After 150 years, the place of slavery, that “peculiar institution,” in our history still makes many of us uncomfortable.
When Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s Confederate History Month proclamation attracted unhappy attention last year by omitting slavery from issues “significant” to the state, he amended it.
Also in Virginia, a teacher held a mock slave auction in which the white 10-year-olds bought their black and mixed-race classmates.
Parents were not amused.
Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, a possible GOP presidential candidate, noted earlier this year that “the very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States.”
As many pointed out, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Patrick Henry — who said, “Give me liberty or give me death” — all slave owners, did nothing of the sort.
“What is critically important is to understand that the nation fought a very costly war to create a more perfect union,” said David Blight, a Yale University history professor, “to end the original sin of the founders … a stain on the Constitution.”
While the Declaration of Independence proclaimed that all men are created equal, it did not apply to the thousands enslaved along the Eastern Seaboard.
A lost Manhattan Island cemetery found in 2003 reminded us that 18th century New York had more slaves than any city but Charleston, S.C.
Even after the North shed the practice, its industries — from textile mills to shipping to banking and insurance — still sipped profits from the sweat of slaves.
The institution actually had begun to decline in the South as well — until “King Cotton” began its rule and demanded more and more land and the labor to work it.
“Contrary to conventional wisdom, and the lessons taught in schools, the War Between the States was not fought to end slavery,” said Walter E. Williams, a professor at George Mason University who is African-American. Instead, he contends, it was tariffs and Northern aggression trampling states’ rights.
“Yeah, it was…” responded Blight. “States’ rights to own slaves.”
The crisis was provoked by the election of Abraham Lincoln, who insisted to a disbelieving South that he had neither legal authority nor intention to dismantle slavery.
But Lincoln would not brook any more expansion westward.
“That, I suppose, is the rub,” he wrote.
The rub was rawest in “Bleeding Kansas.” Historians refer to this period as the Civil War’s first act.
In a recent Time magazine essay, David Von Drehle agreed, quoting John Brown, notorious in 1850s Kansas for massacring five pro-slavery men at Pottawatomie Creek.
“In Kansas, the question is never raised of a man: Is he a Democrat? Is he a Republican? The questions there raised are: Is he a Free State man? Or is he a pro-slavery man?”
As Von Drehle noted: “This is why armies marched.”