Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, in a major speech given in response to the Reverend Wright controversy on March 18, 2008, laid out his vision for where he wishes to lead America if elected President. The conventional political wisdom is that Mr. Obama’s campaign has been short on specifics and long on vague generalizations. What he stands for, it is generally accepted, must await announcement of his actual concrete agenda. That is what really counts. He is an unknown quantity, it is said. But this line of thinking inverts cause and effect. Ideas presuppose action. And in this speech, which is short on specifics, Senator Obama is crystal clear about his intentions.
His opening words, "We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.” sets the stage for a complete perversion of the enlightenment principles upon which our nation was founded. There are many egregious examples of this. This essay will focus on the following one. In the third paragraph, referring to the U.S. Constitution ratified in 1787, the Senator declares that:
“The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation's original sin of slavery.”
This dangerous injection of religion into the issue of America’s past slavery cannot, in my view, be dismissed as mere rhetorical flare. The doctrine of Original Sin holds that man is depraved or evil by his very nature…i.e., because of influences or events beyond his control. Man is guilty, in other words, because he is man. Man can never correct his innate sinfulness, since his nature is beyond his control, but he must atone for it through a lifetime of duty-bound self-sacrifice to…God, or society, or “others”, or the state…take your pick.
It’s not difficult to see where Mr. Obama is going with the induction of this monstrously unjust doctrine into the political fabric of America. One can say that he is laying the philosophical groundwork for some future attempt at slave reparations, but I doubt it. For one thing, he undoubtedly knows it would never fly as an explicit proposal, at least not yet. The truth is much worse. He is in effect declaring that America, and Americans, can never escape the “guilt” of slavery, reparations or not, but must pay eternal penance or atonement for that guilt, in the form of whatever socialist scheme “We the People” declares is needed at any given time. (“We the People” is used by Obama as a collective, democratic term here, rather than according to it’s original meaning of a society of sovereign individuals possessing inalienable individual rights.) Is the “stain” of “this nation’s original sin of slavery” to be used as that doctrine has always been used, as a guilt-manipulation tool…in this case to advance a political agenda?
Senator Obama speaks positively of the Founders, yet downplays their role in ending slavery. While acknowledging that “the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution,” he goes on with:
“And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part - through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk - to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.”
Referring to the Founders decision “to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations”, he is here saying, in essence, that they dropped the ball on slavery abolition. But this view implies a total inversion of the full meaning of that concession to the pro-slavery factions at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The granting of the twenty-year extension of the slave trade was a short-term political compromise that was far outweighed by a monumental achievement…the recognition of the basic equality of all people as the foundation, for the first time in history, of a nation. Far from leaving “any final resolution to future generations”, the constitution approved in 1787 in fact provided an indispensable tool for the future Abolitionists…the ideological and constitutional ammunition without which they could not have succeeded.
On what philosophical basis did “Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part” to end slavery rely on? It's true, as Obama states, that time and struggle were needed "to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.” But narrow the gap America did. That's how principles work. But principles take time to work. In America, they worked—leading to America's finest hour, the end of slavery.
What were the “ideals” embodied in those “words on a parchment” that he claims “would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage?” They are the words and ideals that he neglects to mention…that all people possess inalienable individual rights, equally, at all times, by virtue of being born a human being, and that those rights are the responsibility of government to recognize and protect. Note that the terms “slave” and “slavery” do not appear in the constitution. Rather, the phrase used to describe slaves was that of a “Person held to Service or Labour”. Person. In fact, as Isabel Paterson writes in The God of the Machine, the slaves were even “counted as persons in apportioning for the House of Representatives” (page 142). Those “words on a parchment” were, in fact, enough to “deliver slaves from bondage.”
To understand why, the full historical context in regards to slavery must be viewed. In my post of 1/8/08, I quoted historian Thomas Sowell and it is worth repeating here:
“[A]nyone familiar with the history of slavery around the world knows that its origins go back thousands of years and that slaves and slaveowners were very often of the same race…Whites enslaved other whites in Europe for centuries before the first black slave was brought to the Western Hemisphere; moreover, Asians enslaved other Asians, Africans enslaved other Africans, and the native peoples of the Western Hemisphere enslaved other native peoples of the Western Hemisphere…[and] Thousands of free blacks owned slaves in the antebellum South.”
The Founders, in other words, were battling to eradicate an evil with very deep and long roots, encompassing all peoples from all over the globe. One does not have to excuse slavery or fail to acknowledge that it is a stain on our history to see that slavery is not America's Original Sin. It is mankind's sin and America had a hand in ending it. (By comparison, look at how difficult it is proving to be to reform Social Security today, a program that goes back not thousands of years but only 70.)
The Founders and their anti-slavery allies, of course, were not operating in a vacuum. Rather, they were an integral part of a profound event born of the Enlightenment. Writes Mr. Sowell:
“Of all the tragic facts about the history of slavery, the most astonishing to an American today is that, although slavery was a worldwide institution for thousands of years, nowhere in the world was slavery a controversial issue prior to the 18th century.
People of every race and color were enslaved -- and enslaved others. White people were still being bought and sold as slaves in the Ottoman Empire, decades after American blacks were freed.
Everyone hated the idea of being a slave but few had any qualms about enslaving others. Slavery was just not an issue, not even among intellectuals, much less among political leaders, until the 18th century -- and then only in Western civilization.”
The American Republic was born amidst the first-ever concerted effort to eradicate slavery. The American anti-slavery forces at that convention in 1787 were battling against not only the representatives of an entrenched institution having roots going back thousands of years, but also against the inertia of the long-held acceptance of slavery as normal by mankind.
