Sunday, January 1, 2012

Plantation of the Atlantic, XV: Halfway Where?

It's time to talk about catechism, slavery, identity, and another Seventeenth-Century-New-England-Dog-in-the-Nighttime: the Halfway Covenant. But first, because this is, as far as I can tell so far, a sad story about the imposition of service upon the less powerful,I'm going to meditate on the way that power can be countered by self-invention.

About slavery: the traditional story is that medieval Europe had slaves, but that the winds of freedom, or perhaps the Black Plague, blew slavery away until Henry the Navigator brought it back, importing slaves from his African frontier of navigation for sale into Europe. Except that we really shouldn't blame him, because the Castilians had been slave raiding in the Canaries for two centuries by this time. Which is a good start at collapsing an argument into incoherence. Anyone want to go back to the Vikings? Saracens? Barbary? Romans?

And then there's the Slavs. And the Irish. Above all, there is the lurking suspicion that just maybe, medieval Europe wasn't the place where humanity first breathed the air of freedom.

Since slavery is kind of important to modern American history, we do need a place to start, though, and perhaps this need for  origins explains why we start with C. S. L. Davie's 1966 Economic History Review article. For here is a much more basic and brutal revelation. Slavery was so conceivable at the origins of the American experiment, so far in the air, that, in the mid-1500s, the Lord Protector could find "two years slavery" to be a reasonable remedy to unemployment. The disabled poor were allowed to beg for alms, while the sturdy beggar was to be enslaved.

Now, I think I can see why the historiography might have seized upon this article and made it the prime ingredient of some delicious historical sausage. It comes four hears before the Lord Protector's fall, but as part of a trajectory that leads through his power struggle with his brother to the  creeping coup d'etat that brought him down. And the coup proper seems to have begun with the anti-enclosure/anti-Reformation risings of 1549. It's the perfect conjuncture. The Protector was pro-Reformation, anti-enclosure, it appears. So his government was torn apart when the "commons" embraced both causes together. Or was there a deeper game in play? Why were some of the members of the future junta so closely associated with rebel leader Robert Kett? Was Kett a cat's-paw? Was this whole thing even deeper and darker and Machiavellian than it seems at first glance. (These conspiratorial mutterings come out of Skidmore's recent biography of Edward VI.) Blood! Treachery! Religion! Class war! Slavery is the one last thing you need to add to make reallly good sausage.

Mentioning Skidmore, into whom I just dipped in pursuit of a discussion of the vagrancy act of 1547, is a gesture in the direction of my own ignorance. I just don't know the literature as I ought. That's because I got on the track --the chain of links, as it were-- at the far end. It is now a commonplace that the early years of slavery in the New World can be reasonably informed by the Protector's legislation. (For instance here.) Even some cursory reading, however, leads to the usual problem with sausages. How could legislation that was repealed as  unenforceable and overreaching after only two years really be so influential? The book to which I just linked has its strengths elsewhere, so I hope that the author doesn't mind (in the event that he notices) some criticism here. It's really not going to do to jump from a discussion of More's Utopia to actual practice on the ground. Books that are easy to read today don't make a valid intellectual tradition way back then; and intellectual tradition is weak tea compared with understanding how slavery worked as a social institution on the ground.

Because, back to Henry the Navigator for a moment, and notice how he manned his ships, or, for that matter, how the Admiral of the Ocean Seas manned his. Or, for Heaven's sake, how Nelson manned his ships: with slavery. Sure, you can call it "impressment." You can attend to Mainwaring's insistence that pirates often "pressed" men who were genuinely willing to volunteer, or N. A. M. Rodger's warning that pressed men could be made to volunteer later. The fact is that Columbus was asked to take prisoners and convicts with him. So was Henry. He didn't send the able-bodied poor to Ceuta on a whim, but because the communes of Portugal were desperate to get rid of them. That, in fact, was why the Lord Protector passed his legislation. The previous provision for the able-bodied poor was that each jurisdiction was to hurry them on their way.

Now, I know the feeling. I was store bouncer last night. Once the drunk and disorderly are out of your place of business, they're someone else's problem. The police can deal with them. Hence Somerset's desperation. He was the police. Drunk, belligerent men (his perception; desperate, homeless people, their perception) were his problem. The economy was throwing up idle men and women, and there was nothing to put their hands to do. In Roman times, Britain was an exporter of slaves, but you couldn't do that any more, because Britons were Christians. A particular kind of Christians, in fact. You had to provide for their spiritual succour, and where, exactly, were you going to do that? New England?

