In a revealing moment, a committee of the Arkansas House of Representatives yesterday rejected a resolution congratulating Barack Obama on becoming president, on the basis that the United States should not be described, even in that context, as “a nation founded by slave owners.”

Arkansas Rep. Stephanie Flowers (D-Pine Bluff), the resolution’s sponsor, commented that “it’s unfortunate that we can’t accept the truth of our history.”

Opponents of the resolution argued that not every founder was a slave owner, and that the Arkansas House of Representatives shouldn’t suggest that the country was founded on slavery, or downplay the role of those who, they believed, were opposed to slavery all along.

The worst offender was Rep. Dan Greenberg (R-Little Rock), who based his opposition on a seriously distorted version of our nation’s past:

My recollection of American history is that while some of the founders were slave owners, some of them were abolitionists. And some of them were sent to the constitutional convention from states that made slavery illegal.

While this is certainly the portrait of American slavery which is commonly presented to our citizens, it is inaccurate and, worse, seriously misleading about the nature of the early United States.

In fact, there were no founders at the time of the Revolution, and no delegates at the constitutional convention in 1787, from colonies or states which had abolished slavery. The closest case would be the delegates to the constitutional convention from Massachusetts; in that state, the courts were slowly starting to refuse to recognize slavery, largely because of popular opposition to economic competition from free slave labor. As for abolitionists, there were certainly founders who opposed the continuation of the slave trade, but there were precious few abolitionists on these shores in 1776 or 1787, and if there were any founders who openly argued for emancipating southern slaves, they left little mark on history.

In general, our nation is reluctant to acknowledge how deeply the institution of slavery was interwoven into our social and economic life, in both North and South, from early colonial times until the end of the Civil War.

Now, I would not want a phrase like “a nation founded by slave owners” to stand as a common or complete way of referring to the United States. It is hardly a balanced way of referring to our nation’s history, which contains both glorious and painful episodes. However, these words were presented in the context of acknowledging Barack Obama’s achievements and congratulating him “on his historic election as the forty-fourth president of the United States.”

We should not dance around the reasons why President Obama’s election is so often described as “historic.” It is because he is black, and because of our nation’s long, hard embrace of slavery and racial discrimination. In this context, to note that our nation was founded (largely) by slave owners, and with the institution of slavery at its core, is merely drawing an accurate comparison from our historical beginnings to where our society has arrived in the early 21st century.

20 Responses to ““A nation founded by slave owners””

  1. Ron Peden says:

    Having watched Traces of the Trade for about the fourth time the other day, I frankly think it's nothing more than the same old White supremacy propaganda that's dominated this country (and the entire Western world) since the middle ages, by basically taking everything and putting a White face on it.

    Traces of the Trade, in my opinion, does nothing so much as posit a White, Rhode Island family, the DeWolfs, caught up in the African slave trade, as victims, presumably for having their perceived, Euro/Anglo good name sullied by slavery. Aside from the demonization of Blacks, a time-honored, multi-faceted staple of White supremacy propaganda, on at least one level this deflects focus from the deadly suffering and torment of slavery's true victims, to the shame of Whites for having caused it, as if there's any comparison. The danger (intention?) of this is two-fold: it minimizes the perceived need for slavery Reparations by showing the impact of the institution on Whites was also significant, and it discourages/dissuades notions of accountability from this DeWolf family particularly (which goes to great lengths in the film to state that family monetary gains from America's peculiar institution were supposedly "squandered" long ago) for their historical involvement with slavery, and from individual slave holders and traders generally.

    I've met the DeWolf's personally and nothing is more clear to me than that they're on a campaign, of which Traces of the Trade is a significant part, designed to preclude a movement against the family for monetary accountability and compensation. Their whole focus, as far as slavery is concerned, is on the DeWolfs and other Whites. But, despite their family involvement, that's just wrong. . . .

    Ron Peden, author of NOTES ON THE STATE OF AMERICA: Black to the Future, or White From the Past?

    Reply to:

  2. James says:

    Thanks, Ron, for taking the time to share your views here. I deeply appreciate that despite your serious misgivings about the film and those of us who appear in it, you are willing to include us in the conversation and to help us see where you believe we're in the wrong.

