Our Slave Heritage

Every day of the week, marriage counselors work with unhappy couples whose relationships have been soured by unresolved grievances. In such cases, the counselor’s job usually involves more than simply getting one spouse to own up to his or her offenses. The aggrieved one may also have to come to terms with her or his own role in “accentuating the negative.” More often than not, the original transgression will turn out to be more complex than either party remembers.

Race relations in America are much like a troubled marriage, with one sharp difference: Divorce is out of the question. Regardless of all the imaginings of separatists both black and white, Americans are not about to go off into racially exclusive cantons. Faith, culture, geography, even biology all forbid it. For increasing numbers of us, we could no more do such a thing than divide our own flesh.

Which leaves the original grievance to be dealt with, and for white and black Americans, that grievance is slavery.

It’s common to say that much of what troubles us today is a legacy of slavery. For liberals and for many black Americans, that idea is an article of faith. Conservatives, including the black scholars Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams, argue on the contrary that most of the modern problems blamed on slavery—family breakdown, high unemployment, low test scores, drug abuse and crime—owe much more to misbegotten “revolutions” of the 1960s than to the institution that met its doom a hundred years before.

Be that as it may, we all should understand that the nursing of grudges is harmful. A grudge-bearer tends to treat his neighbors with something less than ordinary decency, while the targets of his resentment may be saddled with the feeling that they owe him something more. It’s a recipe for hatred on both sides.

And it’s so unnecessary. My ancestors came mostly from Britain, Ireland, and Germany—though a childhood photo of one of my great-grandparents leads me to believe I may have some African blood as well. (Millions of white Americans do.) In Tennessee and Texas, some of my relatives owned slaves, treating them like draft animals to be purchased and used. Some folks today may hold that against me personally. Let them consider this: Centuries earlier, the Norsemen of Scandinavia preyed on my European ancestors, treating them like game animals to be hunted and killed. Yet I don’t go around fuming about those wicked Norwegians, and it bothers me not at all to have sent my children to a school whose mascot is the Vikings. Shouldn’t that sense of comfort with reality be everyone’s goal?

Suppose we look at slavery, not as a stereotype of white-on-black villainy, but in larger terms. As with the marriage counselor, we may uncover a surprising complexity.

Being complex, of course, doesn’t make it any less horrific. Look at the painting at the top of page. François-Auguste Biard’s “Slaves on the West Coast of Africa” was displayed in Paris in 1835 and in London in 1840, when Britain was deploying the Royal Navy to stop the transatlantic slave trade. An observer said Biard had “made the slave trade, by a single picture, more infamous than it had been depicted by a score of advocates for its suppression.”

At the center of the tableau, four slave sellers haggle with a slave buyer after bringing a group of captives to the coast for barter. The purchaser crouches over a captive he is fitting with manacles as another buyer checks the victim’s teeth. At center left, a crewman puts the company’s brand on a captive woman as other captives are herded into boats to be ferried to the ship waiting offshore. Babies are left behind; one sits motherless at center foreground while to its left a mother clings to her child before being taken aboard ship. The posture of the slave trader at right may indicate fever as well as boredom—tropical diseases took their toll on the whites as well as the blacks involved in the slave trade.

Biard’s painting has stayed in my head ever since I saw it on exhibit in Cleveland four decades ago. It hangs today in Wilberforce House, Kingston Upon Hull, England.

How can something like that not inflame racial resentments among Americans today? Well, for one thing, it shows that the commerce in slaves was carried on by black sellers as well as white buyers. Black Americans today, while lamenting the way their ancestors were brought here, can at least take satisfaction in being, as Americans, much better off than the descendants of those slave sellers who never left Africa.

