Sidney Blumenthal Interview: How the Rape Culture of Slavery Became an Incendiary Issue in American Politics
Image attributed to Ralph Alswang
Sidney Blumenthal is the acclaimed author of A Self-Made Man and Wrestling with His Angel, the first two volumes in his five volume biography The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln. He is the former assistant and senior adviser to President Bill Clinton and senior adviser to Hillary Clinton. He has been a national staff reporter for The Washington Post and Washington editor and writer for The New Yorker. His books include the bestselling The Clinton Wars, The Rise of the Counter-Establishment and The Permanent Campaign.
Blumenthal has recently released the third volume of his planned five-part work, All the Powers of Earth: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. 111, 1856-1860, in which he tells the story of how Lincoln achieves the presidency by force of strategy, of political savvy and determination. Born and raised in Illinois, Blumenthal lives in Washington, DC.
"They would say things straightforwardly that 'You’re in favor of sex with black women.' That was one of the major themes of pro-slavery Stephen A. Douglas in his debate with Lincoln in 1858 in the Senate."
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Sidney, there have been so many books written about Abraham Lincoln over the years. When you research, do you look for new data or information that may contradict previous books?
Sidney Blumenthal: Well, it turns up. Let me put it that way. I have found lots of new information about lots of things, and a lot of it comes up if I work along and research. I found, for example, that if you just read through the newspapers of the day, which are increasingly available on the Internet as the archives keep being put up, you are discovering all sorts of new stuff. I’ve been reading through the Congressional Globe, which is the congressional record of its day, and I discovered lots of stuff about what went on. I don’t think you can understand many events and people’s relationships unless you’ve been through all that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What is the theme of your latest book All the Powers of Earth?
Sidney Blumenthal: One big thread that runs through the book that I found and then kept pulling on and finding more and more is about the rape culture of slavery and how it became an incendiary issue in American politics. I haven’t seen much on it. People have written to a degree on the predatory nature of slavery in sort of the plantation system but not the sexual issue becoming important in American politics, which it did.
It’s one of the major reasons, for example, that the southerners were enraged at Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. It is because he kept raising this issue, and he was breaking through forbidden barriers in thrusting it at them. The anti-slavery people kept denouncing it and favoring amalgamation, which was the word of the day, meaning race mixing. They would say things straightforwardly that “You’re in favor of sex with black women.” That was one of the major themes of pro-slavery Stephen A. Douglas in his debate with Lincoln in 1858 in the Senate. That’s something, I think, people have marginally missed that Lincoln himself raised the question of “You accuse us of racial amalgamation, but where do all the mulattoes come from”?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Yes. I think that slavery’s rape culture has perhaps not been in the spotlight as much as just saying,“Thomas Jefferson fathered at least six of Sally Hemings’ children.”
Sidney Blumenthal: Right. One of the particular specialties in slave auctions were “fancy girls” as they were called then. Those were basically young girls and women who were sold as sex slaves.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Human trafficking as it were.
Sidney Blumenthal: Human trafficking was intrinsic to slavery.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: And your book title All the Powers of Earth is related to slavery?
Sidney Blumenthal: I first saw that in the Declaration of Independence. It was not a common phrase, but it was a phrase that certain political people used. In the front of my book, I used three quotes in which it appears. One is the Declaration of Independence. The other is pro-slavery James Henry Hammond who was a governor and senator from South Carolina who gave the famous “Cotton is King” speech. In other words, “You can’t touch us. Cotton is king.” He said that all the powers of earth can’t touch us
The third version I used is John Brown who talks about all the powers of earth committed to slavery. But Lincoln is the one who really elaborated on the whole thing in a poetic description of the character of slavery talking about how all the powers of earth conspired against the slave, and they have bolted him behind an iron door in a cell with 100 keys distributed to 100 different men at 100 different places. So how’s he going to get out? The title also refers to what Lincoln had to do from scratch, which was to develop all the powers of earth to deal with whatever he called and other anti-slavery people called, the “slave power” that ruled the country.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Is it correct to say that Abraham Lincoln didn’t view himself as an abolitionist?