    I want to be clear at the outset, to other readers of this blog, that Ron is far from the only person to have these misgivings. While I will try to indicate where I agree and disagree with Ron, and why, I think that all of what he says is important and should be considered carefully.

    Where I agree with you, Ron, is that Traces of the Trade skates on thin ice in focusing on the impact of slavery and racism on white Americans. I am the family member who warns in the film that this approach strikes me as amounting to "self-indulgence," by dwelling on the emotions which some white people have about race, rather than concentrating on what I called "the living consequences" of slavery and race for black Americans today (hence the name of this blog). To me, this was an unnatural and deeply uncomfortable way to have conversations about race.

    However, Katrina had a clear purpose in focusing her film on the impact of racism on white Americans: She firmly believes that for some white people, there are psychological scars from racism, including guilt, shame, and fear. While this psychological damage cannot begin to compare to the burden of racism for black Americans, Katrina was convinced that it causes many white people to shy away from confronting racism in our society. She believes that these people need to confront their own reactions to race before they can begin the important work of addressing the legacy of slavery and race in our broader society.

    I have become convinced, in the course of participating in the filming of Traces of the Trade and in speaking with audiences about slavery and race, that Katrina is right that there are people for whom this is an important issue. While, for someone like me, sitting around talking about the impact of race on white people might amount to "self-indulgence," for other people this is truly a necessary and reasonable first step.

    I think I can also understand how you might believe that the film portrays the DeWolf family of today as victims. I agree that the documentary offers a remarkably sympathetic portrayal of the family today, and it is far more concerned than I would be about such matters as white sensitivity to race and the sullying of a white family's name.

    However, if anything, I think that the film seems to grant a legitimacy to the view that far from being victims, DeWolf descendants today should be concerned about inheriting some sort of guilt from the sins of long-dead ancestors. I also think it's safe to say that if those of us in the film actually wanted to avoid sullying our family's name, we would not have chosen to make a documentary to reveal this hidden family history.

    I respectfully disagree with you about several of your other specific claims about the film. Whether or not the film is a useful tool in exploring the impact of slavery and race on our society, for instance, I don't believe it can be considered as nothing more than "the same old White supremacy propaganda." This film is a unique look at our nation's history from an unusual perspective, and it is profoundly subversive of many of the tired myths of white supremacy. Nor do I see how this film in any way demonizes black Americans.

    Likewise, I'm not sure why you believe that the film minimizes the arguments put forth for reparations for slavery. In fact, the film explicitly raises the idea of reparations and takes the issue quite seriously. It's true that Katrina argues that some whites have suffered psychological damage as a result of racism, but even she does not put this harm on a par with the broad and deep impact of our history on black Americans, which is the basis for claims for reparations.

    I think you make an intriguing argument when you suggest that Traces of the Trade is merely part of a campaign by the DeWolf family to avoid financial accountability for the slave-trading of our ancestors.

    Do you really believe that there are middle-class, white Americans who fear having their bank accounts seized by the courts to pay reparations for the sins of their ancestors? Especially if they have not inherited any of the wealth made in that enterprise (a point which you yourself raise, and then dismiss)? If so, why would such people take their hidden family secrets and publicize them across the country?

    In a way, I think your most important argument may be that you feel this film discourages any notion of accountability on the part of the DeWolf family for the moral crimes of our ancestors. I believe that the question of any responsibility for the sins of the past is a very difficult one, whether aimed at DeWolf descendants, at whites generally, or at all members of our society.

    However, is it really your belief that we inherit the sins of our ancestors? That I should somehow be personally responsible for what my great-great-great-great-great grandfather did, or that you should be accountable if it turns out that a long-dead ancestor of yours committed a crime?

    While I understand that there are no easy answers to these sorts of moral questions, I personally find it difficult to accept the idea that I bear moral responsibility because I am descended from slave traders, or because I am white in a society in which whites historically committed terrible wrongs.

    Instead, I believe that my responsibility for addressing the legacy of slavery and race stems from being a member of this society. Like everyone else, to one degree or another, I enjoy benefits from belonging to this society (including from its past sins) and I bear my share of responsibility for society's failings and for injustices which have not yet been addressed.

