Friday, 07 July 2017 10:38

The Lost Contex of "American Racism"

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The Lost Context of “American Racism”

Dwight D. Murphey

Dwight Murphey, a lawyer and retired Wichita State University professor, was a long-time friend of Angus MacDonald, founder of the St. Croix Review, in the Philadelphia Society. His many writings are available without charge on

That Americans have been a deeply racist people, so that their history carries an indelible stain, is a theme widely promoted by the American Left. Spread through academia, the media and the educational system, it dominates the thinking of the millions of people who are most influenced by the worldview of America’s opinion elite.

This view in effect delegitimizes pre-World War II America. Going further, it holds that millions of present-day Americans continue to be morally suspect. They are the deplorable carriers of a racism that is seen as never really going away.

To see such a general condemnation of American history, we need look no further than the interview given in July 2016 by Dr. Gerald Horne, holder of the John J. and Rebecca Moores Chair of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston:

“. . . this is a jerry-rigged republic. . . . [T]his so-called republic was based primarily upon enslaving black people, enslaving people of African descent. And rather than acknowledge that brutal and bitter reality, and its complement, which was expropriation of the land and property of your Native Americans, we get this happy talk, and we get this insistence upon saluting the flag and singing the Star-Spangled Banner.”[1]


The charge of indelible racism is expressed in personal terms when it is seen to place the American Founding Fathers beyond the moral pale. We saw this in the reaction of some 469 students and faculty at the University of Virginia to a letter from the University’s president in November 2016 in which she quoted Thomas Jefferson, who has long been honored as the founder of the university. The response to the president declared that “we are incredibly disappointed in the use of Thomas Jefferson as a moral compass. . . . [He] owned hundreds of slaves [and said that] Blacks are inferior to whites in the endowments of body and mind. . . .”

In a similar vein, the president of the San Francisco board of education has called for a renaming of the school district’s George Washington High School. Washington, too, is now no longer a figure worthy of respect.[2]

How are we to understand this reversal of so many Americans’ perspective of their history?

It will help to give a capsule summary of America’s ideological history. There are several factors worth recalling:

The first is to remind ourselves that “the alienation of the intellectual” has been a major force in the country’s life since early in the 19th century. It is no exaggeration to say that the artistic-literary-academic subculture (with of course many exceptions) has felt a deep animus against virtually all parts of the American population. Since many Americans are unaware of the alienation’s role in American history, a full understanding will require a reader’s going beyond this summary.[3]

The Romantic Movement that swept over Europe in the early 19th century moved sharply away from the Enlightenment. As at that time the word Left came into being, the Left’s ideology was formed largely in response to the intellectual subculture’s need to seek out of allies in its struggle against the predominant culture.[4] For several decades, it fashioned its main alliance with “the proletariat.”

Similar changes came about in the United States in the second half of the 19th century. The hostile critique coalesced into an ideology, in major part through the pilgrimage of large numbers of American graduate students to Europe to study under the German Historical School. The name “liberalism” came to apply to it in the 1920s, despite its repudiation of the limited government, individualist philosophy that had until then gone by that name (and that is now referred to as “classical liberalism”). An eclectic (sometimes contradictory) coalition was brought together, as we saw in the “New Deal coalition” that combined organized labor, the intellectual subculture, the Solid South, and unassimilated minorities.

What is most pertinent to our summary is that the American Left set out on a fundamentally new direction soon after World War II. In Europe, the Left became disillusioned with the “proletariat” and even with the goal of socializing an economy through government ownership of industry. Reflecting this change, American liberalism turned to an alliance with a variety of groups that it saw as disaffected and/or unassimilated. Most obvious among these has been American blacks, but it has also included women (who despite their numbers have been perceived as a minority), Hispanics (transformed into a major demographic by immigration under the 1965 Immigration Act and the influx of millions of others entering the country illegally), and most recently by members of “the LGBTQ community.” For some time after the Second World War, this led to a crusade for black equality, but it rather soon took a different direction, calling for a “multiculturalist” transformation of American society away from its European roots. This has been reinforced by support of American businesses that have welcomed the low-cost labor available through the immigration and global economy.

None of this occurred in isolation. Europe’s two internecine wars destroyed what had earlier been its colonial system and world dominance; and modern communication, transportation and markets have brought the peoples of the world into ever-more intimate contact. The consequence has been that the “Third World” of Asia, Africa and Latin America has come into its own.

Thus, the “center of gravity” has shifted. The peoples of each of the Third World regions look at the world through their own eyes, not through an American or European lens. When they come into the United States (or Europe), they carry that difference of perspective with them, valuing what they themselves are. The ideology of the American Left plays a role in encouraging their continued ethnic difference, which no longer promotes the old “melting pot” ideal of assimilation. Moreover, as we seek to understand why there is hatred toward America’s past, a key point is that the ideology encourages a deeply alienated perception of the country the immigrants have entered. One might think that those seeking refuge in the United States would cherish their new country, embrace its traditions, and revere its heroes. No doubt many do, but much of their outlook (and especially that of their “activists”) is molded by the alienated critique taught by America’s opinion makers.