Sidney Blumenthal: Yes, but he was anti-slavery. It may be hard for people today to understand that the politics then was as differentiated as it is today. People had different positions of what should be done and how it should be done. But Lincoln was anti-slavery. He was always anti-slavery. But the question was what to do about it. The abolitionists were as fractionalized as the most fractionalized parts of the American left, and they had different factions and personalities who hated each other and who broke off from each other. They were merciless in what they did to each other on the abolitionist side.
For example, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, disliked William Lloyd Garrison who founded The Liberator and was the “abolitionist” of his day. He was considered inflexible. He hated politics and believed the Constitution was a pact with the Devil. So it’s a complicated world that we’re dealing in.
Lincoln’s a practical politician. He’s a party politician. From 1854 on, after Douglas sponsored the Kansas-Nebraska Act in opening the territories to the extension of slavery, Lincoln was just constantly thrust back into politics after his long period of being out of it after his one term in Congress, but he never ceases, and his politics adapt to the changing circumstances as it goes along.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Was the Civil War fought entirely over the issue of slavery?
Sidney Blumenthal: Everything about the Ordinance of Secession issued by a Southern state convention justifies withdrawing from the Union on the explicit basis of slavery. Period. That was the reason they gave. That was the reason. They did it to protect and defend slavery from the first anti-slavery president who had been elected in their era who was committed to containing them and basically strangling slavery, preventing it from growing. Lincoln would’ve encroached on it in ways that they understood.
When they seceded, they were very forthright about the reasons and said that Lincoln would stop the extension of slavery in the territories. Remember, Lincoln is a congressman that proposed a bill for emancipation in the District of Columbia, which is the only federal territory, and it was felt that under the Constitution, you could only legislate on federal territory lands, so he had proposed a bill that never got a hearing. They felt that it would lead to emancipation in the District, that he would’ve stopped them from securing an empire in the Caribbean for slavery and would’ve imposed all sorts of restrictions on the internal slave trade. What they really feared most was that, through the control of federal patriots, he would have, in all of their states, created a Republican Party that would’ve grown around control of all these federal jobs that would’ve created power, created anti-slavery centers and broken them up.
Basically, the Democratic Party, which was the slave party of its day, not the Democratic Party of our time, to say the least, had been broken apart at the 1850 convention. The southerners had essentially seceded from the Democratic Party and created their own party, running their own candidate, John C. Breckinridge from Kentucky, against Stephen A. Douglas who became the Democratic candidate. So they had broken their own party. They didn’t have a national party at that point. They were politically desperate, and Lincoln’s election itself was the precipitating factor for secession.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Getting back to the “slave rape” issue for a moment. Sen. Charles Sumner, a leader of the anti-slavery forces in Massachusetts, called out slaveholders as rapists. Is that what drove Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina, a strong advocate of slavery, to attack and cane Sumner on the floor of the Senate?
Sidney Blumenthal: I think it’s a major reason. Sort of the conventional wisdom that was built up over the years was anti-Sumner. It was that he violated the civilities of Senate by insulting certain southern figures of power within that body, that august body, and that he’d been too personal about it, particularly to Senator Andrew Pickens Butler of South Carolina, who was a distant cousin of Preston Brooks, the congressman who was prompted by a group of southerners to cane Sumner to death. I would say that there are deeper reasons and that the most provocative thing that led to the attack on Sumner was raising the rape issue about slavery. He had done what no one else had done before. And it was very personal for many of them, too, in ways they did not want to acknowledge or confront.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Was that the only act of violence ever to occur on the Senate floor?
Sidney Blumenthal: There was a kind of brawl in the House of Representatives provoked by southerners that turned into a farce. When one of the northern men grabbed the hair of a Mississippi congressman, who was in the middle of the fight, it turned out that it was a wig, and he pulled it off (laughs). The riot on the floor of the House turned into a laugh fest (laughs).
But it was a serious question because the rhetoric of violence from southerners was great. Henry Wilson, who became a senator from Massachusetts, packed a pistol and said that the majority of the members of Congress were carrying guns into the Congress and that they were arming themselves against each other.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: And no one was shot?
Sidney Blumenthal: Well, the senator from California, David Broderick, was goaded in California by southern allies into a duel, and he was murdered. His murder was a main event in California history and in the history of that time. He became a kind of anti-slavery martyr.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You have a chapter in the book called “Witch Hunt.” Is that a nod to anyone in particular?