    Because I am white, I enjoy certain privileges in this society which I would not if I were black, and I believe this fact increases both my responsibility and my opportunities to address racial injustice.

    Because I am descended from slave traders, moreover, I am presented with more opportunity than most people to bring public attention to the legacy of the past and to its impact today.

    This is why I agreed to participate in Traces of the Trade, and it is why I spend so much of my time today speaking to groups about the DeWolf family, about our nation's history of slavery and race, and about its legacy today.

  3. Ron Peden’s Notes on the State of America | The Living Consequences says:

    […] is a writer and activist here in the Boston area, and he has graciously taken the time to comment on this blog regarding his concerns over the DeWolf family and Traces of the […]

  4. bobbo says:

    Given that I haven't seen the film but once about 1-2 years ago and then as my custom I only half paid attention to it, my recollection of its meaning to me was that "not all whites are dismissive about the history of this country." It also demonstrated that the sins of the father can devolve onto his sons.

    I challenge Ron to formulate how any group of whites "should" present their family's history of slave ownership in todays world. Its not worth a bucket of spit to criticize *anything* without suggesting something better.

    I'm also curious as to what sort of reparations Ron thinks might be appropriate. A lot of detail is not required–just enough for the idea of it?

    I'll post this request regarding reparations description in a few days should he decline to post/copy it here.

  5. Ron says:


    I'll consider your comment with the same regard I generally give to people who sign off as "anonymous." I ignore them.

    If you haven't seen the film, or paid attention to it, it's less likely you've read my book, or understood it. Both of which would be necessary for me to take your question seriously.

  6. bobbo says:

    Well Ron your humanity continues to be displayed for all to see and appreciate. You did not ignore my post, only responded very poorly to it.

    I posed my response from memory not knowing this blog was in my future. I left an out for anyone wishing to disagree with/correct my impressions because indeed, and in fact, without a transcript how good is any of our memories?

    But my comments stand on their own, I am responding to your blog entry==not your book.

    My challenge to you is completely valid and remains open. If you answer the challenge in your book, what page is it on?

  7. James says:

    Bobbo, much of Ron's book is devoted to the issue of reparations. You can learn a bit more here.

  8. bobbo says:

    James==there is no doubt that reading books works towards a more complete appreciation on any subject. We all need to read more. Having written a book, the answers at his fingertips, it is a small thing to summarize a body of work that has been thought thru. I asked only for 2-3 sentences.

    The point of a blog is to provide an introduction to the bigger works that exist==a book, a website.

    Its disingenuous to say "You don't know as much as I do, so read my book." There would be NO BLOGS, just an advertising scroll if that were the proper function of blogs.

    If my questions are ignorant because I missed something relevant in the tv show==easy enough to say so, provide the missing info if desired, and address the point being made.

    Seems to me Ron is missing the point that while a conversation takes place between 2-3-4-5 people, dozens may read it, receive information or not, and choose not to engage. To that end, I REPEAT: a 2-3-4 sentence summary of what kind of reparations might be appropriate would be a real incentive for others to read the fuller treatment in a book.

    Silly to pass up an invitation to advertise the availability of a book on point.

    Ron?—-give it another try. Pretend the blogoshere is worthy of your recognition.

  9. James says:

    Bobbo, if Ron chooses to spend time summarizing his arguments about reparations here, in response to your requests, then he can do so. If, however, he chooses to spend his time on other matters, and to let you read his book if you wish, then that's his prerogative.

    This is my blog, not his, and while he's welcome to offer his thoughts here at any time, he's a published author and isn't obligated to devote his time to repeating his arguments on each and every blog.

    If you'd like an incentive to read Ron's entire book, he has made his introductory chapter available online. The link is the post I referenced in my last comment.

  10. bobbo says:

    James==thats all pretty obvious.

    Everybody is free to do whatever they want and to do whatever they want with whatever powers/ability/interests they have.

    I have a feeling something isn't being said as directly as it could be? And thats ok too.

