Few in the United States have taken the opportunity to acknowledge, much less to commemorate, the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the U.S. slave trade in 1808.

For this reason, I was pleased to see that Senator John McCain gave a campaign speech on Wednesday in Michigan, in which he took the importance of the British and U.S. abolition of the trade as the jumping-off point for a focus on modern sex trafficking, child pornography, and other contemporary evils:

… the achievement of both countries in terminating the international slave trade and setting into motion the titanic and bloody struggle to close a shameful chapter in the history of our country [i.e., slavery itself] should be remembered as a turning point in mankind’s long and fitful progress toward a more just world.

However, it was disappointing to notice that McCain began this speech by mis-stating the year of the bicentennial: “Last year the world celebrated the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the British and American slave trade in 1807.” (The error appears in his prepared remarks, so this was not a simple mis-statement on the stump.)

In fact, as readers of this blog are aware, the U.S. Constitution prohibited Congress from abolishing the trade prior to the year 1808, and the legislation signed by Jefferson outlawed the trade as of January 1, 1808. McCain could have mean that the U.S. (or the world) celebrated the anniversary in 1807 of the legislation to abolish the U.S. trade, rather than the anniversary of abolition itself … but this did not, in fact, happen.

More importantly, the U.K. did commemorate the bicentennial of their abolition last year, with public events, school programs, and £20 million ($40 million) in funding. Congress passed legislation to commemorate the U.S. anniversary in 2008, rather than 2007 … but the Senate stripped the authorization of funding from the measure. If Senator McCain believes so strongly in the importance of the bicentennial for both its historic relevance and its lessons for today, perhaps he should have leaned on his colleagues to provide funding comparable to last year’s effort in Britain, or at least have used his campaign pulpit to call on Americans to do more to commemorate the occasion this year.

This speech has actually received a fair bit of attention in the last two days, particularly among McCain supporters, so I would have hoped that someone might have noticed the unfortunate error.

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