• Daniel Ethan Finneran

A Thought On Slavery

July 2019


There’s only one thing, one ineffaceable blemish of which every American is ashamed. To say as much is no small matter, for shame comes not naturally to us. Our country is, for all its purple mountains and pomposities, a rather shameless one so far as nations go. We’re somewhat insensate to the emotion as a general rule—hardened, as it were, to the idea. Take as evidence the shells of our all-American, misbegotten pride, or the carapaces of insouciance within which we operate.


Yet still, immune to shame’s broader effects though we may fancy ourselves to be, there remains that single blemish of which we can’t be cleaned—a pock-mark on the country’s countenance for which we feel immense and abiding shame.


Historic and tragic, universal and ineffaceable, black and white and old and new, this shameful scar is the institution of slavery in America. It’s our shared and unprepossessing past. It’s the foundation upon which our early economy was built and it’s the blight to which our plagued roots were exposed. It’s a past of whose shackles we’ve yet to become disencumbered, a cause over whose deep corrugations and low-points we’ve yet to ascend. It is, in this very moment and for all those to come, an issue whose ripples we can’t blithely ignore. And, irrespective of one’s lineage, ancestry, or the brevity of time spent here, we share in the wearing of this scar and the feeling of its reverberative pain.


We mustn’t, however, acknowledge this blemish merely without attempting historically to understand it in its fuller light. So penetrating and wide-ranging an approach to history requires many things. Sobriety, patience, and endurance are needed above all else. Emotions mustn’t interrupt us now as we proceed along our trajectory into the past; they can only cloud our eyes and obfuscate our view. Contrition can’t be an impediment to illumination. We’re rather in need of perspective than pathos, a wide-outlook than a thin-skin.

And so, we affix our eyes to the past, we harden ourselves to the histrionics, and we begin.


Slavery is often spoken of as being and as having been America’s original sin. Just last week, Senator Mitch McConnell referred to it as such, as did former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Though both the aforementioned are Republicans, there’s no dearth of politicians on either side of the aisle who’ve said much the same. And, if candor has any currency in the market place of the day, so too have I. In articles and discussions past, I’ve used the term “original sin” as if to be a synonym for our nation’s founding. At the time, I conceived of the phrase as being more than a mere self-flagellation of which we surely deserved; it appeared to me the correct attribution and use of the term as it relates to our past.


But I think I was wrong to regard it as such. In fact, I’m quite sure I was mistaken. You see, slavery undoubtedly was a sin that was a part of our origin. Of this, there simply is no doubt. An attestation to the contrary, benighted be the man who makes it, is not only controversial, but ahistorical. Yet having accepted as much, one can’t then claim it to have been a unique nor an exclusive component to our founding to the exclusion of anyone else’s.


This claim to originality will forever perplex me. So far as our country is concerned, how have we come into the possession of slavery as an original sin of a uniquely American type? I don’t understand the unconditional attachment of it to us, as if we Americans, proudly unique in all other ways, are also unique in this. We harry ourselves with the belief (misbegotten though it is, as I intend in the forthcoming lines to show) that slavery in its American form ought to be considered something sui generis—something, if I might be so impudent to say, “Made in America”, as though it were akin to baseball, Hollywood, or the Model T Ford.


If we’re to approach the history of slavery in America (and the present deliberations over the possible allotment of reparations consequent that system of uncompensated work), we must approach it with the intention of grasping—if only tenuously—the history of slavery writ large. Only after having done so with any degree of success will we find that the notion of the peculiarity of this institution really isn’t so peculiar at all. At least so far as it concerns itself within the boundaries of America, it will be just one more errant idea of which we, now a hopefully more enlightened society, will be disabused.


Slavery, while abhorrent, can’t be described as having existed throughout history as an aberration. If anything, liberty, its opposite, has been the rare and glorious deviation from that bitter norm. Throughout nearly all of human history, the exception being this slice of time we flatter ourselves in calling the modern and progressive age, the institution of slavery has existed. Governments have risen and fallen—some by the administration of democrats and others by kings—but slavery has outlived them all. Its death, if we could so confidently announce it, is a phenomenon of the very recent modern day.


Slavery wasn’t exclusive to a particularly brutish place nor time. It was equally as ancient as it was ubiquitous, practiced from the moment man escaped the state of nature until not so long ago. Neither heeding latitude nor longitude, nor the constraints of an ever-shrinking globe, it has permeated every civilization from the Arctic, to the Orient, to the putatively Enlightened West. It was profitable and amoral, a financial boon atop an ethical blunder, but nothing throughout the passage of time seemed about it amiss.


Enslavement, more than an aberration, was an expectation, shocking though the idea is to the modern and genteel ear. At least after the loss of a military campaign, the noncombatants of a defeated city (typically one exhausted of resources and vigor by the hunger pangs and perils of starvation and siege) would accept their inevitable fate. The surviving men by whom the defeated army was mustered were usually slaughtered en masse. The continuation of life was deemed too good and too merciful a life for a man so subdued. Infrequent was it that these men could expect servility as an alternative to death.