Michael Barone writes:
“Human slavery was tolerated, taken for granted, not seen as even something to argue about, in all cultures for centuries and millennia--until, in the 18th century, certain Britons and Americans began to question its morality.
In 1808, the first date allowed under the Constitution, Congress banned the importation of slaves and the U.S. Navy aided the Royal Navy in suppressing the slave trade abroad. When the United States acquired the Philippines in 1898, it suppressed slavery there, over the objections of many locals.
Only in the West, Sowell writes, did the movement to end slavery win support.” (emphasis added)
Note that not only did the 20-year slave-trade extension prove to be only a temporary reprieve for the anti-abolitionist faction, but the ascendance of the anti-slavery forces led to America taking a positive military role as well.
The drive to abolish slavery was an Enlightenment phenomenon. And the Enlightenment’s crowning achievement, the United States of America and the Capitalism that it spawned, were an integral part of that. The important historical fact is that there is nothing “original” about America’s early slavery. As I wrote in my post of 1/14/08:
“To fully appreciate [America’s] historic, and heroic, role, one must never forget the contextual fact that America inherited slavery from the world's pre-Enlightenment past, and that the battle against it neither began nor ended in 1776…
“My point here is certainly not to diminish the dark part of our history represented by slavery, nor of its historical significance, nor of the untold suffering of so many human beings under this evil practice. But we must never let the fact of American slavery obscure the incalculable magnificence of the achievement of the Enlightenment and of the Enlightenment’s child, the United States of America…the abolition of slavery.”
Yet Senator Obama chooses to narrow the focus so as to isolate the slavery issue from its true historical context, as a means of laying the ideological groundwork for an Obama presidency. Rather than see the true meaning of the birth of America as having an indispensable and integral role in ending slavery, he instead sees it as culpable in an evil institution with millenniums-deep historical roots. There is an obvious political agenda here. But the tying of Original Sin to the slavery issue is a way to manipulate around a crucial American principle…and most Americans’ sense of justice…that an individual should not be held liable for the crimes of another.
Senator Obama, a deeply philosophical man, appears to be cleverly appealing to Christians, especially on the “right”, by way of a central tenet of Christianity that is at fundamental odds with American principles. This is not to say that Obama’s slavery/Original Sin gambit would be an easy sell. But basic premises in one’s system of beliefs is the prime driver in determining one’s stand on concrete issues. Ideas matter most. Someone who accepts the gravely unjust proposition that a person can be held guilty, sinful, or evil because of circumstances or events that occurred before he was born must necessarily be vulnerable to his “opening gambit.” Someone who doesn’t, is not, and would therefor dismiss him out of hand. Senator Obama is seeking to strike a chord, politically, with a wide Christian audience that is already philosophically attuned to the basic premise of Original Sin.
Psychologically, the purpose of employing any variant of Original Sin is to invoke unearned guilt. In order to intellectually disarm his adversaries, Obama hopes to instill in the American people the sense that they are somehow vaguely responsible for the plight of the “African-American community” by virtue of being Americans. Whereas the Christian doctrine of Original Sin establishes the guilt of the individual, Obama’s version seeks to establish the guilt of a nation.
Of course, as Mr. Sowell writes, "Attempts to limit the discussion of slavery to slavery in the United States or in Western civilization make sense only as a strategy to get money or political concessions... To this very moment slavery continues in parts of Africa and the Islamic world. Very little noise is made about it by those who denounce the slavery of the past in the West, because there is no money to be made denouncing it and no political advantages to be gained."
Mr. Sowell is dead right, of course. But it would be a dangerous mistake, in my view, to dismiss Obama’s comments as mere election year rhetoric. First, Senator Obama has said that “race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now.” And second, the idea of collective guilt passed on generation to generation (a violation of the Constitutional ban on “corruption of blood” under the Treason clause), along with the religion connection, may be more prevalent than one might think. A correspondent commenting on my aforementioned post of 1/8/08 stated:
“The fact that white people…want to claim they were not directly responsible for [slavery] indisputably has no validity in the Bible…[T]hose very same Bibles tell us that.....We are responsible for the Sins of our Forefathers…For it is written that 'You should pray for the sins of your forefathers as you Will Not be Held Blameless!!!”
And, again quoting the bible:
“ ‘The sins of the father shall be visited upon the son’ ‘For the Seed of Generations to come’ ‘Even up to the 4th and 5th Generation’. The fact remains that the blood of your forefathers runs through your lineage, therefore White people of this generation are just as responsible for what their forefathers did as if they committed these Savage, Inhumane, Barbaric acts directly themselves. The fact remains that the majority of Blacks undoubtedly hold whites responsible for their suffering…”
“Its 2008, yet still no reparations fruition for Blacks.”
There’s more, but you get the picture. That correspondent is calling for the return, in a more “civil” form, to the primitive, brutal tribal warfare carried on generation to generation, this time between blacks and whites…a practice that the individualist, capitalist United States of America abolished. Is he right in claiming that most American blacks hold this view?
Senator Obama, in much watered-down language, is saying essentially the same thing:
“But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.”
Senator Obama has sent up a trial balloon. To my knowledge, no one has attempted to shoot it down. Abstract ideas are seen in today’s political world as meaningless curiosities. “Let’s see the specifics of Senator Obama’s program.” But bad abstract ideas cannot be allowed to fester and take root, because sooner or later they will be translated into action. Today’s unchallenged assertions, however absurd, as Ayn Rand has said, are tomorrow’s conventional wisdom.