The United States of America and Slavery

by | May 11, 2023

The proper evaluation of the United States in relation to slavery is this: ending slavery by fighting and winning the Civil War was a tremendous moral achievement and should be celebrated.

Slavery is an evil institution. It is a total violation of individual rights.

America did not create slavery

However, a routinely hidden  secret in pubic discourse is the fact that America did not create slavery. Slavery has been part of world history for millennia. The first recorded report of slavery occurred about 9,000 years ago. Slavery existed in various forms in the Arab world, Africa, Assyria, Babylonia, China, Egypt, Greece, India, Italy, and Russia.

The prevailing explicit or implicit political view in the premodern world was that “might makes right.” It was considered only natural that the more militarily powerful tribes or cities had the right to enslave the less powerful. This was true even in ancient Greece; the city-states often fought each other.

If there were ever to be an alternative viewpoint, it had to be discovered as a product of philosophy. As noted earlier, a critical turning point in world political history was the 1690 publication of John Locke’s momentous Second Treatise on Civil Government. Locke argued that rather than citizens existing to serve the government, the government should exist to protect individual rights. Specifically, citizens should be protected from the initiation of force by the government (as well as by criminals). He argued that when the government usurped the rights of its citizens and could not be reformed, it was proper to overthrow it. Locke was the core philosopher of the American Revolution (Thompson, 2019).

Slavery before Locke was not based on the evasion of a valid, known moral principle but on moral ignorance. Even the Bible took slavery for granted. Locke’s theory made it clear that dictatorships, including those that espoused slavery, were immoral.

But there is more. Slavery was not brought to the U.S. by the vote of its own citizens. Until 1783, America was a British colony, and it was the British who brought slaves here for economic reasons: the British needed labor to grow sugar cane, tobacco, and cotton. To morally condemn the American colonies, which were under British rule, for a condition created by the colony’s rulers, is a gross injustice. The attacks on America put forth in The 1619 Project are a thinly veiled attempt to cause today’s Americans to feel unearned guilt for the unchosen actions of their colonial ancestors.

Slavery is based on statism, not capitalism

Another fallacy is that slavery was based on capitalism. This is a flagrantly dishonest claim, an obvious left-wing smear. Capitalism involves voluntary trade (see Assertion 21). Under capitalism the employer can offer a job and the job seeker has the right to accept or refuse it. Employees who dislike their job can quit anytime they want. Employees have to be paid; the employer does not have the right to make them work at gunpoint. The fact that slave owners bought and sold slaves does not make slave owners capitalists; they were flagrant criminals.

The first step needed in promoting a new theory of government based on Locke’s principle of individual rights was to free America from British rule. Battling slavery would have been pointless given that the White colonists were more numerous than their Black slaves (27 million White colonists v. 4.5 million Black slaves) and were not free themselves.

The two heroic American figures in freeing America were Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Jefferson, with the help of others, wrote the Declaration of Independence (1776), which was based on Locke’s theory. The Declaration led to America becoming an independent nation, thanks to General Washington, without whom we would surely have lost the Revolutionary War. The regrettable fact that both men owned slaves, a leftover of British rule, does not undo their positive achievements. These achievements, in the end, doomed slavery.

It soon became obvious that the Declaration of Independence and slavery were incompatible. The Constitution, though correct in advocating rights, involved a temporary but tragic compromise with the South based on the probably justified fear that a divided nation would not survive. The British could have come back to protect their investments. There was a war in 1812. But it was inevitable that an abolitionist movement would arise.

Another great American hero was Frederick Douglas an escaped slave who spent decades talking and writing against slavery. It became more and more obvious that the Declaration of Independence and slavery could not long exist in the same country (or in the same mind) without evasion. The South saw the potential threat to its economy, which was based on slavery and the White Southerners’ feelings of racial superiority. As a result, the South resisted emancipation to the death. The inevitable result was the Civil War.

There were two more heroes here. The first was General Ulysses Grant, without whom the Union would certainly not have won the Civil War (the South was counting on a stalemate). The second was President Lincoln, who supported Grant and emancipated the slaves, and who would surely not have been re-elected without key Union victories.

The US ended slavery

The proper evaluation of the United States in relation to slavery is this: ending slavery by fighting and winning the Civil War was a tremendous moral achievement and should be celebrated.

Most revolutions in history have simply replaced one dictator or tribe with another. The American Revolution was based on a moral theory founded on reason and rights. Hundreds of thousands of men fought and died in the Civil War in the name of morality. The right side won. Shockingly, in today’s hostile, anti-intellectual climate, Jefferson, Washington, Lincoln, and Grant, all of whom deserve the utmost admiration, have been roundly condemned. In many cases, their statues have been torn down or threatened.

The Civil War, of course, was only the beginning. The next issue was how to put the Declaration and the Constitution into action because those immortal documents did not end prejudice or violence against Black Americans.

Frederick Douglas, the great abolitionist, was disappointed in the aftermath of the war. Backs still did not have equal rights. President Grant used Union troops for some time during reconstruction in order to protect Black Americans, but Grant lost his power, and the protection did not last. Racial violence thrived. One cause was that the White South never fully accepted defeat and greatly resented both the loss of slaves and the feeling of superiority that slavery gave them. State and local politics in the South backed forced segregation, vote prevention, corrupt courts, police brutality, murder, and more. A second cause of continued racial violence was that Southern politicians still had enormous power in Congress. Many bills could not be passed without their cooperation. Of course, racism also existed in the North but was less institutionalized.

And yet, the best people kept pushing back. Making Blacks equal before the law has been a critical ongoing project for over 150 years. We would all, of course, wish that progress had been made faster but changing 9000 years of history is not that easy. Many people stood in the way of progress. We can condemn those people who stood in the way while admiring those who moved us forward.

Edwin A. Locke is Dean's Professor of Leadership and Motivation Emeritus at the R.H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland. He is a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science (APS), the American Psychological Association, the Society for Industrial & Organizational Behavior, and the Academy of Management. He is the recipient of the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award (Society for I/O Psychology), the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Management (OB Division), the J. M. Cattell Award (APS) and the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the Academy of Management. He, with Gary Latham, has spent over 50 years developing Goal Setting Theory, ranked No. 1 in importance among 73 management theories. He has published over 320 chapters, articles, reviews and notes, and has authored or edited 13 books including (w. Kenner) The Selfish Path to Romance, (w. Latham) New Directions in Goal Setting and Task Performance, and The Prime Movers: Traits of the Great Wealth Creators. He is internationally known for his research on motivation, job satisfaction, leadership, and other topics. His website is: EdwinLocke.com

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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