For generations, children have been spared the whole, terrible reality about slavery’s place in U.S. history, but some schools are beginning to strip away the
deception and evasions.
And right off the bat, we get a glaring deception:
Pacing his classroom in north-central Iowa, Tom McClimon prepared to deliver an essential truth about American history to his eighth-grade students. He stopped and slowly raised his index finger.
“Think about this. For 246 years, slavery was legal in America. It wasn’t made illegal until 154 years ago,” the 26-year-old teacher told the 23 students sitting before him at Fort Dodge Middle School. “So, what does that mean? It means slavery has been a part of America much longer than it hasn’t been a part of America.”
It is a simple observation, but it is also a revelatory way to think about slavery in America and its inextricable role in the country’s founding, evolution and present. Ours is a nation born as much in chains as in freedom. A century and a half after slavery was made illegal — and 400 years after the first documented arrival of enslaved people from Africa in Virginia — the trauma of this inherited disease lingers.
Let me offer Heim a revelatory fact. America is not 400—246 + 154—years old. It is a simple observation. Can Heim really not know that America—the United States of America—was Founded 243 years ago, in 1776? That the inhabitants of Jamestown were not Americans, but English colonists living in North America? What about the philosophical basis of slavery? What about the philosophical case against slavery? Nothing, other than a passing reference to the Declaration of Independence, as if that document is a minor historical artifact, rather than the most Earth-shaking political statement ever adopted as the foundation of a nation.
There’s a lot to chew on, enough to fill books. And it has. But let me make a few essential points.
Historically, slavery was not a uniquely American institution, although Confederate slavery was particularly brutal. Slavery was a world institution. Most African slaves were sent to places other than English colonies, such as Brazil. As Heim correctly states, slavery was inherrited, not unique to America or the preceding colonies..
America was not born 400 years ago. America was born of the Enlightenment, which post-dated Jamestown. The Enlightenment, led by giants such as John Locke, spawned the philosophical ideals, such as individual rights, that stand contrary to slavery and that would eradicate slavery all over the West. America was born in 1776, with the signing of the Declaration of Independence--the direct outgrowth of the Enlightenment. With that philosophical blueprint, the U.S. Constitution was drafted, and ratified in 1788. The Constitution, its flaws notwithstanding, was the driving force behind the victorious Gerrit Smith/Frederick Douglass wing of the pro-Constitution wing of the Abolitionist Movement, as opposed to the anti-Constitution William Lloyd Garrison wing. Smith and especially Douglass believed slavery can only be defeated on philosophical grounds, not just because of its cruelty, but also because even a well cared-for slave deserves freedom. The Declaration and Constitution, they believed, provided that philosophical firepower. They considered the U.S. Constitution to be a glorious liberty document and therefore a powerful anti-slavery document.
The injustices that have plagued American blacks in the last 154 years is, in my view, primarily a lagacy of racism, not just slavery. True, American slavery was justified in large part by racism—the idea that blacks were inferior beings incapable of living free. But slavery, which existed throughout human history and around the globe, is not in and of itself essentially a racist institution. Racism predated slavery in America, and went on afterwards. If racism had been eradicated from America’s legal structure at the same time as slavery—e.g., no Jim Crow, no “Separate-but-Equal”, no segregated schools, transportation, or commerce, etc.—the history of the last 154 years would have been much more just. We certainly wouldn’t be talking about the lingering “trauma” or “legacy” of slavery. Unfortunately, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments that followed the Civil War were largely ignored, and the nation, especially the South, backslid into an effective re-enslavement. The real disease of the last 154 years is racism backed by law. Racism is collectivism. Here again, as with slavery, the antidote to legalized racism, and ultimately of racism in the culture, is the individualism embodied in America’s Founding documents. As Constitutional scholar Timothy Sandefur observes of another leading Abolitionist, Charles Sumner,