As for the ladies, servility or concubinage (which, I suppose, is nothing more than slavery of a sexual kind) was to be their new station in life. There was no third way. Hard though it is to believe, the situation really was that binary, that sanguinary: win the war and retain the liberty of your people and the chastity of your women. Lose it, and either die or embrace your chains.


The women of Troy did both. About this ancient city— a city upon whose ruins a riotous Turkish population now swells, and a city from which institutionalized slavery was banished but a mere eighty-six years ago—Homer had much to tell. But more so than on anything else, the blind bard was focused rather on the men than the women of this town. His epic was martial and masculine and little in the way of feminine forbearance and grace could squeeze its way into his ten years’ worth of war. Add to that, of course, the fact that throughout the works of Homer, we’re not told in any great detail precisely what happened to the city, its inhabitants, and the enslavement to which they were subjected after its walls fell down.


For that, we’re made to turn to Euripides—the pagan playwright par excellence. If pathos is the criterion by which we’re to measure the success or failure of a tragedy, Euripides’ Trojan Women is very highly to be esteemed, but it also provides us with a glimpse into the terrors of history. It’s not only an eminent piece of art, but a cruel and vivid example of what was expected to happen to civilians, very soon to be made slaves, after suffering a loss in war.


Excepting poor Polyxena, a maiden tossed alive upon the pyre of Achilles, all the women of Troy were enslaved. This for them should’ve been no surprise. Hecuba, queen mother of Asia Minor and fertile matron of a brood of fourteen, was made to be the slave of Odysseus (whose infidelity at times challenged his indefatigability as he ventured back home).

Cassandra, daughter of that same Hecuba and beautiful intoxicant of both mortal and god, endured a fate far worse and certainly more moribund than that of her mother. She was given in slavery to the irascible king Agamemnon, a man upon whose return a quite justifiably angry Clytemnestra waited with a score to settle and an ax to grind. Andromache, widow of the late Hector, also was made a slave by the imperious Neoptolemus.

While you might protest that these Trojan women were nothing more than a quaint mythology, their tale reflects the brutal reality of military conquest in the late Bronze Age. More than anything, it shows the simple route by which one was made into a slave after so definitive a conquest was achieved. This simply wasn’t a work of Euripidean imagination out of which a tragic plotline could spring for the purposes of winning Athenian prestige. In passages from the Hebrew Bible, similar accounts are told. So too are such histories contained in the annals of the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and the Babylonian civilizations.

Nearly consistent among all these empires was the “spoils” system that were erected subsequent a war. All, at one time or another, took slaves, and they took them without burdening themselves of their humanity nor their morals.


For the greatest confluence of humanity and reality, though, one must turn to the successor state of Greece—the austere and conquering Rome. It’s there we find an advancement, so to speak, on the institution of slavery—an institution, we must recall, of which America is so obviously originally guilty. We mustn’t fail to keep our original sin in mind.


The Roman conception of slavery was an improvement when compared with that of any of those other empires of antiquity. Briefly, in just about every other ancient civilization of which we have any knowledge, the manumission of slaves was a practice common to all. That’s not to say, however, that it was as regularly exercised as one might hope, but in some instances, rates of manumission were encouragingly high. Upon the granting of that liberty for which the slave had so desperately yearned, he or she would return to his or her status quo ante position in society. If a man were a cobbler before being forced to be a slave, he’d return—after the acquisition of his liberty—to his profession of making shoes. A woman who was a potter would return to her clay, and an ephebe who was a poet to his words. Obviously, there was a massive opportunity cost to being a slave—perhaps decades of unearned wages—but he or she would be sent right back to where he or she began.


The Romans, for their druthers, had no fondness for this status quo ante idea. They weren’t at all keen on the reversion of manumitted peoples to their pre-servile states. Instead, a Roman slave, once liberated was to be elevated above the position whence he came. Upon the receipt of his liberty, he was to be given Roman citizenship and, with that, suffrage. What a compensation for so inconceivable a tenure of strife! This, of course, wasn’t a recognition that was easily to be ascertained. Many were desirous of Roman citizenship, many more died without it, and for the longest time to be Roman was to be part of an exclusive and powerful group. The liberated slave was, from that time hence, given the franchise and made not only to feel, but actually to be a part of this most puissant republic (or sprawling monarchy, depending on the date of year).


To be enfranchised was one thing, to be recognized quite another. In many cases, the Roman slave, upon the acquisition of his liberty, was given the chance to share in his erstwhile master’s name. This was not only an immediate improvement to his own station in life, but one by which his children and all his later descendants might benefit as well. Given at least a third of the typical Roman tripartite name (which included praenomen, nomen, cognomen, and agnomen if he were militarily distinct), he would be availed of the associations that the name brought. He’d now be nominally, though not biologically a part of a network much larger and older than himself. Ultimately, this was not only a momentary improvement but a generational boon.


