Each year, the New York Times and other national journals sift through the year’s books and make their selections of the so-called “best books.” The 2005 history books honored were primarily retellings of familiar historical events, including yet another glowing tribute to Abraham Lincoln. However, one of the 2005 history books that I found especially intriguing was not on any of the listings. And I am a little surprised because it is an attention-grabber. The authors sail into largely uncharted seas by presenting facts that many historians, until fairly recently, have ignored.
The book I’m referring to is; Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery by Anne Farrow, Joel Lang, and Jennifer Frank. The facts they present are not normally found in school textbooks or fashionable history books. However, with diligent research, they can be discovered in the files of historical societies, museum archives, college libraries, certain encyclopedias and various scholarly journals
Those of you who have not delved deeply into the subject of slavery in America might be surprised by what you read in this book — indeed, its authors claim to have been staggered by their findings. Their book is an important one and it is disappointing, but not surprising, that it was ignored by the New York Times as well as the Claremont Institute’s review of books.
The initial impetus for the book occurred a few years ago when Aetna, one of Connecticut’s oldest and largest insurance companies, formally apologized for “insuring slaves.” This prompted The Hartford Courant, a newspaper founded in 1764, to see if it had also aided or abetted slavery. Much to its embarrassment, the newspaper discovered ads not only for the sale of slaves but also for the capture of runaway slaves.
As a result of these events, three Hartford Courant journalists — the authors listed above — began an in-depth investigation into Connecticut’s involvement with slavery. What their research uncovered was that Connecticut’s initial economic development was a result of slavery; its continued growth was based on a dependence on slavery, and Connecticut’s complicity in the institution of slavery was immense and long-standing. The authors describe their shock at these discoveries in the book’s preface: “We were now looking at nothing less than an altered reality. Our first response was confusion: Hold on, weren’t we the good guys in the Civil War? Wasn’t the South to blame for slavery? After all, Southerners had plantations, we had the Underground Railroad. They had Simon Legree, we had his abolitionist creator — Harriet Beecher Stowe’s house is literally up the street from the Courant.”
Their unearthing of Connecticut’s complicity with the institution of slavery led them to expand their research to other Northern states. Their findings are reported in this book. Again, from the authors’ comments in the preface: “We have all grown up, attended schools, and worked in Northern states, from Maine to Maryland. We thought we knew our home. We thought we knew our country. We were wrong.”
This book is not written for pedants but for laymen. The narrative flows well and I’m surprised that such a wealth of information could be conveyed in roughly 200 pages. Although the book is primarily about slavery in the North, especially the North’s economic dependence on slavery, you don’t have to have an interest in slavery to enjoy it. (I appreciated the book’s interplay of history with commerce and market forces.)
You will read about slaves and slave rebellions in New York; the treatment of slaves in the North, New England slave traders, including excerpts from actual logs of slave ships, and you will read about the huge fortunes amassed by Northern industrialists that were derived from slave labor, and how the North deviously continued the slave trade long after it had been outlawed.
Some interesting revelations in the book include:
The manufacture of pianos in Connecticut that relied on slave labor in Africa to manually transport elephant tusks and teeth from the interior to the coast. Slaves were yoked together and marched hundreds of miles weighted down with cargoes of ivory. Many died in the process and others were left crippled for life. Ironically, the owners of the piano factories were also ardent abolitionists who assisted runaway slaves from Southern plantations.
The scientific justification for slavery that was advanced by Northern scientists in the 1800s. Various pseudo-scientific arguments were put forth to imply the inferiority of blacks and rationalize their use as slaves. The authors include a famous quote from Abraham Lincoln arguing for the superiority of the white race.
The reverse underground railroad wherein freed blacks in the North were falsely accused of being runaway slaves, kidnapped and sold illegally. The most notorious gang of kidnappers was brought to justice when two Mississippi plantation owners advised authorities in Philadelphia that members of the gang had offered to sell them undocumented slaves.
The Northern rage against abolitionists. Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison chased down and captured by a mob, roped and paraded through Boston. An anti-slavery Missouri newspaper editor murdered by a mob, and the white head of a school for black females in Canterbury, Connecticut, chased out of town, her school burned.
The authors demonstrate that the economic development of the North began with the New England slave traders who were financed by Northern bankers and insured by Northern insurance companies. The slave trade benefited the entire Northern economy, especially the ship building industry. Following the invention of the cotton gin, there was a rapid growth of mill villages throughout the North, a prime example being the enormous textile mills in Lowell, Massachusetts. Southern plantations, financed and insured by Northern enterprises, shipped cotton to Northern textile mills or to Northern shipping firms who in turn shipped it to other countries.
The North and the South were both content with this arrangement. In fact, the authors make it clear that, in the mid 1800s, there was far more support in the North for the Southern states than for abolitionists, a relatively small movement. The financial stability of New York City was so dependent on cotton imported from the South that in January 1861, its Mayor suggested that if the South seceded, New York City should also secede. Evidence of the camaraderie between North and South is found throughout the book and it calls into question the North’s moral opposition to slavery suggested in public school textbooks.
I don’t want to leave you with the impression that the authors are indifferent to the institution of slavery. They are vehemently opposed to it. In the afterword, they state their goal this way: “Our intention as journalists has been not so much to debunk the myth of the virtuous North as to set the record straight.” I would hope that this book and others like it might prompt those who publish textbooks to also set the record straight in their school books so that future generations of students will be presented a less lopsided version of American history.
Gail Jarvis [send him mail] is a free-lance writer.