The United States broke the chain of slavery as an institution, overcame great trials and tribulations because of the practice, but is stained by the legacy of the institution more than other nations primarily because they were founded as a world without it. That is according to scholar, economist, author Thomas Sowell.
It is also true that the United States would probably not have survived if the Founding Fathers took on slavery at the same time they took on the British.
What is the truth of slavery in the United States and elsewhere?
“Although slavery in the United States was referred to as a ‘peculiar institution’, slavery was in fact one of the oldest and most widespread institutions on Earth.”
And so it begins, the history of slavery in the United States by Thomas Sowell, a brilliant black intellectual, in his well-researched book, Race and Slavery: A World View.
“Slavery was ‘peculiar’ in the United States only because human bondage was inconsistent with the principles on which this nation was founded. Historically, however, it was those principles which were peculiar, not slavery,” Sowell continues.
It wasn’t only Africans who were enslaved nor were they the first of enslaved peoples, it was prevalent in Europe, West and East, Asia, and Russia. The word ‘slaves’ comes from the Slavic word ‘slavs’. Slavery was not an African invention.
Africa remained vulnerable longer, thus their people were enslaved beyond those of other nations, long after mass enslavement was viable.
It was a practice that ran across religions. Christians, Jews, Moslems, others, exempted themselves from slavery while engaging in the practice. The Catholics ended it for the Bosnians.
Over the centuries, 25 million slaves were transported from Africa for slavery. Africans themselves enslaved their own for purposes of agriculture, domestic, military, commercial and government enterprises.
Working slaves to death was common, from building infrastructure in Iraq to Nazi camps or to sacrificing them on Roman altars, the practice continued, remarkably, even among free people throughout the world and over the centuries. The United States was not unique in this.
There were endless modifications of slavery and a caste system existed within it. The variations were great and some wealthy owners, even with this unbridled power, had to use money and other incentives to get slaves to perform.
Free blacks and whites who established underground railroads made the costs of slavery higher. Slave holders knew this and made these areas inhospitable to free blacks, utilizing highly discriminatory practices. They also restricted the education of slaves, but, in doing so, they raised their costs.
Slaves tended to become proficient tradesmen as a result.
Costs of keeping slaves in the US was much higher than in other countries and it was common for Southern plantation owners to hire manual laborers, usually Irish immigrants, to do work that was considered too dangerous for slaves to do.
Laws in the antebellum South prevented slaves from purchasing their own freedom or for owners selling them as had been the practice in other nations, even when it was mutually beneficial.
While Thomas Sowell doesn’t deal with the issue of free blacks owning black slaves, it was a fact that blacks owned black slaves and gloried in hiring indentured whites.
Congressman John Randolph of Roanoke for one didn’t know what to do about the institution he felt was wrong. He feared freeing slaves in a mass process under a threat of a race war. Instead, he bought land in free Ohio for his slaves to live freely after his death. Some others tried to send the slaves back to Africa but too many had never seen Africa, they were Americans now.
In many regions of the world, slaves were both black and white as in the Ottoman Empire, preventing the racial solidarity that we see here in the U.S.
It was more common to reward slaves for performance than to punish them. There were too many ways for slaves to get even such as poison, theft, arson.
Urban slaves were better off than plantation slaves. Urban slaves could change employers, were often literate, and could live apart from the slave owner. Mulatto babies born of black women were more common among urban slaves. Domestic slaves were better off than the plantation slaves.
It was Western societies that held slavery as morally repugnant and therefore, the information about slavery and the conditions of slaves, was widespread knowledge, unlike slavery in other cultures. As a result, little is known about slavery elsewhere.
Despite determined opposition, slavery was abolished in much of the world in less than a century.
On February 27, 1807, slavery was abolished in the House of Commons, despite all odds. By the mid-1820s, being pro-slavery was a political liability in Britain. By the early 1820s, Britain pleaded with the Ottoman Empire to abolish their slave trade within its dominions. In 1847, they did pass laws to do exactly that. The British added sea patrols to monitor and end the slave trade.
Slavery didn’t economically advance regions. That was certainly true of the South. There was no visible evidence of slave owners investing the profits or contributing to economic development.
Counterproductive attitudes towards work was one downside of slavery for slaves and slave owners. “Work is for Negroes and dogs,” Sowell writes, is a Brazilian expression. People saw themselves as above working.
There were no signs of a cultural advancement in the South.
As for the moral issues, Sowell describes them as complex. The issue wasn’t whether the creation of slavery was evil for people born into it. The options of what to do about it were the fact of life.
Sowell writes, “A much larger and more powerful United States was shaken to its foundations by the Civil War, generations later. Had the United States split over the issue of slavery when the constitution was written in 1787, it is by no means clear that the North would have prevailed militarily, or that either region would have survived. Moreover, none of this would have ended slavery, but only sacrificed a nation for some futile phrases.”
Moral consciousness in fact led to laws in the North against slavery.
Sowell does not believe in reparations. For one thing, there is no economic benefit from slavery on which to base it. As far as reparations for the past degradations through the heritability of guilt is without foundation.
Nothing can ever set right the evils of slavery. Slavery can never be forgotten or forgiven. Compensation can’t be made.
The present day is sucking slavery into ideological passions, distorting it in the process.
To focus on the enslavement of Africans by Europeans would mean ignoring the slavery worldwide of all peoples. Another distortion is to blame the current societal problems of blacks on the legacy of slavery when in fact more black children were raised in two parent homes in the early twentieth century.
Free Blacks achieved high levels of literacy by the 1850s. What has changed? Sowell condemns the intelligentsia who excuse disdain for education as “acting white” and blame it on the legacy of slavery.
In addition, Sowell says to say slavery was based on race would be “putting the cart before the horse”. Race and slavery have been related in much of the world, however.
Slavery is a testament to the terrible abuses of unbridled power. In the end, it gave people a “keener appreciation of freedom”.