, slaves appropriated foodstuffs from plantations and often traded with poor whites for liquor and other goods – it was America’s original “black market.”

Slaveholders knew they had to control and manage poor whites to keep slavery viable and profitable, and to keep these sizable underclasses from banding together and doing anything about it.

By 1860, there were poor white labor associations (or unions) throughout the Deep South and the workers were protesting having to compete with slave labor. They went so far as to threaten to withdraw their support for slavery if something was not done to raise their wages. They literally could not compete with slavery and earn a living wage.

So what did planters do? Well, they used both the legal system and vigilante violence to control this potentially explosive population.

Robin Lindley: Why did the Southern elites feel so threatened by poor whites who seemed so powerless and degraded in this slave society?

Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Like I said, they’ve always been a nuisance. They’ve been trading with slaves and disrupting slavery in that way.

But they also interacted with the enslaved socially. Interracial relationships between the two groups were far from rare. In fact, poor white women had the power to create a race of free blacks because a child’s status was based on the race of the mother. So, if a poor white woman had a child with a black man, that child would be entitled to legal freedom, adding to the free black population. So they had the ability to disrupt the racial hierarchy as well.

And then you had the Irish famine in the 1840s and all of these poor white immigrants began pouring in, all over the Deep South, especially in port cities. In cities like Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans, and even Mobile, the rates of white immigrants were exploding in the 1850s. So, you have a militant white labor force that was growing – and that was bucking against the system.

It’s no surprise that the push for secession started in Charleston because, while a sizable percentage of South Carolina’s enslaved laborers were being sold to western states like Mississippi and Texas, Charleston experienced a rapid increase in defiant white immigrant laborers. Poor white laborers’ ranks were growing – as was their militancy about not having to compete with unfree, brutalized labor.

Robin Lindley: How do you see the treatment of poor whites in this Southern caste system compared with the treatment of enslaved blacks?

Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: There’s no comparison. Slaves were treated horribly. The extent of the violent abuse and rape they endured has still not been fully revealed – and may never be. It’s starting to be told by people like Ed Baptist and a new generation of historians who have published books in the last ten or fifteen years.

Certainly, some poor whites were forced laborers and bound laborers – legally their children could be taken from them and forced to work for other people. These unfree laborers seemingly frequently suffered abuse at the hands of their “masters,” but there was always an end date to their terms of bound labor. Never would I compare their plight to slavery.

Robin Lindley: You dispel the myth that virtually all poor whites in the antebellum South supported slavery.

Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Obviously, all of the slave owning class did and, I’d argue, the vast majority of the middling classes supported slavery unconditionally.

I think there was more dissent in the poor white classes. I’m sure most of them were racist, but they saw that slavery was detrimental to them on a socioeconomic level. They recognized that they couldn’t get a decent wage and couldn’t get jobs as slavery increasingly pushed them out of agriculture.

As the possibility of disunion became a reality, poor whites were not the ones pushing for secession. Some were Unionists, but in the Deep South most were anti-Confederates – they just wanted to be left alone. They didn’t want to fight for slaveholders and slaveholder profits. But I argue that they were basically forced to fight in many instances. Even before the Conscription Act of 1862, there are vigilante groups all throughout the region that literally forced poor white men – with the threat of death – to join the Confederate army.

Robin Lindley: So, the Civil War may be seen as a war sparked by the white southern aristocracy against democracy to assure the survival of slavery—and preserve its wealth and power.

Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Right. Scholars such as Manisha Sinha have written about how the leaders of the secession movement were oligarchs. They were aristocrats. I show evidence of this too – they simply didn’t believe in democracy. They didn’t want poor people voting regardless of color. They didn’t think impoverished people should be involved on a political level at all. In the 1840s and 50s, slaveholders were increasingly attempting to remove civil liberties from poor whites. Furthermore, if you look at the laws passed by the Confederacy, you see more evidence of distain for both poor whites and democracy itself.

