Monday, January 4, 2016

243. Vacationing in the land of the inglorious past

My wife and I recently returned from a wonderful vacation, one that took us from this country’s capital to the days of yesteryear.

We started in Washington, D.C, and National Harbor, visiting the Capitol building, Library of Congress, and Arlington National Cemetery. From there we visited George Washington’s Mount Vernon on our way to Richmond and the old Confederate White House. Next was the city of Charleston, S.C., and two amazing plantations, Boone Hall and Mongolia Gardens. Finally, we ended in Savannah, Ga., briefly touring the historic and popular city.

While the sights were often breathtaking and colossal, we are enamored with the history and the story of it all. Our trip, inclusive of tour guides and museums, took us back in time from the Revolutionary War through the Civil War. Depending on place and perspective, is was a romantic time — and while simpler, perhaps, it was much more difficult.

This country, from its declaration of independence to the civil war (and beyond), has morally battled social etiquette, religious teaching, and economic interests. The most ominous part of our visits were the old slave homes that still stand on some of the plantations. To see and imagine what life was like for millions of slaves, who upon capture had their lives and those of future generations changed forever, is a soul-searching question of the limits of human brutality.

There is enough dread in slavery, and cruelty in the treatment of Indians, to forever dismiss any moral superiority that we have come to proclaim and stand upon. While the Revolutionary War was a fight for freedom and against colonialism, there was never a time — from then until now — that all men (and women) are considered to be created equal. The founding fathers were brilliant, but many of them were also hypocrites. How could they start a revolution about freedom, individual rights, and the injustice of taxation while at the same time enslaving an entire race of people under miserable conditions?

The trip across the Atlantic alone was more than anyone deserves in a lifetime. The boats were loaded to capacity, with space limited to a couple of feet per slave. They were abused, raped, and a large percentage died on the trip. Others committed suicide.

Those who survived were sold like cattle, striped and branded. Families were often separated. Slaves were expensive, many estimates in today’s dollars are more than $40,000. Work days were from sunrise to sunset. At Mount Vernon, it was noted that the slaves rarely ate meat, and when they did, they got the heart or intestine of an animal. The fortunate slaves lived in small rooms, often by the dozen. It became a criminal act to teach them to read, and those who tried to escape became a harsh example.

I often hear that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. It is sort of a technicality, open to interpretation, and varied by region and even individual. The South regarded it as a second revolution, to break away from the overbearing Union as the colonies broke away from England years before.

However, even if the issue was not the moral judgment on slavery, it was the economic impact of slavery. Slavery made a lot of people very, very wealthy. And, for competitors in non-slave states, it was an unfair competitive advantage. Plantations were large, beautiful, nearly self-contained communities — and only possible with slave labor. Southern cash crops such as rice and cotton bought land owners great wealth but also required intensive labor. Indeed, when slavery was abolished, many a plantation fell.

It’s the same economic system we have seen throughout history and practiced today — nothing has changed. Corporations seek the least expensive labor costs available to create large profits for their shareholders. It’s the principle of minimizing labor costs, giving the working class just enough to get by to prevent protest and uprising.

And, of course, many times that cheap labor force is practiced today as outsourcing. Instead of bringing the slaves here, now our corporations go to them.