Beck guru Skousen's “story of slavery” suggests slave owners were “worst victims of the system”

Fox News' Glenn Beck has heavily promoted the writings of far-right activist W. Cleon Skousen, even making Skousen's book, The 5000 Year Leap, a central part of his 9-12 Project. Skousen is the author of several controversial works, including The Making of America: The Substance and Meaning of the Constitution, which presented as “the story of slavery in America” a passage from a book that attacked abolitionists for delaying emancipation; cast slave owners as “the worst victims of the system”; claimed white schoolchildren “were likely to envy the freedom of their colored playmates”; and claimed that "[s]lavery did not make white labor unrespectable, but merely inefficient," because “the slave had a deliberateness of motion which no amount of supervision could quicken.”

Skousen: a fringe conservative embraced by Beck

Salon: “Skousen was not a historian so much as a player in the history of the American far right; less a scholar of the republic than a threat to it.” In a September 16 article titled, “Meet the man who changed Glenn Beck's life,” Salon's Alexander Zaitchik chronicled Skousen's controversial writings and associations, as well as the central role Skousen's writing plays in Beck's activities. According to Zaitchik, Skousen was “a professional anti-communist” who, according to FBI memos, “affiliated himself with the extreme right-wing 'professional communists' who are promoting their own anticommunism for obvious financial purposes.”

Zaitchik also noted Skousen's links to the far-right John Birch Society and its founder, Robert Welch, writing that Skousen “aligned himself with Robert Welch's charge that Dwight Eisenhower was a 'dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.' ” In 1963, Skousen wrote a pamphlet titled, “The Communist Attack on the John Birch Society,” in which he argued that those who criticized the group “usually did so without realizing they were promoting the official Communist Party line.”

Beck frequently touts Skousen's “divinely inspired” work. Zaitchik documented instances in which Beck “furiously promot[ed]” Skousen's books on his radio program, asking his guests if they had read any of Skousen's writings and exhorting his listeners to purchase The 5000 Year Leap, which Beck sells through his website. Zaitchik also noted that Beck authored a foreword for the 30th anniversary edition of The 5000 Year Leap, in which Beck wrote, “I beg you to read this book filled with words of wisdom which I can only describe as divinely inspired.”

Skousen at the center of 9-12 Project. On the March 13 edition of his Fox News program, during which Beck announced the launch of the 9-12 Project, Beck told his studio audience: “Do we have the books? Where are the books? Underneath everybody's seat here in the audience, there are some books here. I've got a couple of books for you that you can start. This one is called The 5,000-Year Leap. It is fantastic. I want you to know I don't make any money on these things. The 5,000-Year Leap -- it is the 29 principles that our founders put together, and how they put this genius country together.” Beck added: “You read these and you read them with your friends. And you meet once a week or, you know, a couple of times a month. And you start small, and you just really figure out what you believe in.” [Fox News' Glenn Beck, 3/13/09, retrieved via Nexis]

The Making of America featured in 9-12 Project meetings. Several local chapters of the 9-12 Project have conducted seminars to discuss The Making of America. The seminars appear to have been organized in conjunction with the National Center for Constitutional Studies, which, as Zaitchik noted, was founded by Skousen in 1971.

Skousen's The Making of America advances controversial “story of slavery in America”

Skousen: “Slavery is not a racial problem. It is a human problem.” In The Making of America, Skousen wrote of slavery:

In the history of the world, nearly every nation has had slaves. The Chinese kept thousands of slaves. Babylon boasted of slaves from a dozen different countries. The dark-skinned Hittites, Phoenicians, and Egyptians had white slaves. The Moors had black slaves. America had black slaves. The Nazis had white slaves. The Soviets still do, with several million white slaves wearing out their starved, near-naked bodies in slave labor camps.