As the Romans conquered and enslaved the Barbarians to whom, in many cases of manumission, they gave new life, so too—with the passage of time and the exertion of much effort—did they overcome the Brits. We pass over exactly how this was achieved but recognize in our haste that the British too were made slaves by the Romans at some point. And the British, taking much more from the Romans than their Latin stoicism and humorless charm, inherited the institution of slavery in turn.


All across their empire, of which nearly one-quarter of the globe was eventually to become a part, the British held in their possession innumerable slaves. The actual number beggars approximation. What we do know is that in their attainment of them, they were especially successful in their dealings with West African chieftains. These were the provincial black leaders upon whom they relied for the provision of the enslaved black men, the men who were to be sent across the Middle Passage to incipient colonies in the West. These African “businessmen”, so to speak, who transacted in muscle and flesh, were physically not at all unlike the products they sold. Often, they’d delve not very deeply into the interior of their home continent, finding on their way no shortage of vulnerable and undoubtedly gullible African countrymen upon whom they’d seize. No sooner than being captured, these poor wretches would then be sold to the British (or the French or the Spanish or the Muslims) as slaves. The chieftains were willing intermediaries in this fraternal tragedy.


But the shimmer of brotherhood is blurred by the luster of the coin. The business was immensely lucrative on both sides. The African chieftains with whom the British dealt were protected from enslavement themselves; the fate suffered by their exploited black neighbors was not to be theirs. Perhaps the Brits exported to them this Hobbesian framing of life. At the same time, they benefitted from the diminution in competition over scarce resources and land in so unforgiving a clime as is Africa’s. Add to this the fact that they were paid quite generously by the British crown, a man (though intermittently a woman) from whom they could expect continued business so long as his colonies increased.


North America, a terrain of great promise but inevitable tumult, was one such colony upon whose soil the institution of slavery was introduced. As it did elsewhere, slavery in America flourished. It was an inordinate success in a land uncultivated by morals. A spacious and barren hodgepodge of colonies became a fruitful and eventually an industrial state of which the Old World couldn’t help but take note. Such was America’s confidence and defiance and exasperation in 1776 that her greatest statesmen—after a month’s deliberation in the early summer’s heat—drafted a declaration to be sent to the Hanoverian British king.


Authored by Thomas Jefferson, though conceived by the lesser-known Patrick Henry Lee, what came to be the Declaration of Independence was rather explicit in its aims. More than blunt, however, it was a revolutionary piece of not only political, but of humane work.

We busy ourselves with our castigations of Jefferson’s slave-holding past. While he’s justifiably susceptible to them, his original Declaration to King George III should do something to repair his tattered image. As if personally injured of pride, Jefferson charged the British king with having “waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur the miserable death in their transportation thither”. This Jeffersonian jeremiad, equal parts impassioned invective and hypocritical taunt, continued with the claim that George III was “determined to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold” and that having done so, he had “prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce”.


It’s a statement like this that makes Jefferson so intriguing and perplexing a man. It’s also the reason that, for all of his grand philosophy and rank hypocrisy, he’ll never be fully grasped, though undoubtedly scholars and psychologists have tried. An argument in favor of the liberation of all enslaved peoples was for the first time put forth in behalf of a nation trying its hand at revolution. Not only that, in his words was a cry to end the slave trade entirely.

Jefferson was promoting what was a developing, but surely not a popular view. Here was a man, an aristocratic landowner of eminent blood and renown, upon whom many a poor slave tended at his Monticello estate. He, a master of many, was now inveighing against the king who made permanent this institution from which he so clearly benefitted. Perhaps Jefferson was merely trying to “pass the buck” and quiet a guilty conscience. Maybe disingenuously, he appeared not only to be chagrined at the idea of American slaves, but outraged that he should have to suffer under the “peculiar” institution—almost as much as did those over whom he lorded.


But the exigencies of the colonies were too overwhelming and we’re left only to question what would Jefferson really have done? His proposition of liberty and justice literally for all was not one to which the Southern delegates were prepared to agree, nor does it seem to be one with which he was personally entirely comfortable. And, without the support of the south, the country would’ve been splintered at a time when cohesion was of the greatest moment. Morality, then, would be placed on a moratorium and ethics made to wait. Had that early congress yielded to this side of Jefferson at the outset of our national life, we would’ve been crippled upon our descent from the womb.


Ultimately, the verdict on this greatest of all Virginians remains unsettled. Perhaps this also best describes how we feel about the man himself—unsettled. I hope, however, that I’ve disambiguated at least one thing. Slavery, the singular blemish of all mankind, was not a uniquely American sin. That doesn’t mean, of course, that it’s not something by which we’ll forever be burdened. After all, there is no solvent in which we could wash, no hose in front of which we could stand if only to rid us of the inextricability of this mark. Slavery is not an original, but a universal sin of which we as an entire species ought to be ashamed.

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