Robin Lindley: And, as the war approached, secessionists were preaching against abolition and raising fears of race war and other horrors if slavery ended.

Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Absolutely - as the Civil War approached, there was an explosion of propaganda in Southern newspapers. And even though most poor whites were illiterate, they still heard newspapers being read in town squares and at other gathering places, so they had some access to news. But this propaganda was not only directed at them – it was also a warning to middling classes as well. The richer whites predicted an impending racial war, saying that slaves would slaughter whites by the thousands, and that slaveholders were rich enough to move out of the region but poorer whites would be left to suffer at the hands of the enslaved. They said that black people would take over the South and rule the government that poor whites would the slaves of blacks that African American men would marry and rape their wives and daughters. It was just completely incendiary and vile, vicious racist language. I argue that you can see clearly here the beginnings of the vitriol of the Jim Crow era.

Robin Lindley: These poor whites, for the most part, were illiterate and otherwise uneducated. What was the state of public education in the South in the years before the Civil War?

Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: There was essentially no public education in the Deep South. None of the states had anything close to public education. Of course, some of the problem was poverty: only the upper-middling and elite classes didn’t need the labor of their children. And many poorer whites lived on the very margins of society, far from towns and schoolhouses.

I argue that elite whites didn’t want poor whites to learn how to read for several reasons – not only to prevent them from seeing what life was like outside of slave states or to read about workers’ rights, but they also didn’t want poor whites to be able to teach slaves to read. With the underground economy between the races, why couldn’t poor whites trade reading or writing lessons for a pound of corn or meat from the enslaved?

And there was also a zealous policing of any kind of information that entered the South. There was a huge culture of censorship, where slaveholders and their allies literally go through all the mail and any book that entered the region.

Interestingly, I did find that, after 1850, when a lot of politicians realized that secession or war was a possibility, they started talking about how to “educate” poor whites to become soldiers for the South. Their big idea was to indoctrinate the teachers, who were to be hand-picked southern-born men. Then slaveholders would send the teachers to Southern schools to indoctrinate them in Southern institutions – centered, of course, on the right to own slaves. These teachers would subsequently return home to teach the masses just enough to be decent soldiers.

Robin Lindley: I think people will be surprised by this lack of education combined with massive censorship. Who was doing the censoring?

Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: It’s carried on at both the state and the local levels. It’s important to remember that all local offices were held by people connected to slaveholding, if they were not slaveholders themselves. A lot of the censoring occurred in post offices. But elite white Southerners also formed violent vigilante groups to hunt out “unauthorized” ideas and reading materials, and viciously punish anyone who dared to read something they didn’t approve of.

Robin Lindley: And I was surprised by the total lack of public education.

Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: And that’s one of the ways I argue that black emancipation actually freed poor whites. After the Thirteenth Amendment, and due mainly to the Freedman’s Bureau, there were finally actual public schools in the Deep South.

Robin Lindley: You also write about poor whites forming unions but they are challenged by the criminal justice system and violent vigilance committees. Did you find that worker advocates were lynched by these agents of the slave owning class?

Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: I haven’t uncovered anything specific on the lynching of labor leaders. But definitely anybody who threatened the system in any way was liable to be lynched. And I should clarify: when I use “lynched,” I mean that in the antebellum sense, which was not always murder, but included torture, tarring and feathering, shaving someone’s head, riding them on a rail. It was meant to embarrass, degrade, and humiliate the person, who was often then banished from his or her community.

Robin Lindley: You detail some gruesome atrocities.

Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: It was an incredibly violent society because slavery is predicated on violence.

Robin Lindley: I was also struck by many of your findings such as the high suicide rate of white women who were mothers of mixed race children.

Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Using court reports and coroner’s inquests, I was able to uncover a good bit about the daily lives of some of these poor white women. Unquestionably, antebellum Southern suicide would be a great book topic, as would be the levels of infanticide. Both rates are seemingly very high. From the limited research I’ve done, the levels of infanticide by the formerly enslaved in the post-bellum era were seemingly common as well. That would be a fascinating study: Why were these women killing their babies?

