American Civil War

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics: Slavery and the 1.6%

The 1.6% and Slavery

The following is a tale of memes, bad history, poor logic, and misleading statistics. It is also a story about how information on Facebook can come unmoored from its original context and find itself applied in startlingly different directions. Above all, this narrative has to do with the way in which parts of the internet have helped perpetuate a culture of partisanship and intellectual sloppiness.

The meme above has circulated on Facebook for some time. One Thing after Another has traveled throughout the internet to find its origins—alas, without success. Like many other images, videos, messages, and memes on the internet, it has metastasized to the extent that it is impossible to locate where this tumor began.

What is clear, though, is that this kind of meme is a product of social media. Social media place a premium on concision, that is, the short, snappy expression of ideas. That is probably why wit, attempts at wit, or what passes for wit, seem to dominate posts on Facebook and, of course, Twitter; as we all know (or should know), brevity is the soul of wit. At the same time, the disposable nature of posts on platforms like Facebook (and particularly Snapchat) make for an environment that is not conducive to real discussion, mindfulness, or thought.

In their sober moments, most people probably understand these problems instinctually. And perhaps one can even realize how the nature of the social media world makes it particularly susceptible to hoaxes and other stupid gambits. Remember that one about how Mark Zuckerberg was going to give away $4.5 million to Facebook users who shared a “thank you” message? But why not latch onto a concrete example that involves history—such as the meme above that has aroused One Thing after Another’s ire?

The meme above is not particularly special. In fact, it is exemplary. It is a product of Facebook. It seems incisive, it sounds authoritative, and it appears relevant. It even cites a source in an official-sounding way. Only the dullest or most uninformed person could fail to catch the progressive message that makes an analogy between the 1.6% of 1860 and those who have been labeled the “1%” today. The rich, so the message seems to say, used us for their own purposes then in just the way that they use us now. Yet, like much else on Facebook, this meme is manipulative when it isn’t misleading. Its facts are wrong, its reasoning is faulty, and the analogy it makes is specious. And yet, when you look at the public’s reaction to this meme, you find that nobody is critical or educated enough to call it out.

We should begin by explaining what is wrong with this meme. Let us start with the 1.6% figure which was supposedly obtained from the Census of 1860. If one divides the number of slaveowners by the total free population of the United States, the figure is actually closer to 1.4%, but that’s not the main problem. Calculating the figure in such a way at all really minimizes the proportion of people who had a stake in slavery. First, determining the number of slaveowners relative to the number of “U.S. Citizens” is beside the point. Slaveowners did not “convince” all Americans “to fight a civil war.” Rather, they ostensibly convinced “the majority of southerners” to take up arms (more about why that statement is problematic later). For that reason, the number of slaveowners should be compared to the number of Southerners. But this issue brings us to a second distortion. If we want to figure out slavery’s true heft in the South, we really ought to establish how many families owned slaves. Doing so would show us how many white Southerners had an immediate interest in slavery. After all, the head of the household was not the only member of the family to value slavery. His wife, his children, and any other dependents had a stake in the institution. Indeed, as his children grew older, they too, in all likelihood, would become slaveowners themselves.

Figuring out what proportion of Southern families owned slaves is really quite simple. The University of Virginia has a Historical Census Browser that allows one to search, map, and calculate figures associated with various censuses (the calculator for the Census of 1860 is here). One Thing after Another has run the figures, but for convenience’s sake, we refer you to Andrew Hall at Dead Confederates: A Civil War Era Blog who has presented them in a tidy table. As you can see, about 31% of the families in the states that seceded owned slaves. The range runs from 49% of families in Mississippi to 20% of families in Arkansas. In some ways, these figures don’t even begin to capture slavery’s centrality to Southern social and economic life. Let us push to the side that slaves were responsible for producing the South’s main cash crops or that slaveowners often rented out slaves to those who did not have them. Let us just focus on the fact that almost a third of families in the Confederate states owned slaves. That figure gives one a much better sense of slavery’s gravity than “1.6%.”

Given these figures, a great number of these slaveowners could not have been “rich plantation owners.” In fact, according to the Census of 1850, half of all slaveowning families owned between one to four slaves. There were great plantation owners with over 100 slaves, but there were fewer than 8,000 families in this position in 1850 (compared to the almost 175,000 families that owned between one and four slaves). Clearly, slavery’s strength did not rest on the power of a few rich men. Rather, its strength was grounded in its distribution among a great many middling men.

