America’s Original Sin – By Annette Gordon-Reed January/February 2018 Issue


Slavery and the Legacy of White Supremacy

The documents most closely associated with the creation of the United States—the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—present a problem with which Americans have been contending from the country’s beginning: how to reconcile the values espoused in those texts with the United States’ original sin of slavery, the flaw that marred the country’s creation, warped its prospects, and eventually plunged it into civil war. The Declaration of Independence had a specific purpose: to cut the ties between the American colonies and Great Britain and establish a new country that would take its place among the nations of the world. But thanks to the vaulting language of its famous preamble, the document instantly came to mean more than that. Its confident statement that “all men are created equal,” with “unalienable Rights” to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” put notions of freedom and equality at the heart of the American experiment. Yet it was written by a slave owner, Thomas Jefferson, and released into 13 colonies that all, to one degree or another, allowed slavery.

The Constitution, which united the colonies turned states, was no less tainted. It came into existence only after a heated argument over—and fateful compromise on—the institution of slavery. Members of the revolutionary generation often cast that institution as a necessary evil that would eventually die of its own accord, and they made their peace with it to hold together the new nation. The document they fought over and signed in 1787, revered almost as a sacred text by many Americans, directly protected slavery. It gave slave owners the right to capture fugitive slaves who crossed state lines, counted each enslaved person as three-fifths of a free person for the purpose of apportioning members of the House of Representatives, and prohibited the abolition of the slave trade before 1808.

As citizens of a young country, Americans have a close enough connection to the founding generation that they look to the founders as objects of praise. There might well have been no United States without George Washington, behind whom 13 fractious colonies united. Jefferson’s language in the Declaration of Independence has been taken up by every marginalized group seeking an equal place in American society. It has influenced people searching for freedom in other parts of the world, as well.

American slavery was tied inexorably to white dominance.

Yet the founders are increasingly objects of condemnation, too. Both Washington and Jefferson owned slaves. They, along with James Madison, James Monroe, and Andrew Jackson, the other three slave-owning presidents of the early republic, shaped the first decades of the United States. Any desire to celebrate the country’s beginning quickly runs into the tragic aspects of that moment. Those who wish to revel without reservation in good feelings about their country feel threatened by those who note the tragedies and oppression that lay at the heart of this period. Those descended from people who were cast as inferior beings, whose labor and lives were taken for the enrichment of others, and those with empathy for the enslaved feel insulted by unreflective celebration. Learning how to strike the right balance has proved one of the most difficult problems for American society.

WHY SLAVERY’S LEGACY ENDURES

The issue, however, goes far beyond the ways Americans think and talk about their history. The most significant fact about American slavery, one it did not share with other prominent ancient slave systems, was its basis in race. Slavery in the United States created a defined, recognizable group of people and placed them outside society. And unlike the indentured servitude of European immigrants to North America, slavery was an inherited condition.

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