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April 25, 2015

Fundamental Concepts – Slavery [Weirddave]

A few weeks back I went to Mount Vernon. I took lots of pictures of the grounds, many of which will be featured in the garden thread later today. Anyone who has the opportunity should definitely visit Mount Vernon, especially if you have an historical bent. The tours are well done and there is a plethora of information about George Washington and life presented that is truly fascinating and well worth your time. There's just one thing that bugged me about the entire experience that bugged me, and that's that all too often the purpose of the tour seemed to be to beat you over the head with the fact that “George Washington kept slaves!”. “George Washington kept SLAVES!” “GEORGE WASHINGTON KEPT SLAVES, DID YOU HEAR? SLAVES!!!”. It is an exaggeration to say that visitors are greeted “Welcome to Mount Vernon, a colonial era plantations that was home to 300 slaves and some guy named George”, but not that much of one.


Let me get this out of the way right up front. In no way, shape or form is this a defense of slavery. Slavery is a vile institution, a stain upon the history of this country, and may ultimately prove to be the one thing that ensured that we would lose the Republic we were designed to inherit. The authoritarian policies that the US had to adopt to end the scourge of slavery have borne bitter, bitter fruit indeed in the Leviathan that today enslaves all of us in chains that are in many ways harsher than the physical chains forced upon enslaved blacks. An historian observing American history from a thousand years in the future may very well conclude that slavery was the poison pill that we were never able to overcome.

What's missing from the conversation is context. Slavery is a horrible, dehumanizing, awful thing, but it is a horrible, dehumanizing, awful thing that has been practiced by every group, society and race of humans in history. Yes, many of the Founding Fathers were slave owners. So were everybody else in the world at the time. What's different about the time of America's founding is that in America, and in the Christian West, the idea that owning another human being was simply a right was being challenged, ultimately successfully.

Think of it this way: You're an alien race who stumbles across Earth 3500 years ago. Using your advanced technology, you survey the entire planet and notice that the dominant life form is a group of talking monkeys living in tribal societies, and one of the things that all of these societies have in common is that all of them enslave other monkeys for their labor. You fly away with your report, and Alien Star Command puts Earth on a list to be observed periodically. Every hundred years a space ship comes back, and each time their report notes slavery, all over the planet. This would have been the norm for millennia, until the 1700s when the occupants of the western part of the greater continental mass began to agitate for the abolition of slavery, based upon the teachings of a philosopher who had lived in the Middle East region 18 centuries earlier. In a remarkably short period of time, slavery is recognized as evil and abolished in a large part of the world. Historically speaking, that's exactly what was occurring on planet Earth.

Instead of recognizing that America and the rest of the West were the vanguard of a new human awareness that slavery was a great evil, the people of that time are cast as evil slavers and thus not worthy of recognition. Slavery is the default state of mankind. It still exists across large swaths of the world today (it still exists in the West today, but when it is discovered it is viciously prosecuted).

What was happening at the time in America was that an institution that had stood unquestioned since time immemorial was being questioned, and within a century it would be overthrown. Washington manumitted his slaves in his will. While it's easy to criticize the personal convenience of that act, it's also something that wasn't common at the time. A step on the journey from slavery being accepted to slavery being condemned. While the Constitution didn't ban slavery, it did contain the seeds of it's ultimate destruction. Article 1 Sec. 9 ended the slave trade by 1808. The 3/5th compromise did not, as so many today like to put it “say that blacks were 3/5 of a person” at all. The 3/5ths compromise was an anti-slavery measure designed to weaken the power of slave states. These statutes were painstakingly hammered out to allow the formation of the US*. A couple of generations later, the Civil War. Can anyone name another civilization that has ever fought a bloody war where the dominant ethnic group was fighting itself with the goal of freeing an enslaved minority?** One of the two main political parties in the country was established strictly to end slavery, and it continues to be a power today, 150 years later, with a history of defending minority rights against majority tyranny.

THAT'S the real context of history. The founders of this country should not be condemned because they were products of their times, they should be commended for leading the fight to change what that meant. History is a process, and change takes time. Attacking Washington for owning slaves is like criticizing the QB in the first quarter because he hasn't won the game. Of course not, the game isn't over yet.

As an American, I am appalled by the reality of what slavery was in this country, but I am immensely proud of how the country as a whole fought to overcome and end it. The racial history of America is one of achievement and a journey from darkness to enlightenment. I can stand tall and unashamed with that as my birthright.


* Imagine a world where these compromises aren't reached, and two or more countries form instead of one United States. Do you think that southern America would have any incentive to free their slaves absent pressure from northern abolitionists? Why would they, it's a different country, who cares what they say?


** Yea, I know, fight it out in the comments. Here's the proximate question though: If you're claiming that some other cause than slavery was the real cause of the Civil Way, would that cause have led to war absent the slavery issue? I can't think of one.

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posted by Open Blogger at 11:27 AM

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