As for the white buyers, their having black accomplices hardly lets them off the hook. Hear the words of the English evangelical statesman William Wilberforce, speaking in Parliament in 1789:

What should we suppose must naturally be the consequence of our carrying on a slave trade with Africa? . . . Does not everyone see that a slave trade carried on around her coasts must carry violence and desolation to her very center? . . . Her kings are never compelled to war, that we can hear of, by public principles, by national glory, still less by the love of their people . . . [but rather by] personal avarice and sensuality. . . . We depend on these vices for the very maintenance of the slave trade. Does the king of Barbessin want brandy? He has only to send his troops, in the nighttime, to burn and desolate a village; the captives will serve as commodities that may be bartered with the British trader.

What a striking view of the wretched state of Africa does the tragedy of Calabar furnish! Two towns, formerly hostile, had settled their differences, and by an intermarriage among their chiefs had each pledged themselves to peace; but the trade in slaves was prejudiced by such pacifications, and it became, therefore, the policy of our traders to renew the hostilities. This, their policy, was soon put in practice, and the scene of carnage which followed was such that it is better, perhaps, to refer gentlemen to the privy council’s report than to agitate their minds by dwelling on it.

Moved by the eloquence of Wilberforce and other abolitionists, Britain went within a few decades from being the world’s foremost slave-trading maritime nation to being the primary enforcer of a worldwide ban on slave shipping.

Though it was a great step toward eventual abolition, however, this cutting of the transatlantic slave trade was of no immediate benefit to the slaves already in America. But even here, the situation was not, to coin a phrase, all black and white. How many people today know that the Old South was home, not only to thousands of free blacks (the first battle of Manassas was fought around the property of one, a man named Robinson) but also to quite a few enslaved whites?

I’m not talking about indentured servants. In The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South, historian Kenneth Stampp notes that while Southern slavery was, “in the main, Negro slavery,” it was not exclusively so. “The status of a child of mixed Negro and white ancestry depended upon the status of the mother. The offspring of a Negro slave father and a free white mother was free. The offspring of a free white father and a Negro, mulatto, quadroon or octoroon slave mother was a slave. . . . Hence some slaves were whites by any rational definition as well as by all outward appearances.” (Robert Penn Warren’s 1955 novel Band of Angels, made two years later into a movie starring Clark Gable, Yvonne De Carlo, and Sidney Poitier, dramatizes one such situation.) Not only that, Stampp writes, but

Not all southern masters were whites. In 1830, more than thirty-six hundred free Negroes or persons of mixed ancestry owned slaves. The great majority of these colored slaveowners had merely purchased husbands, wives, or children and were unable to emancipate them under existing state laws. A few were substantial planters, such as the Negro in King George County, Virginia, who owned seventy-one slaves; another in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, who owned seventy-five, and two others in Colleton District, South Carolina, who owned eighty-four apiece.

Other books by Larry Koger and by Michael P. Johnson and James L. Roark give detailed looks at these forgotten facts. Another by Barbara Krauthamer examines the adoption of the southern slave system by American Indian tribes.

In world terms, slavery has little to do with race. The word itself derives from the Slavic peoples who were long at the mercy of the Ottoman Turks, the Mongol Khans and other powerful enemies. But the fact of slavery goes back much further than that.

Slavery arose as one (and by no means the worst) of many possible fates awaiting captives taken in intertribal warfare. Here’s how The Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics puts it:

When war had become a feature of the relations of human groups, the rights and immunities which prevented the enslavement of tribesmen would not operate in favour of captives from hostile bands.

Instead, warring tribes took the attitude that “the defeated enemy is rightless, and is treated as best suits the victor’s convenience.” Under savage rules of war,

quarter may be refused altogether and the vanquished foes exterminated. Or, if prisoners are taken, they may be tortured, eaten, adopted, ransomed, exchanged, liberated, or enslaved. In the actual practice of existing tribes there are instances of all these modes of treatment.

The encyclopedia’s ethnologist, A.N. Gilbertson, was writing in the 1920s. He noted that while many pre-agricultural peoples (for example, the aborigines of Australia and the bushmen of southern Africa) have known little war and no slavery, “the more agriculture develops, the more common slavery becomes,” until at the higher stages “it exists in the great majority of tribes,” both as the spoils of war and (within tribes) as a penalty for crime or unpaid debt.

