Jay Eshelman: America didn't invent slavery or racism - why do we get blamed for it?
Regarding the Reformer's editorial: "Listen, then act on beating racism" (June 3) ... a righteous endeavor, to say the least. But the nobility of the Reformer editor's notion quickly morphs into pure sophistry. Slavery is NOT an American "original sin." If anything, the founding of America spelled doom for the institution.
Organized, institutional slavery has been a ubiquitous human condition for thousands of years — since the advent of Mesopotamian civilizations almost 7,000 years ago. The Egyptians had slaves 3,500 years ago. The Greeks had slaves. The city of Athens had as many as 80,000 slaves in the 5th & 6th centuries B.C. — 30 percent of its population. And while the Romans had slaves, their qualifications weren't based on race. Gladiators were slaves, Christians were slaves, and conquered soldiers were slaves. Jews owned slaves. Muslims owned slaves.
The earliest African slave trade was between Muslims in Arabia and African slave traders, 800 years before Columbus landed in the Americas. The Danes (Vikings) traded European slaves in the 8th century. The Portuguese, in the 16th century, were the first to engage in the Atlantic slave trade with, yes, again, African slave traders. The major Atlantic slave trading nations, ordered by trade volume, were the Portuguese, the British, the Spanish, the French, the Dutch and the Danes — all before Jamestown (of the now infamous 1619 delineation) and Plymouth colonies were ever established. It has been reported that there are more slaves throughout the world today than were alive in America at the start of the Civil War.
Now we come to the founding of the United States. Did George Washington own slaves? Yes. Did Jefferson? Yes. So did James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, John Jay, and others. And, for the most part, they inherited them. But John Adams, Samuel Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Tom Paine, and others, did not own slaves. Early on, when the United States was but a glint in the eye of the
18th century "enlightenment," slavery, and more importantly, how to end it, was a significant contention of the time.
In his initial draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson condemned the injustice of the slave trade and, by implication, slavery. After the Revolutionary War, George Washington began to question slavery too, and avoided the issue publicly, believing that bitter debates over slavery could tear apart the fragile nation. The debate was on nonetheless. And it took 87 years from our founding until Lincoln gave us the Emancipation Proclamation, celebrated today, Juneteenth, as I write. And it took another two years for 360,222 Union soldiers to die in the Civil War enforcing Lincoln's proclamation.
Now consider slaves like Mum Bett (Elizabeth Freeman), a woman born into slavery and owned by John Ashley in Massachusetts, a Yale-educated lawyer, wealthy landowner, businessman and leader in the community. Ashley's house was the site of many political discussions and the probable
location of the signing of the Sheffield Resolves, which predated the Declaration of Independence. In 1780, Mum Bett heard the newly ratified Massachusetts Constitution read at a public gathering in Sheffield, including the following:
"All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness."
Inspired by those words, Bett sought the counsel of Theodore Sedgwick, a young abolition-minded lawyer, to help her sue for her freedom in court. When the jury ruled in Bett's favor, she became the first African-American woman to be set free under the Massachusetts state constitution. That was in 1781, six years BEFORE the U.S. Constitution was ratified.
Does racism still exist? Yes. It has for thousands of years. Are we to be complacent when we see racism? No. Of course not. But, please, don't tell us that slavery is America's "Original Sin." And please stop telling those of us who prefer to be color-blind, who judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin — that we are racist, white supremacists because of the color of our skin.
Postscript: The editor of the Reformer should ask those who educated him for his money back. In fact, I suspect many Reformer readers are unaware of the truly wondrous happenstance of our American history and the creation of what is still, to this day, the most elegant set of ground rules for achieving and maintaining our life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.
In the next lesson, we should discuss the colonial treatment of Native Americans — an equally contentious, ugly, and unfortunate, but often misunderstood chapter of our collective enlightenment as well.
Jay Eshelman writes from Westminster. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.