Robin Lindley: What is your sense of this high rate of infanticide?

Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: For a white woman in the antebellum period, I think it was self-interest, quite frankly. Once they were found out, they were completely socially ostracized and banished from society. They could be met with violence and even death. Their children would have had horrible lives trying to live as free blacks outside of cities such as Charleston and New Orleans. There were actually very few free blacks in rural areas of the Deep South, especially as secession neared.

My guess is that these women were trying to survive themselves. Furthermore, a mixed-race child could be legally taken away from a mother in this society and bound out to another person for the child’s labor. That’s not slavery, of course, but it’s a form of short-term bondage. Binding out children was not exclusive to mixed-race children, though – any child of impoverished white people was at risk.

Robin Lindley: Could these mixed-race children also be enslaved?

Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: I didn’t find any case of that, but in the late 1850s, there was a movement in the Deep South where the states were trying to re-enslave free blacks. They were forced to move out of these states or choose a master. There were fewer and fewer rights for free blacks as the era approached the Civil War.

Robin Lindley: You stress that the conditions of poor whites in the South improved markedly with the end of slavery, but emancipation was imperfect for those once enslaved. What are a few things that happened after the Civil War with poor white people and freed blacks?

Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: With the emancipation of African Americans, poor whites were finally incorporated into the system of white privilege, even though it was at the bottom. The Southern elite understood that this was a way to buy their political allegiance and to forestall a political alliance between poor whites and former slaves, whose economic interests often aligned.

Poor whites quickly gained certain legal, political and social advantages solely based upon race, and this inclusion in white privilege allowed the former slaveholders to recapture control of Southern states after Reconstruction. Many times, though, these new freedoms came at the expense of African Americans, who now occupied the lowest rung of “free” society.

Most importantly, poor whites were finally able to compete in a free labor society. But they also were no longer the targets of the criminal justice system – African Americans suddenly took their place. And I argue that some poor whites were able to benefit from the Homestead Acts, gaining land and thus, wealth. And of course, after the war the Deep South finally started implementing a system of public education, however rudimentary. So, both blacks and poor whites were better off after emancipation, but both were still constrained by the vestiges of poverty and slavery.

Robin Lindley: You’ve also written recently about the resonance of this history in the issues of race and white supremacy we face now as the current president encourages racial division. You found echoes of the history you share in the Nazi and white supremacist violence in Charlottesville in August.

Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Obviously, the racial rhetoric has amped up over the last two years, from the time that the presidential campaign started. Trump was gaining supporters using the same manipulation of racial and xenophobic fears. He utilized chosen media outlets to create as much fear and worry as he could about “other” people taking over America. There was abject violence at campaign rallies and literally nothing was done about it. They even tried to silence the media, experts, and intellectuals.

I can’t say that I predicted Trump would become president, but I was definitely worried because I fully realized he was directing people’s anger and fears at other Americans – divided solely along the lines of race and ethnicity. And when people are downtrodden, when they are angry at the system, their anger is easily channeled by designing politicians.

Robin Lindley: In Charlottesville armed white supremacists congregated to defend the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and their violence led to the death of a young woman and serious injuries to more than a dozen counter-demonstrators. And the police stood by as Nazis and their ilk attacked those who responded to their message of hate and racism. Your book details similar incidents in the antebellum South.

Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: There’s a long and sordid history of violence in the South – from slavery and unfree labor practices to the criminal justice system.

The police are employed by the state and they know to whom they are answerable, to whom they serve. There’s also been a long history of police attracting a class of people who feel rejected by society and feel that they have something to prove – through a little bit of power that some of them truly exploit. And recent policies – not just under Trump, but under Obama as well – have heavily militarized them. It’s going to get very scary in the future with this grossly militarized police force, especially under the racist demagogue we currently have as President.

