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The Historian Who Saw Through America

For more than thirty years George Fredrickson was a leading historian of race relations and racial ideologies in the United States and other multiracial societies. By a cruel trick of fate, his unexpected death on February 25, 2008, occurred three days before the official publication date of his book on Abraham Lincoln’s racial attitudes, Big Enough to Be Inconsistent, and five months before publication of Diverse Nations, a collection of fifteen previously published articles and review essays. Fredrickson’s thorough research, original insights, common-sense interpretations, and lucid prose made him a historian’s historian as well as a writer who reached a broad audience with several of his books. He will be sorely missed by friends, colleagues, and readers—especially readers of this journal, for which he reviewed dozens of books over the past quarter-century.

Seven of the fifteen essays in Diverse Nations first appeared in The New York Review. Along with the other eight, which were originally published in a variety of scholarly formats, they range over subjects about which Fredrickson made himself one of the world’s foremost authorities: slavery in the United States; the comparative history of race relations; ethnic diversity, multiculturalism, and ideologies of racism and assimilation in various societies—especially the United States.

The seven review essays in Part Two of Diverse Nations, “Slavery and Race: Historiographic Interventions,” analyze twenty books published during the past decade. Fredrickson had a knack for concise summaries of and trenchant comments on these books. A graduate student preparing for a general examination in this field could do no better than to start with Fredrickson’s essays and finish by rereading them after reading the books themselves. The first of these reviews, “The Skeleton in the Closet,” expresses the central theme of Diverse Nations : slavery was the skeleton in the closet of a nation founded on the proposition that all men are created equal. Human bondage was America’s “original sin” (the title of another essay). “Slavery and its consequences…were not incidental or secondary aspects of American history but constitute its central theme,” insisted Fredrickson.

Rather than being an exception to the grander themes of liberty and democracy, slavery and the racism it engendered have exposed the shallowness and narrowness of the national commitment to these ideals.

Coexistent with the racial divisions between blacks and whites is a history of ethnic diversity in a nation of immigrants. At one time, as Fredrickson noted, various ethnic groups that made up the American mosaic were defined as “races”: the Irish race, Italian race, Jewish race, and so on. But like the original British Americans, they eventually became “white” and were no longer considered distinct races. Asians and Hispanics also seem on the road to becoming ethnic groups rather than “races”—if not exactly white, they are no longer necessarily considered nonwhite, though at one point Fredrickson described Hispanics as an “ethnoracial category” which nevertheless “differed in significant ways from the racialization of African Americans.”

In contrast to the racial skeleton in its closet, the United States has absorbed most of its ethnic minorities into a multicultural civic category defined simply as American—and has done a better job of it than most other multiethnic societies. “Our basic values and democratic principles,” wrote Fredrickson, “may permit us to cope with this mixing of populations more effectively than the principal nations of Western Europe can.” This “American liberal tolerance for ethnic diversity,” however, “has traditionally stopped at the color line” and, despite great strides in black civil rights since 1960, still does. Might Fredrickson have modified his view if he had lived to see Barack Obama elected president?

Fredrickson suggested that there are four models of racial/ethnic relations. The first is “hierarchical,” in which “old-stock Americans of British origin” were at the top of the pyramid with other ethnic and racial groups ranging downward from northern European immigrants to southern and eastern Europeans, Asians, Hispanics, and Africans. Although this hierarchical order has been significantly flattened in the past half-century, it still exists in modified form and “the sharpest and most consequential distinction” remains that “between ‘white’ and ‘nonwhite.’”

A second model is “one-way assimilation,” in which the lower groups are expected to assimilate to the culture, values, and institutions of the Anglo-American “mainstream.” For several ethnic groups, especially Europeans and, more recently, some Asians, a considerable degree of assimilation has taken place. But Fredrickson insisted that “the one-way assimilation model has not proved to be a viable or generally acceptable way of adjusting group differences in American society” because “it is based on an ethnocentric ideal of cultural homogeneity that has been rejected by Indians, blacks, Asians, Mexican Americans, and even many white ethnics.”

