America’s Original Sin Slavery and the Legacy of White Supremacy

Via:  colour-me-free  •  3 years ago  •  15 comments

America’s Original Sin Slavery and the Legacy of White Supremacy

I would really like to have a discussion about this article .. a very interesting read.  I do not know that I agree with all of it - yet it is food for thought.  I found a connection between the issues of the 1800's and now - politics seems to be a racially dividing factor that is still being wrestled with today.

I had to post the complete article - as I subscript to Foreign Affairs .. was not certain that others would be able to access the full article.


T he 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. 


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. 

As a result, American slavery was   tied inexorably to white dominance. Even people of African descent who  were freed for one reason or another suffered under the weight of the white supremacy that racially based slavery entrenched in American society. In the few places where free blacks had some   form of state citizenship, their rights  were circumscribed in ways that emphasized their inferior status—to them and to all observers. State laws in both the   so-called Free States and the slave states served as blueprints for a system of  white supremacy. Just as blackness was associated with inferiority and a lack of freedom—in some jurisdictions, black skin created the legal presumption of an enslaved status—whiteness was associated with superiority and freedom. 

The historian   Edmund Morgan explained   what this meant for the development of American attitudes about slavery, freedom, and race—indeed, for American culture overall. Morgan argued that racially based slavery, rather than being a contradiction in a country that prided itself on freedom, made the freedom of white people possible. The system that put black people at the bottom of the social heap tamped down class divisions among whites. Without a large group of people who would always rank below the level of even the poorest, most disaffected white person, white unity could not have persisted. Grappling with the legacy of slavery, therefore, requires grappling with the white supremacy that preceded the founding of the United States and persisted after the end of legalized slavery.

Racially based slavery, rather than being a contradiction in a country that prided itself on freedom, made the freedom of white people possible.

Consider, by contrast, what might have happened had there been Irish  chattel slavery in North America. The Irish suffered pervasive discrimination   and were subjected to crude and cruel stereotypes about their alleged inferiority, but they were never kept as slaves. Had they been enslaved and then freed, there is every reason to believe that they would have had an easier time assimilating into American culture than have African Americans. Their enslavement would be a major historical fact, but it would likely not have created a legacy so firmly tying the past to the present as did African chattel slavery. Indeed, the descendants of white indentured servants blended into society and today suffer no stigma because of their ancestors’ social condition.

American slavery was tied inexorably to white dominance.

Racially based slavery, rather than being a contradiction in a country that prided itself on freedom, made the freedom of white people possible.

That is because the ability to append   enslaved status to a set of generally identifiable physical characteristics—skin  color, hair, facial features—made it easy to tell who was eligible for slavery and to maintain a system of social control over the enslaved. It also made it easy   to continue organized oppression after the  13th Amendment ended legal slavery in 1865. There was no incentive for whites   to change their attitudes about race even when slavery no longer existed. Whiteness still amounted to a value, unmoored from  economic or social status. Blackness still   had to be devalued to ensure white superiority. This calculus operated in Northern states as well as Southern ones. 


The framers of the Confederate States  of   America understood this well. Race played a specific and pivotal role in their  conception of the society they wished to create. If members of the revolutionary   generation presented themselves as  opponents of a doomed system and, in   Jefferson’s case, cast baleful views of race  as mere “suspicions,” their Confederate grandchildren voiced their full-throated   support for slavery as a perpetual institution , based on their openly expressed belief in black inferiority. The founding documents of the Confederacy, under   which the purported citizens of that entity lived, just as Americans live under the Declaration of Independence and the  Constitution, announced that African   slavery would form the “cornerstone” of  the country they would create after winning the Civil War. In 1861, a few weeks before the war began, Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy,   put things plainly :

The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution—African slavery as it exists amongst us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast had anticipated this as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. . . . The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation   of the laws of nature; that it was wrong  in principle, socially, morally, and politically. . . . Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error.

Our new government is   founded  upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone   rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition. 

Despite the clarity of Stephens’ words, millions of Americans today are unaware of—or perhaps unwilling to   learn about—the aims of those who  rallied to the Confederate cause. That   ignorance has led many to fall prey to the romantic notion of “the rebels,” ignoring  that these rebels had a cause. Modern Americans may fret about the hypocrisy   and weakness of the founding generation , but there was no such hesitancy among   the leading Confederates on matters of  slavery and race. That they were not successful on the battlefield does not mean that their philosophy should be ignored in favor of abstract notions of   “duty,” “honor,” and “nobility”; Americans  should not engage in the debate that the former Confederates chose after the war ended and slavery, finally, acquired a bad name. 

