Peculiar Institutions…Yesterday/Today

From the beginnings of this nation there was a gradual growth of an economic dependence upon a supply of free labor. That long need was supplied finally in the development of a system of enslavement, not confined to, but primarily involving African peoples. Historical forces built on prejudices and ignorance about Africans, and rationalized their victimization as a despised and inferior people.

The system which enforced enslavement became recognized as an institution, and gained the name of a “peculiar institution.” One of the meanings of peculiar especially illumines the system which enslaved Africans. That meaning comes from an understanding of parishes which developed in Colonial times, and was applied to either churches or territories in some parts of the nation. Peculiar became a word which designated a particular parish or territory which existed and functioned outside of some of the patterns which governed most parishes in a given jurisdiction. Prelates, often given the title of ordinary, were assigned to and given jurisdiction over all parishes of a certain area, but some parishes within that area were exempt from ordinary jurisdiction. Such parishes were often called peculiar institutions. The exemptions applied to those institutions often became a way of protecting those affected institutions from regulations regarded as unfriendly or unwanted.

The concept of a protected institution sheltered from regulations which might hinder it became an attractive idea for slaveholders and traders who were eager to surround their peculiar pecuniary institution with protections which would ensure its continuation and growth. The practice of designating peculiar institutions became a convenient rationale for the protections necessary for the rapidly developing institution of slavery. Built on prejudices legitimated by religious institutions, the naming of peculiar institutions became part of a polity designed to protect slavery from jurisdictional encroachments of federal or other opposed forces. Over years Congress protected slavery in the coastal slave trade, legitimated slavery in the District of Columbia, authorized seizing fugitive slaves in the North, and admitted new slave states, while the courts allowed these protections of the peculiar institution.

One of the protections erected to isolate the peculiar institution from eroding outside forces was the doctrine of states rights. Always present in any political discussion, from the founding of the nation and into any future, there was/is the tension between definitions of what is best for society as a whole, for the nation as a whole, or for individual states, and ultimately for separate locales within them. One of the outcomes of that discussion in the beginnings of the nation was the idea that states had a right to determine how life within each state should be organized on the basis of what was the perceived good for that state, regardless of what was decided in any other place. States, in this view, had the right to disregard, nullify, defy the imposition of any law, regulation, or court decision imposed from outside the jurisdiction of the state. One of the clear reasons for promulgating this doctrine was the protection it afforded to slaveholders and slave traders in states where the peculiar institution dominated life.

That doctrine of states rights is much alive today, represented most powerfully in the judicial decisions which reserve an increasing role for state courts. For those who remember the history of states rights applied to the protection of the peculiar institution, there is always a reasonable suspicion that the arguments from states rights will protect racism today. Just as Charles Sumner’s famous Freedom National speech once reminded its 1852 audience that slavery was a sectional issue, but freedom was a national issue, so it is time today to remind the whole people that, while some issues are indeed proper to leave for states to resolve, there are still issues of freedom and equality which are national issues. Human rights define good due to each human being, and no one in any section of any nation should be denied the fulfillment of those rights. For those who would erect policies, procedures, and implement practices which deny those rights to another there should be no exemption from restriction. For those who would erect powerful institutions, there should be no peculiar protection from regulations designed to implement the practice of freedom and equality.

Another of the protections erected to preserve the peculiar institution, was in the work of the American Colonization Society, short-lived in the early 19th century, perhaps alive in a different way today. The American Colonization Society came on the scene in 1816, was quickly identified by many African people as rooted in fundamentally racist beliefs about black people. While many of its advocates claimed to work to bring an end to African enslavement, most felt that free Africans ought to be relocated in Africa, in Cuba, or some other remote part of this continent, separate from the areas frequented by whites. Colonization aptly named the intent of this movement. It is dangerous to generalize the motives and programs of the American Colonization Society, because its adherents differed in both belief and programs. Colonizationists sometimes believed that enslavement was a good system and should be maintained, sometimes that it was a good system, but economically not sustainable and should be eventually terminated, sometimes that is was an acceptable system for a time, but based on false assumptions of inequality, and therefore ought to be ended, and sometimes variations of these views. Whatever happened to the institution of slavery itself, the remaining white cultural institution needed to be protected from infestations of inferiority. The underlying assumptions and beliefs of colonizationists were based in racist beliefs of white superiority and black inferiority which meant that there should be a radical separation of the races. If free, Africans ought to be free to live somewhere, not in the white back yards! The enslaved Africans, and free Africans, were and would be seen as creators of a pathetic pathology, always inferior.