“Sumner and his allies were guided by the belief that America was not premised on racism, as both Garrison and Calhoun claimed—and many today still claim. He insisted, on the contrary, that the end of bondage and segregation was mandated by the truths articulated in the Declaration of Independence, which, echoing [President John Quincy] Adams, he called ‘the controlling preamble of the Constitution’.” [My emphasis]
The American Revolution was radically unique in history. Typically, revolutions involved the overthrow of one government and replacement by another, replacing one form of statism with another. America was different. Margaret Thatcher correctly observed: “America was created by philosophy." America was born amidst a titanic clash of ideas, the ancient ideas of statism and collectivism versus the new liberal Enlightenment ideals of liberty and individualism. The American Revolution was a victory for liberty and individualism on the battlefield of arms. But it was a battle, not the war. The wider war was on the battlefield of ideas--the philosophical battlefield. You can change a government overnight. But you can’t win a war of ideas overnight. Ideas are about changing minds. The mind is an individual attribute. So you win the war of ideas one mind at a time. Therefore, ideas take time to penetrate a culture. The American Revolution, being a philosophical revolution, was a huge step forward. But it was not the final victory of the overarching war. The Philosophical war predated America, and continued after. From the start of America, the forces of statism/collectivism have been pushing back. The current attempt to recast America as a slave state is part of that statist/collectivist counter-revolution against freedom/individualism.
This longrunning war of ideas is the context by which the current debate about slavery’s place in American history must be understood. The abolition of slavery and the defeat of racist Jim Crow laws and the like is what defines America, because they represent the victory of American ideals of individual rights and political equality. The same can be said, for example, about women’s suffrage and marriage equality for interracial and homosexual couples. Of course, those ideals don’t always win. Sometimes, the reactionaries regroup. More progress needs to be achieved. But American ideals are key to finishing the job. We shouldn’t let the historical revisionists whitewash these ideals under cover of Teaching America’s truth. America’s truth begins with its philosophy as essentialized in the Declaration of Independence and the ongoing struggle to get everyone to live up to those ideals. It did not begin with 1619 Jamestown. To assert that “For 246 years, slavery was legal in America” is a flagrant distortion of history because it ignores the great principles that actually marked the Founding of America. The pre-Enlightenment Jamestown of 1619 was not the America of 1788. There’s some truth that, in practical terms, “Ours is a nation born as much in chains as in freedom.” But that’s a result of many of its people failing to live up to the new nation’s ideals. It is the freedom, not the chains, that define America. Slavery was an inherited aberration. Establishing individual sovereignty as the explicit basis of a nation’s Founding is progress, and a historical first. The fight against slavery and racism is fundamentally a philosophical fight, and America is on the right side of that fight. The horrors of slavery in America should be fully aired, for sure. But that airing, to get it right, must be placed in the context of that philosophical fight. We need the whole truth. The United states of America is the nation born of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment commenced in the late 17th Century, and extended through most of the 18th Century. As historian Thomas Sowell observes,
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.
My emphasis: America was born amid the time when slavery became controversial, and America was born on the right side of that controversy. 1619 Jamestown was situated on land that would become part of America. But it cannot in any way be part of the history of the United States of America. America is the nation of liberty. It cannot be held responsible for the anti-liberty that preceded it.
So why do Heim and the “range of critics — historians, educators, civil rights activists — [who] want to change how schools teach the subject” gloss over or ignore the anti-slavery documents that mark the Founding of America? Heim hints at the answer when he disapprovingly quotes from a history lesson this passage:
“With all the drawbacks of slavery, it should be noted that slavery was the earliest form of social security in the United States,” students read in Alabama history textbooks of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.
