Opinion | Morgan Liddick: America’s ‘original sin’
On Your Right
Let’s talk slavery. It’s often termed our country’s “original sin,” which presidential candidate Joe Biden opines “still stains our country.” It’s a clever turn of phrase, designed to virtue signal to certain Democratic Party audiences and to pluck at the strings of white guilt in others. It’s a phrase heard more and more in harangues about race and racism in America, and it is tripe, a cheap emotional appeal only tangentially attached to history’s realities.
Did chattel slavery exist in the Americas? Absolutely. Was it a bad thing? We certainly think so. So did some of the country’s founders, an opinion that grew in the “four score and seven” years separating the Declaration of Independence from the Civil War. But to apply today’s moral compass to the 17th and 18th centuries is historical malpractice. Those who engaged in the economy of slavery in 1750, or 1700 or even, were men of their time, engaged in part of the commerce of their time. Our criticism of them should be tempered by the understanding that we are not necessarily the apotheosis of social development; centuries hence, people may well look backward and shake their heads in disbelief at our craven foolishness. It’s happened before.
We should understand that chattel slavery as practiced in America was not invented here. The form emerged in Portuguese experiments with sugar agriculture, begun in the Cape Verde islands in the 1440s. Their system was exported together with slaves to the “sugar islands” of the Caribbean and then to the rest of the Americas. Not even the plantation system was unique here. Early forms were practiced in Ireland under the Stuart monarchs and were refined in Caribbean sugar production.
Nor were the British North American colonies and the nascent United States the largest New World market in the transatlantic slave trade. Over the three centuries this commerce in humans existed, we received about 4.4% of the total number trafficked. Spain’s New World empire received 2.5 million, or 22%. The British and French sugar islands of the Caribbean took 3.6 million, about 32%. And Brazil consumed 4 million slaves, 35% of the entire number traded in the Atlantic system. So, far from being the linchpin of the slave trade, British North America and the United States were comparatively minor players.
It is true that we were not the first to emancipate. That honor belongs to British “Upper Canada.” But more Americans died to realize emancipation than fell in all our other wars combined. Our Civil War took over 360,000 lives among the Union forces. Not all of these died in the name of emancipation first and foremost, but all of their deaths saw it done in the end. So if slavery is to be considered America’s “original sin,” it seems equally appropriate to consider it to have been expiated by these men’s sacrifice.
Nor was the United States the last New World holdout for slavery. Spanish colonies Puerto Rico and Cuba emancipated in 1873 and 1880, respectively. In Brazil — the largest consumer of the Atlantic slave trade, whose population at the beginning of the 19th century was about half slave — the last 700,000 slaves were freed by royal decree in May 1888.
Was chattel slavery odious? Doubtless, yes. Was it seen as a legitimate practice in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries? With some limited exceptions, yes. Which is the historical fact that many in the “original sin” camp strive mightily to wipe away. Their efforts are the textbook definition of imposing social and moral judgments on a past that would neither accept nor understand them, for no other reason than to shore up a political narrative that uses such ahistorical moralism to justify present day division and folly.
One of those follies is the denial of complexity in human affairs, represented by the current drive to topple statues of Washington, Jefferson and others for the future crime of owning slaves. This single-minded focus reduces these Americans to one-dimensional cartoons, eliminating the vast good they did so they may be made to vanish from the public mind. Thus does the left seek to create a new past, that it may create a new future, rife with opportunities for factionalism, conflict and — of course — the arrogation of power through unjust accusations and the random sowing of unfounded guilt.
It’s depressingly phantasmagorical, malicious and damaging, and to a person we should stop listening.
Morgan Liddick’s column “On Your Right” publishes Tuesdays in the Summit Daily News. Liddick spent 27 years working for the U.S. Foreign Service, primarily living abroad. He also spent 12 years teaching U.S. history and Western civilization at community colleges in Colorado and Texas. He lived in Summit County as recently as 2015. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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