This change in the mental center of gravity isn’t limited to the newcomers. Given the ubiquitous influence of the “opinion makers,” it is the common property of the millions of Americans who absorb the ethos of what is “politically correct” (a euphemism for what is ideologically requisite).

This explanation has been necessary because it wouldn’t be enough to look, as we soon will, only at the logical fallacies committed by the attack on America’s history. It has been important to know how the animus has come about, as well as how to inquire why it is wrong.

The hostile critique suffers from two related “material fallacies.” One of these we may call “the fallacy of Truncated Perspective.” The other, “the fallacy of Lost Context.” Serious intellectual errors are made by looking back on the past from a current point of view while being essentially unfamiliar with that past. If we know only the present or the near-present, and tend to see only what we want to see about the past, we unwittingly “know” what in fact we don’t know. This is reinforced by a psychology that is all-too familiar. Those who look back too facilely often have a commitment to what they think they know, making them insist on their presumed understanding. Those (either white or minority) today who take a truncated perspective of American history are often well-schooled in the mindset of “white guilt,” and, if they are white, mix this conditioning with a sense of superiority that, after all, they, at least, are among those who have risen above it all.

The problem with truncated perspective is that it is married to the other fallacy, that of lost context. It is easy to judge earlier peoples superficially if we are ignorant of the circumstances and attitudes of their day. We forget that they were people living out their lives just as we do, most of them acting in good faith according to their own lights.

The rest of this article will review the missing context. Two important truths will stand out: first, that until the middle of the 18th century slavery existed, with only a few exceptions, throughout the world; and, second, that it was considered both normal and moral. Everything that was fine and high-minded, as well as all that was destructive and venal, was done within that context. The people of a particular time, whether high or low, lived within a milieu in which there was a vast amount of involuntary servitude, slavery, serfdom, peonage, indentured service, or grinding poverty. If now we regard them as morally despicable for that reason, we arrive at a reductio ad absurdum through which we take an infantile view of human history. We stand on the shoulders of those prior generations, but without understanding, gratitude or appreciation. Later, we will see whether the likes of Washington and Jefferson, who lived just as slavery was coming into question, are entitled to the honor in which earlier Americans regarded them (and, of course, many still do). We will also see whether a better understanding of context casts the whole of American history in a different light than is cast by the alienation.

The Historical Context of Slavery — Its Ubiquity and Acceptance.

In his 1993 book, American Slavery, 1619-1877, Peter Kolchin writes that “slavery, although frequently termed the ‘peculiar institution,’ was hardly peculiar if by that term one means unique or unusual; indeed, throughout most of human history, slavery and other forms of coerced labor were ubiquitous.” About its acceptance, he adds that “it was a world with few ideological constraints against the use of forced labor.”[5] Orlando Patterson opens his book Slavery and Social Death by observing that “the institution of slavery has existed from the dawn of human history right down to the 20th century, in the most primitive of human societies and in the most civilized. There is no region on earth that has not at some time harbored the institution. Probably there is no group of people whose ancestors were not at one time slaves or slaveholders.”[6] (A caution: only the sophistries so common in today’s intellectual milieu make it necessary to point out that such statements are observations of fact, not defenses of slavery. Nor is there anything in this article that defends slavery.)

The vast literature on slavery offers many specifics:

The Old Testament “sanctioned slavery” and “Christianity raised no protest against slavery,” according to Murray Gordon in his 1989 book. “Slavery existed uncondemned among the ancient Israelites, uncondemned by the Apostles in the Greco-Roman world of apostolic times, and uncondemned by the church in Europe in subsequent centuries.” He cites the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle as arguing that for some “the condition of slavery is both beneficial and just.”[7]

Slavery was “deeply anchored in Islamic law,” and persisted “in the Muslim world” until finally it was “abolished in Saudi Arabia in 1962 and as late as 1981 in Mauritania.” Its acceptance as socially, morally legitimate appears when Gordon tells us that “Islam elevated these practices to an unassailable moral plan [sic]. As a result, in no part of the Muslim world was an ideological challenge ever mounted against slavery.”[8] By contrast, such a challenge did appear in England and America when the anti-slavery movement started in the second half of the 18th century.

A member of the British Exploring Expedition to Africa in 1819 described the ritual sacrifice of thousands of slaves in the west African Ashantee nation. In his Southern Institutes, George Sawyer says the explorer, a Mr. Bowditch, “gives a most horrid description of a sacrifice that he witnessed . . . ; yet it was all conscientious and to them seemingly right, and the victims submitted with astonishing fortitude. . . .” (emphasis added).[9]

This approval of slavery was part of a much broader phenomenon. “Man’s cruelty to his fellow man” is a tragic part of the human condition. It is still with us, albeit mitigated in part in many ways; but was especially marked during the millennia before the middle of the 18th century. Kolchin notes the “pervasive use of physical punishment in seventeenth-century England,” and says about the American colonies that “in many ways the world from which [they] came was a world of pre-modern values. . . . a world that took for granted natural human inequality and the routine use of force. . . .” As we saw above, he writes that “it was a world with few ideological constraints against the use of forced labor.”

