It's said that people who don't understand their history are condemned to repeat it. In this spirit, the Black Lives Matter movement prompts me to review the early history of American slavery.
It begins in 1619 when slaves were brought to America by a Portuguese ship packed with 350 Africans, some of whom were delivered to Jamestown, Va. By 1800, a million Europeans migrated to the colonies, while over two-and-a-half million slaves from Africa were taken there by force. Slave rebellions and runaways were common. For example, 47 of George Washington's slaves fled their master. At least 500 runaway slaves joined British forces.
As the newly declared United States drew up its Constitution in 1787, Thomas Jefferson noted that America is founded upon political equality, natural rights and popular sovereignty. But contrary to these ideals, "there was not one, but two American revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century: the struggle for independence from Britain, and the struggle to end slavery. Only one was won." Thus writes Jill Lepore in her recent book These Truths: A History of the United States (reviewed here last October). Although the second struggle broke into open warfare only during 1861-1865, its aftermath still rages.
By the time of the revolution, many Americans such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine recognized slavery as an appalling evil. By 1787, slavery was abolished in the four New England states and strongly challenged in New York and Pennsylvania. Slavery was economically essential only in South Carolina and Georgia. Yet, because of the property and population it represented, slavery became the crucial divide at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention.
The convention compromised: New states north of the Ohio River would outlaw slavery, those south of the Ohio would not. Although slaves could not vote, each slave would count as three-fifths of a person for purposes of apportioning representation in Congress -- a provision that greatly increased Southern states' power. Franklin wanted the convention to condemn slavery, a New Jersey delegate called slavery a "national crime," and others proposed that Congress be granted authority to abolish the slave trade, but South Carolina threatened to leave the convention if such measures were adopted. Northern states compromised. As Connecticut delegate Oliver Ellsworth put it, " The morality or wisdom of slavery are considerations belonging to the states themselves."
The new Constitution hid this curse. It does not contain the words slave or slavery.
Our first president nearly set a precedent that might have ended slavery. By the time of his inauguration in 1789, Washington had grown disillusioned with slavery; his slaves were a moral burden to himself and, in his eyes, the nation. There is some evidence that Washington considered emancipating his slaves before assuming the presidency. Every president after him would then have felt bound to emulate his action. Yet he disastrously failed to take this step.
In 1790, the First Congress nearly ended slavery. Quakers and others petitioned Congress to end slave importation and gradually emancipate existing slaves, an action outspokenly supported by Franklin. Congress voted 43 to 11 to consider the petitions. But Southern states succeeded in delaying it, arguing that if blacks were free "the white race would be extinct, and the American people would be all of the mulatto breed." A congressional committee reported that the Constitution forbade Congress from outlawing slavery but that Congress could end slavery by taxing the slave trade into oblivion. James Madison of Virginia, who would become our fourth president, slammed the window shut on this narrow opening by urging the committee to revise its report to eliminate Congress' authority to tax the slave trade.
From his deathbed, Benjamin Franklin responded with an agonized attack on slavery that was published in the Pennsylvania Gazette, signing it "Historicus" -- the voice of history. He urged the nation to abolish slavery, but Congress wouldn't hear of it.
Although compromise is essential to the health of democracy, some issues cannot be compromised. Slavery is incontestably one such issue. America compromised on the issue of slavery throughout 1619-1861 and America has had neither the brains nor the heart to heal the consequences of this misbegotten practice during the 155 years since 1865. Today, change is surely blowing in the wind. This is not a time for small steps or compromises. It's not only a matter of fixing police over-reach, despite the importance of this issue. We dare not miss this opportunity to finally fix, to the extent that we can fix, America's original sin and renounce the history that supported it.