Condemning Slavery and America

Condemning Slavery and America

Brian T. Kennedy

by Brian T. Kennedy
August/September 2001

Originally published on Tuesday, July 17, 2001 as a Claremont Institute Precept

The California Legislature condemned slavery in America last week, more than 135 years after it ended. The joint resolution “acknowledge[s] the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies,” and “apologize[s] to African-Americans on behalf of the people of the United States for the wrongs committed against their ancestors who suffered as slaves.” The resolution – the first by a state legislature – also urges Congress to establish a national memorial, a museum, and a commission to study reparations. In an age of political correctness, most politicians would have difficulty voting against such a measure. Four state senators had the courage to do just that. Here is why.

First, the obvious: No black person alive in America today was a slave. No American alive today owned slaves. Nothing we do today can repay those poor souls who suffered under slavery.

Second, the idea of reparations is all but impossible. Slavery in America was never a simple matter of black and white: On the eve of the Civil War there were approximately 4,000 black slave owners, as well as American Indians who owned black slaves. Is anyone prepared to ask descendants of black slave owners to pay reparations to descendants of black slaves? Of course not. Instead, what all Americans of all colors ask is to be treated as equal citizens.

Third, America was the first country to be founded on the idea of human equality, and, not coincidentally, the first to publicly recognize the injustice of slavery, which existed across the globe in 1776.

In Vindicating the Founders, University of Dallas political scientist Thomas G. West cites numerous occasions of the Founders fighting against slavery, both in speech and practice. In speech, many Americans echoed the sentiments of John Adams, who explained: “Every measure of prudence, therefore, ought to be assumed for the eventual total extirpation of slavery from the United States…. I have, through my whole life, held the practice of slavery in…abhorrence.” And George Washington: “There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely that I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it.”

According to James Madison, the problem of slavery was the most divisive at the Constitutional Convention. Even though slavery violated the principles of human freedom and equality, they had no other reasonable alternative but to compromise. Demanding an immediate end to slavery would certainly have caused the slave states to reject union altogether, and establish a separate country more committed to continuing the institution of slavery.

West also points out that by enacting policies such as the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the American Founders sought to put slavery on the road to “ultimate extinction”. By prohibiting slavery from spreading to the federal territories, they had faith that the growth of free labor and the promise of liberty would eventually wipe out slavery as an institution.

Fourth, so powerful was this commitment to the principles of human equality and constitutional government that Lincoln was willing to fight a Civil War in order to prevent the South from destroying the Constitution, and spreading slavery to those new lands. Some 359,000 Union soldiers gave their last and fullest measure of devotion so that the principle of human equality – what Lincoln called “the father of all moral principle in us” – would remain the central idea of the American republic.

As Lincoln explained at Gettysburg, the blood of those who died in that struggle stands as the highest testament to the wrongness of slavery. If one wants to memorialize the struggle over slavery, the Lincoln Memorial along with Arlington National Cemetery are the best examples of how Americans viewed the evils of slavery, and the lengths they were willing to go to end it.

The politics and rhetoric from the American Founding through the Civil War can rightly be described as the greatest anti-slavery crusade in human history. This used to be obvious to every child in grade school. Today this is not so. Civic education in America is at an all time low, and the recent actions of the California Legislature is but one example of this decline.

Legislative resolutions are meant to instruct the citizens of California about matters of great import. The purpose of this resolution is to divide, to pit race against race, and to inspire contempt for the political principles and institutions that have led to the freedoms we have today. Some legislators were absent or abstained from voting for the resolution. The record does not say which. Senators Dick Ackerman, Tom McClintock, Bill Morrow, and Rico Oller on the other hand were willing to be counted on the side of the Constitution and the principles of the Declaration of Independence. For this they deserve our praise and our thanks.

Brian T. Kennedy is Vice President of the Claremont Institute and Director of their Golden State Center in Sacramento.


Copyright © 2001 The Claremont Institute. All rights reserved.

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