This point is confirmed by Joseph Glatthaar’s General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse. A very high proportion of men who volunteered to serve in the Confederacy’s Army of Northern Virginia were slaveowners, belonged to families of slaveowners, or had some connection to slavery. “Rich plantation owners” did not need to convince such men to fight; they were already willing to fight. And that fact completely undermines the point of our unfortunate meme.

Such a picture of slavery makes nonsense of the claim that slavery “reduced the value of their [Southerners’] own labor and pay.” Starting with Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (1974), which was the first work to subject the economics of slavery to serious study, it has become increasingly clear to historians that slavery was very lucrative. That is why so many Southerners bought slaves. If Southerners did not invest in railroads or factories, that was because investment in slaves who could grow cotton was much more profitable. That fact accounts for the enormous amount of Southern capital tied up in slaves during the antebellum period. Confidence in the profitability of slavery was reflected by the fact that the price of slaves was skyrocketing up to the outbreak of the Civil War.

Some of you might read this post and think to yourself, “Congratulations One Thing after Another, are you proud of yourself for destroying a dumb meme?” No, One Thing after Another is not proud. The problem is that you can search the internet far and wide without locating a refutation of this meme. In fact, wherever you find this meme posted, you are sure to see that it has elicited a variety of comments that reveal the degree to which the ideas of historians and the beliefs of the public are separated by an enormous abyss. In other words, the meme seems to evoke historical lunacy and delusions among commenters.

Not only that, but the misinformation associated with this meme has spawned other inaccurate memes that repackage the “facts” in a very different interpretive framework.

The 1.6% of whites

If our initial meme was progressive in outlook, its offspring leans in a very different direction which is just as mistaken and just as dangerous (if not more so). What further memes will this meme generate? Where does it all end? How can academia counter the rapidly pullulating mass of memes that apparently pass for education on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest? By writing a blog post?

Advertisements

History Majors from the Passages Program Remember Gettysburg

Passages Program Gettysburg

This summer, three incoming history majors got the opportunity to travel to Gettysburg, PA with other incoming students and several upperclassmen as part of Student Activities’ Passages program.

One Thing After Another sat down with freshman participants Jacob Bass, Drew Collins, and Tim Siracusa, as well as senior Kristen Van Uden, who led the trip along with senior Liliana Kane, junior Mike Schmidt, and Dr. Karlea Joiner, Assistant Dean of Students.

The students’ busy itinerary began with a battlefield tour led by two enthusiastic park guides, highlighting the major points of the battle.  “My favorite part of the trip was definitely touring the battlefield. Standing on the ground where one of the most important events in American history took place [was] such a surreal feeling” said Tim. The battlefield is extensive, and so the tour could not be entirely comprehensive, but the group focused on Little Round Top, Seminary Ridge, and the site of Pickett’s charge. Seeing the grounds of these famous events provided the students with a more authentic understanding of the battle. “We were able to connect with the actual place in a way that cannot be achieved through any amount of reading or study” Kristen observed. “One of the most interesting parts was when we were driving through a field that was filled with about 50 vultures. Our guide explained that in the days after the battle, the entire area would have been flooded with vultures, just like we were seeing right in front of us. It makes sense, but you don’t often think about disturbing facts like that when contemplating the more military side of the battle.”

The group then returned to the retreat center where each night they cooked family-style meals as a group, went swimming, relaxed on the porch, and played games on the lawn.

That night, they went on a ghost tour of downtown Gettysburg. The guide lit the way through the narrow streets with a lantern, accentuating the eerie atmosphere. There was even a full moon. . . .  So did you see a ghost? The students apparently could not come to a consensus.

The next day the group traversed three states in one hour to see Harper’s Ferry, the site of abolitionist John Brown’s famous 1859 raid. The buildings Brown seized have since burned down, but the students saw the arsenal where he was captured by J.E.B. Stuart who was then only a first lieutenant. In addition to information about the raid, the living history site educates its visitors about 19th-century economics. It is also a little-known fact that there was actually a Civil War battle around the town in September 1862. There were several museums in Harper’s Ferry detailing the stories of the main players in the site’s colorful history. Jacob remarked that these personal stories, as well as the ones featured at the Gettysburg museum, helped him to really connect with the people involved and made him wonder about the stories of his ancestors who fought in the Civil War.

