A Letter to Harold Holzer

Re: his review "Sold Down the River,"
The Wall Street Journal, July 23, 2021

Harold Holzer is a scholar and director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College. His column in the Wall Street Journal was a review of the book The Ledger and the Chain: How Domestic Slave Traders Shaped America, by Joshua D. Rothman [Basic Books, 2021].

The book was mainly about the slave trader Isaac Franklin, who died in 1846, and some of his business colleagues. The Atlantic slave trade had been ended in 1808, but Franklin was a "domestic" slave trader, engaged in the infamous practice of transporting slaves "down the river" from milder conditions in the upper South (e.g. Kentucky, Virginia, Maryland) down to the harsh plantations in the lower South (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, etc.).

From the title of the book alone, how this domestic slave trade "shaped America," we get the sense of the ideology of the "1619 Project," that racism and slavery are the irredeemable essence of American history -- even though Franklin's business and everything involved in it were totally destroyed by the Civil War. Holzer does mention that Franklin's heirs were compensated for lands seized during the war. There was no compensation, of course, for slaves they may have owned; but we might sense some indignation in Holzer that the heirs were compensated for anything. In a way, not to worry, the South remained the poorest part of the country until after the 1960's.

My letter was trying to sound out Holzer's attitude to things like the ideology of the "1619 Project." One might not know from the column that slavery had been abolished and most the wealth involved in it destroyed. That is why my interest was about the "tone" of the review, more than the substance.

Dear Professor Holzer,

I am intrigued by your review of The Ledger and the Chain in the Book section of a recent Wall Street Journal. It is not so much the content of the piece, as its tone. I am having some difficulty putting my finger on just what bothers me about it.

My impression in general is that a great deal of political correctness these days is the result of social conformity. In those terms, some of the most self-righteous about popularly acknowledged wrongs, like slavery, might very well have been perfectly comfortable being slave holders themselves, back in the day. Few of their peers below the Mason-Dixon Line would have reproached them.

I can't say that you are guilty of this, but the sense I get of the piece is some suggestion of it. To the Enlightened of the time, as now, Isaac Franklin and his fellow slavers were exceedingly vile persons; but then these days I see the values of the Enlightenment themselves disparaged and condemned as "white supremacy," without which, of course, slavery probably never would have been abolished. This is one of the problems with current ideology.

That Boko Haram and ISIS were perfectly happy reviving chattel slavery, because, after all, it is sanctioned by Islamic Law, doesn't fit in very well with the popular sense that America invented slavery just out of racism and in order to malevolently oppress black people. The Arabs had been oppressing black people for centuries. Also, under Islamic Law, Mr. Franklin would have had uncontested conjugal rights with all his slaves. Somehow, we don't hear much about that, and you seem to mention Mr. Franklin's exploitation of his slaves as though it was a unique evil, perhaps just for him personally.

Perhaps my discomfort with your review is that it is hard to tell where you fit in with such business. Denying America the honor of abolishing slavery, at horrific cost in lives and fortune, while condemning it for ever having tolerated slavery in the first place, is both ahistorical and morally perverse. Yet it now seems to be the conventional wisdom among academics and the rest of the chattering classes. It is perpetuated by a level of self-righteousness that would make Cotton Mather blush.

The truth is what is called "historical perspective." Perhaps you have that after all, despite the tone of your review, and my suspicions are unfair.

Yours truly,
Kelley L. Ross

Professor Holzer answered, 8/23/2021:

I just donít know what to say. Youíve not only read between the lines, but between the sentences and letters.

Harold Holzer
Jonathan F. Fanton Director
Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College

The question was, "What was between the lines?" If my interest was how he stood on the thesis that the domestic slave trade "Shaped America" in some sort of way that persists, then his response was evasive and non-responsive.


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