Fredrickson’s preferred model is the third one, cultural pluralism, which “celebrate[s] differences among groups rather than seeking to obliterate them” and posits that

cultural diversity is a healthy and normal condition that does not preclude equal rights and the mutual understandings about civic responsibilities needed to sustain a democratic nation-state.

Cultural pluralism is a twentieth-century development—indeed late-twentieth-century—because earlier eras “lacked the essential concept of the relativity of cultures.” Cultural pluralism is quite different from ethnic nationalism, in which ethnic and cultural identity (including language and religion) correspond with political allegiance and national citizenship. Ethnic nationalism broke up Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, once seemed likely to split Canada, and currently threatens to do the same to Belgium, Iraq (because of Kurdish nationalism), and several other nations.

The United States was founded on a concept of civic nationalism whereby people of different ethnic groups are equal citizens pledging allegiance to the same flag. This country has never fully lived up to that ideal, but despite continuing pockets of second-class status for African-Americans and some other minorities, Fredrickson acknowledged that the nation has come closer to genuine multicultural civic nationalism today than ever before. (He did not, however, address in these essays the vexed issue of illegal immigration.)

The fourth type of ethnic relations is “group separatism,” similar to but not precisely the same as ethnic nationalism. Some separatists such as black or Chicano nationalists have rhetorically advocated a separate nation for their “people,” but most do not regard it as a serious prospect. African-American ghettos and Hispanic barrios might seem to fit the definition of group separatism, but they are largely involuntary and permeable. In the United States the closest approximation to genuine separatists are religious sects like the Amish or partly self-governing Indian tribes like the Navajos.

One conspicuous example of ethnic nationalism in American history—Confederate nationalism—has escaped Fredrickson’s attention, and the attention of almost all other historians, although it was a subject of intense discussion among its leading advocates at the time. They portrayed Southern whites as a distinct “race” separate from the “Yankee race.” This claim was of course an artificial construction to justify secession from the United States. But as Fredrickson frequently noted, all definitions of race and of ethnic groups are largely social constructions.

By 1860 the notion had taken hold in the South that Southern whites, at least those in the planter class, were descended from the English Cavaliers, who in turn were descended from the Norman conquerors, while “Yankees” were descended from the Puritan Roundheads, who in turn traced their descent from the Anglo-Saxons, who were conquered by the Normans in the eleventh century. One of the fullest expressions of this idea appeared in the leading magazine for Southern writers two months after the start of the Civil War. This conflict, declared the anonymous author, was

a contest of race…between the North and the South…. The people of the Northern States are more immediately descended of the English Puritans [who] constituted, as a class, the common people of England…and are directly descended of the ancient Britons and Saxons…. The Southern States were settled and governed…by…persons belonging to…that stock recognized as Cavaliers…directly descended from the Norman Barons of William the Conqueror, a race distinguished, in its earliest history, for its warlike and fearless character, a race, in all time since, renowned for its gallantry, its chivalry, its honor, its gentleness, and its intellect…. The Southern people come of that race.1

The South’s foremost writer on political economy, James B.D. DeBow, subscribed to this Norman-Cavalier thesis and helped popularize it in his influential journal, DeBow’s Review. He justified secession on the ground of irreconcilable ethnic differences between Northern and Southern whites. “The Cavaliers, Jacobites, and Huguenots who settled the South, naturally hate, contemn, and despise the Puritans who settled the North,” declared DeBow. “The former are master races, the latter, a slave race, the descendants of the Saxon serfs.” The Confederacy was now achieving its “independent destiny” by repudiating the failed experiment of civic nationalism that had foolishly tried in 1789 to “erect one nation out of two irreconcilable peoples.”2