Slavery’s Many Faces

The word “slavery” is derived from “Slavs,” coming from the fact that “Jewish merchants in the 9th and 10th centuries played a role in the traffic in Slavs across central and western Europe.”[10] It is odd for us to think of slavery as an improvement over anything else, but the routine had long been to kill captives. Enslavement served a variety of purposes, such as for cheap labor, as concubines, as ransom or in prisoner exchanges.[11] (The craving for cheap labor has at one and the same time benefitted and been the bane of existence for many societies. We have just entered an age of robotics and cybernetics that portends radically to alter the equation.)

Among the Ancients: “Before the days of Homer” in ancient Greece, slavery “generally prevailed.” In each of the Greek states “the slaves were a majority of the people,” according to W. O. Blake. He says “a historian states the proportion to have been at one period as 400 to 30. In Athens, another writer states, there were three slaves to one freeman. In Sparta, the proportion of slaves was much greater than in Athens.”[12] Plato’s dreamt-of utopia had slaves, and Davis tells us the Cynics, Stoics and Epicureans never imagined ending slavery.

In Rome, conquest introduced an enormous slave population. Edward Gibbon estimated there were sixty million in the empire during Claudius’ reign, matching the sixty million freemen.[13] Whereas the sturdy Roman farmer formed the basis for the society in the Republic of Cato the Elder’s day, “the importation of slaves enabled landowners to consolidate large estates” [the latifundia]. The result transformed Rome: small farmers were forced off the land into the city, where a large plebeian mass lived off the dole and found itself in the unenviable position of competing with slave labor.[14] Our mention of slavery in Rome and other societies is in no way a substitute for the many excellent histories that tell the nuances of slaves’ status and treatment, but a fragment that testifies to Roman slavery’s harshness is Blake’s report that “the custom of exposing old, useless, or sick slaves, in an island of the Tiber, there to starve, seems to have been very common.”[15]

Ancient Britain had it.[16] So did Egypt and Carthage, each of which “imported whole armies of slaves.”[17] Over in the Americas, the Mayans had “a large component of slaves” at the bottom of their “stratified society,” and slaves were about five percent of the Aztecs’ population, also as the bottom rung. Among the privileges of the Aztec warrior class, Robert Ryan Miller says in his history of Mexico, was to “acquire former enemy property and slaves, have a harem, and eat human flesh. Portions of sacrificial victims, cooked with squash and flowers, were served to warriors.” Thousands of victims’ heads “were skewered on public skull racks.”[18] Patterson tells of the killing of slaves as ritual in China, where “vast numbers of slaves were buried, often alive, with the earliest Chinese emperors.” About Japan, he says “between the second and third centuries B.C., as many as a hundred slaves were buried with an empress.” In light of all we know about slavery, it is hard to justify his use of a superlative when he declares that “nothing in the annals of slavery can match the Indians of the U.S. northwest coast” for their “sheer sadism” in killing slaves. He tells of “a vivid account of [a] gruesome ceremony of the Vikings from an Arab ambassador who lived among them in the tenth century.”[19] Gordon mentions that in an Islamic empire that was established in northwest India in the 13th century “there was a growing demand for slaves” from Africa. Interestingly, slaves were sent from India and Java to the Islamic slave markets in Mecca and Jeddah. He tells us that as late as 1835 “an extensive traffic in slaves was being carried on in the whole of western India” [although here we are getting beyond “the ancients]. [20]

Continuing Past the Ancients: Columbus sent five hundred American natives to Spain for sale in Seville. Although Queen Isabella gave these their freedom, that didn’t dictate her long-term policy, which legalized the enslavement of American Indians.[21]

England first authorized the slave trade in 1562 with a law that made it lawful to buy a black.[22] In his book on slavery and serfdom in the Middle Ages, Marc Bloch says there was slavery in Western and Central Europe throughout the High Middle Ages, but saw a decline from the 9th through 12th centuries (only to see it increase later). Slavery gave way to the generally more humane system of serfdom. It is in that context that Bloch says “England was definitely the country where slavery, properly so called, kept an important place in economic life for the longest time in all of Western Europe.”[23] The evolution that occurred over the centuries is noted by David Brion Davis when he writes of “the Christian dispensation that had peacefully transformed European slaves into serfs, and serfs into free peasants.”[24]

Southern Europe saw its share. Davis says “slavery had always been pervasive and deeply entrenched in southern Italy, Sicily, Crete, Cyprus, Majorca, and Mediterranean Spain.” Crete held mainly Greek slaves in the early 14th century.[25] He tells how “Muslims in Egypt and especially in the Maghrib . . . rejoiced for many centuries in their strategic access to Christian captives . . . Circassians, Turks, Greeks, Italians, and Spaniards were prized as concubines, servants, soldiers, and galley oarsmen.”[26] Blake says “the atrocious system of Christian slavery” didn’t end until an English fleet attacked Algiers in 1816, releasing “about 3,000 captives.” Morocco had been the first Barbary state to stop enslaving Christians when it entered into a treaty with Spain in 1799.[27]

