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Home > Book Reviews> Katherine Kersten

Founders Among Early Foes of Slavery
by Katherine Kersten

Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), November 26, 1997, 19A

We Americans have spent the last half century coming to terms with the legacy of slavery. In the process, we have grown to suspect that our nation's record in this regard is uniquely shameful.

Contemporary commentators encourage this view by asserting that America was founded on rank hypocrisy. Historian John Hope Franklin—head of President Clinton's racial advisory board—is typical. "Jefferson didn't mean it when he wrote that all men are created equal," insists Franklin. "The truth is that we're a bigoted people and always have been. We think every other country is trying to copy us now, and if they are, God help the world."

But from the perspective of world history, America's record on slavery looks quite different. In fact, the United States was the only slave-holding nation to mount a principled opposition to slavery, and to fight a bloody civil war to abolish it.

For most of history, slavery—in one form or other—was a universal institution, whose morality was unquestioned. In ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, Greece and Rome, slavery had no racial overtones. Julius Caesar, for example, coveted the Britons—ancestors of America's WASPs—as slaves, for "though uncouth, [they] had a certain value for rougher work." Indeed, as Webster's notes, the word "slave" is derived from "Slav," because "so many Slavs were enslaved" during the Middle Ages.

Indians of both North and South America practiced slavery. In Africa, too, slavery was endemic. More advanced coastal tribes frequently enslaved those from the interior, and powerful kingdoms in Ghana, Uganda, Benin, Zanzibar and Mali relied heavily on slave labor. European slave traders did not usually chase down and capture slaves—a widespread stereotype—but purchased them from tribal chiefs. Some of those purchased were already slaves in Africa; others were captured enemies.

At times, chiefs even sold their own people to gain Western commodities. To procure victims, they sometimes set fire to a village by night and captured the inhabitants as they tried to escape.

Much of the slave trade was carried on through Arab middlemen. In fact, Arabs probably transported substantially more slaves to Morocco, Turkey, Arabia and India than were ever shipped to the Americas.

African tribes that engaged in the slave trade, like the Ashanti of Ghana and the Ibos of Nigeria, achieved power and prosperity. When European countries abolished slavery, tribal leaders from Gambia, Dahomey and the Congo sent delegations to London and Paris to mount vigorous protests. According to writer Mohamed Mbodj, "Africans felt that the rules of their traditional life had been called into question by initiatives which destabilized the bases of their society."

In many parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, slavery persisted into the 20th century. Ethiopia outlawed it only in 1942, and Saudi Arabia and Yemen in 1962. According to Britain's Anti-Slavery International, slavery is still practiced covertly in a number of Third World countries. In Sudan and Mauritania, it is particularly widespread.

What was unique about slavery in colonial America was that it was highly controversial from the beginning. As political scientist Thomas West explains in his new book, Vindicating the Founders, every leading American Founder believed that slavery was morally wrong. Thomas Jefferson—though a slave holder—spoke for many when he said, "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just."

Why, then, didn't the Founders abolish slavery outright? As West observes, "The slavery provisions of the Constitution must be read as concessions to a brute fact rather than as affirmations of the rightness of slavery." Given Southern sentiments, "the choice was not whether to permit or prohibit slavery, but either to establish a union in which slavery was tolerated, or not to have union at all."

Many of the Founders had an additional concern. Embarking on a fragile and unprecedented experiment in democracy, they feared the consequences of granting citizenship to people who had been barred, through involuntary servitude, from developing the habits thought necessary to self-government.

Though compelled to tolerate slavery, the Founders both limited and undermined it. In 1776, every colony permitted slavery. By 1804, it had been abolished in a majority of states. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 forbade its expansion into a large new territory, and in 1808—the earliest date permitted under the Constitution—Congress outlawed the international slave trade.

Paradoxically, contemporary commentators who denounce the Constitution as pro-slavery echo Justice Taney's position in the notorious Dred Scott decision. Abraham Lincoln, however, believed the Founders were sincere when they wrote that "all men are created equal."

"They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality," Lincoln observed, "nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement might follow as fast as circumstances should permit." The Civil War secured abolition; one white died for every six slaves freed.

Kersten is chair of the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis and a commentator for National Public Radio's "All Things Considered."


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