Guest column ‘Historical truths’ not always based in fact

— In a recent column, Mike Masterson reports on a talk by David Barton before the Arkansas African American GOP Caucus. The thrust seems to be that in the 19th Century the Democratic Party diverted our government from its initial opposition to slavery and then vigorously promoted the institution. Here are some of the column’s more obvious errors.

As an instance of the early republic’s hostility to slavery, he tells us that Congress abolished the “slave trade in the nation” in 1808. Congress ended only the importation of slaves, something the Constitution required by that year. The law did nothing to discourage the flourishing “slave trade in the nation.” If anything, it invigorated it by reducing the supply of human property and thus increasing its market value.

We also read that the Missouri Compromise in 1820 “reversed earlierabolition,” according to Masterson. Nope. While the government had forbid slavery in federal lands north of the Ohio River (and allowed it below it), the government had never advocated ending slavery. Nor had any party. Far from “allow[ing] slavery in much of the federal territory,” the Compromise forbid it in the vast majority of federally controlled lands, everything north of Arkansas to Canada and west to the continental divide. Masterson adds that “several states” were later admitted as slave states. Excepting Texas, admitted by resolution in 1845, only two were added before the Civil War, Arkansas and Florida. Meanwhile seven free states were admitted, six of them under Democratic administrations.

Masterson correctly describes the Fugitive Slave Act as stacked againstpersons claimed to be slaves and denying them basic legal rights. He is incorrect, however, in writing that that “Democrats passed it.” It was passed by a Democratic and Whig coalition, and its most visible advocate was the Whig Henry Clay. Masterson implies that the law was part of an effort to promote slavery as “congressional policy.” In fact it was part of the Compromise of 1850, which was far more favorable to the non-slave than to slave states. It abolished the slave trade in Washington, D.C. and admitted California as a free state. By that, Congress gave free states control of both its houses.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, we read, “expanded the reach of slavery into the federal territories.” It did not. It allowed the territories of Kansas and Nebraska to decide whether they would be slave or free. Both chose to exclude slavery. It did, as he writes, lead to the formation of the Republican Party, but the party wasnot “primarily to oppose slavery.” It opposed the expansion of slavery and did not advocate ending it anywhere that it currently existed.

Masterson goes on to write that the Republican platform of 1860 “called for the abolition of slavery.” It did not. It opposed slavery expansion, but if the Republicans had magically enacted every proposal in their platform, not a single slave would have been freed. We read also that in 1860 both northern and southern Democrats “supported slavery.” If by that he means they did not advocate ending it in the South, the same was true of Republicans.

Beside the mangled facts, there are errors of omission. Early on, the Republicans were undeniably the more sympathetic to African Americans, and once blacks got the vote, they overwhelmingly supported the GOP. Masterson does not note, however, that Republicans almost wholly abandoned the interests of formerslaves, and in the 1930s, when Franklin Roosevelt and the Democrats found it useful in the 1930s to step up on their behalf, most African Americans switched parties. To imply that the Republicans since then have been the friendlier party toward blacks is preposterous.

The majority of the “historical truths” in Masterson’s column are, to borrow his own opening words about what he has been taught, “incomplete, inadequate and just plain wrong.” I am not suggesting that in his talk David Barton was in error on anything. It would be irresponsible to do so without a clear account of what he said. Before writing about what was supposedly said, that is, I would have to check facts. Mike Masterson ought to give that a try.

Elliott West is a Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

Perspective, Pages 80 on 07/11/2010

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