Before the Portuguese colonized Brazil, the Tupinamba tribe topped off a kindly treatment of its slaves by executing and then eating them. In Mexico after the Spaniards’ conquest of the Aztecs, diseases coming from Europe “created a demographic disaster,” Miller says, during the first hundred, reducing the Indian population from twenty-five to just one million. This led to the importation of some 200,000 black slaves from Africa during the next three centuries.[28] By the end of the 18th century, black slaves outnumbered whites in Hispaniola by 500,000-600,000 to 40,000.[29] Lest we think Canada, at least, was free of slavery, it’s well to note what Davis tells us: “In 1688 even the governor of French Canada begged Louis XIV to end the manpower shortage of New France by authorizing direct shipments of black slaves.” The permission was granted.[30]

Sometimes in the truncated perspective that this article is seeking to address, the impression is held that Africa was an idyllic place, free of slavery, that came to be polluted by the European and Arab slave trades. The facts show otherwise. Gordon tells us that over the centuries Muslim tribes took “hundreds of thousands, if not millions” of black slaves in the western Sudan, while killing those who by age or sickness were unfit for work. He says there was a “widespread custom” in sub-Saharan Africa of “burying alive one or two young slaves with the body of a chief who had died.” Even as late as 1926, Ethiopia had two million slaves as part of its ten million people.[31] In his book The River Congo, Peter Forbath reports that “African tribes and kingdoms, and not least among them the Kingdom of Kongo, slaved for as long ago as there is any record or memory.” He says African slavery in several ways was relatively mild, more akin to serfdom than to chattel slavery.[32] Such a description, if correct, balances the literature’s many accounts of extreme cruelty, such as when Martin Dugard tells of “an African chief [who] allowed a live human child to be steamed like a lobster during a tribal ritual in his honor” and of another chief who “was fond of cutting off the hands and ears of subjects.”[33] We have to count among the cruelties Ethiopia’s long history of castrating young boys to create the eunuchs who were in high demand in the harems and courts of Asia.[34]

The Slave Trades

Davis says “the Arabs and their Muslim allies were the first people to develop a specialized, long-distance slave trade from sub-Saharan Africa. They were also the first people to view blacks as suited by nature for the lowest and most degrading forms of bondage.”[35]

The centuries-long Arab traffic in black slaves is largely unknown to those who have the myopic perspective and loss of context we are seeking to correct. Gordon speaks to the virtual blackout of information on this subject: “The Muslim-dominated slave trade has been shunted off into an obscure corner of historiography.” He adds, about the slavery that blacks imposed on themselves in Africa, that “this dimension of the slave trade . . . is not unique in the relative neglect it has suffered at the hands of Western historians. There has been a similar tendency to gloss over the widespread practice of slavery . . . in Africa itself.”[36]

Much better known is the European slave trade from Africa. It is said to have started “from about A. D. 990,” after which it was “reduced to a system by the Moors.”[37] The Portuguese started their traffic in 1441, exporting slaves from West Africa to several destinations in the Americas.[38] England first became involved in 1618 when King James I gave a monopoly charter to Sir Robert Rich. The trade became open (subject, however, to “certain conditions”) when the revolution of 1688 made it available to all.[39] The volume grew so enormously that “the most conservative estimates have it that no fewer than 7 million and quite possibly as many as 10 million African slaves were landed in the New World” during the 18th century. Britain “dominated the trade” at that time, but was joined by the Portuguese, the Danes and the Dutch.[40] In Britain’s American colonies, legislation in Massachusetts in 1641 approved the slave trade, as well as slavery itself for blacks and American Indians.[41] New England was long active in the slave trade. Merchants there created the Triangular Trade that ran between Africa (for slaves), the Caribbean (for sugar and molasses in exchange for the slaves), and New England (where rum was distilled). The rum was then sent to Africa to exchange for more slaves.[42]

As we seek perspective, another scarcely reported fact worth noting is that the ghastly horrors of the ocean journey were in effect shared by the black captives and the white sailors, most of whom were slaves themselves, having been shanghaied into forced service. The extreme callousness and cruelty with which the seaman were treated, resulting in a more than fifty percent mortality, is graphically described by Blake.[43]

No mention of the slave trades would be complete and fully honest, of course, without telling of blacks’ own participation. Gordon says “blacks were not strangers to the slave trade. They were known to have exchanged their fellow human beings for Arab wares long before the Europeans set foot in Africa.” [44] This is consistent with what Dugard reports when he writes that “as early as the 7th century, men, women, and children from subequatorial Africa were being captured by other African tribes and spirited across the Sahara’s hot sands.”[45] In 1849, the King of Dahomey in the southern part of what is now Benin in western Africa declined to enter into a treaty with the English abolishing the trade, and said “the slave trade has been the ruling principle of my people. It is the source of their glory and their wealth.”[46]

The Anti-Slavery Movement

The sentiment that arose in England and its American colonies in the middle of the 18th century marked the beginning of the world’s radical redirection away from the ubiquitous presence and moral acceptance of slavery. No superlative would be sufficient to describe it. It was an overturning of something that had from time immemorial been a part of the human condition. “As early as the mid-18th century,” Davis says, there was a “gradual divergence from attitudes and social patterns that had once been universally accepted.”[47]

