Those who want to discredit the United States and to deny our role as history’s most powerful and pre-eminent force for freedom, goodness and human dignity invariably focus on America’s bloody past as a slave-holding nation. Along with the displacement and mistreatment of Native Americans, the enslavement of literally millions of Africans counts as one of our two founding crimes—and an obvious rebuttal to any claims that this Republic truly represents “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” According to America-bashers at home and abroad, open-minded students of our history ought to feel more guilt than pride, and strive for “reparations” or other restitution to overcome the nation’s uniquely cruel, racist and rapacious legacy.
Unfortunately, the current mania for exaggerating America’s culpability for the horrors of slavery bears no more connection to reality than the old, discredited tendency to deny that the U.S. bore any blame at all. No, it’s not true that the “peculiar institution” featured kind-hearted, paternalistic masters and happy, dancing field-hands, any more than it’s true that America displayed unparalleled barbarity or enjoyed disproportionate benefit from kidnapping and exploiting innocent Africans.
An honest and balanced understanding of the position of slavery in the American experience requires a serious attempt to place the institution in historical context and to clear-away some of the common myths and distortions.
1. SLAVERY WAS AN ANCIENT AND UNIVERSAL INSTITUTION, NOT A DISTINCTIVELY AMERICAN INNOVATION. At the time of the founding of the Republic in 1776, slavery existed literally everywhere on earth and had been an accepted aspect of human history from the very beginning of organized societies. Current thinking suggests that human beings took a crucial leap toward civilization about 10,000 years ago with the submission, training and domestication of important animal species (cows, sheep, swine, goats, chickens, horses and so forth) and, at the same time, began the “domestication,” bestialization and ownership of fellow human beings captured as prisoners in primitive wars. In ancient Greece, the great philosopher Aristotle described the ox as “the poor man’s slave” while Xenophon likened the teaching of slaves “to the training of wild animals.” Aristotle further opined that “it is clear that there are certain people who are free and certain who are slaves by nature, and it is both to their advantage, and just, for them to be slaves.” The Romans seized so many captives from Eastern Europe that the terms “Slav” and “slave” bore the same origins. All the great cultures of the ancient world, from Egypt to Babylonia, Athens to Rome, Persia to India to China, depended upon the brutal enslavement of the masses – often representing heavy majorities of the population. Contrary to the glamorization of aboriginal New World cultures, the Mayas, Aztecs and Incas counted among the most brutal slave-masters of them all — not only turning the members of other tribes into harshly abused beasts of burden but also using these conquered enemies to feed a limitless lust for human sacrifice. The Tupinamba, a powerful tribe on the coast of Brazil south of the Amazon, took huge numbers of captives, then humiliated them for months or years, before engaging in mass slaughter of their victims in ritualized cannibalistic feasts. In Africa, slavery also represented a timeless norm long before any intrusion by Europeans. Moreover, the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch or British slave traders rarely penetrated far beyond the coasts: the actual capture and kidnapping of the millions of victims always occurred at the hands of neighboring tribes. As the great African-American historian Nathan Huggins pointed out, “virtually all of the enslavement of Africans was carried out by other Africans” but the concept of an African “race” was the invention of Western colonists, and most African traders “saw themselves as selling people other than their own.” In the final analysis, Yale historian David Brion Davis in his definitive 2006 history “Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World” notes that “colonial North America…surprisingly received only 5 to 6 percent of the African slaves shipped across the Atlantic.” Meanwhile, the Arab slave trade (primarily from East Africa) lasted longer and enslaved more human beings than the European slavers working the other side of the continent. According to the best estimates, Islamic societies shipped between 12 and 17 million African slaves out of their homes in the course of a thousand years; the best estimate for the number of Africans enslaved by Europeans amounts to 11 million. In other words, when taking the prodigious and unspeakably cruel Islamic enslavements into the equation, at least 97% of all African men, women and children who were kidnapped, sold, and taken from their homes, were sent somewhere other than the British colonies of North America. In this context there is no historical basis to claim that the United States bears primary, or even prominent guilt for the depredations of centuries of African slavery.
2. SLAVERY EXISTED ONLY BRIEFLY, AND IN LIMITED LOCALES, IN THE HISTORY OF THE REPUBLIC – INVOLVING ONLY A TINY PERCENTAGE OF THE ANCESTORS OF TODAY’S AMERICANS. The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution put a formal end to the institution of slavery 89 years after the birth of the Republic; 142 years have passed since this welcome emancipation. Moreover, the importation of slaves came to an end in 1808 (as provided by the Constitution), a mere 32 years after independence, and slavery had been outlawed in most states decades before the Civil War. Even in the South, more than 80% of the white population never owned slaves. Given the fact that the majority of today’s non-black Americans descend from immigrants who arrived in this country after the War Between the States, only a tiny percentage of today’s white citizens – perhaps as few as 5% — bear any authentic sort of generational guilt for the exploitation of slave labor. Of course, a hundred years of Jim Crow laws, economic oppression and indefensible discrimination followed the theoretical emancipation of the slaves, but those harsh realities raise different issues from those connected to the long-ago history of bondage.