So the emancipation of human beings from slavery is an ongoing struggle. Slavery is not a racial problem. It is a human problem. [The Making of America, page 728]

Skousen's “Story of Slavery” controversial when first published. In The Making of America, Skousen capped his analysis of the 15th Amendment by quoting several pages of historian Fred Albert Shannon's Economic History of the People of the United States (1934), saying that they “tell the story of slavery in America.” [The Making of America, page 729] As Zaitchik wrote in his September 16 Salon article, Skousen's use of Shannon's work aroused controversy shortly after the book was first published in the early 1980s:

Toward the end of Reagan's second term, Skousen became the center of a minor controversy when state legislators in California approved the official use of another of his books, the 1982 history text “The Making of America.” Besides bursting with factual errors, Skousen's book characterized African-American children as “pickaninnies” and described American slave owners as the “worst victims” of the slavery system. Quoting the historian Fred Albert Shannon, “The Making of America” explained that "[slave] gangs in transit were usually a cheerful lot, though the presence of a number of the more vicious type sometimes made it necessary for them all to go in chains."

Shannon's account of slavery sympathetic to slave owners, hostile to abolitionists, minimized suffering. The following are excerpts from Shannon's account of life in the antebellum South, as presented by Skousen in The Making of America as “the story of slavery in America.” In them, Shannon claimed that children of slave owners envied the “freedom” of slave children and that “impermanent” marriages between slaves were a “blessing of slavery.” Shannon also dismissed accounts of cruelty toward slaves as rare or unfounded but addressed in great detail the “fear” Southern whites had of slave rebellions against “white civilization.”

  • Abolitionists at fault for delaying emancipation. “Gradual emancipation by legislative action was talked about in the South for two generations after the Declaration of Independence. A fierce contest, waged over this issue in the legislature of Virginia as late as 1832, was lost by the emancipationists largely because of resentment against the interference of Northern abolitionists and terror over the Nat Turner insurrection of the preceding year.

”Had the result been different the effect upon the border states, where slavery at best was of questionable value, may well be imagined. By too militant action the abolitionists themselves did much to perpetuate slavery in the northern group of the Southern states." [The Making of America, page 730]

  • Newly sold slaves “usually a cheerful lot.” “The tendency was to sell families as units, if for no other reason [than] to keep the slaves contented. The gangs in transit were usually a cheerful lot, though the presence of a number of the more vicious type sometimes made it necessary for them all to go in chains. At the other extreme, when the Central of Georgia railroad company in 1858 equipped a Negro sleeping car to assist in the slave trade it set a standard not always maintained in a later generation. When on the block, the slave was as likely to hinder as to help in his sale. Some, out of a vain conceit in bringing a high price, would boast of their physical prowess, in which case an unwary purchaser would likely be cheated. Others would malinger, because of a grudge against owners or traders or in order to bring a low price and be put at less tiring labor. Dealers, also, adopted the tricks of horse traders to make their merchants more attractive -- the greasiest Negro was generally considered the healthiest.” [The Making of America, pages 731-732]
  • Slaves hampered efficiency of white labor. “In the management of slave labor the gang system predominated. The great majority of owners, having at the most only one or two families of Negroes, had to work alongside their slaves and set the pace for them. Slavery did not make white labor unrespectable, but merely inefficient. The slave had a deliberateness of motion which no amount of supervision could quicken. If the owner got ahead of the gang they all would shirk behind his back.” [The Making of America, page 732]
  • White schoolchildren would “envy the freedom” of “colored playmates.” “Slave food, even if monotonous, was plentiful. Corn bread and bacon were the mainstays, with plenty of fruit and vegetables in season. In hog-killing time, countenances were unusually greasy. Clothing also was on the par with that of the poorer white people and no less adequate in proportion to the climate than that of Northern laborers. If [negro children] ran naked it was generally from choice, and when the white boys had to put on shoes and go away to school they were likely to envy the freedom of their colored playmates. The color line began to appear at about that time.” [The Making of America, pages 732-733]
  • Cruelty rare, slave owners “the worst victims.” “Excessive toil occurred only where the masters or overseers were feeble witted as well as brutal. A persistent rumor among abolitionists was that sugar planters followed a policy of working slaves to death in seven years as a matter of economy. The persons spreading such reports were as ignorant of Negro nature as they were of conditions in the sugar mills. Furthermore, they overrated the ability of the masters to know how to kill a slave in the given time instead of leaving him a broken-down burden to the plantation. When they set out to prove the accusation they returned with no evidence, but convinced that the practice existed in some obscure region which they had not succeeded in ferreting out. Harriet Martineau, after watching slaves go through the motions of work without tiring themselves, considered the planters as models of patience and observed that new slave owners from Europe or the North were prone to be the most severe. Numerous observers, of various shades of opinion on slavery, agreed that brutality was no more common in the black belt than among free labor elsewhere, and that the slave owners were the worst victims of the system.” [The Making of America, pages 733-734
  • Broken marriages “one the blessings of slavery.” “Negro weddings were attended by white people who joined in the celebration. If the marriages were of a rather impermanent nature, that fact was frequently considered as 'one of the blessings of slavery.' At church and camp meetings the Negroes, in their own section of the building or tabernacle, enjoyed the experiences immensely. They could shout without restraint, while the masters, in order to preserve their dignity, had to repress their emotions. It made little difference if religion was thrown off soon after the camp meeting dissolved -- backsliding was pleasant, and there was always a chance to get intoxicatingly converted again.” [The Making of America, page 734]
  • “Negro preachers” warranted surveillance. “The worst offenses of slaves against the white men's code were rebellion and running away. Drunkenness, stealing, hiding out from work, personal filthiness, carelessness of property, fighting, and general brutality had various positions in the scale of misdemeanors. Negro preachers often bred discontent by their unnecessary restraint upon pleasure, and, if itinerants, had to be watched closely for abolitionist or seditious doctrines.” [The Making of America, page 734]
  • Southern life a “nightmare” of fear -- for white people. “The constant fear of slave rebellion made life in the South a nightmare, especially in regions where conspiracies were of frequent occurrence. The extermination of white civilization in Santo Domingo was followed in the nineteenth century by several other bloody outbursts in the West Indies, which never failed to cause ominous forebodings in America. [...]

