Sick From Freedom

Thursday, September 26th, 2013

For many slaves, liberation was a death sentence:

At least one quarter of the four million former slaves got sick or died between 1862 and 1870, Professor Downs writes, including at least 60,000 (the actual number is probably two or three times higher, he argues) who perished in a smallpox epidemic that began in Washington and spread through the South as former slaves traveled in search of work — an epidemic that Professor Downs says he is the first to reconstruct as a national event.

Historians of the Civil War have long acknowledged that two-thirds of all military casualties came from disease rather than heroic battle. But they have been more reluctant to dwell on the high number of newly emancipated slaves that fell prey to disease, dismissing earlier accounts as propaganda generated by racist 19th-century doctors and early-20th-century scholars bent on arguing that blacks were biologically inferior and unsuited to full political rights.

Instead, historians who came of age during the civil rights movement emphasized ways in which the former slaves asserted their agency, playing as important a role in their own liberation as Lincoln or the Union army.

Indeed, southern slave-holders did predict this outcome.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    How many Southern white civilians died? One thinks especially of Sherman’s war crimes, which rival the German and Russian atrocities in the East.

  2. Space Nookie says:

    I thought the linked article had a lot to say in that it candidly admits that historians want to tell particular stories and that inconvenient facts can be suppressed until a fresh interpretation (in this case, that racist white government didn’t do enough) makes them an “important new contribution”.

  3. Abelard Lindsey says:

    I take it this is one of tenets of what is now being called the “dark” enlightenment. That there are some people, perhaps even a majority, that are either incapable of or unwilling to assume the burdens of freedom and autonomy and that some sort of social institution that allows them to exchange freedom for security is desirable for all parties.

  4. Isegoria says:

    I think that’s a fair assessment, but I believe most members of the Dark Enlightenment, like most mainstream conservatives, would first like to see charity taken out of the hands of the faceless bureaucracy that won’t enforce ordinary decency.

    Under the current system, the State subsidizes destructive behaviors — up to the point where it throws you in prison. We have no middle ground between subsidized freedom and incarceration.

  5. Abelard Lindsey says:

    I read some of the tenets of the dark enlightenment on other websites. There is some basis for it. However, my problem with it is that it can easily be twisted around to justify restrictions of freedom of action on those of us who can handle freedom. This, of course, is unacceptable.

  6. Isegoria says:

    I don’t think the State needs any Dark Enlightenment arguments to seize power.

    I think the system could move toward the seemingly disparate goals of both libertarians and reactionaries by introducing parole-like conditions for those accepting welfare benefits.

  7. Abelard Lindsey says:

    I think such is inevitable.

  8. Alrenous says:

    In this case, the slaves weren’t liberated. The abolitionists never asked the blacks if they wanted off. Rather, they decided that the problem of forcing the blacks onto the plantations was best solved by forcing them off. What the blacks wanted was irrelevant to all parties.

    Chaos equals delta power, and chaos leads to mass death.

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