Robin Lindley: That ties in with mass incarceration of African Americans, a problem that has been evident since Reconstruction.

Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Yes. When you look at rates of incarceration before the Civil War, it was mostly poor whites in jails and prisons – and that makes sense, because slaveholders generally “disciplined” – really, tortured – the enslaved right there on the plantation. They wanted to be able to use them as laborers immediately after punishment. Right after slavery ended, however, the vast majority of people arrested were black. This type of heavy policing served not only as a form of labor control, but also as a form of social control.

Robin Lindley: Your book deals with how the upper classes used racism to hold power. That seems to be part of the equation when you look at America today.

Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Yes - we see that systemically in most of our institutions and in our government. In most of the South – and increasingly, the nation – poor and working-class whites are still reeling from the toll of poverty. Their anger is ripe and easily channeled by demagogues and politicians. Controlling education, the media and politics, elite whites – including Trump – continue inciting fears of immigrants, hatred of African Americans and an intense distrust of government and experts.

Robin Lindley: So, as you see it, the rich maintain their control and wealth by dividing people by race.

Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Absolutely. We definitely see this in the labor movement. Southern businesses have always used – and encouraged and incited – racism to divide the laboring classes. It’s the primary reason the South still has very few unions.

But the elite also maintain their control by disenfranchising as many working-class and poor people as possible, and through gerrymandering. They also control education and the media. They discredit experts and journalists with whom they disagree. We’ve only seen the beginning of it, but I believe in a matter of a few months we’ll see more and more attacks on academics and intellectuals.

Robin Lindley: There’s a sense that Trump was elected because of poor or working-class whites. However, you’ve stressed that the white middle and upper class, including white women, also assured a victory for Trump.

Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Right. There’s a lot of racist anger throughout the entire white community that is finally coming to light with the election.

I think Trump brought to the surface things that have always been there, but have until recently been talked about in a gentile or coded language. But Trump’s giving it to us straight, and white supremacists are emboldened enough to think they can come out of their basements and out of their online worlds and make their hatred public. He has emboldened them to do that.

Robin Lindley: Given this current volatile environment, what do you think should be done about Confederate memorials and monuments?

Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: I’m definitely radical here – I think the best option is that they should all be destroyed. They were put up for one reason: to maintain white supremacy. They weren’t put up right after the Civil War to honor the dead. Most of them were erected in the first decades of the 1900s by white supremacist groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who were all trying to maintain Jim Crow. They were meant to indoctrinate children and discourage black men from registering or attempting to vote. In Atlanta, where I live, many of them were dedicated in response to the bloody race riot in which angry, racist whites murdered scores of African Americans, and also destroyed and trashed black-owned businesses.

In short, the monuments are disgusting. They’re painful. I think we show a fundamental lack of empathy as a country to not understand how horrific these monuments are for African Americans who have to look at them every day.

As I recently said in response to removing Decatur, Georgia’s Confederate Monument, why do we need a visual reminder of slavery and white supremacy? The vestiges of slavery and white supremacy are still apparent every day in this country.

Robin Lindley: And some Confederate monuments were put up during the Civil Rights Movement.

Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: That’s right, no matter what time frame, though, there’s one constant—they were put up for one reason: to remind African Americans to stay in their “place.”

A healing way to deal with this is to figure out what to put up in their places. The South has a long history of biracial alliances against all odds. Or put up a monument to the enslaved themselves—the people who created this country, created the infrastructure, created so much of the wealth. Put up monuments to great black people.

To me it’s absurd that we’re even arguing about this. We should be focused on what is right and just and good.

Robin Lindley: You’ve been outspoken about how you see the role of historians. You’ve called yourself an “activist historian.” How do you see your role and what would you like to do with your career?

Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: In a blog post, I used the term “activist historian,” and perhaps it’s not the most accurate term, but for now it’s pretty accurate.

