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Saturday, February 11, 2023

Recognizing Hard Truths about America’s History With Slavery

The battle to extend liberty to all is one of the great achievements of mankind, yet many misconceptions about slavery exist even today.

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Slavery is always and everywhere an unconscionable stain, an egregious error, a monstrous outrage, a mortal sin. Every human possesses a natural right to be his own master, so long as he does not deny that same right to others.

Most people take that truism for granted today but it wasn’t the governing rule of the past. Few people who have ever lived on this planet were truly free; most were either outright slaves or were serfs or subjects who lived in constant fear of tyrants. In world history, freedom is the exception, and mostly a recent one.

Writing in National Review, Rich Lowry points out,

Slavery knew no bounds of color or creed. During one period, from 1500 to 1700, there were more white European slaves held captive on the Barbary Coast than slaves sent from West Africa to the Atlantic world, according to Gordon [referring to Stewart Gordon and his book Shackles of Iron: Slavery Beyond the Atlantic].

Some people use Black History Month as an occasion to skewer America for slavery. The more extreme among them stoke racial divisions to score political points or line their pockets. To be sure, America is not a perfect country, nor is any one of the other 196.

The fact that slavery was so commonplace throughout the world does not whitewash the slavery that was perpetrated by anybody, including Americans. But slavery is not a uniquely American characteristic.

The process of ending legalized human bondage wasn’t a flip of a light switch, on one moment and off in an effortless second. We had to work at it, long and hard. Ideas and customs had to change first before policy changed, and that’s the way progress always happens. Along the way, an appalling number of black and white Americans paid the ultimate price to get rid of slavery, and even then, the struggle against Jim Crow persisted for decades.

In hindsight, it’s easy in the smug comfort of our 21st century blessings to frown on the Founders for not freeing everybody in one fell swoop. But none of us even knows whether, if he had been born in, say, 1700, he would have mustered the courage to fight for anybody’s freedom.

America’s Founders proclaimed the revolutionary principle that “all men are created equal.” Some were more consistent in the application of that principle than others. They compromised for the sake of union but many of them knew that the intellectual seeds they planted would eventually end slavery, one way or the other. To the argument that they didn’t abolish slavery at the Founding, Thomas G. West in his Vindicating the Founders responded,

…[T]hey limited and eventually outlawed the importation of slaves from abroad; they abolished slavery in a majority of the original states; they forbade the expansion of slavery into areas where it had not been previously permitted; they made laws regulating slavery more humane; individual owners in most states freed slaves in large numbers…Freedom was secured for the large majority of Americans, and important actions were undertaken in the service of freedom for the rest.

“Why was unity so important?” even though it delayed slavery’s extinction, asks Rob Natelson of Colorado’s Independence Institute. “Because the probable result of disunion would be never-ending war on the American continent.” (See his essay for elaboration.)

The world progressed from acceptance and ubiquity of chattel slavery in the 18th century to near-universal abolition a century later. That remains one of the most remarkable transformations in history. The spirit of the Declaration of Independence and the sacrifices of millions of people of all colors played a mighty role in that metamorphosis.

If we are to assess slavery and its abolition accurately, we must see them in their fullest historical and cultural contexts. We ought to avoid the temptation to assume that everything about slavery’s history is clear-cut and—pardon the double meaning—black and white. That means recognizing some uncomfortable facts that too often are swept under the rug.

Example: It wasn’t only whites who possessed black slaves in early America. Free black people owned fellow blacks in every one of the 13 original states and later in almost every other state. As late as 1830, according to Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates, 3,776 free American blacks owned 12,907 slaves. Moreover, in 1860, Native American tribes owned some 8,000 black slaves; the Cherokee Indians alone possessed about 4,600.

In my next article, I will provide a collection of additional facts about slavery that are often overlooked in the ongoing examination of this deplorable institution.

For Additional Information, See:

Presentism Imperils our Future by Distorting Our Past by Lawrence W. Reed

John Woolman: The Conscientious Quaker Who Paved the Way for the Abolitionist Movement by Lawrence W. Reed

Did Black People Own Slaves? by Henry Louis Gates

Defending the Constitution: Why the Founders Couldn’t Abolish Slavery by Rob Natelson

Five Things They Don’t Tell You About Slavery by Rich Lowry

1619 and the Narrative of Despair by Allen C. Guelzo


  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is lawrencewreed.com.