The students finished the day with a lazy tubing trip down the Shenandoah River.

On their last day in Pennsylvania, the group explored the downtown Gettysburg area, spending time shopping and trying to meet the challenge the battlefield guide had set out for them: to locate all nine artillery shells that were still lodged in buildings. They toured the David Wills house, where Lincoln stayed after he delivered the Gettysburg Address. They later visited the cemetery where the Address was given. Kristen describes the impact of visiting the cemetery: “The number of graves, especially of unknown soldiers, was almost incomprehensible. Then you learn that the Union army refused to bury Confederate soldiers in this cemetery, so multiply that number by at least two. It forces you to really come to terms with the scope of the battle.” Some of the students were able to see the grave of Jennie Wade, a young woman who was killed by a stray bullet while baking bread at a friend’s house in downtown Gettysburg. She was the only civilian killed in the battle.

Tim originally signed up for the trip to see new places and learn more about his favorite subject. “The main reason I was interested in the trip was that I am a history major. As much as I enjoy American history, my knowledge of the Civil War era is somewhat weak, so I thought it would be a good learning experience.” What started as a potentially fun adventure and an opportunity to travel and meet new people quickly became an unforgettable and cherished experience. Jacob says that the best part was “being able to meet new people, including one of my best friends.” These shared memories have translated into daily life on the Hilltop.

Having had an encounter with experiential learning has definitely kept these students’ love for history alive. Classes are going great so far, and they are excited for what the semester brings.

Dubrulle Lands Advance Contract

Hugh at Vicksburg

Associate Professor Hugh Dubrulle just signed an advance contract with Louisiana State University Press. The working title of his manuscript is “A War of Wonders”: How Britons Imagined the American Civil War and Learned Its Lessons. One Thing after Another grabbed Professor Dubrulle while he was rushing  to a Faculty Senate meeting and pumped him for information.

Q: What is an advance contract? Is this good news?

A: It’s very good news. In an advance contract, both the author and the press are bound to do certain things. The author pledges to turn in a clean manuscript, along with illustrations and other matter, by a particular deadline. The press’ commitment is much more of an “if x, then y” sort. If the author meets his obligations and the press finds the manuscript acceptable, then the press is bound by certain guarantees when it publishes the work.

Q: How does the press go about figuring out whether the manuscript is acceptable or not?

A: After the author submits the manuscript to the press, the press sends it out to several experts in that particular field. These experts are referred to as readers or referees. They read the manuscript and send written reports to the press detailing the work’s strengths and weaknesses. They also provide a recommendation about whether the press should publish the book or not. Often, they recommend revisions of various sorts. It’s this process that we refer to as “peer review.” The editors at the press read the material sent to them by the referees and reach conclusions of their own regarding the manuscript. Much of the material produced by this review process gets forwarded to the board that runs the press, and it’s the board that makes a final decision about whether to publish or not.

Q: What is your book about?

It’s about how the American Civil War affected public discussions that were very important to Britons. My work focuses particularly on how the war influenced British debates about political reform, race, nationality and nationalism, and military affairs. I argue that in order to understand the British reaction to the American conflict, you really need to consider the images of America and Americans that Britons had developed in the thirty years leading up to the war. These images fundamentally shaped the way the British understood the war’s meaning and significance.

Q: How did you get interested in this topic?

Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been interested in the American Civil War. In fact, one of my very first memories consisted of going to Vicksburg with my parents when I was 2 ½ (see photo above). My fascination with things British arose much later—when I was in college. If I had to attribute that interest to a single thing, it was reading Robert Graves’ Good-bye to All That in a World War I course. Graves is not a very reliable narrator, but there was something so stereotypically and comically British about the way he told his story (even though some of his experiences were horrible) that really touched me. When I went to graduate school, I wanted to find a way to combine my interests, and that’s how I came up with this topic.

For more information about LSU Press, go here:

http://lsupress.org/

Professor Andrew Moore has also published with LSU Press in the past. To see his book, The South’s Tolerable Alien, on LSU Press’ site, go here:

http://lsupress.org/books/detail/the-south-s-tolerable-alien/