These ideas percolated into the popular press. The Richmond Dispatch, with the largest circulation of any newspaper in the Confederacy, published frequent editorials during the Civil War analyzing

the incongruous and discordant elements out of which the framers of the Constitution sought to create a homogeneous people. The great wonder is not that the two sections have fallen asunder at last, but that they held together so long. The dissimilarity between moral constitutions, habits of thought, breeding and manners of the Cavalier and Roundhead must run in the blood for generations, and defy all the glue and cement of political unions.3

These ideas seem to have penetrated pretty far into the consciousness of Southern whites. A Texas Confederate soldier told his wife in 1862 to teach their children “a bitter and unrelenting hatred to the Yankee race…so vile and cursed race.”4

The Norman-Cavalier thesis of Southern ethnicity was nonsense, of course, and recognized as such by many contemporaries. Union Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, a quintessential “Yankee,” blamed the Civil War on “the diseased imagination” of Southerners

who…fancied themselves cavaliers…. They came ultimately to believe themselves a superior and better race, knights of blood and spirit. Only a war could wipe out this arrogance and folly.5

The political scientist Francis Lieber ridiculed Southern claims of Norman descent. “Races are very often invented from ignorance, or for evil purposes,” wrote Lieber in 1881 in a passage that seems strikingly modern. “The rebels told us and each other again and again that they were a race totally different from the race of the North.” This “pitiful attempt,” Lieber declared, consisted of nothing more than “arbitrary maxims, vague conceits, or metaphorical expressions.”6

Abraham Lincoln’s thoughts on the Southern effort to create a separate ethnic identity for themselves are not on record. But he was surely the most eloquent spokesman for American civic nationalism. The issue of the Civil War, he said in 1861, “embraces more than the fate of these United States. It presents to the whole family of man, the question, whether a constitutional republic, or a democracy…can, or cannot, maintain its territorial integrity.”7 At Gettysburg in 1863, Lincoln argued that this “great civil war” was a test of whether a nation founded on charters of civic nationalism—the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution —would “long endure” or “perish from the earth.”

Lincoln also invoked “a new birth of freedom” at Gettysburg. In Big Enough to Be Inconsistent, his recent study of Lincoln, Fredrickson suggested that this phrase may have meant no more than “that a Northern victory would prove to the world that a democratic government could sustain itself against a rebellious minority.” Most historians, however, believe that the new birth was the freedom for slaves that was decreed by the Emancipation Proclamation and by a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery that Lincoln was soon to endorse. Although Fredrickson was open to this interpretation, he rightly maintained that Lincoln always considered perpetuation of the Union more important than the abolition of slavery. But he also acknowledged Lincoln’s genuine antislavery convictions. “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong,” wrote Lincoln in 1864. “I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel.” In one respect the Emancipation Proclamation liberated Abraham Lincoln as much as it freed slaves—liberated him from the painful contradiction between his personal hatred of slavery and his determination to preserve the Union, which was a slave nation when the war began in 1861.

Big Enough to Be Inconsistent focuses more on Lincoln’s own racial attitudes than on his policies toward slavery. Derived from the Du Bois Lectures that Fredrickson delivered at Harvard University in 2006, the book takes its title from a statement by the black intellectual and civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois. Lincoln was “big enough to be inconsistent,” wrote Du Bois in 1922: “cruel, merciful; peace-loving, a fighter; despising Negroes and letting them fight and vote; protecting slavery and freeing slaves.” The parts of this quotation about cruelty, despising Negroes, and protecting slavery derive from Lincoln’s statements before the war expressing sentiments of white supremacy (especially in his debates with Stephen A. Douglas in 1858), his support for voluntary colonization of free blacks outside the United States, and his apparent slowness to move toward a policy of emancipation in the first year of the war.

Several black writers—most notably Lerone Bennett in Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream8 —and a few white historians have focused almost exclusively on these themes. Other historians, both black and white, have emphasized Lincoln’s sincere opposition to slavery, his capacity for progressive growth toward more egalitarian racial beliefs and away from colonization, and above all his leadership in a tragic conflict that did, after all, bring an end to slavery.