  11. Louis Calabro says:

    IMHO the issue should be how has slavery impacted upon all of Americans, both white and black.

    Daily we discuss slavery's damage to blacks, but what about the extreme disproportionate number of black on white crimes–some horrible?

  12. James says:

    Thanks, Louis, for stopping by and joining the conversation.

    I think you raise an important concern when you say that we need to consider the impact of slavery on all Americans. This is a major message of Traces of the Trade, for instance, in which Katrina Browne devotes quite a bit of attention on the psychological issues which some white people have inherited from our nation's history of slavery and discrimination.

    However, I'm afraid that you are perpetuating a myth when you speak of the "extreme[ly] disproportionate" rate of black-on-white crime, or suggest that whites suffer disproportionately from the black crime that results from our history.

    Let's look at the 2005 national statistics for homicides.

    In that year, blacks were the victims of homicides at six times the rate that whites were.

    Meanwhile, 86% of white murder victims were killed by other whites.

    So it seems that whites are certainly not suffering disproportionately at the hands of black criminals, and in fact black citizens are bearing the brunt of the legacy of slavery in this area.

  13. bobbo says:

    James–I can look for my own links, but what one are you using?

    I assume the following: More blacks commit crime because they are more poor/uneducated/disadvantaged.

    But like everything else in America, crime is also segregated, so there is more black crime on more black victims. All groups tend to prey on their own perceived groups.

    Ann Coulter is making the rounds right now identifying unwed motherhood as the precipitate cause of 86% of the jail population. Unless by definition "every thing bad that happens to blacks" is the legacy of slavery, wouldn't being religious without a counterbalancing education be more determinative of propensity to crime?

  14. James says:

    Hi, bobbo.

    I was actually thinking that I'd post about these and other crime statistics, prompted by Louis' comment. I'm in Connecticut this morning to speak at a church symposium, but I'll see if I can get a post up later today. [Edit: I did make such a post, available here.]

    In the meantime, the source for those 2005 homicide statistics is the U.S. Department of Justice, and they can be found at

    I assume the following: More blacks commit crime because they are more poor/uneducated/disadvantaged.

    I'd suggest that the reasons for black crime are more than simply the reasons why whites are disproportionately likely to commit crimes when poor, uneducated, or otherwise disadvantaged. There is a substantial legacy to our history of slavery and race, which includes suspicion and mistrust, as well as a lack of access to education, jobs, housing and other issues which have a racial as well as a socioeconomic component.

    You're certainly right that one important reason why so much crime involves perpetrators and victims of the same race involves segregation. So much of the lives of white or black Americans revolves around people, communities, and institutions dominated by members of their own race.

    I'd be interested in knowing more about the basis for Ann Coulter's statement about prison and single mothers. I've heard a lot of loose talk about single parents and poverty, crime, etc., and I hope she's doing more than simply observing correlation, for instance, that poor communities tend to have many single parents but that poverty isn't caused by the rise in single parenthood.

    wouldn’t being religious without a counterbalancing education be more determinative of propensity to crime?

    I certainly don't believe that "everything bad that happens to blacks" is the result of the legacy of slavery. For instance, as you know, you can go into any poor white community in this country and observe many of the same issues which are constantly, and falsely, attributed to blacks as a race.

    But I'm not sure what you mean by this line. Are you suggesting that those who are uneducated but religious would be inclined to commit crimes? If so, why?

  15. bobbo says:

    James==that is an interesting link there to DOJ. I kept asking myself "Why?"

    Ann Coulter claims a study was made of the family history of prison inmates and 86% came from home's with mothers only. Ann was more specifically criticizing women who chose to become single Moms rather than widows and divorces but I wonder if her statistical source broke it down any? Quite high–shocking in fact, always "if true." xxxxx Gosh==only took 30 seconds to find a relevant website. I googled (prisoners "single mothers") and got:

    # 78% of the nation's jail and prison inmates grew up in a fatherless household, even though only 15% of today's adult population grew up without a father.


    So, my "joke" was to figure out who would most likely chose to be a single mom and I came up with being raised religious without a counterbalancing education. I'm sure there would be other stimuli for this as well.

