Was slavery in the United States more like slave and forced labor in Nazi Germany than like the discriminatory afflictions experienced here by many racial, ethnic and religious minorities: Chinese, Japanese, Irish, Jews, Italians, Poles, native Americans, Mormons and Roman Catholics? Would a national apology and atonement for the former unleash equally compelling claims by the latter for an equal display of penitence?
Let us summon as witnesses on behalf of the negative three towering figures with no conceivable taint of modern political correctness. Gouvernor Morris of Pennsylvania at the Constitutional Convention indicted slavery as “a nefarious institution. It was the curse of heaven on the states where it prevailed… . [It] damns [slaves] to the most cruel bondages.” Thomas Jefferson, in addressing slavery, “trembled for his country when he remembered that God was just.” Abraham Lincoln, in his second inaugural address, resolved that, “if God wills that [war] continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond man’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’ “
Would any have the audacity today to impeach Morris, Jefferson or Lincoln? Conceding the repugnance of the nation’s bigotry toward non-black minorities (for instance, linguistic slurs, exclusion from employment opportunities and land ownership, ineligibility for citizenship, legal attacks on religious creeds, intermittent violence, treaty violations, and discriminatory law enforcement), slaves were literally nonpersons, i.e., chattels under the law. As U.S. Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney asserted in Dred Scott vs. Sanford (1857), blacks (free or enslaved) held no rights that a white man was bound to respect. Their historical degradation, humiliation and maltreatment are earmarked by uniqueness. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” finds no equally chilling and clutching non-slave counterpart.
Slavery in the United States as compared with the hellishness of forced and slave labor in the Third Reich during World War II was for life, not temporary. And American slavery persisted for decades after the evil institution had been abolished by Britain and most of our southern neighbors; it clashed with ascendent moral sentiments. It cannot be justified on the theory that slavery was customary among all nations. Even Czar Alexander II ended serfdom in 1861.
The United States has eagerly brokered reparations payments exceeding $5 billion from Germany and German companies to distribute among approximately 1.7 million forced and slave laborers, most of whom are non-Jewish. The United States itself atoned for its relocation camp sins against Japanese Americans during World War II in the 1988 Civil Liberties Act with both an apology “on behalf of the nation” and $20,000 to victims or their immediate survivors. So why should dispute attend a comparable expiation from the national government for the brutal slavery that commanded constitutional blessing for 77 years?
To urge that most if not all living Americans were neither directly nor indirectly implicated in slavery is unpersuasive. Slavery was tolerated as a political compromise to forge and to maintain the union, and our current strength and prosperity as a nation enjoys a non-trivial bow to that pragmatism. Our prevailing international grandeur has come, in part, at the expense of slaves, who owed no duty of martyrdom in support of “E Pluribus Unum.”
It might be said, however, that unlike the recipients of German reparations and Civil Liberties Act eligibles, American slaves and their intimate circles have been dead for generations. Thus, there are no strong moral claimants to receive a reparations award. Remote ancestral ties seem too attenuated to current stations to justify payments to the living. Additionally, slavery has historically afflicted all races during some periods. Acute moral anguish and pain, moreover, are not typically evoked in distant descendants by evils that lapsed more than a century ago.
But the want of individual entitlements does not discredit the case for slavery atonement. It simply militates in favor of an alternate expression of national penance. Congress should enact an apology for slavery and acknowledgment of its wickedness in violation of the nation’s hallowed motto in the Declaration of Independence: “[T]hat all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Congress should also establish a slave museum like the Holocaust Memorial. It would symbolize remorse for our national complicity in the wretched institution and foster remembrance of the victims, heroes and villains in the drama that culminated in the 13th Amendment. It might also spark greater popular interest in learning the history and lessons of slavery, like Alex Haley’s “Roots.”
Would not any less national contrition be insulting to the sinned against slaves?