Sunday, July 13, 2014

the last book I ever read (Martin Van Buren by Ted Widmer, excerpt five)

from Martin Van Buren: The American Presidents Series by Ted Widmer:

One problem, of course, dominated all the others, and it too was brought uncomfortably into the sunlight by the Panic of 1837. Slavery was anything but a tiny defect. It was the most glaringly undemocratic idea in our history, so powerful that we are still wrestling with its legacy in the twenty-first century. But until Van Buren’s administration, it was largely as a matter of public discourse. To be sure, it existed, and Americans knew of it. But it was not generally an issue in political campaigns or newspaper headlines or speeches on the floor of Congress. After the founders failed to resolve the slavery question, predicting that it would disappear naturally over time, it hardened into an impasse, with the South generally prevailing in its desire not to discuss the matter. All that was about to change.

To visit the United States in the 1830s, as many foreign travelers did, was to see two Americas. North of the Mason-Dixon Line, visitors could marvel at all the signs of an aggressively entrepreneurial culture, wheezing and humming in the open air of the bustling nineteenth century. There were railroads, newspapers, cheap books, factories, and a culture of connectedness not too different from what the world feels now in the so-called age of globalization. Business depended on information and speed; all three depended on the railroad—the literal engine of capitalism.

But if that same traveler peered across the invisible boundary separating North and South, he would see a very different world. Instead of machinery, human beings generated the power needed for the local economy to function. Instead of increasing openness and information, a small population of privileged landowners controlled all access to news and political power. Instead of democracy, feudalism prevailed—a feudalism based on race hatred. Visitors noticed, and Americans, always sensitive to foreign opinion, began to ask themselves what kind of country they aspired to be. And so, for this and other reasons, slavery came out from the shadows and into the daylight of American politics.

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