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Slavery and Race

American Slavery - The Complete Story
Gerald A. Foster, Ph.D

Abraham Lincoln is hailed as the "great emancipator" because he supposedly risked his political future as well as the fragile foundation of the relatively new republic, to end slavery. This is indeed a noble version of American history and one that has inflamed and incited partisans for nearly 140 years. However, the truth, which is always relative and not absolute, is that Lincoln's one and only priority was to preserve a fragile Union that was in the throes of the Industrial Revolution and intense sectional antagonism, not to free the slaves. The political agenda was integrally intertwined with an economic agenda, both of which had far reaching international implications well beyond the purview of slavery. Unfortunately, the issue of slavery still remains the supreme bogey of American black-white race relations.

Two of the most unnecessarily divisive issues today have their genesis in slavery--reparations and the confederate flag. In an August 2, 1862 letter to Horace Greeley, Abraham Lincoln made his position on slavery crystal clear, "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some and leave others alone, I would also do it." He was true to his words when, in September 1862, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing only those slaves who were in states which were "in rebellion against the United States." Journalist Brent Staples states, "Historians working on business records are showing that the good, rich citizens of the Northeast were vigorously seeking business with Southern slavers and trafficking in slaves even after abolitionists had seized the day and Northeastern states had outlawed the slave trade." We now are beginning to see a much clearer picture of slavery and its most vital role in the emergence of 19th century America as a world economic colonial power. In the 139 years since slavery officially ended, it has continued to excite, incite and polarize America primarily because the term is inextricably attached to the issue of race. However, the ultimate irony is that in most if not all arenas of socio-political discourse, race is rapidly becoming a non-entity. In the 2000 United States Census there were sixty-eight different and distinct self-reported racial categories, showing that race has already become demographically extinct. Yet, we must hasten to add that racism is just as virulent and divisive as it has ever been. The institution of racism is the omnipresent progeny of the nineteenth and twentieth century manifestations of slavery and its bedfellow, race.

How did slavery and race become so patently intertwined as distinctly American phenomena? Slavery in America was different from any other corner of the world primarily because in America it was viewed early on as the primary foundation upon which an emerging republic could solidify its economic primacy in the global commerce of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Two hundred and twenty-eight years of free labor will assure business success anywhere in the cosmos. However, the social and political dilemma for a new republic was how to justify public professions of equality, individual rights and democracy while at the same time holding fast to African captives who had been systematically and mentally dehumanized and designated as personal property. Therein lay the challenge for the founding fathers and the signers of the Declaration of Independence (1776) as well as the United States Constitution (1787). This marked the beginning of contentious race relations in America that persist to this day. False sciences and religious zealotry were the primary fervent justifications for how black slaves were treated and for the terror and brutality that flourished well into the twentieth century, decades after slavery was legally ended.

Social and political illusionists who purveyed racial inferiority, genetic deficiencies, primal instinct and infantile proclivities successfully convinced a nation that it was in fact acceptable to treat blacks as property because it was scientifically and religiously sanctioned and preordained. In reality, it was a perverted extension of manifest destiny.

On this issue, we as a nation have miles to go before we sleep

President Clinton upon leaving office in 1999 empanelled a blue ribbon committee on race; similarly in 1999, the New York Times undertook what was considered the most controversial and ambitious journalistic project in its history, How Race is Lived in America. One of the most widely anticipated Supreme Court decisions in 25 years was handed down in June 2003 concerning the propriety of race as a key consideration in college admissions policies and procedures.

If we are to progress in the global and diverse political economy of the twenty-first century, we must expand our discussions on slavery to heal our wounds of race and the malignancy of racism. In spite of its longstanding racial foibles, America is still a land of unlimited opportunity for those who are willing to be intellectually courageous enough to discount the rhetoric of the race mongers and purveyors of hate who persist in advancing agendas that alienate and polarize rather than heal and conciliate.

A more balanced discussion of slavery is a critical first step in this heretofore road not taken (Click here to Continue).

excerpted from: Gerald A Foster, American Slavery: the Complete Story, 2 Cardozo Public Law, Policy and Ethics Journal 401- 420 (May, 2004) (420 Footnotes Omitted)

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