3. THOUGH BRUTAL, SLAVERY WASN’T GENOCIDAL: LIVE SLAVES WERE VALUABLE BUT DEAD CAPTIVES BROUGHT NO PROFIT. Historians agree that hundreds of thousands, and probably millions of slaves perished over the course of 300 years during the rigors of the “Middle Passage” across the Atlantic Ocean. Estimates remain inevitably imprecise, but range as high as one third of the slave “cargo” who perished from disease or overcrowding during transport from Africa. Perhaps the most horrifying aspect of these voyages involves the fact that no slave traders wanted to see this level of deadly suffering: they benefited only from delivering (and selling) live slaves, not from tossing corpses into the ocean. By definition, the crime of genocide requires the deliberate slaughter of a specific group of people; slavers invariably preferred oppressing and exploiting live Africans rather than murdering them en masse. Here, the popular, facile comparisons between slavery and the Holocaust quickly break down: the Nazis occasionally benefited from the slave labor of their victims, but the ultimate purpose of facilities like Auschwitz involved mass death, not profit or productivity. For slave owners and slave dealers in the New World, however, death of your human property cost you money, just as the death of your domestic animals would cause financial damage. And as with their horses and cows, slave owners took pride and care in breeding as many new slaves as possible. Rather than eliminating the slave population, profit-oriented masters wanted to produce as many new, young slaves as they could. This hardly represents a compassionate or decent way to treat your fellow human beings, but it does amount to the very opposite of genocide. As David Brion Davis reports, slave holders in North America developed formidable expertise in keeping their “bondsmen” alive and healthy enough to produce abundant offspring. The British colonists took pride in slaves who “developed an almost unique and rapid rate of population growth, freeing the later United States from a need for further African imports.”
4. IT’S NOT TRUE THAT THE U.S. BECAME A WEALTHY NATION THROUGH THE ABUSE OF SLAVE LABOR: THE MOST PROSPEROUS STATES IN THE COUNTRY WERE THOSE THAT FIRST FREED THEIR SLAVES. Pennsylvania passed an emancipation law in 1780; Connecticut and Rhode Island followed four years later (all before the Constitution). New York approved emancipation in 1799. These states (with dynamic banking centers in Philadelphia and Manhattan) quickly emerged as robust centers of commerce and manufacturing, greatly enriching themselves while the slave-based economies in the South languished by comparison. At the time of the Constitution, Virginia constituted the most populous and wealthiest state in the Union, but by the time of the War Between the States the Old Dominion had fallen far behind a half-dozen northern states that had outlawed slavery two generations earlier. All analyses of Northern victory in the great sectional struggle highlights the vast advantages in terms of wealth and productivity in New England, the Mid-Atlantic States and the Midwest, compared to the relatively backward and impoverished states of the Confederacy. While a few elite families in the Old South undoubtedly based their formidable fortunes on the labor of slaves, the prevailing reality of the planter class involved chronic indebtedness and shaky finances long before the ultimate collapse of the evil system of bondage. The notion that America based its wealth and development on slave labor hardly comports with the obvious reality that for two hundred years since the founding of the Republic, by far the poorest and least developed section of the nation was precisely that region where slavery once prevailed.