”In the nineteenth century, conspiracies headed by George Boxley and Denmark Vessey in South Carolina (1816 and 1822), and the Nat Turner insurrection in Virginia in 1831 were the outstanding examples. Boxley, a Negro with a sort of John Brown intelligence, escaped while six of his followers were executed. The Vessey plot, prematurely revealed, resulted in 130 arrests which culminated in the hangings of 35, deportation fo nearly as many, and imprisonment of 4 white participants. Nat Turner, a mystic type of Baptist preacher, set out to annihilate white civilization, and succeeded to the extent of 10 men, 14 women, and 31 children. He was finally hanged with several of his followers, but the after-effects of the uprising were deplorable." [The Making of America, page 735]

  • Southern slavery better than Northern freedom. “The free Negro had rather more opportunity for economic advancement in the South than in the North. The Southerner was bothered by the race problem but knew how to handle the individual Negro, while the Northerner professed a benign interest in the race so long as its members were as remote as possible. Neither section was willing to grant equal rights in education, suffrage, or legal standing, while many states of all sections had laws prohibiting the immigration of free Negroes. Abraham Lincoln could not have maintained his standing in the Republican party had he not been a staunch supporter of the Illinois exclusion law and a firm opponent of political and social equality. It was most difficult for a Negro to get a job in the North, except at the most loathsome of tasks. Some Negroes, having been freed and sent to any Northern state which would receive them, became so miserable as to solicit a return to slavery.” [The Making of America, pages 735-736]
  • Emancipated slaves hated because of Civil War and “carpetbag regime.” “This seemingly hopeless situation was by 1860 approaching a solution which was not allowed to materialize. The limits of slavery expansion either by purchase or conquest had been reached. The natural increase of slave population in a few decades would have checked the opportunities for profitable sale. It seems futile to believe otherwise than that, before the end of the century, the diminishing returns from slave ownership would have driven slave prices so low that, in self-defense, owners would have made tenants of their laborers, thrown them upon their own resources, and placed dependence upon rentals for profits. It likewise seems reasonable to believe that by this solution the Negro might have escaped the revulsion of feeling against him that resulted from forcible emancipation and the carpetbag regime.” [The Making of America, page 737]
  • The end picture-caption. At the end of Skousen's extensive quotation of Shannon, The Making of America features an illustration of two dark, manacled hands with the accompanying caption: “In some ways, the economic system of slavery chained the slave owners almost as much as the slaves.” [The Making of America, page 737]