It may be that the 20th century version of colonization is welfare or welfare reform, rooted too often in a pathology which assumes that there is a class of people who by virtue of their lack of individual responsibility, are simply not worthy. That pathology, implemented by public officials, and sometimes solicited from sociologists, like a crooked mirror in a carnival, casts a distorted picture of people who are made poor by a system which cannot believe in full employment. Accepting that the poor will always be with us, too many are content knowing that they are alive, perhaps barely, so long as we can keep them off our streets and out of mind. The even more callous elitist and racists will actively work to keep the poor in a political and social space defined for them, safely separate from the class of very special, peculiar, white people of caliber.

After the peculiar institution was officially brought to an end, there had to be ways to provide continuing protections rooted in the fear of black skinned people, deemed to be criminal in some fundamental way. Assumptions about blackness and criminality were clear in the very early contacts of 16th century fair-skinned Englishmen and dark Africans, and those assumptions were brought into the hearts, minds, and the structures of Colonial America, a self-conscious Anglo creation. Came Emancipation, and with post-Reconstruction the development of a prison system, strangely exempted from the Constitutional Amendment which eliminated involuntary servitude except as punishment for crime “whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Violations of any of the Black Codes, or alleged violations could lead quickly to imprisonment. From prison, the newly freed person could then be hired out for labor. The prison system was financed, and a new kind of enslavement prospered. Now almost two centuries later, prison has become the primary means of control and the place for a generation of black and brown youth. Prisons have become a business, a major growth industry with some states building prisons to house at a fee prisoners from other states, and engaging contract labor to corporations seeking workers without wages. Cast aside is the concern of previous years that incarceration might be not only a means of punishment, but a time for education and training which would use confinement as a way to prepare for a better life beyond prison. Prison becomes only a place of punishment, a collective control, and a convenient center for the economy. The imprisoned become a commodity. While the poor and black and brown accumulate a record that confirms their criminality, wealth accumulates for the wealthy, and a prison system, immune from regulations designed to protect humanness, becomes a safely guarded peculiar institution.

With a legal end to African enslavement, our nation embarked on a new journey into industrialization, created a new peculiar institution requiring protection. Some called it the free market economy. Corporate babies became giants, partly because they were surrounded with exemptions from ordinary jurisdictions, and protections against undesired regulations. The welfare of the corporations demanded certain protections, and a post-Reconstruction Supreme Court provided help in an 1886 decision that regarded corporations as individuals. So corporations, which by nature are a collection of persons, became legally, individuals, cannot be taxed differently than individuals, and are granted the protection of persons under the 1st and 14th amendments. From the view of the street it can be easily maintained that this is pure legal obfuscation, making a group into an individual person. Turn that coin over, and our history is full of instances when we have treated individuals as member of groups. The most obvious example is the 19th century peculiar institution, when we enslaved African peoples, not on a one-by-one basis, but as a group, or indeed as we said “Irish need not apply,” not considering individuals, but seeing only a group. The free market becomes a peculiar institution, invested with a God-like sanctity, roaming the world with too little concern for large groups of people whose industry is rewarded with left­overs from whatever abundance there is. This modern peculiar institution has the exponentially increasing international power to regulate as/when/where it wants to, and to manipulate exemptions which protect it from unfriendly restrictions.

The new peculiar institutions yield economic progress for the wealthy, the near-wealthy, the scrambling-to-be-wealthy, who share what they regard as very special interests.

The new peculiar institutions secure social status to those whose already secure position assumes their superior diligence and character.

The new peculiar institutions provide political power for purchase to those who benefit from economic progress.

In a very peculiar way, those who are of darker skin hue seem to gather at the bottom of most measures of education, wealth, and status. That gathering continues as a rebuke which gives the lie to our most-claimed inheritance of equality and freedom!