The revival of reparations talk signals an opportunity for a serious discussion of the revival of republican self-government or strong citizenship. Instead, we get the blithe attitudes of Democrats and the grumbling about handouts from Republicans which signal the bipartisan lack of seriousness—a deficiency also characterizing disputes over immigration and “diversity.”
The best opportunity for a serious discussion took place at Georgetown University, which had been shocked to discover the 1838 sale of 272 slaves who were owned by its predecessor, Georgetown College. Genealogists were able to track down some current descendants of those who were sold to Southern plantations in Louisiana and elsewhere. Records remain of the contemporary debate over the sales and accounts of the dividing of families
So here was a clear case of some physical connection between a wrongful deed and a living person with some connection to it. But the key question remains, what should Jesuit-founded Georgetown University (or those who benefitted from the slave sale, including the debtors that Georgetown paid off from the slave sales) do today? It’s too easy for current students to vote for a modest student fee (often paid for by parents in any case) to benefit someone or another. A tougher question is whether there should be a surtax on current Georgetown Jesuits, the faculty, and staff. Cognizant of the ties of common faith as well as a common institution, Georgetown’s Catholics may feel particular obligations, which would appropriately have included prayers and fasting. Still, the question remains of what obligations the present has concerning past misdeeds.
Current immigrants may scoff at the notion that they are financially or morally obligated to make amends for the wickedness of slavery, an institution that was abolished 150 years ago and long before the arrival of their families. In this they follow the lead of other Americans, who make the same sensible objection: It’s not right to be generous with other people’s money and deprive people of goods in order to bestow them on others you would prefer to see prosper.
If we look to Abraham Lincoln for guidance, however, we will find both the most acute American critic of reparations and its most staunch advocate. What can this mean? Despite his hatred of slavery, his argument against the institution was rooted in constitutional doctrine—which is why he insisted that his wartime Emancipation Proclamation did not free any slaves in Union-held territory but only those in rebel-held ground. Moreover, rejecting slavery is in accord with those who defend property rights today: “this argument of [Stephen Douglas] is the same old serpent that says you work and I eat….”
Or, to put it somewhat differently, “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is not democracy.” The 13th Amendment was the fulfillment of Lincoln’s Civil War statesmanship:
Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
The dramatic change for America was not only in a shift in domestic law and not only in putting an end to the category of slaves, but it was also in abolishing the category of masters and as well upending the relationship between states and the federal government concerning the freemen. But the amendment also respected the separation of powers and required Congress to act—there was no special empowerment of the president or of the Supreme Court.
Thus, Lincoln’s constitutional argument also advanced a moral understanding of the Civil War, stated most succinctly in the Gettysburg Address and above all in the Second Inaugural with its astounding appeal to the conscience of the re-United States: “With malice toward none; with charity for all,” following a conflict that devastated the country and would transform the South. “Reparations,” in this sense, would need to be made to all who suffered in the war. The purpose of the war he had seen thus:
This is essentially a People’s contest. On the side of the Union, it is a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men—to lift artificial weights from all shoulders—to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all—to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life. Yielding to partial, and temporary departures, from necessity, this is the leading object of the government for whose existence we contend.
Joining a nation is not like buying a club membership. The bonds are stronger. Its debts become those of the member’s. Each assumes the glory and the folly of the nation’s past.
In all this, the protection of the rights to property, as James Madison had emphasized at the founding, would be more important than ever. But property could no longer be held in slaves. A sensible Reconstruction policy would have assured the protection of the natural rights of freedmen and the abolition of the master class in the South. Neither took place.
Lincoln’s statesmanship was missing, and though President Grant strived to expand property rights protections for all, he was thwarted in his noble effort. The nation did not fulfill James Madison’s founding premise “as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.” Without proper protection of property rights in their full and comprehensive sense, republican self-government is illusory. The party of “you work, I eat” remained in power, though morphing to cope with new political realities and to appeal to those it once argued should be enslaved, eventually becoming the administrative state that now rules the country.
That party in its early and later Progressive forms would then recruit immigrants into their cause. The immigrants came for work, but they stayed for more, often expressing gratitude for their new home. The ethnic diversity of immigrants, in country of origin, mores, and religion, reflected the Declaration’s equality of natural rights. But there was also a disturbing lack of concern for the suitability of immigrants for republican government, given immigrants’ past under old-world tyrannies. Nonetheless, the earlier, patriotic Progressivism along with the practical effects of time for assimilation led to their recruitment into its framework.
Today, the anti-American Progressivism of the administrative state has fostered the notion of privilege for an expanded array of allegedly oppressed groups—racial and ethnic, feminist, and now sexual. The Claremont Institute has recently published symposia on multiculturalism in its Claremont Review of Books and American Mind online magazine.
David Azerrad succinctly argues “Identity politics should be rejected not because it demands justice for those who have been unjustly treated, but because it poses a threat to republican self-government by corroding patriotic ties, fostering hatred, promoting cultural separatism, and demanding special treatment rather than equality under the law.” This is not healthy pride but aristocratic arrogance.
While each of these new identity groups needs to be understood in its particular demands on American republicanism, they all need to be distinguished from connection to the tyranny of slavery and the contemporary denunciations of “white privilege.” Briefly, the American descendants of slaves should be confident in their equality of rights and not remain in debt. Any gratitude they feel should be to the founders and to those who would perpetuate the constitutional order that finally recognized—even at the cost of some 600,000 American deaths—its obligations to them as fellow citizens.
Alexis de Tocqueville has a useful insight here about Americans being Good Samaritans, though obviously limited in the amount of aid they will offer (Democracy in America, Volume II, Part3, chapter 4). Such limitations are not based on stinginess, however, but instead on the assumption that help given without limitation would be a sign of disrespect for the unfortunate’s ability to live freely and independently.. We today lack the restraint of Tocqueville’s earlier Americans who lived out an ethic of equality that recognized the equal human dignity of the poor and others suffering misfortune demanded treating them as persons capable of living independently.
Thus, the privilege talk, with its reminder of aristocracy, rankles our republican spirit. What the American Republic faces is that “old serpent,” in a new form, oligarchy, a form of personal privilege bestowed on oneself based on one’s origins.
For the study of multiculturalism, one should add to the Claremont Institute publications the “Symposium on American National Character” in the latest issue of Perspectives on Political Science. William B. Allen offers a refreshing bon mot, “a people who cannot lift their own heads cannot lift up their nation.” Or, as a recent president put it, “through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.”
Content created by the Center for American Greatness, Inc. is available without charge to any eligible news publisher that can provide a significant audience. For licensing opportunities for our original content, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images