Watch: Newsmax host falsely declares that 'exclusively white Americans' fought to end slavery
Right-wing Newsmax host and YouTuber Benny Johnson engaged in extreme historical revisionism in an-on air Tuesday morning rant about slavery in the pre-Civil War United States.
"First off, the slave population in America at its peak was only two percent of the country," Johnson began.
This is false.
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The Library of Congress explains that by 1861, "the population of the United States was 31,429,891 million, an increase of 8,239,016 as recorded in the 1850 census. Of those 31 million, as also reported on the tables accompanying the map, 3,952,838 were slaves."
Those figures – which Smithsonian Magazine confirmed in 2014 – indicate that enslaved persons made up twelve-and-a-half percent of the population. Then, in 2021, USA Today fact-checked claims similar to Johnson's that were circulating on social media at the time:
In 1860, slavery was still legal in 15 of the 33 US states, and slaves represented nearly a third of the population in those slaveholding states.
At the time, the total US population was about 31.4 million, including more than 3.9 million slaves. That left about 27.5 million free people in the US, according to 1860 data from the US Census Bureau.
The US had 395,216 slaveholders at that time, so about 1.4% of free people were classified as slave owners in the 1860 census, according to data archived by the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series at the University of Minnesota. That's slightly different from the 1.6% in the July 11 Facebook post.
Next, Johnson stated that "slavery was regressive for the economy of the South. The economy of the South degraded during the slash-and-burn slave sharecropping practices of slaveowners. At its peak, cotton production in the South was five percent of all American GDP. That's not how you build a country."
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Here, again, Johnson was not telling the truth.
A 2019 analysis by Vox noted that "the bodies of the enslaved served as America's largest financial asset, and they were forced to maintain America's most exported commodity. In 60 years, from 1801 to 1862, the amount of cotton picked daily by an enslaved person increased 400 percent. The profits from cotton propelled the US into a position as one of the leading economies in the world, and made the South its most prosperous region. The ownership of enslaved people increased wealth for Southern planters so much that by the dawn of the Civil War, the Mississippi River Valley had more millionaires per capita than any other region."
In 2022, Bloomberg calculated that slavery, at its peak, accounted for ten to twenty percent of the US gross domestic product.
Nonetheless, Johnson pressed forward.
"Where did slaves come from in America? Well, actually, slaves predated the founding of America. Slaves were brought here by the colonists from the Netherlands, colonists from France, colonists from England, colonists from the Greater Britain, and their colonies. That's where slavery came from," he said.
It is true that those then-European empires participated in human trafficking, however, the practice was outlawed in each of them in 1860, 1794, and 1833, respectively. Johnson also omitted that "the domestic slave trade in the US distributed the African American population throughout the South in a migration that greatly surpassed the Atlantic Slave Trade to North America," per the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
Continuing on, Johnson told his audience that "slavery was already an archaic afterthought at the time of the American founding, and the majority of people at the Constitutional Convention wanted to do away with it with the stroke of a pen. That had to wait a couple of years towards the Civil War, where five-hundred-thousand Americans, predominantly white Americans – perhaps exclusively white Americans with rare exceptions – fought to make the Constitution whole and to free those slaves forever in this country."
This, too, is nowhere near accurate. For starters, twenty-five of the fifty-five delegates at the 1787 Constutitional Convention were slave owners. And although there was a contemporary debate over the future of slavery, the Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History points out on its website that "the controversy over the Atlantic slave trade was ultimately settled by compromise. In exchange for a 20-year ban on any restrictions on the Atlantic slave trade, Southern delegates agreed to remove a clause restricting the national government's power to enact laws requiring goods to be shipped on American vessels (benefiting northeastern shipbuilders and sailors). The same day this agreement was reached, the convention also adopted the fugitive slave clause, requiring the return of runaway slaves to their owners."
Furthermore, records held at the American Civil War Museum show that while "no significant numbers of enslaved or free African-American men served in the Confederate Army as soldiers... their numbers and their military service was nothing to compare with the 200,000 African-American men who served in the US Colored Troops" in the Northern Union Army.
There is no doubt whatsoever that the Civil War was fought over the Confederate States' desire to maintain the practice of enslaving human beings for economic gain. The North also held a significant advantage over the South due to industrialization, which was largely rejected by the Confederacy in favor of forced human labor.
Johnson's final comment was perhaps the most insensitive of all toward the millions who suffered in bondage, their descendants, and the individuals who sacrified their lives for the abolitionist cause and the preservation of the young nation.
"So, no, actually, slaves did not build America, and America did everything including sacrificing its young sons by the hundreds of thousands in order to get rid of that practice. Slavery was a regressive practice in the South, and no, slaves did not build America," he said, perhaps forgetting that both the White House and Capitol were constructed by upward of two hundred enslaved persons.
"In fact, America succeeded in spite of slavery, not because of it," Johnson concluded. "And that is – those are the facts. And, and, and, those are not the facts that are being given to your children."
Watch below via Media Matters for America or at this link.
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