What started as a writing project on white supremacist mythology quickly bogged down into a research slog. It’s been interesting, though. Here are a few of the more surprising things I’ve discovered.
Walt Whitman was a racist. He wasn’t just a racist in that way that practically every white guy born before 1980 or so was a racist, but an enthusiast, practically a professional bigot. Smoke from Booth’s pistol had barely cleared when Whitman went to work on “reconciliation” with his “Southern brothers.” He built his career uniting whites against the menace of the lower races, who he said were doomed to elimination by evolution. Whitman may have been the most important US architect of white supremacy in the post Civil War period.
Britain played a much larger role in the development of our white supremacist mythology than I realized. That role emerged mostly after the crown pushed the East India Company aside and took on direct governance of India. Before the Seven Years War in the 18th century Britain governed few people who weren’t of British descent. After that war the empire gained a few small colonies in Africa and the Far East, but they were mostly trading and logistics posts. Only after Britain assumed direct rule of India did the question of their relationship to a non-white population much larger than their own become an ideological (and hence mythological) question of real importance. That’s when they began to construct the outline of white supremacy that largely dominated the US as well.
It’s interesting how Americans (including this one) fail to appreciate how powerful the British Empire was before World War I. British law, politics, art, science, writing and culture dominated this country up to the middle of the 20th century. Our white supremacy is a slightly tawdrier knock-off of their more nuanced original.
DW Griffith’s 1915 film, Birth of a Nation is perhaps the most perfect propaganda film ever made, easily a rival to Battleship Potemkin or Triumph of the Will. Almost every racist lie modern white folk believe can be traced back to that film. It’s the white supremacist New Testament.
Differences between the original Klan, founded during Reconstruction, and the cosplay fanboi Klan founded in 1915, inspired by Birth of a Nation, were much more pronounced than I realized. Klassic Klan was a traditional guerilla insurgency, organized by demobilized officers, with clear political objectives, an authority structure and an ideology derived from the old elite Cavalier mythology. As a military organization under military occupation, it was also bloodier than the later group. New Klan was basically the Y’allQaida Social Club, a rattletrap white trash terror fraternity, whose objectives were consistently undermined by its leaders’ tawdry grifting. It borrowed the old Anglo-Saxonist mythology of the North and lower-class Southerners, which ended up blunting its reach by making it hard to spread in the more Catholic (but still wildly racist) North. New Klan was kept at arm’s length by wealthy Southerners, who at times seemed unsure whether its usefulness was worth the threat posed by an organized, violent mob of poor whites.
Abolitionist activity in the colonial US and Britain was far more pronounced and successful than I expected. Resistance to slavery, particularly in New England, is as old as the institution itself. While Virginia in the late 17th century was moving toward the creation of permanent race-based slavery, authorities in Massachusetts in 1645 forced an owner to give up an African slave because he couldn’t prove that the slave had been captured in war. Rhode Island took steps to limit all servitude to 10 years. A lawyer named Benjamin Kent began a legal campaign in 1752 to earn manumission of slaves in court. Similar efforts began in Scotland and England in the 1760s. All were successful. By 1783, Massachusetts courts had effectively ended the practice without the need for legislation. There were no slaves listed in the state in the 1790 census. By the 1780s it was settled law in Britain that any slaves brought to the island were free. Britain ended the Atlantic slave trade in 1809 and ended slavery in the empire in 1833. They then began global naval patrols that effectively ended the Atlantic slave trade entirely.
One of America’s forgotten heroes is Major Lewis Merrill, a cavalry officer who led a bloody campaign against the Klan in South Carolina in 1871. That campaign was undermined less by Southern bigots than by Northern railroad interests who, for mostly unrelated reasons, forced President Grant to fire the honest Attorney General who had given Merrill his authority. Replacing a few Confederate monuments with statues of Merrill would be a step in the right direction.
As powerful as our white supremacist mythology has been, we have always had potent alternative mythologies at the ready. A few times they have even broken through to take a dominant role in our affairs. Americans don’t have to invent a new mythology out of whole cloth to replace white supremacy. All the materials we ever needed have been with us from the beginning.