Trump Resurrects The Old Discredited Confederate Mudsill Theory To Try And Win Votes

Heather Cox Richardson

In addition to his comments about Russia in Ukraine, Trump said something else in Thursday’s CNN presentation that should be called out for its embrace of one of the darkest moments in U.S. history. 

In response to a question about what the presidential candidates would say to a Black voter disappointed with racial progress in the United States, President Joe Biden pointed out that, while there was still far to go, more Black businesses were started under his administration than at any other time in U.S. history, that black unemployment is at a historic low, and that the administration has relieved student debt, invested in historically Black colleges and universities, and is working to provide for childcare costs, all issues that affect Black Americans. 

In contrast, Trump said: “As sure as you’re sitting there, the fact is that his big kill on the Black people is the millions of people that he’s allowed to come in through the border. They’re taking Black jobs now and it could be 18. It could be 19 and even 20 million people. They’re taking Black jobs and they’re taking Hispanic jobs and you haven’t seen it yet, but you’re going to see something that’s going to be the worst in our history.” 

Trump was obviously falling back on the point he had prepared to rely on in this election: that immigration is destroying our country. He exaggerated the numbers of incoming migrants and warned that there is worse to come.

But what jumped out is his phrase: “They’re taking Black jobs and they’re taking Hispanic jobs.” 

In U.S. history it has been commonplace for political leaders to try to garner power by warning their voters that some minority group is coming for their jobs. In the 1840s, Know-Nothings in Boston warned native-born voters about Irish immigrants; in 1862 and 1864, Democrats tried to whip up support by warning Irish immigrants that after Republicans fought to end enslavement, Black Americans would move north and take their jobs. In the 1870s, Californian Denis Kearney of the Workingman’s Party drew voters to his standard by warning that Chinese immigrants were taking their jobs and insisted: “The Chinese Must Go!” 

And those were just the early days.

But while they are related, there is a key difference between these racist appeals and the racism that Trump exhibited on Thursday. Politicians have often tried to get votes by warning that outsiders would draw from a pool of jobs that potential voters wanted themselves. Trump’s comments the other night drew on that racism but reached back much further to the idea that there are certain jobs that are “Black” or “Hispanic.”

This is not a new idea in the United States. 

“In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life,” South Carolina senator James Henry Hammond told his colleagues in 1858. “That is, a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill. Its requisites are vigor, docility, fidelity. Such a class you must have, or you would not have that other class which leads progress, civilization, and refinement. It constitutes the very mud-sill of society and of political government; and you might as well attempt to build a house in the air, as to build either the one or the other, except on this mud-sill.” 

Capital produced by the labor of mudsills would concentrate in the hands of the upper class, who would use it efficiently and intelligently to develop society. Their guidance elevated those weak-minded but strong-muscled people in the mudsill class, who were “happy, content, unaspiring, and utterly incapable, from intellectual weakness, ever to give us any trouble by their aspirations.”

Southern leaders were smart enough to have designated a different race as their society’s mudsills, Hammond said, but in the North the “whole hireling class of manual laborers and ‘operatives,’ as you call them, are essentially slaves.” This created a political problem for northerners, for the majority of the population made up that lower class. “If they knew the tremendous secret, that the ballot-box is stronger than ‘an army with banners,’ and could combine, where would you be?” Hammond asked his colleagues who insisted that all people were created equal. “Your society would be reconstructed, your government overthrown, your property divided.” 

The only true way to look at the world was to understand that some people were better than others and had the right and maybe the duty, to rule. “I repudiate, as ridiculously absurd, that much-lauded but nowhere accredited dogma of Mr. Jefferson, that ‘all men are born equal’” Hammond wrote, and it was on this theory that some people are better than others that southern enslavers based their proposed new nation. 

“Our new government is founded…upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical and moral truth,” Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, told supporters. 

Not everyone agreed. For his part, rising politician Abraham Lincoln stood on the Declaration of Independence. Months after Hammond’s speech, Lincoln addressed German immigrants in Chicago. Arguments that some races are “inferior,” he said, would “rub out the sentiment of liberty in the country, and…transform this Government into a government of some other form.” The idea that it is beneficial for some people to be dominated by others, he said, is the argument “that kings have made for enslaving the people in all ages of the world…. Turn in whatever way you will—whether it come from the mouth of a King, an excuse for enslaving the people of his country, or from the mouth of men of one race as a reason for enslaving the men of another race, it is all the same old serpent.” 

According to the mudsill theory, he said the following year, “a blind horse upon a tread-mill, is a perfect illustration of what a laborer should be—all the better for being blind, that he could not tread out of place, or kick understandingly. According to that theory, the education of laborers, is not only useless, but pernicious, and dangerous.” He disagreed. “[T]here is not, of necessity, any such thing as the free hired laborer being fixed to that condition for life.”

He went on to tie the mudsill theory to the larger principles of the United States. “I should like to know if taking this old Declaration of Independence, which declares that all men are equal upon principle and making exceptions to it, where will it stop,” he said. “If that declaration is not the truth, let us get the Statute book, in which we find it and tear it out!” To cries of “No, no,” he concluded to cheers: “Let us stick to it then. Let us stand firmly by it.” 

One hundred and sixty-six years later, Black and Hispanic social media users have answered Trump’s statement about “Black jobs” and “Hispanic jobs” with photos of themselves in highly skilled professional positions. But while they did so with good humor, they were illustrating for the modern world the principle Lincoln articulated: in the United States there should be no such thing as “Black jobs” or “Hispanic jobs.” 

Such a construction directly contradicts the principles of the Declaration of Independence and ignores the victory of the United States in the Civil War. Anyone who sees the world through such a lens is on the wrong side of history. 

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