Forbath says scattered protests against slavery had been voiced in England for a century, but that “antislavery as a political movement didn’t get underway until 1772, and the man who got it moving was a young, well-born civil servant by the name of Granville Sharp,” who brought a test case before Lord Chief Justice Mansfield and won a judgment that “slavery is so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it but positive law.” The Quakers, started by George Fox, had been active for some time, passing antislavery resolutions in 1727 and 1758.[48] After the Mansfield decision, they formed an antislavery committee, to which “the men who were to become the heroes of English antislavery — notably Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce — belonged.”[49] The campaign against slavery got underway in full force in 1787, and in 1789 the British statesman Edmund Burke spoke against slavery in the British House of Commons.[50]

From these beginnings, Britain went on to wage its decades-long naval and diplomatic drive to outlaw the slave trade and slavery itself. Denmark stopped its slave trade in 1802, Britain in 1807 (and slavery per se in its colonies in 1833), the United States in 1808, Mexico in 1829. The 1848 revolution in France led to the abolition of slavery in all French colonies. The parade continued with Persia in 1882; Zanzibar, 1897; Kenya, 1907. After World War I, the winning nations entered into the Convention of Saint Germain-en-Laye (1919), which Gordon says was the first international agreement for the abolition of slavery itself, not just of the slave trade. After many centuries, the slave caravans across the Sahara came to an end in 1929. Others to act: Afghanistan, 1923; Iraq, 1924; Nepal, 1926; Transjordan and Iran, 1929; Bahrein, 1937; Kuwait, 1949; Qatar, 1952, Saudi Arabia, 1962; Mauritania, 1981.[51]

Slavery and Its Aftermath in the United States — The Black Slave Population         

The numbers are surprising about the size of the U. S. black slave population. Citing the source “Distribution of Slaves in U.S. History,” the Wikipedia entry on slavery in the United States[52] says there were 305,326 blacks imported between 1620 and 1866. The population reproduced itself so rapidly that by 1790 there were 697,681 slaves and 59,527 free blacks, together constituting nineteen percent of a U.S. population of 3,929,214. By 1860, the year before the Civil War began, the numbers grew to 3,953,760 slaves and 488,070 free blacks, amounting to fourteen percent of the 31,443,321 U.S. population.

Conditions in the South: There is an enormous literature on slavery as it existed in the United States, and especially in the American South. What we can say here is just a small part of what could be said (just has it has been, of course, in our review of world slavery).

It is worth noting that in much of the South most whites weren’t slave owners, and weren’t closely related to any. Kolchin says “an enormous gulf separated slaveholding from non-slaveholding whites.” A third of white families owned slaves in 1830, and this had decreased to 26 percent by 1860.[53] The slaves were mostly held by the four or five thousand members of “the planter elites” who owned plantations. The Scots-Irish had migrated from Ulster in Ireland to Appalachia in the United States, and James Webb tells us that with a few exceptions “the slave system was not a part of the usual Scots-Irish way of life.”[54]

What interests us most as we seek perspective is what the conditions were for the slaves, and how they were treated. In his Life and Labor in the Old South, Ulrich Phillips concludes the situation was mixed: “All in all, the slave regime was a curious blend of force and concession, of arbitrary disposal by the master and self-direction by the slave, of tyranny and benevolence, of antipathy and affection.” He says “that cruelties occurred is never to be denied. Mrs. [Harriet Beecher] Stowe exploited them in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. . . . Theodore H. Weld had already assembled a thousand more or less authentic instances of whippings and fetters, of croppings and brandings, of bloodhound pursuits and the break-up of families.” But he cites an 1855 letter from a Bostonian visiting Charleston who said he had travelled widely without seeing any “sign of Negro misery or white tyranny.” Other letters from similar visitors confirmed the same impressions in Savannah and on a plantation near New Orleans.[55] Peter Kolchin, in his 1993 book, says “antebellum Southern publicists increasingly bombarded the reading public with admonitions to take good care of their people, looking after their physical needs, spiritual welfare, and general happiness. . . . What is more, similar themes are evident in the private correspondence of slave owners, including their instructions to overseers” (his emphasis). He describes the housing, clothing (both primitive but functional), and medical care (attentive and caring, though limited by the state of the medical arts of the day). The slaveholders, he says, lived lives that were closely connected with those of the slaves: they “held parties, barbecues, and dances for their slaves . . . [and] throughout the South, it became common practice to allow slaves a weeklong holiday between Christmas and New Year’s.” [56]

Again, we seek context and perspective. A balanced perception of American slavery won’t overlook the enormities, both in some of the treatment and in the simple fact of being a slave; but neither will it fail to consider it in the context of slavery as the world had seen it in many cultures and many centuries. The American slaves were not executed and eaten; they weren’t buried alive, individually or by the hundreds, with their deceased masters; their children weren’t boiled alive as part of a ritual. No one defends American slavery today or wants to go back to it; nor would anyone want to call it “benign”; but it is not amiss to see that there are degrees in most things, and that when considered in that light “American slavery” looks not quite as depraved as the truncated perspective and loss of context, especially when presented rhetorically as an expression of alienation, would have us believe.[57]

It is likely that if most Americans alive today were to look back into their ancestral past they would find that they are a great deal better off than their ancestors were. For millions of our contemporaries, the earlier generations were serfs, peons, indentured servants, shanghaied seamen — or slaves. Even for the arriving slaves, their situation in the colonies was almost certainly better than to have been slaves in Africa; and for their descendants, it has clearly been so. If we lose sight of such comparisons, we suffer an unappreciating naïveté born out of a lack of perspective.

