Slavery was horrible, but it was not the primary factor that built this country, and its historical existence does not permanently stain our nation’s legacy. It should never be denied — and no one in fact does deny this — that the “land of the free” once used captives from other societies almost as cattle. However, the reality is that virtually all societies existing before the modern era did so, and only one became the United States of America. Logically, something other than our past indulgence of evil must be responsible for our current greatness.
Slavery in the United States existed, by definition, only from our actual national founding in 1776 until the end of the Civil War in 1865, and existed almost entirely in the agrarian South during that period. There is essentially no evidence that the practice boosted the wealth of that region beyond that of the rest of the U.S.: The South was widely considered a feudal backwater even before the Union Army conquered it, killing roughly one in four military-aged males in the region during the process. Virtually all American industrial and economic development has taken place since that occurred.
Further, and importantly, slavery does not empirically seem to be the cause of most modern problems even in the black community. Remarkably, the black illegitimacy rate was far lower under slavery than it is today.
Every point just made matters and is worth hashing out. First, almost literally no one denies that slavery was bad. American bondage was a fairly harsh form of chattel slavery, a system within which individuals are deprived of personal liberty and forced to submit to an owner — who can buy, lease or sell them like any other form of property. The writings of the ancient Greeks, who knew this system well, describe (often unintentionally) its dehumanizing brutality. The writer Xenophon recommends treating slaves like intelligent domestic animals, while great Aristotle himself describes the life of a slave as being composed of “work, beatings” and if the poor fellow was lucky, “feedings.” American slave masters seem to have been no better than Greek ones: To read through slave narratives is to be deluged with stories of coarse and scanty food, brutal whip-wielding overseers, runaways chased down by dogs, and young children “sold down the river.” Portions of American, and human history, are written in blood and can be difficult for modern eyes to read.
But, with all that said and unexcused — this essay will not dwell on the significantly greater prevalence of slavery in Latin America, or the Muslim states of the Middle East, than in the United States — the plain fact is that the U.S. did not begin in 1619, and even slavery that existed in 1776 had a fairly limited impact on who we are as a society today. In 1619, the year during which the New York Times recently declared that America actually began, there were an estimated 210 English-speaking settlers on the North American continent, perhaps 20 of whom were black slaves. Even by the time of the first national census in 1790, more than a decade after independence, there were roughly 3.9 million Americans. Only 19.3 percent of these people were of African descent, and by no means were all of the blacks slaves. More than a few, in fact, were slave owners.
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