In Europe and the Arab world, slavery was carried from its tribal origins into the economies of classical, medieval and Islamic civilization and on through the Renaissance into modern times. As Stampp observed, “Probably more than half of the immigrants to the thirteen English colonies in North America came as bondsmen”—Europeans who had indentured themselves or were condemned by courts to periods of involuntary servitude.

Meanwhile, wherever Christendom and Islam met in battle, captives on each side were enslaved by the other, “and both found victims among the Negroes of Africa. Their operations were facilitated by the fact that slavery already existed among the Negro tribes and that native dealers were often willing participants in this trade in human flesh.” Take it from there, Mr. Wilberforce.

So, if slavery was such a universal phenomenon, what is it about American slavery that people still get worked up over it today? The answer is obvious, and it isn’t just that a malignant Left finds American slavery a handy club with which to beat us over the head. It’s that alone among all the slavemasters who ever walked the earth, we Americans had the effrontery to maintain our “peculiar institution” while proclaiming—in God’s name—its antithesis.

We are the ones who declared that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with an unalienable right to liberty. By failing to abolish slavery forthwith in accordance with that noble principle, we not only made liars out of ourselves, we dishonored God. It stands to reason that God would get us for that, and get us He did.

The Lord never punished ancient Israel without first sending a prophet to preach repentance, along these lines from Isaiah 1:12-20:

When you come to appear before me, who requires of you this trampling of my courts? Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and the calling of assemblies—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.

Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Something similar happened with us in America. The age of prophecy is long gone, and I wouldn’t go so far as to call Frederick Douglass a prophet, but listen to how that great American abolitionist echoes Isaiah in this speech:

Southern statute books are covered with enactments forbidding, under severe fines and penalties, the teaching of the slave to read or to write. When you can point to any such laws in reference to the beasts of the field, then I may consent to argue the manhood of the slave. When the dogs in your streets, when the fowls of the air, when the cattle on your hills, when the fish of the sea, and the reptiles that crawl, shall be unable to distinguish the slave from a brute, then will I argue with you that the slave is a man! . . .

Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? that he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it. Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery? Is that a question for Republicans? Is it to be settled by the rules of logic and argumentation, as a matter beset with great difficulty, involving a doubtful application of the principle of justice, hard to be understood? How should I look today, in the presence of Americans, dividing and subdividing a discourse, to show that men have a natural right to freedom? . . .

What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.

Alright, so he got a little carried away at the end. Savages, as many of Douglass’s contemporaries well knew, were capable of crimes every bit as horrible as those of slave-holding America. But “Everybody does it” is no defense before God, and before long, America would be paying the price He set for our “bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy.” Listen to another distinguished voice from our past:

The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty 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 three thousand years ago, so still it must be said: “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Those words from Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address are counted as among the finest in our heritage. Notice, though, how they embrace three concepts much sneered at by leftists today: That justice requires retribution, that ancient scriptures are relevant to modern problems, and that our nation, along with all others, is subject to God’s authority.

By viewing the history of slavery in its entirety, seeing that virtually all nations have had a hand in it—as slaves, as slave traders, as masters, and finally as liberators—we can receive an important benefit. We may be moved to glorify the One Whose Spirit has drawn the human race away from that ancient saga of crime and violence.

One slave trader who later turned evangelist understood this, and his words of faith have a special meaning in light of his former career. The British television miniseries “The Fight Against Slavery” tells of him, and of Wilberforce, and of many others involved in that awful yet ultimately inspiring story. Let that man, John Newton, have the last word:

Amazing grace! how sweet the sound,
   That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
   Was blind, but now I see.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
   And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
   The hour I first believed!

Photo credit: François-Auguste Biard (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

About Karl Spence

Karl Spence is a retired journalist living in San Antonio. His work has appeared in National Review, the Chattanooga Free Press, American Thinker and at www.fairamendment.us.

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