American contributions: Those condemning the American past, not just for slavery but with a general animus, have lost sight of the role of the colonies and then of the United States in the transition from the age of hierarchy, monarchy, aristocracy, mercantilism, and state-sponsored religion. Even in the late 18th century, the Old Regime had its supporters, as we see presented so splendidly in England in the conversations of Samuel Johnson and the essay by Edmund Burke, Reflections on the

Revolution in France: In contrast to the Old Regime, the United States became the champion of “republican virtues,” an elected constitutional government, an ever-broadening franchise, the abolition of aristocracy, the separation of church and state, a way of life centered on personal freedom — and much else. We needn’t present all of that through rose-colored glasses, failing to see that it was not all as perfect as Fourth of July orators have long described it, to appreciate it for the giant step forward that it was. Not long ago, this author spoke to a class of high school merit scholars as part of a panel on “racism in America,” only to find that with seeming unanimity they strongly identified with a vivacious “black activist” who pictured America’s past as profoundly evil. They were well-primed to reject, almost as laughable, the notion that early America was a positive force.

Perhaps part of the problem was that they could not conceive of how a society could at the same time have slavery and be a champion of liberty and equality. This would seem like squaring the circle. Historical perspective shows us, however, that the ideas and institutions of a free society arose over the millennia precisely in compartmentalized societies. Among each of those peoples, there were those who counted and those who did not. Athens is thought the paragon of ancient liberty and civic participation, but those things applied to the free citizens, not the slaves. In Rome, the republic was, once again, for freemen, and once again not for the slaves. In England, the Magna Carta guaranteed the rights of the nobles, and the rise of Parliament as an offset to the crown occurred long before even the middle class, much less women and the lower classes, received the vote. For American colonists, the blacks were not seen as part of their polity, and the philosophy and practice of their freedom was fashioned without regard to the slaves, other than as reflected by the first murmurings of opposition to the slave system.

Its evolution as a free society was accompanied by another achievement. White Americans played a major role, complementing the British, in what became the move (as we saw above) to abolish the slave trade and slavery itself. Speaking of the mid-18th century, Davis notes “the gradual divergence from attitudes and social patterns that had once been almost universally accepted.” [58] This reached, in light of all we have seen earlier about the worldwide prevalence of slavery, an almost unthinkable historic watershed.

Among the Quakers, known as the Society of Friends, in Pennsylvania there were rumbles against the slave trade as early as 1688, and again in 1696, 1711, 1754, and 1776.[59] In Philadelphia in 1758, they took steps to ostracize members who dealt in slaves, and to persuade all Quakers to free the slaves they had.[60]

Sawyer says “the colonial authorities frequently remonstrated against [slavery’s] introduction into the colonies.”[61] The House of Burgesses in Virginia petitioned King George III in 1772 to remove his ban on moves against the slave trade.[62] So did South Carolina. The king’s refusal was cited by Thomas Jefferson in his draft of the Declaration of Independence as one of the colonists’ grievances; he called the king’s insistence on the slave trade a violation of “the most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people.”[63] Flying in the face of the king, the Virginia Assembly in 1778 passed Thomas Jefferson’s motion to prohibit the bringing in of more slaves. Patrick Henry and George Washington joined in expressing their aversion to slavery. Blake says, however, that “these generous sentiments were confined to a few liberal and enlightened men. The uneducated and unreflecting mass did not sympathize with them.” A proposal for the gradual abolition of slavery was debated in the Virginia legislature in 1832, but by that late date the “unreflecting mass” was joined by those who had become defensive toward slavery as a counter to the by-that-time fierce agitations of the Abolitionists.[64]

Phillips tells us the American Revolution prompted the abolition of slavery in the North and a move by many slaveholders in the South to free their slaves.[65] There was by that time so much feeling against the slave trade that in 1776 a resolution of the second Continental Congress called for a ban. Virginia in 1778 was among several states that acted against the trade.[66] George Washington, although not having much respect for his slaves, provided in his will for a “wholesale manumission.” A number of prominent Americans, including Benjamin Franklin and Dr. Benjamin Rush, became officers of “the Society of Pennsylvania,” dedicated to the abolition of slavery, in 1787. Such societies were soon established in Virginia and further north. Phillips quotes from a letter written by a Virginia planter in 1805 expressing his “great aversion” to cultivating his lands with slaves.[67] Finally, in 1808 the United States Congress made the importation of slaves illegal.[68]

