I, for one, have appreciated the recent attention given to the year 1619, if only to remind us that the American history involved more than Pilgrims and Paul Revere, and that the moral focus of the Founders wasn’t entirely pure—at least by modern standards.
August 1619 marks the first time a ship arrived in the Jamestown colony offering black human beings for sale, such cargo carrying no more intrinsic moral value to the prospective buyer than furniture.
This wasn’t the first time people of African descent had arrived as slaves in the new world. Enslaved Africans were brought to Spain’s New World colony (in what now is Florida) in the 1500s.
But for the English colonists, who would one day become the driving force in creating what is now the United States of America, the slave ship arriving in Jamestown in 1619 was a first.
Of course, it wasn’t the last.
At the same time that our nation’s Founders were reminding England’s King George of the “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal,” members of the First Continental Congress (famously including both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington) owned enslaved Africans.
How could the Founders rationalize this? Presumably with the catch-words “all men,” which would rationally mean “all men who are humans.” At the time, according to the Founders, the kidnapped African men and women sold into slavery weren’t.
But this was not the unanimous view. Many opposed slavery—just not enough to stop it. The foundation of America’s vast economic power was busy being built by slave labor. When forced to choose between the power of the rich and the suffering of the oppressed, our nation chose to support the rich—and not for the last time.
At least a compromise was reached in 1787, when enslaved Africans and their descendants were declared three-fifths human—a move championed by Northerners who didn’t want the South’s larger population to receive more seats in Congress, and which also lessened the Southern states’ federal tax liability. At the time it was considered a win-win.
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Slaves remained 3/5 human in the United States until the 1860’s when the 13th and 14th Amendments finally acknowledged the full humanity of America’s enslaved population.
This is the legacy of our nation, and it exists to our shame. It is a legacy that reaches across broad segments of society today, from the white supremacists (some of whom famously live in Idaho) to our unequally-funded education system, to unequal access to the tools that create wealth. Forbes Magazine reported in 2018 that the wealth gap between white and black Americans is staggering: For every $100 in white American family wealth, black American families own just $5.04.
The truth is that for all the rags to riches stories that occasionally come true, the lack of access to quality education, to full cultural inclusion and to generational wealth, has helped create and preserve a defeatist system of vast inequality.
There is talk this year of reparations: perhaps paying money to descendants of slavery as a way for a guilty but not entirely repentant nation to make amends. While those potential recipients alive today would no doubt benefit from a one-time infusion of cash, this kind of idea strikes me as missing the point.
If we’re going to invest in reparations, and try to correct this shamefully long chapter of American history, we must create systems that build a better future for those who have been generationally wronged, not just apply Band-Aids to the present.
We would need to significantly improve access to education and business capital, thereby providing those who are working to succeed with the necessary tools to build a productive future.
Of course, many who are not black, but are victims of what this week’s Time Magazine calls “the left behind economy,” will say they need the same things.
Are they right to do so? As America’s middle class continues to erode, and we become a nation of have’s and have not’s, the challenges are coming far faster than ideas for solutions.
But for those currently falling out of the middle class, these are new problems. For the descendants of slavery, they are problems 400 years old.