In fact, that statement is a truth that modern collectivist-statists don’t want you to learn--or even acknowledge themselves. Slavery was defended by Confederate intellectuals like George Fitzhugh on socialist grounds. Slavery was superior to free labor, argued the slaveocrats, anticipating Marx and today's Democratic socialists, because it guaranteed cradle-to-grave care in exchange for full guaranteed employment. Socialists would echo the same theme in the 20th and early 21st Centuries. Modern socialist programs like Social Security are remarkably similar to whatpro-Constitution Abolitionist Frederick Douglass went through as a slave. Douglass’s master Hugh Auld lent him out to the shipyards, where Douglass worked for $9 a week. But he had to turn his paycheck over to Auld every week. Whether working in the fields or the shipyards for money, how is that different, in principle, from Social Security or any like program, in which the government takes part of your work earnings in exchange for taking care of you in your old age, or in some other respect? Granted, partial slavery is not full slavery. Degree matters, in terms of tolerability. But if it’s only a matter of degree, it’s only a matter of time from partial slavery—the welfare state—to full slavery, socialism. That socialism is synonomous with slavery is a truth that the modern "new" socialists must squarely face up to.
But they can’t--or won’t. Why? Because America’s Founding Documents are as much anti-socialist as they are anti-slavery, and for the same reasons. 20th-21st Century socialism is as much a repudiation of Americanism as slavery was 154 years ago. With a "new" socialism on the rise in 21st Century America, modern Democratic Socialists have a powerful reason to minimize or evade the role of the liberal principles of Americanism in defeating Colonial and Confederate slavery.
This also explains why Heim asserts that
Two years ago, the district started teaching slavery as fundamental to America’s growth, wealth and identity rather than as a tangential part of the country’s history. Slavery would be emphasized and fully explored, not avoided or downplayed. [Emphasis added]
The New York Times echoes this shocking assertion, claiming that “slavery is the foundation on which this country is built.” Again, slavery existed in every nation and culture, throughout human history. Yet poverty-ridden stagnation persisted for thousands of years. There was no explosion of general prosperity until the late 18th Century, when the modern dramatic upward trajectory of the generalstandard of living commenced. If slavery is “fundamental to America’s growth” and “the foundation on which this country is built", why did this dramatic explosion of prosperity and progress only happen in the last 250 years? Why not throughout history, which according to the logic of Heim and the NYT, should have been one long economic boom? The answer is obvious, but needs to be strongly emphasized: It is individual rights, free markets, and capitalism—to the extent people were allowed to enjoy those freedoms—that was “fundamental to America’s growth, wealth and identity,” and fundamental to any growth anywhere. It was the free capitalist North that prospered while the South stagnated. As Timothy Sandefur observes, Frederick Douglass was stunned upon his escape to the North:
[Douglass] was awestruck by the prosperity of the metropolis. Having been taught that slavery was the basis of all wealth, he had assumed that the North must be poor, and could hardly believe the bustling industry about him.
New Bedford [Massachusetts] was alive with railroads, factories, mills, and foundries, and Douglass was impressed by the difference between it and the relative indolence of Baltimore.
Alexis de Tocqueville made the same observation. “[I]mpressed by the different cultures of north and south,” he observed that In the south, “society has gone to sleep” by the “idle ease” because slavery “not only prevents the white men from making their fortunes but even diverts them from wishing to do so.” In the free North, “one will never see a man of leisure [because] the opportunity for profit and self-improvement encouraged hard work and commerce.” Black American innovators and entrepreneurs flourished as free people, not as slaves. And the Northern states, though far from perfect, were the part of America that was most aligned with American principles--and the most economically progressive.
In their zeal to discredit capitalism, Left collectivists actually preach what Douglass knew to be false—the myth that slavery, not freedom, is fundamental to prosperity. In that regard, Heim and his ilk are on the same side as slavery’s advocates. By claiming that slavery was, or even could be, fundamental to a country’s economic growth and wealth, the revisionists are essentially agreeing with slave champion John C. Calhoun, who in the 1830s argued that “slavery was not an evil to be eliminated, but a ‘positive good’.”
Slavery is no a “positive good.” It is an evil that logic and history unequivocally proves holds progress back. The fact is that, in its Founding ideals, the United States of America is the only completely anti-slavery country that ever existed. That’s America’s truth, and any teacher who discusses slavery without orienting the subject around that central truth is not teaching American history. He is “teaching” anti-American indoctrination.