There seems to be emerging within the profession a sharp divide between two groups. One group is comprised of people who think that history is simply history and that should not have any presentist purpose. But there’s a growing number of younger scholars who consider themselves activist historians – who want to use the lessons of history to create a better, more equitable, more just future, and who think we should use our knowledge and expertise to affect public policy and racial policy and labor issues--all sorts of things—and turn what we know into something good for the future.

Robin Lindley: How do you think readers might take the history you present in Masterless Men, for example, and use the lessons you share to address our current concerns about issues such as race, labor, and economic inequality?

Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: The biggest lesson should be that there hasn’t always been a separation of the races in American history. There have been amazing, promising moments when people from different races lived together and worked together. That’s the hopeful aspect of it.

I think that it also shows the fallacy of all of the pro- and Neo-Confederate arguments. Many of the people waving Confederate flags and arguing for the monuments to remain are actually the descendants of Southern white Unionists or Southern white anti-Confederates who didn’t want to fight a war to preserve slavery.

I think also that, by showing the ways in which poor whites were freed by emancipation, and then what subsequently happened to freedmen and women – that should give us pause in thinking about reparations.

Robin Lindley: Who are some of the historians writing now that you consider your fellow activist historians?

Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: There are so many, it’s hard to narrow it down. I love the work of Ed Baptist, Manisha Sinha, Chad Pearson, William Horne, Michael Landis, Karen Cox, and Keisha Blain, Ibram Kendi, and all the people writing for Black Perspectives. There’s a whole group of graduate students in Washington, D.C., calling themselves Activist Historians.

There are also a bunch of us Southern historians – who are especially interested in labor history – and who come from more working-class backgrounds, who have worked as activists. Social media has made it far easier for us all to connect and to create a broader movement.

I also want to give a shout out to LAWCHA, the Labor and Working Class History Association. I went to their conference this summer and it reminded me why I want to do this work.

Robin Lindley: And are there some other historians who inspired you when you were considering becoming a historian?

Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Definitely Eugene Genovese. I read his work as an undergraduate and was completely drawn in. And all of the cliometricians: Robert Fogle, Stanley Engerman, and others who wrote about the economic aspects of slavery. And of course, Eric Foner was a big influence--an amazing, amazing historian.

As I got into graduate school, I was heavily influenced by people who were researching poor whites, like Victoria Bynum and Charles Bolton and Jeff Forret.. I’m ashamed to admit this, but I had never read W.E.B. DuBois’ Black Reconstruction until my final year of graduate school but, once I did that, my mind was blown.

Robin Lindley: What are you working on now?

Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: I have two book projects I’m researching now.

The first one will look at the transition of criminal justice in the South. It goes from being run by sheriffs in the antebellum period to being dominated by professional, uniformed police forces in Reconstruction. One important thing to know about sheriffs is that they conducted sales of about half of the slaves in the South. These were slaves taken by the courts over debts and liens – and then sheriffs sold them to recoup costs. Very few scholars have even acknowledged that fact.

The other book project considers radical black resistance in early Reconstruction. The primary figure in that book is Aaron Alpeoria Bradley. He was a slave, escaped slavery, and moved to New York and became one of the nation’s first black lawyers. He went back down to Savannah in 1865, right after the war, to fight on behalf of common black laborers. He was heavily involved in Georgia politics and fought against police brutality and oligarchy. He also fought against gold coin, predating the populists. It’s hard to find a ton information on him, but I’m trying.

Robin Lindley: Those book projects sound fascinating. Would you like to add any thoughts for readers about your work or America today?

Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: I believe we are at a vital crossroads in our country. Non-elite people of this country can either come together and begin fighting for their rights, or we can continue down this toxic road of racism and hatred. I’m understandably worried, but I do remain hopeful.

Robin Lindley: Thanks so much for sharing your thoughtful insights and congratulations on your new book Dr. Merritt.


  1. Kawaii

    How moving the phrase :)

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