John Ernest: Saving Marriages by Divorcing History

We welcome a guest post today from John Ernest, editor of a forthcoming edition of William Wells Brown’s My Southern Home: The South and Its People (November 2011). Brown, a prolific and celebrated abolitionist and writer often recognized as the first African American novelist, was born enslaved in Kentucky and escaped to Ohio in 1834. My Southern Home is the story of Brown’s search for a home in a land of slavery and racism. In today’s guest post, Ernest offers a historical corrective to recent controversy surrounding Republican Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, who signed a document with a preamble that waxed nostalgic about the enslaved family unit.

Recently, presidential candidate Michele Bachmann created quite a stir by signing “The Candidate Vow” in a document prepared by The Family Leader, an Iowa-based conservative organization. The document—“The Marriage Vow: A Declaration of Dependence upon Marriage and Family”—begins with something of a preamble, and therein lies the primary cause of the stir.

“Slavery,” the document states, “had a disastrous impact on African-American families, yet sadly a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA’s first African-American President.” After the public reaction to such a shameless distortion of history, The Family Leader removed this comment from the document—which is the real shame here, since it was such a revealing statement on the state of political thought and discourse these days.

Historical recklessness is apparently the new political correctness. When the authors of “The Marriage Vow” decided to argue for the relative advantages of those born in slavery, they apparently were not thinking about Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, or other famous American men and women born in slavery of a white, slaveholding father and a powerless, enslaved mother.

But even beyond such famous examples of the intimate acts of violence committed under slavery, one has to wonder about The Family Leader’s vision of slavery. Do they not know that marriage among the enslaved was unrecognized or unprotected by law? Do they not know about the many families that were torn apart during slavery—families that then went to great trouble after the Civil War to find one another and reunite? And when they characterize enslaved marriages as operating in “a two-parent household,” aren’t they leaving someone out—namely, the slaveholder who claimed absolute power over that household? Is that their vision of a stable marriage, one in which another human being claims rights to your family’s security—indeed, to their very lives?

But perhaps supporters of “The Marriage Vow” know their history and are not at all disturbed by that third presence in the two-parent household. This, though, would be the greatest irony of all, for some southern writers of the time contrasted slavery to what they characterized as the heartless methods of the northern capitalists, as opposed to the socialist system that they believed slavery to be.

Edmund Ruffin, for example, asserted in 1853, “Our system of domestic slavery offers in use and to the greatest profit for all parties in the association, the realization of all that is sound and valuable in the socialists’ theories and doctrines.”  Henry Hughes agreed in his 1854 A Treatise on Sociology, Theoretical and Practical, as did George Fitzhugh, one of the most ardent promoters of this argument. Fitzhugh vigorously presented slavery as superior to capitalism (“the White Slave Trade”) in his books Sociology for the South, or the Failure of Free Society (1854) and Cannibals All! Or, Slaves Without Masters (1857). Capitalists, Fitzhugh argued, use labor without care for the laborers; slaveholders, Fitzhugh argued, had to care for the laborers, providing slaves with “food, raiment, house, fuel, and everything else necessary to the physical well-being of himself and family.”

I don’t imagine that The Family Leader is advocating socialism as a means for ensuring the stability of marriage and the two-parent household, and I don’t imagine they are denouncing capitalism (on the dangers of which they are silent in this document). But one can imagine Ruffin, Hughes, and Fitzhugh signing this document and promising to protect the sanctity of marriage–unless, perhaps, finances demand that husbands, wives, and children be sold to preserve the financial health of the plantation and its owners.

History is a lot messier than one would imagine from following current political debates, and the past rarely seems like a golden age when you look at it up close. But there are lessons to be learned from such close examinations—lessons probably lost on the authors of “The Marriage Vow,” and on Michele Bachmann.

I should note that Bachmann claims that she read only the vow and not the document’s preamble. The vow itself makes no mention of slavery. It does begin, though, with the word “therefore,” referring back to the preamble. Perhaps, though, Bachmann just wasn’t curious enough to follow the therefore back to its source. Even when reading, it seems, her message is to not look back, even when you claim the authority of the past for your cause.

John Ernest is Eberly Family Distinguished Professor of American Literature at West Virginia University. He is author or editor of nine books, including Chaotic Justice: Rethinking African American Literary History. His edited volume of William Wells Brown’s My Southern Home: The South and Its People will be published in November 2011.