You'd think: but over there, in 1662, the Reverend Solomon Stoddard felt compelled to introduce a heroic liberalising of the requirements for communion at the Northampton Church, just outside Springfield, that anomalous nucleus of early settlement that so upsets our conventional impression of a westward-moving frontier of settlement. Stoddard's "Halfway Covenant" allowed people to come to the table of the Lord's Supper under greatly reduced catechal and other rules. Or is that what's really going on? I ask because there's controversy. Oh, boy, is there controversy, beginning from convention to ingenious explanation to the good old historiographic neutron bomb that leaves data intact while killing all the heuristics.

But, Jeez. Step back from the fighting for a moment and think about this. The problem that Stoddard faced here is that there was, apparently, a billion people running about the Connecticut  Valley who don't qualify to be members in good standing of a Christian church. Let me put this as clearly as I can: This. Would. Not. Happen. In. Europe. It couldn't even be conceived in Europe. This is Puritan New England we're talking about. You know? Scarlet Letter?  Blue Laws? Witch trials? This is the guy that his Mather in-laws called,  "The Pope of the Connecticut Valley" because of his absolute power in this notoriously feudal country. If we write American religious history as genealogy (and people do), Stoddard is the grandfather of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." This guy has a better claim to being a Founding Father than three quarters of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. And yet his problem was that he was surrounded by people that the Puritans couldn't make go to church.

The ingenious explanation that I referred to above in my half-parenthetical self-interruption is the idea that the Puritans were just so damned scrupulous that there were hordes of good Christians about who felt so ambivalent about their state of grace that they couldn't bear to offend God by taking communion. This is, admittedly, bad theology even by the standards of hardcore evangelism, but the Puritans, they were crazy, so it all makes sense.* Right? Right?

Nuh-unh. Back up a minute to those slaves that Henry the Navigator was bringing back to Lisbon, in suspicious counterflow to the poor men that he was abandoning on the coast of Africa in the hope that they would come back to him as translators and men of substance in the native communities that took them in. (If I called this a "trade" of, er, something, would I be awful?) You can't be a Christian slave, of course, so a purchase on the Lisbon docks is a bad buy, right?

Well, no, as a matter of fact. You just have to constrain the new slave's entry into the Christian communion. You know, throw some restrictions on the time they're allowed to take between provisional entrance into the church and their admission to Communion. That's the whole point of Confirmation, after all. Keep postulants from full participation in the life of the church until they have adopted Christian identity.

Now back up, again, to the violence and intrigue and local risings and petty civil wars that make the regency of Edward VI such a stirring read. Of course, eventually novitiates become Christians; so, still, a bad bet, in the same way that the two-year slavery of Somerset's legislation is a bad bet, right? On the contrary; on the day, it matters how  many men are willing to follow Dudley, and how many men will follow the Lord Protector. Quite possibly, it will matter that an obscure gentleman named Robert Kett will accept a secret commission from his landlord, one that will lead him to an agonising death on the gallows, in the understanding that his son will eventually, quietly, receive a forty-pound-a-year pension from at least one member of the Junta.

The point? That the communion table of the parish church, whether in Northampton, Massachusetts, or Lisbon, or anywhere else, is the place of entry into the community. Those who guard the door --your future godfather in a literal sense, can charge a tariff, and that tariff will be, well, by now you know exactly where I'm going.  No more needs to be said for the moment about the Halfway Covenant. People have been ducking this question for far too long now. It's not as though the power of religion to normalise American political participation is entirely irrelevant to us, even today.

*Of course, I don't buy that. I'd prefer to go with the answer implied by the pastoral inquiry directed by the Bishop of London to the Reverend Johnson of Stratford, Connecticut, who informs His Grace that in 1723 the town had between 250 and 300 families, of whom 50 were members of the Church of England, an unspecified number were Independents, and 200 (possibly not included in the former totals) were Indians, for whom no provision had been made for church services. Notice, by the way, that the Narragansett Indians are not included in this last total. They have their own church and communion service, although they lack a priest. Look, by the way! Even more evidence of Indians living alongside Yankees late into the pre-Revolutionary period!

No comments:

Post a Comment