moar MoAR!: The Slavery Issue

Is there anything more fitting than visiting the Museum of the American Revolution (again) on Memorial Day? I certainly can’t think of anything, for without the people and events exhibited within, we wouldn’t even have a Memorial Day.

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Tomb of the Unknown (RevWar) Soldier, Washington Square, Philadelphia. The Tomb’s inscription reads, “Beneath this stone rests a soldier of Washington’s army who died to give you liberty.”

This was my second trip to the MoAR, and I was determined to focus on content and not exhibit design. I would like to report that I was much more successful this time than last at staying on task, although I did still have an urgent and visceral need to touch every surface I passed.

[EDIT: So concerned am I that I sound ill-informed on this topic that I went to the library and got several books about slavery and the Revolutionary era. Stay tuned…]

It seems that, this time, the theme of my journey through the MoAR was dedicated to the slavery issue, for which I would give it a solid 7/10 – sort of an average of any number of criteria. (Also know that I never give full points for there will always be room to improve.)

They had many different voices of slavery throughout and many mentions of “going north”, probably because the bulk of the army and George Washington were located in the north. Also, even back then, Canada was seen as the final destination for freedom, and Canada is certainly north. To not include these voices would be to omit a vital part of the Revolution. It was interesting to contrast to the voices of the Oneida and other Indian allies of the colonists, especially through the lens of history and knowing how the white man would screw over both of these groups. 8/10.

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Apparently people have been fleeing to Canada from unsavory conditions in America for a long time.

Next up, there was a section called “Sometimes Freedom Wore a Red Coat”, which talked about how some slaves/escaped slaves found freedom with the British. It compared two young men, one who fought with the colonists and one who joined the British. Motivations for both young men were reasonable. This section was a culmination of information about military service for emancipation or monetary compensation which had been discussed here and there throughout the exhibits. 8/10

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One joined the British, the other joined the Revolution.

Probably my biggest problem with the presentation of slavery was that it was presented as an historical dilemma but with a modern ethos.

That is to say – there was quite a lot on the hypocrisy of the Founding Fathers writing a document proclaiming “all men are created equal” while some men still owned others. Fair enough. The FF themselves had some sense of the inherent hypocrisy in which they were playing a part, and this self-awareness was on full display. But there was no discussion of why they said one thing and did another, or why they condemned slavery as a moral outrage yet allowed the institution to remain. 6/10

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Here would be a great opportunity to discuss how the Constitutional Convention would have stalled if not for the 3/5 Compromise and its reluctant but probably necessary inclusion. Maybe omit the last paragraph on the expanding power of the South and more on the difficulty around the topic that the Founding Fathers had to navigate?

Currently, we as a nation like to take the moral high ground and stand on principle. Think about a Black Lives Matter protest where people will willingly stand in front of cars to make their point. We think we’re upholding these principles when we take down statues of figures like Robert E. Lee. So that means we also have a much harder time understanding why the Founding Fathers with abolitionist tendencies chose not to stick to their guns, which allowed the slavery question to fester until the Civil War.

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This would be a great opportunity for a digression into the economy and commerce of the times.

I think it would provide a more complete picture and add to the complexity of the founding of the nation if the Founders themselves were presented with their own struggles and foibles. Do they deserve the exaltation we have given them until recently? Or do they deserve the condemnation we’ve more recently heaped upon them for partaking in hypocrisy and allowing slavery to continue?

They couldn’t abolish slavery because they would never have found consensus with the southern colonies, and the “United States” would fail before it even would have begun. Could the northern colonies have held out until the southern colonies came around to the “right” way of thinking? They could have tried, but they needed the southern colonies to present a unified front to Britain or British forces would have overwhelmed the thirteen colonies unified by little more than a common enemy. They weighed their options, all of them, and decided that they had done as much as they could, leaving the slavery question for future generations to solve. (And boy, did they ever.)

[ To watch a video that better addresses this topic, check out A More Perfect Union, an excellent video (~20 min) created for Mount Vernon. ]
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From A More Perfect Union, presenting one of the many ways the colonies were fragmented during and after the Revolution: separate currencies.

The Museum had a tiny blurb near the end that briefly raised the dilemma facing the colonists. For any number of reasons that are for a later day, other issues like industry, identity, and economy were hardly mentioned, if at all, and that paragraph containing an intellectual condemnation of slavery that was stricken from the Declaration of Independence may not have been presented at all. (I can’t recall seeing it.) Had these issues been presented with more depth, we might have a fuller understanding of circumstances.

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“The Revolutionaries fought for equality, but they did not end the enslavement of African Americans in the United States. In fact, slavery expanded and grew harsher in the years after American Independence.

While Northern states passed gradual abolition acts, slavery expanded westward as Congress added new states to the Union.

In the years following the war, memories of thousands of enslaved African Americans who had joined the British encouraged fears of slave uprisings. In response, masters chose ever more cruel punishments for suspected rebels.

Ironically, the idea of equality encouraged the growth of scientific racism. When abolitionists argued that “all men are created equal,” defenders of slavery replied that African Americans were not fully human.

Despite all this, enslaved people continued to fight for their freedom. In his Appeal to the Colored Citizens, David Walker called for a religious and political awakening among his fellow African Americans.

The American Civil War ended legalized slavery in the United States, but the fight for racial equality continued.”

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This blurb here, a snippet from the image above, is the ONLY reference to the bitter fighting in Congress around the subject and doesn’t allude to the fact that half of congress was going to walk out if the abolition issue was pursued.

I certainly understand presenting things with modern-adjacent language so we can learn about their issues in contexts we understand. But I also think it would challenge the viewer in difficult but positive ways to face the questions the Founders faced: what are you willing fight for and compromise to achieve your end goal? Certainly much is made of their sacrifices and their courage, but nothing is made of their compromises.

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At the end of the exhibit, we are confronted with this subtle challenge. I think we could be challenged by much more.

 

Further Reading:

http://www.nytimes.com/1860/11/24/news/the-debate-in-the-convention-of-1787-on-the-prohibition-of-the-slave-trade.html?pagewanted=all

http://teachingamericanhistory.org/static/convention/themes/7.html

http://www.blackpast.org/primary/declaration-independence-and-debate-over-slavery

https://historyengine.richmond.edu/episodes/view/4890

http://www.government-and-constitution.org/us-constitution/three-fifths-compromise.htm

 

Links:

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http://www.mountvernon.org/site/animated-washington/a-more-perfect-union/

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