But maybe that’s the point. If, as the line of thinking expressed by Heim and the NYT goes, slavery is key to prosperity, then slavery must be good. The only question then becomes, how to implement slavery equally and “fairly”. To repeat the question, why the reactionary urge to elevate slavery over freedom as the defining characteristic of America? After all, if freedom is good, why not fight to spread freedom to every individual, leaving no one out, as urged by the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Fredrick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Ayn Rand, Martin Luther King, and Harvey Milk? The answer is simple. It’s the freedom, not the slavery, that the reactionaries want to evict. The rise of socialism in 21st Century America can not proceed on the basis of American ideals rooted in individual rights. In the same way and for the same reason that the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution are anti-slavery documents, they are also anti-socialist documents. Socialism holds that the individual belongs to the state, as the slave belongs to his master. The Declaration holds that the individual’s life is his and hers alone. So the collectivists of the Left have to ignore those ideals; or more precisely obliterate them as if they never existed. Why? in order to bring about the most broad-based form of master-slave system--a socialist America. You can’t radically transform a capitalist nation into a socialist nation without obliterating capitalism’s foundation. That foundation is the same philosophical foundation of America’s Founding--the inalienable liberty rights of the individual, all individuals, equally and at all times. It’s not equality per se the socialists oppose. It’s equality of individual freedom they oppose--to be replaced with equality of slavery--universal slavery, except for the ruling elites, the sociopaths who are to be more equal than the rest.
The reactionary forces of statism/collectivism cannot be allowed to prevail. It’s time for the final victory of the forces of liberalism/individualism.* It’s time to finish the American Revolution. Socialism is primitive savagery dressed up in a scientific/intellectual cloak. In reality, the rise of political socialism a la Karl Marx, now aligned with Rousseauian Environmentalism, is the reactionary pushback by primitivism and savagery against the rise of Enlightenment and civilization. The movement to recast America as a slave state is part of the counter-revolution against America. We cannot let them win. That outcome is too bleak to contemplate.
* [I use the term “liberalism” in its original meaning of pertaining to individual freedom based upon individual rights]
Charles Sumner’s Principled Attack on Slavery--Timothy Sandefur
Black Innovators and Entrepreneurs Under Capitalism--Andrew Bernstein
Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man -- Timothy Sandefur
The Conscience of the Constitution: The Declaration of Independence and the Right to Liberty—Timothy Sandefur
Individualism vs. Collectivism: Our Future, Our Choice--Craig Biddle
The Founders Were Flawed. The Nation Is Imperfect. The Constitution Is Still a 'Glorious Liberty Document.' -- Timothy Sandefur
As part of its ambitious “1619” inquiry into the legacy of slavery, The New York Times revives false 19th century revisionist history about the American founding.
[T]he idea that, in Hannah-Jones' words, the "white men" who wrote the Declaration of Independence "did not believe" its words applied to black people is simply false. John Adams, James Madison, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and others said at the time that the doctrine of equality rendered slavery anathema. True, Jefferson also wrote the infamous passages suggesting that "the blacks…are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind," but he thought even that was irrelevant to the question of slavery's immorality. "Whatever be their degree of talent," Jefferson wrote, "it is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others."
The myth that America was premised on slavery took off in the 1830s, not the 1770s. That was when John C. Calhoun, Alexander Stephens, George Fitzhugh, and others offered a new vision of America—one that either disregarded the facts of history to portray the founders as white supremacists, or denounced them for not being so. Relatively moderate figures such as Illinois Sen. Stephen Douglas twisted the language of the Declaration to say that the phrase "all men are created equal" actually meant only white men. Abraham Lincoln effectively refuted that in his debates with Douglas. Calhoun was, in a sense, more honest about his abhorrent views; he scorned the Declaration precisely because it made no color distinctions. "There is not a word of truth in it," wrote Calhoun. People are "in no sense…either free or equal." Indiana Sen. John Pettit was even more succinct. The Declaration, he said, was "a self-evident lie."
It was these men—the generation after the founding—who manufactured the myth of American white supremacy.