Early in his career, George Fredrickson adhered more closely to the “Lincoln was a racist” view than to the “Lincoln became a racial progressive” theme. In 1975 he wrote an article titled “A Man but Not a Brother: Abraham Lincoln and Racial Equality,” asserting that Lincoln’s conservative racial views remained essentially unchanged until his death. But Fredrickson himself was also big enough to be inconsistent. In this book, published thirty-three years later, he acknowledged that “Lincoln’s attitude toward blacks and his beliefs about race may have changed significantly during the war” and “he may have evolved from being a racial separationist into someone who viewed African Americans as potentially equal citizens of a color-blind democracy.”

Note the words “may have” in these quotations. Fredrickson was not quite prepared to assert Lincoln’s egalitarian conversion as a fact. Instead, his book takes a middle position between what Fredrickson labeled the “hagiographers” and “debunkers” of Lincoln. He attempts, with considerable success, “to demonstrate the full complexity and ambiguity of Lincoln’s encounter with the great national questions of slavery and race.” This middle position is akin to a recurring theme in Diverse Nations : the United States has made great progress in race relations and justice for African-Americans since 1960, and can bear favorable comparison with other societies on this score; but it still has a long way to go because “African Americans are still disadvantaged when they seek opportunities or amenities comparable to those routinely enjoyed by whites” and by most measurements are at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale.

But so are blacks in other societies. Fredrickson made his reputation as a superb practitioner of comparative history with White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History9 and Black Liberation: A Comparative Study of Black Ideologies in the United States and South Africa.10 He drew on these studies plus additional research on Brazil for two of the most suggestive essays in Diverse Nations. The United States, South Africa, and Brazil evolved from the European colonization of the non-Western world that began in the sixteenth century. Each society imported non-European slaves, and each developed a color code to determine status. These similarities make a comparative history worthwhile, for “historical comparisons must be based on some fundamental similarities,” wrote Fredrickson.

Juxtaposing radically different entities yields only obvious contrasts rather than the more subtle differences that raise questions of causation that historians and social scientists can fruitfully explore.

Some of the differences that help explain the structure of race relations in the three societies today include a historic white majority in the United States, even in most slave states, compared with a large black majority in South Africa and, for many generations, in Brazil. European women were in particularly short supply in Brazil, leading to black concubinage that produced a large mulatto class and a permeable racial spectrum instead of the essentially binary and relatively impermeable black/white racial division in the United States. The long-held impression that Brazil was therefore freer from racism and that dark-skinned Brazilians were better off than African-Americans, however, is belied, Fredrickson writes, by the reality that “90 percent of all black and brown Brazilians are below the poverty line.”

In South Africa a third “colored” caste evolved because of large labor importations mainly from South Asia. Numerous other differences exist among these three societies—not the least of which is that South Africa has a black majority government after generations of apartheid. But for Fredrickson the key fact is an unhappy similarity:

By any measure of well-being and opportunity, blacks are still greatly disadvantaged in all three societies…. Inequality correlated and associated with race is the common problem.

Fredrickson’s discussion of this matter is not solely analytical. It is prescriptive as well, and his prescription is a passionate plea for affirmative action to overcome the corrosive legacy of slavery, racism, and repression in these three nations. “Substantive racial equality” in all three “can be achieved only if a combination of strong affirmative action policies and antipoverty measures creates a much more equitable distribution of wealth and opportunity,” he wrote.

Economic disparities among historically racialized groups need to be attacked by government policies and voluntary action aimed at the redistribution of wealth and privilege.

One important comparison between the United States and other Western Hemisphere slave societies is alluded to a few times in these essays but not systematically described or analyzed. From the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, European nations enslaved some eleven million Africans and exported them to their New World colonies. Of this number, fewer than 500,000—less than 5 percent—were brought to the parts of North America that became the United States. Slavery may have been the skeleton in the North American closet, but it was a mighty small skeleton at first. Four million enslaved Africans went to the Caribbean islands and almost five million to South America, principally Brazil, which received almost eight times as many slaves as North America. Haiti imported twice as many as British North America, and Jamaica almost twice as many. Tiny Barbados received almost as many Africans as all of the region that became the United States.