It has taken until well into the twenty - first century for many Americans to begin  to reject the idea of erecting statues of   men who fought to construct an explicitly  white supremacist society. For too long,   the United States has postponed a reckoning  with the corrosive ideas about race that have destroyed the lives and wasted the talents of millions of people who could have contributed to their country.   To confront the legacy of slavery without  openly challenging the racial attitudes that created and shaped the institution is to leave the most important variable out of the equation. And yet discussions of race, particularly of one’s own racial attitudes, are among the hardest conversations Americans are called on to have. 

For too long, the United States has postponed a reckoning with corrosive ideas about race.

This issue of the Confederacy’s legacy was made tragically prominent in 2015, when the white supremacist   Dylann Roof   shot 12 black parishioners in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine of them. History had given the worshipers in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church every reason to be suspicious of the young man who appeared at their doorstep that day, yet they invited him in to their prayer meeting. Although they had, Roof said, been “nice” to him, they had to die because they (as representatives of the black race) were, in his words, raping “our women” and “taking over our country.” Their openness and faith were set against the images, later revealed, of Roof posing with what has come to be known as the Confederate flag and other white supremacist iconography. The core meaning of the Confederacy was made heartbreakingly vivid. From that moment on, inaction on the question of the display of the Confederate flag was, for many, no longer an option. Bree Newsome, the activist who, ten days after the shooting, scaled the flagpole in front of the South Carolina State House and removed the Confederate flag that flew there, represented the new spirit: displaying symbols of white supremacy in public spaces was no longer tolerable.

And those symbols went far beyond flags. Monuments to people who, in one way or another, promoted the idea of white supremacy are scattered across the   country. Statues of Confederate officials  and generals dot parks and public buildings. Yet proposals to take them down have drawn sharp opposi tion. Few who resist the removal of the statues openly praise the aims of  the Confederacy, whatever their private thoughts on the matter. Instead, they   raise the specter of a slippery slope:  today, Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee; tomorrow, George Washington   and Thomas Jefferson. Yet dealing with such slopes is part of everyday life. The problem with the Confederacy  is not just that its leaders owned slaves.   The problem is that they tried to destroy the Union and did so in adherence to an  explicit doctrine of slavery and white   supremacy. By contrast, the founding  generation, for all its faults, left behind   them principles and documents that have  allowed American society to expand in directions opposite to the values of the   South’s slave society and the Confederacy.

It is not surprising that colleges and universities, ideally the site of inquiry and intellectual contest, have grappled   most prominently with this new national discussion. Many of the most prestigious American universities have benefited from the institution of slavery or have buildings named after people who promoted white supremacy. Brown, Georgetown, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale have, by starting conversations on campus, carrying out programs of historical self-study, and setting up commissions, contributed to greater public understanding of the past and of how the country might move ahead. Their work serves as a template for the ways in which other institutions should engage with these issues in a serious fashion.


For all the criticism that has been leveled at him for the insufficient radicalism of his  racial politics, Abraham Lincoln under stood that the central question for the United States after the Civil War was  whether blacks could be fully incorpo rated into American society. Attempting to go forward after the carnage, he returned to first principles. In the Gettysburg Address, he used the words of the Declaration of Independence as an argument for the emancipation of blacks and their inclusion in the country’s “new birth of freedom.” What Lincoln meant by this, how far he was prepared to take matters, will remain unknown. What is clear is that Reconstruction, the brief period of hope among four million emancipated African Americans, when black men were given the right to vote, when the freedmen married, sought education, and became elected officials in the South, was seen as a nightmare by many white Southerners. Most of them had not owned slaves. But slavery was only part of the wider picture. They continued to rely on the racial hierarchy that had obtained since the early  1600s, when the first Africans arrived in   North America’s British colonies. Rather  than bring free blacks into society, with   the hope of moving the entire region  forward, they chose to move backward,   to a situation as close to slavery as legally  possible. Northern whites, tired of “the   Negro problem,” abandoned Reconstruction and left black people to the mercy of those who had before the war seen them as  property and after it as lost possessions.

The historian David Blight has   described how the post–Civil War desire  for reconciliation between white North erners and white Southerners left African Americans behind, in ways that continue to shape American society. The South had no monopoly on adherents to the doctrine of white supremacy. Despite  all that had happened, the racial hierarchy took precedence over the ambitious plan to bring black Americans into full citizenship expressed in the 13th, 14th,   and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. In a reversal of the maxim that history is written by the victors, the losing side in the Civil War got to tell the story of their slave society in ways favorable to them, through books, movies, and other popular entertainment. American culture accepted the story that apologists for the Confederacy told about Southern whites and Southern blacks. 

That did not begin to change until   the second half of the twentieth century. It took the development of modern scholarship on slavery and Reconstruction and a civil rights movement composed  of blacks, whites, and other groups from across the country to begin moving the   needle on the question of white supremacy’s  role in American society. 