The 1808 ban came immediately after the time that was set in the compromise made at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 ran out. Kolchin says the small minority of slave trade advocates at the Convention were able to insist on the compromise, which provided that Congress could not prohibit the trade for twenty years.[69]

A Nation Caught with a “Bone in Its Throat”

For a new nation setting out on an historic new course so totally different from Europe’s Old Regime, the result of all this was most unfortunate. The long colonial history of housing a system of servitude that had for millennia been considered normal and moral had implanted what was, in effect, a cancer — or, to use another metaphor, a “bone in the throat” — into the society. A Republic that championed liberty was stuck with the fact of slavery. “We have the wolf by the ears,” as Jefferson put it in 1820.[70] The history of race in America has ever since been one of struggle with that reality. It is possible to damn the peoples of those ensuing generations, as those who look back without perspective or context are anxious to do, but those who see America as a new departure, and who look back without alienation, see it in a different light. For them, the history since the founding has been one of continuing efforts, in the usual complex milieu of human life, to deal with a difficult problem. This is a view that looks at the past with a certain compassion.

At first, there were efforts at colonization that would return blacks to Africa, consistently with Jefferson’s belief in the 1780s that there should not be a mixed society of whites and freed blacks.[71] England had pursued this course, in 1787 establishing Sierra Leone “as a colony of free negroes.” The idea was discussed in America as early as 1783. There was thought of setting up a colony in South America, but after the American Colonization Society was established in 1816 with Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson among its leaders the decision was made to create Liberia in Africa. Liberia came into being in the 1830s, and its first government as an independent nation assumed power in 1847.[72] As late as December 1862, in a proposed Constitutional amendment hoping to settle the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln called for the colonization of blacks consenting to it, after a gradual compensated emancipation that would take several years.[73]

A variety of attempts to adapt the predominantly white society to the situation were tried over time. In his Farewell Address as president in 1837, Andrew Jackson called for moderation on the increasingly heated issue being pressed by the Abolitionists, in effect arguing that the preservation of the republic was of such importance that it should be paramount, taking priority over the moral outrage evoked by slavery.[74] Even the post-Civil War decades with their system of segregation and of “separate but equal,” as despicable as they seem today, were essentially accommodations by a people grappling with the incongruity built into their history. The residuals of that incongruity are with us to this day. All of this can be seen through the eyes of alienation, with an emphasis on the negatives, little regard for the positives, and a conviction that Americans are tainted by a pervasive evil; or it can be perceived through a perspective that provides context.

Now, an Existential Crisis

After World War II, the moral claim to equality for blacks swept all before it. Integration and enhanced opportunity offered, it was hoped, a final resolution of the long-evolving incongruity. The aspiration for which Martin Luther King, Jr., is remembered and honored was of a color-blind society.

In recent decades, however, the goal of America’s opinion makers has morphed seamlessly into something quite different. The melting-pot ideal has been replaced by both the concept and reality of “multiculturalism.” This raises the issue of race in a form never seen before. For Europe, the United States and other societies that have been European and white, the influx of tens of millions from Latin America, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa poses an existential question. Is the West to lose its identity, as so many books asking about an impending “death of the West” foresee? For whites in the West to care about this is partly a cultural concern, but is also a racial one. It is not likely that many of those who take the existential question seriously are seeking “white supremacy,” although that’s the charge often made against them. Their racism is of the same sort as that felt so deeply by people from all other cultures, who champion their ethnicity without apology. It is a sophistry (among the many to which we are accustomed) that condemns only the white concern with a pejorative cry of “racist.”

We have reviewed much factual detail in the search for perspective and context. The existential question, however, poses issues not so much of fact as of values. Where do our loyalties lie? What, if anything, do we cherish about the civilization we have known? Or do we want it supplanted by something very different?     *


[1] Interview of “The Real News Network,” July 4, 2016.

[2] Both the University of Virginia and San Francisco examples are cited in the broadcast of November 15, 2016.

[3] It is a mistake to think this has been an animus just against the “rednecks” in American life. A review of the many writings shows that the alienation has extended to Americans in virtually all walks of life. For more depth about the alienation, see Chapter 10 of this author’s book, Understanding the Modern Predicament, available on as Book 3 (i.e., B3), and his book Liberalism in Contemporary America (on the website as Book 6). Both can be accessed without charge.

[4] For an excellent discussion of this, see Eric Hoffer, The Ordeal of Change (New York: Perennial Library, 1963), pp. 38-39.

[5] Peter Kolchin, American Slavery: 1619-1877 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993), pp. xi, 7.

[6] Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), p. vii.

[7] Murray Gordon, Slavery in the Arab World (New York: New Amsterdam, 1989), p. 20.

[8] Gordon, Arab World, p. 44.

[9] George S. Sawyer, Southern Institutes (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co, 1858), p. 181.

[10] Gordon, Arab World, p. 64.

[11] Gordon, Arab World, pp. 24-05.

[12] W. O. Blake, Slavery and the Slave Trade: Ancient and Modern (Columbus, OH: J. & H. Miller, 1857) , pp. 23-4.

[13] Gibbon is cited in Blake, Ancient and Modern, p. 53.

[14] David Brion Davis, Slavery and Human Progress (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), p.29.

