What 1619 Project hucksters don't understand about the history of slavery

The new "chroniclers" of America's past would transform our history to paint the United States a systemically bigoted state founded on racism in 1619.  The most fraudulent aspect of this dishonest scheme is that it fails to address the salient characteristic of slavery in the United States and Europe: the near elimination of slavery in the West by the mid-19th century.  This means that slavery as an institution was carried on in Europe for about three centuries from the beginning of the Enlightenment and then, in the blink of a historical eye, banned and made illegal.  Within less than a century from 1800, legal slavery had been ended worldwide thanks to the ideas of the European Enlightenment thinkers.

Until the 19th century, slavery had been a part of our shared experience since human history began.  Slavery is always brutal and inhuman, but enslavers viewed the enslaved as somehow warranting their enslavement.  For example, Aristotle stated in The Politics, "[T]hat some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule[.]"  Others were less philosophical, but the results were similar.  In Europe, slavery ebbed and flowed, usually with the fortunes of war.  After the erosion of the Roman Empire, slavery continued in Europe, most notably in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.

Similarly, great slave networks had existed in Africa hundreds of years before the arrival of the Portuguese.  The Ghana Empire and the Mali Empire following it supported slavery in a variety of forms.  Such empires and the smaller tribal groups engaged in slavery and the long-distance slave trade.  It appears that many slaves were transported and sold to the Muslim worlds of North Africa and the Middle East.  An eastern slave route from Africa to India expandED trade due in part to the conquests of Muhammad bin Qasim.  Likewise, slavery had been at times integral to Chinese society to a greater or lesser degree since the second millennium BCE.

The British East India Company held between eight and nine million slaves in the 1840s.  However, slavery was officially abolished in India by the Indian Slavery Act of 1843, and slavery became illegal in India in 1861 by making enslavement of a person a criminal offense.

The unfulfilled promise of our country is expressed in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence: "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."  These aspirational words written by Thomas Jefferson (himself a slave-owner and personally conflicted about the practice) are the foundation of America.  Much is sometimes made of Jefferson's first draft of the Declaration in which the word "property" originally appeared in lieu of happiness.  However, the two terms were used more or less interchangeably in 1689, when Locke wrote not only his Second Treatise, but also his Letter Concerning Toleration, substituting the words "life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things."  In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, he termed man's objective in striving for "the highest perfection of intellectual nature [which] lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness."

The idea that somehow the United States is a fundamentally racist country founded on racism by racists is far from the truth.  Socially constructed racism remains a challenge for the United States, but the aspirations of the Founders in the Declaration have proven far more important and powerful than any Hollywoodish racist script peddled by today's race-baiting hucksters. 

The sin of slavery is real, and its impacts remain with societies today.  Furthermore, slavery continues to exist.  However, to base a revision of history on a failure to immediately live up to the Founders' goals, on a phony interpretation of the Founders' interests and misrepresentation of facts, is an act worthy of history's greatest villains.  It will inspire only unjustifiable malice and distrust among peoples who are on the path of reconciliation.  Not only that, but such a revision devalues the substantial deeds of the heroes who have moved America to a far more just society than it was even a few decades ago.

Image via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.