Is slavery America’s original sin or an ancient universal evil?
In recent days, there has been a great deal of discussion about slavery as America’s “original sin.” One focus of attention has been the 1619 Project promoted by the New York Times and the Pulitzer Center. Its K-12 curriculum puts slavery at the center of American history and views the Framers of the Constitution with contempt for their alleged “hypocrisy.” Their reasoning is the use of phrases like “all men are created equal” while permitting slavery to exist. In fact, the real story is far more complex.
Reading the material set forth by the authors of the 1619 Project curriculum, the conclusion to be drawn seems to begin with the assumption that slavery was a uniquely American evil and that the Founding Fathers were uniquely amiss in not eliminating it in 1787. Looking at the sweep of history, which the 1619 Project does not do, we see a far different, more complex, picture. It is one in which the Framers appear far more enlightened than many in their time.
From the beginning of recorded history until the 19th century, slavery was the way of the world.
Slavery played an important part from the very beginning of recorded history until the 19th century. Rather than some uniqueness in practicing slavery, the fact is that in 1787 slavery was legal every place in the world. What was unique was that in the American colonies there was a strenuous objection to slavery and that the most prominent Framers of the Constitution wanted to eliminate it at the very start of the nation.
Additionally, slavery played an important part in many ancient civilizations. Indeed, most people in the ancient world regarded slavery as a natural condition of life. An occurence that could befall anyone at any time. It has existed universally through history among peoples of every level of material culture. It existed among nomadic pastoralists in Asia, hunting societies of North American Indians and sea people such as the Norsemen. The Legal Codes of Sumer provide documentary evidence that slavery existed there as early as the 4th Millenium BC. The Sumerian symbol for slaves in cuneiform writing suggests “foreign.”
The poems of Homer supply evidence that slavery was an integral part of Ancient Greek society, possibly as early as 1200 BC. Plato opposed the enslavement of Greeks by Greeks, regarding bondservants as essentially inferior beings. His pupil Aristotle considered slaves as mere tools, lucky to have the guidance of their masters.
At the time of Pericles, Athens had 43,000 citizens, who alone were able to vote and discharge political functions. 28,500 metics, or resident aliens, and 115,000 slaves. A century and a half later, Demetrius of Phalerum took a census of the city and counted only 21,000 citizens, 10,000 metics, and 400,000 slaves. None of the Greek schools of philosophy called for the emancipation of slaves.
The race was not necessarily an element of slavery, even when different peoples were involved.
Romans enslaved other Caucasian peoples and some black Africans enslaved other black peoples. Racial differences became closely connected with slavery only when European colonial powers were expanding into world areas whose inhabitants were of a different race from the dominant groups.
Our Judeo-Christian tradition was also one which accepted the legitimacy of slavery.
The Hebrew Bible regulates the relationship between master and slave in great detail. In Leviticus (XXV:39-55), God instructs the Israelites to enslave the heathen and their progeny forever, but to employ poor Hebrews as servants only, and to free them with their children on the year of jubilee. In the New Testament, in a number of places, St. Paul urges slaves to obey their masters with full hearts and without equivocation.
“Slaves, give entire obedience to your earthly masters,” he wrote from prison, “not merely with an outward show of service, to curry favor with men, but with single-mindedness, out of reverence for the Lord.”
Slavery was a continuous reality in Western life throughout the entire history which preceded the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
In England, 10 percent of the persons enumerated in the Domesday (AD 1086) were slaves.
And slaves were put to death with impunity by their owners.
During the Viking age, Norse merchant sailors sold Russian slaves in Constantinople. Venice grew to prosperity and power partly as a slave-trading republic. The Italian state took its human cargo from the Byzantine Empire and sold some of the females for the harems of the Moslem world. The Italians established joint-stock companies with a highly organized slave trade. In the colony of Cyprus, they established plantations where imported bondsmen were employed in the cultivation of sugar cane. By 1300 there were black slaves on Cyprus.
Portugal imported large numbers of black slaves to work for estates in the southern provinces and to do menial labor in the cities from 1444 on. By the middle of the 16th century, Lisbon had more blacks than whites. In 1515, the Portuguese king. Ordered that they be denied Christian burial and thrown into a “common ditch” called the “Poco Dos Negros.”
When the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in 1787, not a single nation had made slavery illegal.
As they looked back through history, the Framers saw slavery as an accepted and acceptable institution. It was not until 1792 that Denmark became the first Western nation to abolish the slave trade. In 1807, the British Parliament passed a bill outlawing the slave trade. Slavery was then abolished in British colonies between 1834 and 1840. France freed the slaves in its colonies in 1848. Spain ended slavery in Puerto Rico in 1873 and in Cuba in 1886. Brazil abolished slavery in 1888.
What is historically unique is not that slavery was the accepted way of the world in 1787, but that so many of the leading men of the American colonies of that day wanted to eliminate it—-and pressed vigorously to do so.
In their book “American Statements: Slavery and the Negro,” Nathaniel Weyl and William Marina write,
“When the Federal Convention met in May 1787 to form a Constitution for the United States, a significant minority of its delegates were staunch opponents of slavery. Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton were ardent abolitionists. John Jay, who would become the first Chief Justice, was president of the New York Anti-Slavery Society…Rufus King and Gouverneur Morris were in the forefront of the opposition to slavery and to the slave trade.”
One of the great debates at the Constitutional Convention related to the African slave trade. George Mason of Virginia made an eloquent plea to make it illegal. The provision finally adopted read:
“The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.”
This clause was widely viewed by opponents of slavery as an important first step on the road toward abolition. The delay of twenty years was considered the price ten of the states were willing to pay in order to assure that the original union would include the three states of Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Even in these states, there was sympathy for the end of slavery. However, they wanted additional time to phase out their economic dependence upon it. In retrospect, we may well find that this decision was an error. If a different decision was made, the Civil War might have been avoided. But the desire to bring slavery to an end was clear.
America’s Declaration of Independence spoke against the importation of slaves.
In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, one of the principal charges made by Thomas Jefferson against King George lll and his predecessors was that they would not allow the American colonies to outlaw the importation of slaves. Indeed, Jefferson, who owned slaves, understood very well the evils of slavery and looked forward to its end. In “Notes on the State of Virginia,” he wrote:
“The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submission on the other. Our children see this and learn to imitate it…With the morals of the people, their industry is also destroyed….No one will labor himself, who can make another labor for him….And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath?”
In viewing the Founding Fathers from the vantage point of today, critics ignore completely the fact that prior to the late 18th century, opposition to the idea of slavery was virtually nonexistent. Yet, in the American colonies, there were vigorous anti-slavery societies. In Philadelphia, in 1787 the most prominent of the Framers wanted to eliminate slavery from the outset. It is time that some historical perspective be brought to our discussion of this subject.
Slavery is a sin——but it is hardly “original” to America.
About the Author:
Allan Brownfeld is a veteran writer who has spent decades working in and around Washington, D.C. Brownfeld earned his B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary. His M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia, and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonwealth, and The Christian Century. Visit his Writers Page to learn more.