Since then, black Americans have   made many social and economic gains, but there is still far to go. De jure segregation  is dead, but de facto segregation is firmly in place in much of the country. The United States twice elected a black president and had a black first   family, but the next presidential election  expressed, in part, a backlash. African Americans are present in all walks of life, up and down the economic scale . But overall, black wealth is a mere fraction of white wealth. Police brutality  and racialized law enforcement tactics   have shown that the Fourth Amendment  does not apply with equal force to black   Americans. And the killing of armed  black men in open-carry states by police   has called into question black rights under  the Second Amendment. To understand these problems, look not only to slavery itself but also to its most lasting legacy: the maintenance of white supremacy.   Americans must come to grips with both if they are to make their country live up to its founding creed.


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Colour Me Free
1  seeder  Colour Me Free    3 years ago

I think I was able to clean up the article .. sorry if I missed any duplicate paragraphs .. for some reason a few posted twice

1.1  Shepboy  replied to  Colour Me Free @1    3 years ago
I think I was able to clean up the article .. sorry if I missed any duplicate paragraphs .. for some reason a few posted twice

I find it a bit odd you would have white supremacy in there.  I mean, white people here in America were not the only people who owned black slaves.. 

Many Black people also owned plantations and owned black slaves too.

Colour Me Free
1.1.1  seeder  Colour Me Free  replied to  Shepboy @1.1    3 years ago

Have to take that up with the author .....

and yes .... there were black slave owners (several rather harsh ones from what I have read) .. so because of this fact, does it mean that white supremacy was not a factor of slavery and the battle against equal rights being given to the black citizens of the US?

  Were Black slave owners blocking black students from going to white schools to get an equal education?

2  LMM    3 years ago

Great article, but prepare for a ear-splitting Whoosh.

Colour Me Free
2.1  seeder  Colour Me Free  replied to  LMM @2    3 years ago

No comments necessary LMM .... I will feel progress will been made if individuals take the time to read the article ... there is a great deal of thought provoking information provided.

Baby steps ... one of these days a discussion will take place without anger       (I keep dreaming)

Colour Me Free
3  seeder  Colour Me Free    3 years ago

To understand these problems, look not only to slavery itself but also to its most lasting legacy: the maintenance of white supremacy. Americans must come to grips with both if they are to make their country live up to its founding creed.

What is coming to grips with both even mean - is not one supposed to be condemned?  White Supremacy is not exclusive to the United States, yet the enslaving of blacks only is.  I do not know how to rid society of those that feel superior due to skin color - sadly my guess is that it cannot be done.

3.1  LMM  replied to  Colour Me Free @3    3 years ago

Many Americans are both ignorant and in denial of the reality.

Redlining. I bet few even know about redlining and how it kept African Americans in poverty while white Americans were buying houses that made them families be better off over the decades:

Colour Me Free
3.1.1  seeder  Colour Me Free  replied to  LMM @3.1    3 years ago

Interesting information .. thanks for the link

As a kid I watch "All in the Family"  "Good Times" "The Jefferson's"   these programs is what the link made me think of.  Even "Happy Days" when the first Black family moved into the neighborhood ............. was there a time that the conversation was being presented - but was lost in the 'ugly'ish' humor?

Bob Nelson
4  Bob Nelson    3 years ago

I'm not sure what this article adds to the conversation...

Colour Me Free
4.1  seeder  Colour Me Free  replied to  Bob Nelson @4    3 years ago

There is NO conversation taking place that I can see Bob ... so tell me what does this article take away from the conversation not being had?

Bob Nelson
4.1.1  Bob Nelson  replied to  Colour Me Free @4.1    3 years ago

I wasn't being unpleasant. I just don't see anything new here. There's a little bit of this, a little bit of that, but if someone found something notable, I'd appreciate their pointing it out.

By "conversation", I meant the general ongoing national conversation about slavery, the Confederacy, and so on.

Colour Me Free
4.1.2  seeder  Colour Me Free  replied to  Bob Nelson @4.1.1    3 years ago

Awww a'ight .... my bad...

I do a great deal of reading, but not everyone can be as learned as you.  I felt this was a great read - written for everyone, not just the scholars in the group.

Was just trying to have an educated conversation ......... leave sexual misconduct behind! (at least for a day)

Bob Nelson
4.1.3  Bob Nelson  replied to  Colour Me Free @4.1.2    3 years ago

Hey... There have been a lot of seeds in this area over the last few months. I read them. So I'm sorry...

Colour Me Free
4.1.4  seeder  Colour Me Free  replied to  Bob Nelson @4.1.3    3 years ago

Sorry for what?  That you read and educated yourself, yet still felt the need to add not much to the 'lack' of conversation ?  Do not be silly, I expect nothing less... : )

If you can direct me to those seeds I would appreciate it - is there a way to search by topic or something?

5  JohnRussell    3 years ago

Good article. 


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