Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Daisey History Five: Holes in History

Yeah, I'm still playing with the titles of this series, but never mind that. One thing that Mike Daisey reminds us of regularly in his A People's History (based on the Howard Zinn book of the similar name) is that he is not telling us anything that we don't already know. We know a lot of what he's telling us at a basic, down-in-your-bones level, but we don't bring it up, because its kinda dark and depressing and true. As a result, our history doesn't make a lot of sense, because we have a lot of holes in it.

We've hit some already. In his own narrative, Daisey hits Columbus, then bounces over to early English colonies (because, you know, the Spanish never had any claims on the eventual United States), then we blink over to the Revolution, then everything is rosy until we hit the Civil War. You can't talk about everything, and that's part of Daisey's point - it is all in the editing, and important swathes end up on the cutting room floor.

For my own upbringing, we didn't hit the Civil War to the level of detail his classes did, but we DID spend a lot of time on the exploration of America. Maybe it was the whole Space Program narrative of my youth, but we got deeply into the voyages of exploration for Cabot, DeSoto, LaSalle, Deleon, Cartier, and everybody else.  If you had a bunch of boats and went wandering through the American Heartland, you got a name-check in my history books. Sort of one big game of Sid Meiers Civilization at the point when you get caravels and can sudden roll out on the rest of the world. Now, my history books, like Daisey's, were a little emptier about talking about the people that these explorers met, lumping them all into "Indians" as opposed to nations and peoples and tribes. That's part of the erasure thing we were talking about earlier.

And yes, the period from the War of 1812 and the Civil War was always treated as "The run-up to the Civil War", since that is the big climax of the show up to then. But for those living though it, this period was "How the hell do we keep this together?"

If I look at the US in 1814 or so, I would say that the South is running things, and Virginia is running the South. Almost all the Presidents were Virginian. Most of the decisions were Virginian. The capital of the country, named after a Virginian, was built NEXT to Virginia, carving out part of MARYLAND for Virginia's benefit*. Things are so crappy for New England that during the War of 1812 there was talk of THEM seceding and making a separate peace with England.

So a lot of the history of that period boils down to "How Are We Going to Make Virginia Happy?" All the compromises, all the swapping of slave and free states, all of it, is how to preserve the southern slavery hegemony while keeping the non-slave-holders on board. Yet, by 1860, I have a powerful North, one that (obviously) would win a war against an agrarian South.

So how the heck did THAT happen?

Part of it may be raw geography. There was an article tracking the conservative south through its geological makeup - good for cotton, which meant it was a fertile land for big plantations, which brought in a lot of slaves, which created an entire African-American culture in the south, which had to be controlled by the slave-holders and former slave-holders, which got us to Jim Crow and then the Civil Rights Movement which got us to the current state of gerrymandering and voter suppression. It is a good story.

The North, however, benefited from the Industrial Revolution and the South did not. Why? The South had money. power and long-standing ties with Britain and the rest of Europe. Why are they shipping bulk cotton to Europe (and New England) as opposed to developing an industrial base themselves? They had the manpower in the slave population, and could utilize that base. They could have upgraded,

I have some theories. One of them involves the Fall Line. This is something I learned about in Social Studies in grade school. The South had the coast, then the Piedmont, then the Appalachians. The Fall Line is how far you can go upstream before falls or rapids stop further progress. So you can ship stuff down easily from there. Plus falls are great places to put mills that run off water because of the natural drop. As you go further north, that line gets closer to the coast, so the mills are practically on the coast itself, nearer the ports. So it may make sense to send cotton from you plantation to New England or Europe as opposed to building mills. Eventually, with electrification, the production of finished textiles moved into the south itself (see the movie Norma Rae), but by the Civil War, the south sent most of its raw material elsewhere.

I have yet to see a good history that explains the development of the industrial north as anything else than natural evolution.It is another type of erasure, another hole in history, but one that serves the established narrative by making it seem inevitable.

More later,

* UPDATE: That's only partially true, a reader noted. Virginia contributed a chunk of land across the river. However, most of the government buildings were on the Maryland side, so the Virginia side was not as developed. As it started looking that DC would ban the slave trade (a big business in nearby Alexandria, at the tip of the then-DC), Virginia agitated to get the land back. So while Virginia DID kick in for the site of DC, the government made them happy by giving it back. So the spirit of the comment stands, but not the facts as presented.