[15] Blake, Ancient and Modern, p. 19.

[16] Blake, Ancient and Modern, p. 369.

[17] Sawyer, Southern Institutes, p. 75.

[18] Robert Ryal Miller, Mexico: A History (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), pp. 52, 54.

[19] Patterson, Social Death, pp. 191,

[20] Gordon, Arab World, pp. 126, 135, 195.

[21] Sawyer, Southern Institutes, p. 144.

[22] Blake, Ancient and Modern, p. 98.

[23] Marc Bloch, selected essays on Slavery and Serfdom in the Middle Ages (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), pp. 30, 25.

[24] Davis, Human Progress, p. 115

[25] Davis, Human Progress, p. 55.

[26] Davis, Human Progress, p. 47.

[27] Blake, Ancient and Modern, pp. 91, 93.

[28] Miller, Mexico: A History, pp. 141-2.

[29] Blake, Ancient and Modern, p. 255.

[30] Davis, Human Progress, pp. 74-5.

[31] Gordon, Arab World, pp. 131, 6, 224.

[32] Peter Forbath, The River Congo (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), pp. `109-110.

[33] Martin Dugard, Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley & Livingstone (New York: Doubleday, 2003), pp. 14, 69.

[34] Patterson, Social Death, p. 316.

[35] Davis, Human Progress, p. 8.

[36] Gordon, Arab World, p. 5.

[37] Sawyer, Southern Institutes, p. 143.

[38] Gordon, Arab World, p. 1.

[39] Blake, Ancient and Modern, p. 107.

[40] Forbach, The River Congo, p. 145.

[41] Blake, Ancient and Modern, p. 370.

[42] See “A Forgotten History: The Slave Trade and Slavery in New England” (Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown Univesity).

[43] Blake, Ancient and Modern, pp. 136, 142.

[44] Gordon, Arab World, p. 7.

[45] Dugard, Into Africa, p. 64.

[46] Sawyer, Southern Institutes, pp. 183-4.

[47] Davis, Human Progress, p. 80.

[48] Blake, Ancient and Modern, p. 169.

[49] Forbath, The River Congo, pp. 146-7.

[50] Blake, Ancient and Modern, pp. 158, 169, 201.

[51] Gordon, Arab World, pp. 44, 114, 152, 200, 207, 215, 220, 223, and 229. Also, Blake, Ancient and Modern, p. 237.

[52] Accessed December 12, 2016.

[53] Kolchin, American Slavery, pp. 179, 180.

[54] Jim Webb, Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America (New York: Broadway Books, 2007), pp. 211, 212.

[55] Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, Life and Labor in the Old South (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1929), pp. 217, 211, 213-4.

[56] Kolchin, American Slavery, pp. 112, 114, 115.

[57] Part of the lost perspective can be seen when the charge is made that Thomas Jefferson is morally tainted and a hypocrite because he fathered children by his slave mistress Sally Hemings. The consensus today seems to be that this did occur [see the web site for its discussion of the January 2000 report of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation on this subject]. An abundant literature tells us that sex between master and slave was common historically within world slavery. Gordon says it was prohibited by the Law of Oriental Christianity, but that it was “both legally and morally correct” under Islamic law [Gordon, pp. 83, 43]. Miller [p. 142] writes that in Mexico many owners of black slaves fathered children by them, often freeing them afterwards. Many Greek and Roman slave owners actually conducted a prostitution trade. Slaves were often held as concubines, as in harems. The hypocrisy charge against Jefferson comes from the incongruity of his owning slaves despite having in his draft of the Declaration of Independence condemned King George III for insisting on the importation of slaves to the colonies, and in several other connections having acted against slavery. It is not uncommon, however, for people to live according to the customs of their time and place while simultaneously campaigning for a change. Jefferson lived in a time of transition in which many voices, North and South, were raised against slavery even as it continued as a way of life. It isn’t necessarily unreasonable for someone to be unconvinced by such exculpatory factors. What would then be unreasonable would be to lose sight of Jefferson’s several magnificent contributions.

[58] Davis, Human Progress, p. 80.

[59] Miller, Slavery and the Slave Trade, 171; Sawyer, Ancient and Modern, p. 171.

[60] Davis, Human Progress, p. 107.

[61] Sawyer, Southern Institutes, p. 206.

[62] Miller, Ancient and Modern, p. 177.

[63] Sawyer, Southern Institutes, p. 206, 207.

[64] Blake, Ancient and Modern, pp. 389, 577.

[65] Phillips, Life and Labor, p. 170.

[66] Kolchin, American Slavery, p. 79.

[67] Phillips, Life and Labor, pp. 250, 210.

[68] Phillips, Life and Labor, p. 138.

[69] Kolchin, American Slavery, p. 79.

[70] Kolchin, American Slavery, p. 89.

[71] Kolchin, American Slavery, p. 180.

[72] Blake, Ancient and Modern, pp. 358, 359, 361, 364.

[73] Davis, Human Progress, pp.269-270.

[74] Andrew Jackson, “Farewell Address,” in Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 1789-1897 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1896), pp. 292-308.

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