WASHINGTON: Slavery, clearly, is one of mankind’s great evils. It is important for all of us to understand its history. Surprisingly, speaking on the floor of the U.S. Senate on May 12, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va) declared that the United States “created” slavery and “didn’t inherit slavery from anybody.”
Though Sen. Kaine seems not to know it, the real story is much more complicated.
From the beginning of recorded history until the 19th century, slavery was the way of the world.
Rather than some American uniqueness in practicing slavery, the fact is that when the U.S. Constitution was written in 1787, slavery was legal everyplace in the world. What was unique was that in the American colonies there was a strenuous objection to slavery and the most prominent framers of the Constitution wanted to eliminate it at the very start of the nation. (Weekly Standard: Founding Fathers Opposed Slavery-NPR)
The history of slavery seems to be an unknown to Sen. Kaine, and many others.
Slavery has existed since the beginning of recorded history. It played an important part in many ancient civilizations. Indeed, most people in the ancient world regarded slavery as a natural condition of life, one which could befall anyone at any time.
Slavery has existed almost universally through history among people of every level of material culture.
- Slavery existed among nomadic pastoralists in Asia, hunting societies of North American Indians, and the sea people such as the Norsemen.
- The legal codes of Sumer provide documentary evidence that slavery existed there as early as the fourth millennium B.C. The Sumerian symbol for slave in cuneiform writing suggests “foreign.”
- Homer and Slavery supply evidence that slavery was an integral part of Ancient Greek society, possibly as early as 1200 B.C.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 entitled 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.
- Aristotle argued that there were natural and artificial slaves and that it was necessary to keep the former in a state of bondage. He believed that servitude was beneficial to the natural slave because the man who was merely an instrument needed a directing brain.
- In Plato’s Republic, which depicted his ideal society, the population was distributed on the basis of ability among four classes: the guardians, who ruled the city; the warriors, who defended it; the merchants and artisans, who provided it with goods and services; and the slaves, who did the unskilled menial work.
None of the Greek schools of philosophy called for the emancipation of slaves.
Perhaps the closest approach to the abolitionist position was that of such neo-Stoics as Dio Chrysostom and Seneca, who urged humane treatment of bondsmen. Stoicism regarded slavery as a mere accident of existence and argued that any man could free himself from slavery by committing suicide. The aim of life, the Stoics believed, was not external but internal freedom.
The respected British historian of classical slavery, Moses I. Finley, writes that
“The cities in which individual freedom reached its highest expression—-most obviously Athens—-were cities in which chattel slavery flourished.”
At the time of its cultural peak, Athens may have had 115,000 slaves to 43,000 citizens. The same is true of Ancient Rome. Plutarch notes that on a single day in the year 107 B.C. 150,000 slaves were sold in a single market.
The race of a person was not necessarily an element in slavery, even when different peoples were involved.
The Romans enslaved other white people, and black Africans enslaved other black people. Racial differences became closely connected with slavery only when European colonial powers were expanding into world areas whose inhabitants were from a different race than the dominating group. (Life of a Roman Slave)
Beyond this, our Judeo-Christian was also one which accepted the legitimacy of slavery.
The Old Testament regulates the relationship between master and slave in great detail.
In Leviticus (XXV: 39-55), God instructs the Children of Israel to enslave the heathen and their progeny forever, but to employ poor Jews as servants only and to free them with their children on the year of Jubilee. By classical standards, the treatment of slaves called for in the Bible was humane. No bondman could be made to work on the Sabbath. Slaves could be beaten but if the slave died on the spot “the master must be punished” (Deuteronomy v:14).
But he shall not be punished if the slave survives for one day or two, “because he is worth money to his master.” It was assumed that the death was accidental for no prudent man would destroy his own property.
Mosaic law provided that if a master blinded his slave or knocked out one of his teeth he was to go free.
There is no departure from this approach to slavery in the New Testament. St. Paul urges slaves to obey their masters with full hearts and without equivocation.
“Slaves give your entire obedience to your earthly masters”.
St. Paul writes 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. Whatever you are doing, put your whole heart into it, as if you were doing it for the Lord and not for men, knowing that there is a Master who will give you and your heritage as a reward knowing that you too have a Master in heaven.”
St. Peter goes beyond this and orders slaves to obey even unjust orders, declaring that there is greater merit in submitting to punishment when one is innocent than when one is guilty of an offense.
Slavery was a continuous reality in Western life throughout the entire history which preceded the establishment of the United States.
In England, 10 percent of the persons enumerated in the Domesday Book. (a.D. 1086) were slaves. And they could be 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, which took its human cargo from the Byzantine Empire and sold some of the females for the harems of the Moslem world. The Italians organized joint-stock companies and 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 in Cyprus.
Portugal imported large numbers of black slaves to work 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 are denied Christian burial and thrown into a “common ditch”. Called the “Poco for Negroes.”
Throughout the Middle Ages, black Africans practiced slavery as a form of prestige and as a source of income.
They sold slaves to other Africans and to Moslem traders, who also bought slaves in Europe and Asia. The beginning of European colonial expansion in the 15th century brought a vast increase in slavery. Colonists in the New World enslaved Indians to work their lands and mines, and when the Indians were exhausted the colonists turned to black Africans.
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 institution throughout history
It was not until 1792 that Denmark became the first Western nation to abolish the slave trade. In 1807, the British Parliament outlawed the slave trade. Slavery was abolished in British colonies between 1834 and 1840. France freed the slaves in its colonies in 1848. 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 colonies of that day wanted to end it and pressed vigorously to do so. George Mason of Virginia, for example, made an eloquent plea to end the slave trade at the Constitutional Convention.
“This infernal traffic originated in the avarice of British merchants. The British government constantly checked the attempt of Virginia to put a stop to it. Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of heaven on a country.”
Sadly, it took the Civil War to finally bring slavery to an end.
What was Sen. Kaine thinking when he said that America “created” Slavery? Any history book will show him that the truth is quite different. Man’s inhumanity to man has known no bounds. America participated in the evil of slavery, but so did the rest of the world.
There are 167 countries that still have slavery, affecting about 46 million people. Although governments have taken steps and raised awareness about modern slavery, it is difficult to detect and recognize in many cases. It’s important to know the signs of slavery so that authorities and organizations can be alerted.
While over a hundred countries still have slavery, six countries have significantly high numbers:
- India (18.4 million)
- China (3.4 million)
- Pakistan (2.1 million)
- Bangladesh (1.5 million)
- Uzbekistan (1.2 million)
- North Korea (1.1 million)
India has the highest number of slaves in the world at 18.4 million slaves. China is the second-largest offender with 3.4 million slaves.
Hopefully, the future will learn lessons from the past, but history’s lessons cannot be learned if we are not honest about that history.
Lead Image: By Mike Knell – Flickr: Egyptian Slave Market, Mono version, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30521549