Sidney Blumenthal: I can’t imagine (laughs). But after John Brown’s raid, the Senate created a committee to investigate it. The Senate then was controlled by the Democrats, which meant by the southerners and largely led by Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi. They questioned other senators who were Republicans about their involvement in the John Brown raid in order to try and hold them responsible for it, including William Henry Seward who was and thought of as a likely Republican candidate for president in 1860.
If you read the whole thing, having gone through myself as being a “witness,” before the Benghazi Committee, the John Brown investigation in the Senate run by Jefferson Davis reads a lot fairer than the Benghazi Committee.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Understood. What would Lincoln think about Donald Trump comparing himself to him?
Sidney Blumenthal: Well, Lincoln had a good sense of humor (laughs). He would certainly laugh about it. But Lincoln created a new political party. The Republican Party was created state-by-state, then he became the first Republican to be elected president. But after he lost to Stephen A. Douglas in 1858 and was beginning to run himself for president very quietly but still was a public figure, Lincoln talked about how the parties had transformed their identities. He had to hold together this fragile coalition of Republicans, Democrats, radial abolitionists, some ex-Know Nothings and all sorts of nuts and bolts (laughs).
He was very interested in claiming what he thought was the proud tradition of the Democratic Party and integrated it into this new party. So he made a number of statements praising Thomas Jefferson. He noted, of course, that he’d been a slave owner, but he said that Jefferson had written the Declaration of Independence, and the words “All men were created equal,” which was, as far as Lincoln was concerned, the basis of his political philosophy. He said that it reminded him of a funny story, and the story was that there were two drunken men at night in Springfield fighting on a dusty street, and they fought their way into each other’s coats. He said that reminded him of the current parties and claimed that the Republicans had fought their way into the tradition of Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and that the existing Democrats of that day had fought themselves out of that and were defending inequality instead.
We’ve gone considerably a greater distance today. Lincoln would not be surprised that over time parties would change, especially in regards to changing circumstances. But Lincoln would recognize the Republican Party of today as the worst part of the southern dominated demagogic Democratic Party of his day but with something even that party didn’t have, which was owned by another party called the Know Nothings who were a nativist party. So Lincoln would recognize what it was, but it was not his party. Just turn on the news.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You testified on Bill Clinton’s behalf during his impeachment trial. It appears that Donald Trump’s impeachment is inevitable in the House, especially with the recent vote on the impeachment inquiry resolution. But do you think the Senate Republicans will convict?
Sidney Blumenthal: I think the Senate Republicans are in dire straits politically. I had written an article for a website called justsecurity.org., which is run by the NYU School of Law, in which I compared the Senate trial to Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon after he had resigned. That pardon really politically destroyed Ford and the Republican Party, not only in the midterms of 1974 but was probably a decisive factor in Ford losing in 1976.
I think that going into a Senate trial will cause convulsions among the Senate Republicans. There are enough of them who are caught between a rock and a hard place between swing voters and Trump’s base where any vote they take is probably fatal. They know that. McConnell knows that. And there are enough of them likely to turn the majority of the Senate. The Democrats hold almost all their seats, losing only Doug Jones of Alabama, and he may hold on. So I think that there will be other events that that shake Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans all along the way.
When they acquit Trump and leave him in office after he’s been impeached, a great majority of the country will understand that he’s committed impeachable offenses and crimes against the state, meaning the nation, that he’ll wear that badge of inequity going into the election.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Rumors have been swirling that Hillary Clinton may still join the presidential race. What do you say as her former adviser?
Sidney Blumenthal: I believe that the next Democratic nominee is already running. I don’t know who it is, but one of these candidates will be the Democratic nominee. That is what I firmly believe.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Sidney, you are really a great writer, and this is a very compelling series on Abraham Lincoln Has it helped in writing these books that you’ve had political and journalistic experience?
Sidney Blumenthal: It’s who I am, and it’s how I see the world. I see it through those eyes, so that when I research, I have a sense of what things are and what I’m looking for because I have been a journalist and in politics and in government working in the White House, been close to a president and watched all kinds of campaigns and conflicts.
I think I have an understanding of this that is unique and that I bring to bear on how I write it, how I look at the material, and I believe that when I look at primary material that others have already combed over, often I see it in a different way as a a result of having been there, not in the past, but in American politics and government.
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