Yet by 1860 the four and a half million African-Americans in the United States, slave and free, were about one third of the total in the entire hemisphere. No other slave population in the New World even maintained its numbers, much less grew, through natural increase. Every other slave society had fewer people of African origin at the time of emancipation than the numbers of slaves they imported; the United States had nine times the numbers imported.11

This remarkable phenomenon seems to cry out for comparative examination. And indeed, several hypotheses have been advanced to explain the net reproductive growth of the United States slave population in contrast to the net decline of all others. For most slaves in the West Indies and South America, life was nasty, brutish, and short. Climatic conditions and disease took a higher toll of black lives there than in North America. Food, clothing, medical care, and the material necessities of life were less abundant. The pace and nature of labor on tropical sugar and coffee plantations was quite literally “killing” compared with work on cotton and tobacco fields in the United States.

Moreover, the slave economies in the Caribbean and South America flourished while the slave trade was still open, especially in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Slaveowners considered it cheaper to import more Africans (two thirds of them males) and work them to death than to create an environment in which slaves could raise families. In the United States, by contrast, the slave economy reached its height in the nineteenth-century cotton kingdom after the African slave trade ended in 1808. The cut-off of imports made planters dependent on natural reproduction for the maintenance and increase of their slave “stock.” It was in the slaveowner’s interest to encourage good health and a high birth rate among slaves.

In tropical slave societies the sex ratio among both blacks and whites was never equal; consequently many male slaves were not able to form families and many female slaves became concubines of masters, whose lighter-skinned descendants were more likely over time to disappear into the white population than in the United States. Ironically, although Spanish and Portuguese legislation provided some legal protection for slave marriages while the United States did not, de facto slave marriages and families were more common in the United States. And from an early period, the sex ratio among both slaves and whites was almost equal in the United States.

To some degree all of these explanations for the radical difference in New World slave demographies seem valid. What we need is a historian of George Fredrickson’s skill to sort out these variables, weigh their relative explanatory power, and evaluate their implications for the post-slavery experiences of African-American peoples of the hemisphere. It is all the more lamentable, therefore, that fate has deprived us of such insights from this fine historian.


White South Africans and Their Slaves March 26, 2009

  1. 1

    Southern Literary Messenger, Vol. 30 (June 1861), pp. 404–405, 407.

  2. 2

    DeBow’s Review, January 1861, p. 48; February 1861, p. 162.

  3. 3

    Richmond Daily Dispatch, February 27, 1863, and March 23, 1863.

  4. 4

    Elijah Petty to his wife, September 11, 1862, in Journey to Pleasant Hill: The Civil War Letters of Captain Elijah P. Petty, edited by Norman D. Brown (University of Texas: Institute of Texas Culture, 1982), pp. 78–79.

  5. 5

    The Diary of Gideon Welles, edited by Howard K. Beale (Norton, 1960, three volumes), Vol. 2, pp. 276–277, entry of April 7, 1865.

  6. 6

    Francis Lieber, Contributions to Political Science (Lippincott, 1881), pp. 308–309.

  7. 7

    The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler (Rutgers University Press, 1953–1955, nine volumes), Vol. 4, p. 426.

  8. 8

    Johnson Publishing Co., 2000.

  9. 9

    Oxford University Press, 1981.

  10. 10

    Oxford University Press, 1995.

  11. 11

    See Philip D. Curtin, The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (University of Wisconsin Press, 1969), especially Chapter 1; C. Vann Woodward, “Southern Slaves in the World of Thomas Malthus,” in American Counterpoint: Slavery and Race in the North-South Dialogue (Little, Brown, 1971).

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