5. WHILE AMERICA DESERVES NO UNIQUE BLAME FOR THE EXISTENCE OF SLAVERY, THE UNITED STATES MERITS SPECIAL CREDIT FOR ITS RAPID ABOLITION. In the course of scarcely more than a century following the emergence of the American Republic, men of conscience, principle and unflagging energy succeeded in abolishing slavery not just in the New World but in all nations of the West. During three eventful generations, one of the most ancient, ubiquitous and unquestioned of all human institutions (considered utterly indispensable by the “enlightened” philosophers of Greece and Rome) became universally discredited and finally illegal – with Brazil at last liberating all its slaves in 1888. This worldwide mass movement (spear-headed in Britain and elsewhere by fervent Evangelical Christians) brought about the most rapid and fundamental transformation in all human history. While the United States (and the British colonies that preceded our independence) played no prominent role in creating the institution of slavery, or even in establishing the long-standing African slave trade pioneered by Arab, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and other merchants long before the settlement of English North America, Americans did contribute mightily to the spectacularly successful anti-slavery agitation. As early as 1646, the Puritan founders of New England expressed their revulsion at the enslavement of their fellow children of God. When magistrates in Massachusetts discovered that some of their citizens had raided an African village and violently seized two natives to bring them across the Atlantic for sale in the New World, the General Court condemned “this haynos and crying sinn of man-stealing.” The officials promptly ordered the two blacks returned to their native land. Two years later, Rhode Island passed legislation denouncing the practice of enslaving Africans for life and ordered that any slaves “brought within the liberties of this Collonie” be set free after ten years “as the manner is with the English servants.” A hundred and thirty years later John Adams and Benjamin Franklin both spent most of their lives as committed activists in the abolitionist cause, and Thomas Jefferson included a bitter condemnation of slavery in his original draft of the Declaration of Independence. This remarkable passage saw African bondage as “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty” and described “a market where MEN should be bought and sold” as constituting “piratical warfare” and “execrable commerce.” Unfortunately, the Continental Congress removed this prescient, powerful denunciation in order to win approval from Jefferson’s fellow slave-owners, but the impact of the Declaration and the American Revolution remained a powerful factor in energizing and inspiring the international anti-slavery cause. Nowhere did idealists pay a higher price for liberation than they did in the United States of America. Confederate forces (very few of whom ever owned slaves) may not have fought consciously to defend the Peculiar Institution, but Union soldiers and sailors (particularly at the end of the war) proudly risked their lives for the emancipation cause. Julia Ward Howe’s powerful and popular “Battle Hymn of the Republic” called on Federal troops to follow Christ’s example: “as he died to make men holy/let us die to make men free.” And many of them did die, some 364,000 in four years of combat—or the stunning equivalent of five million deaths as a percentage of today’s United States population. Moreover, the economic cost of liberation remained almost unimaginable. In nearly all other nations, the government paid some form of compensation to slave-owners at the time of emancipation, but Southern slave-owners received no reimbursement of any kind when they lost an estimated $3.5 billion in 1860 dollars (about $70 billion in today’s dollars) of what Davis describes as a “hitherto legally accepted form of property.” The most notable aspect of America’s history with slavery doesn’t involve its tortured and bloody existence, but the unprecedented speed and determination with which abolitionists roused the national conscience and put this age-old evil to an end.
6. THERE IS NO REASON TO BELIEVE THAT TODAY’S AFRICAN-AMERICANS WOULD BE BETTER OFF IF THEIR ANCESTORS HAD REMAINED BEHIND IN AFRICA. The idea of reparations rests on the notion of making up to the descendants of slaves for the incalculable damage done to their family status and welfare by the enslavement of generations of their ancestors. In theory, reparationists want society to repair the wrongs of the past by putting today’s African-Americans into the sort of situation they would have enjoyed if their forebears hadn’t been kidnapped, sold and transported across the ocean. Unfortunately, to bring American blacks in line with their cousins who the slave-traders left behind in Africa would require a drastic reduction in their wealth, living standards, and economic and political opportunities. No honest observer can deny or dismiss this nation’s long record of racism and injustice, but it’s also obvious that Americans of African descent enjoy vastly greater wealth and human rights of every variety than the citizens of any nation of the Mother Continent. If we sought to erase the impact of slavery on specific black families, we would need to obliterate the spectacular economic progress made by those families (and by US citizens in general) over the last 100 years. In view of the last century of history in Nigeria or Ivory Coast or Sierra Leone or Zimbabwe, could any African American say with confidence that he or she would have fared better had some distant ancestor not been enslaved? Of course, those who seek reparations would also cite the devastating impact of Western colonialism in stunting African progress, but the United States played virtually no role in the colonization of the continent. The British, French, Italians, Portuguese, Germans and others all established brutal colonial rule in Africa; tiny Belgium became a particularly oppressive and bloodthirsty colonial power in the Congo. The United States, on the other hand, sponsored only one long-term venture on the African continent: the colony of Liberia, an independent nation set up as a haven for liberated American slaves who wanted to go “home.” The fact that so few availed themselves of the opportunity, or heeded the back-to-African exhortations of turn- of-the-century Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey, reflects the reality that descendants of slaves understood they were better off remaining in the United States, for all its faults.
In short, politically correct assumptions about America’s entanglement with slavery lack any sense of depth, perspective or context. As with so many other persistent lies about this fortunate land, the unthinking indictment of the United States as uniquely blameworthy for an evil institution ignores the fact that the record of previous generations provides some basis for pride as well as guilt.