No Comment — December 31, 2007, 9:26 am

The Forgotten Bicentennial

Tomorrow marks the bicentennial of America’s prohibition of the slave trade, one of the last significant legislative acts of the presidency of Thomas Jefferson. The absence of public recognition of this date is disturbing. It reflects a pattern in which international law is steadily denigrated by officials of our Government and by their sustaining chorus of media talking heads. Around the world–outside of the United States–the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade has been celebrated and marked with books, speeches, and even an important, feature motion picture. It marks the decisive moment when international law stopped being exclusively about the rights and privileges of princelings amongst themselves, and started being about the fundamental rights of human beings simply because they are human beings. My contribution, “Doing God’s Work,” an essay on William Wilberforce and his foundational role in the global human rights movement can be read here, and will appear shortly in an expanded version in a book edited by Princeton theologian George Hunsinger.

Historian Eric Foner marks the date with an op-ed in the New York Times. Foner’s piece is a must-read. But then, I can’t remember ever having come across something by Foner that wasn’t. He’s got to be the best living serious writer of American history. In fact, I think it’s impossible to understand the American South and modern race relations without having read his seminal works on Reconstruction. Foner explains why the decision to end the slave trade that was taken at Westminster and the law that Jefferson signed had different consequences:

The British campaign against the African slave trade not only launched the modern concern for human rights as an international principle, but today offers a usable past for a society increasingly aware of its multiracial character. It remains a historic chapter of which Britons of all origins can be proud. In the United States, however, slavery not only survived the end of the African trade but embarked on an era of unprecedented expansion. Americans have had to look elsewhere for memories that ameliorate our racial discontents, which helps explain our recent focus on the 19th-century Underground Railroad as an example (widely commemorated and often exaggerated) of blacks and whites working together in a common cause.

Nonetheless, the abolition of the slave trade to the United States is well worth remembering. Only a small fraction (perhaps 5 percent) of the estimated 11 million Africans brought to the New World in the four centuries of the slave trade were destined for the area that became the United States. But in the Colonial era, Southern planters regularly purchased imported slaves, and merchants in New York and New England profited handsomely from the trade.

The American Revolution threw the slave trade and slavery itself into crisis. In the run-up to war, Congress banned the importation of slaves as part of a broader nonimportation policy. During the War of Independence, tens of thousands of slaves escaped to British lines. Many accompanied the British out of the country when peace arrived. Inspired by the ideals of the Revolution, most of the newly independent American states banned the slave trade. But importation resumed to South Carolina and Georgia, which had been occupied by the British during the war and lost the largest number of slaves.

antislavery_medallion_large

The ideology of slavery became deeply entrenched in America’s south. It also produced a theology of slavery, giving rise to some aberrational offshoots of Evangelical Protestantism that also took root south of the Mason-Dixon Line. It profoundly shaped America’s political consciousness. The slavery ideologues wanted to perpetuate and expand the peculiar institution. They sought a hemispheric system which would be anchored in America’s south: an agrarian society which would rest on slave labor. They embraced a vision of divinely authorized imperial conquest and exploitation. They saw no issues with official cruelty and torture, because indeed these were essential to the maintenance of the slave system. The nation had to be purged with blood to rid itself of this excreable institution. But we delude ourselves in thinking that the purge was complete, for the ghosts of the slavery system and the ideology of slavery can be found all around us today, masquerading under other names, and propelling the same quest for empire and embrace of cruelty.

Each step taken in the effort to repress the institution of slavery and to rectify its abuses was a matter of honor for the American nation. Each step demands that we recall it and the sacrifices that it entailed in the cause of justice and freedom. It also gives us pause to remember one of the most shameful vestiges of our Constitution, which was never a wholly worthy document—namely the notion of slaves as three-fifths humans. It behooves us to remember the wrongs done, and the patriotic efforts of the true American ideologues to overcome them. It behooves us to remember that this struggle continues today, it is not completed.

January 1, 2008: the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade by the United States.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2016

Prose by Any Other Name

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The New Red Scare

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Separated at Birth

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Priest in the Trees

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Lightness

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

With Child

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
With Child·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. 'Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.'"
Photograph (detail) by Lara Shipley
Article
Swat Team·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"As we shall see, for the sort of people who write and edit the opinion pages of the Post, there was something deeply threatening about Sanders and his political views."
Illustration (detail) by John Ritter
Article
Escape from The Caliphate·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"When Matti invited me on a tour of the neighborhood, I asked about security. 'The message has already been passed to ISIS that you’re here,' he said. 'But don’t worry. I guarantee I could bring even you in and out of the Islamic State.'"
Photograph (detail) by Alice Martins
Article
In This One·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. 'Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.'"
Illustration (detail) by Shonagh Rae
Article
“Don’t Touch My Medicare!”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Medicare’s popularity, however, comes with almost no understanding of what the program is and how it works."
Illustration (detail) by Nate Kitch

Number of tombstones in Tombstone, Arizona:

792

Electrofishing on the Irrawaddy River deters dolphins from their habit of assisting fishermen.

Trump tweeted that “millions of people” had illegally cast ballots in last month’s presidential election, and the Washington Post identified four cases of voter fraud across the country.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Who Goes Nazi?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis."

Subscribe Today