    I agree correlation implies but does not prove causation==but many "serious" correlations turn out to be causation. I think the welfare programs of the 60's encouraged fathers to leave/not join their families==women got more money without men around to spend the welfare check on beer which led to being able to live on welfare by having kids.

    When I said black disadvantages lead to crime I was thinking of the still vague legacy of slavery, welfare, Jim Crow, etc. Your challenge is a good one though by comparing two groups of matched disadvantaged groups, black with white. I'll assume the blacks would show more negative impacts still? Hard to control for all variables==but if we could, would the remainder be the slavery legacy? Seems like it would. ((Correction before posting–why wouldn't the difference be caused by Jim Crow and/or continuing discrimination or are those also slavery legacies? I think they are different, but close enough?))

    Reminds me of two jokes by Richard Pryor, otherwise relevant to nothing much, but==one was about the criminal types drinking and playing cards and the joke was in recalling how the handle of a knife broke when a guy was stabbed and the criminal types laughed and guffawed about that for a long time ((commentary about humor in different groups?)). Then the second joke was about being glad prisons existed for these types of people ((commentary that most people have a similar reaction to such depraved outlooks?)).

  16. James says:

    my “joke” was to figure out who would most likely chose to be a single mom and I came up with being raised religious without a counterbalancing education.

    I wouldn't assume, bobbo, that being raised in a religious household is a predictor of single parenthood.

    I also think it's important not to suggest that single parents necessarily, or even usually, choose that status. Obviously, some do, but many do not, particularly those who are hardest-hit by that status.

    I think the welfare programs of the 60’s encouraged fathers to leave/not join their families

    Thanks to your encouragement with this comment, I've made a separate blog entry to explain why I believe that these and similar concerns about welfare are based on pervasive myths.

    why wouldn’t the difference be caused by Jim Crow and/or continuing discrimination or are those also slavery legacies?

    If I'm reading you correctly, then yes, I do believe that continuing discrimination against blacks can be seen as a legacy of slavery and past discrimination. It's not as if the idea of discriminating against blacks, or such contributing notions as racial stereotypes, have appeared out of nowhere.

  17. Black Americans and crime | The Living Consequences says:

    […] by a recent exchange of views on another post on this blog, I’d like to offer a few statistics about race and criminal […]

  18. Welfare, unwed mothers, and absent fathers | The Living Consequences says:

    […] regular (indeed, prolific) commenter here made the following observation this morning: I think the welfare programs of the 60’s encouraged fathers to leave/not join their […]

  19. JohnT says:

    Slavery is one of the oldest trades known to man. All races and all civilisations have practised it: China, India, Arabs, Africa and in the Americas. All peoples have made slaves of their own and enslaved other peoples. And White Europeans are no exception. Julius Caesar was said to have enslaved one million White Gauls for the Roman Empire. In fact, the word “slave” comes from the word “Slav”, a name that came to be used because the Slavic people were a favourite choice for Mongol, Khazar, Arab and indeed White slave traders.

    And we British enslaved our own people too. Most indigenous Britons reading this essay will have had ancestors who were slaves. The Anglo-Saxons made slaves of the Ancient Britons and the Anglo-Saxons were in turn enslaved by the invading Danish Vikings. When Oliver Cromwell conquered Ireland in the middle of the 17th century, he sent over 100,000 men, women and children to the West Indies to be sold into slavery.

    The Muslims were perhaps the world’s biggest enslavers, an estimated 19 million people becoming the victims of Islamic slavery. Their slave trade ran for far longer than that of the Europeans. Muslims enslaved both Black African and White European alike.

    Africa itself also had its own domestic and international slave trade long before the appearance of the Europeans. Most African societies did not recognise private property in land so slaves often acted as one way in which individuals could own means of profitable production. Enslavement was often a by-product of localised warfare where the vanquished became the slaves of the victors.

    Africans also sold their own people amongst themselves and to others as well. Caravan routes had long linked sub-Saharan Africa with North African and indeed the wider Mediterranean and the Middle East, so Africans used this route to establish a trans-Saharan slave trade. When the White man came, there was already a large scale African slave trade in existence that was then adapted to the European market. It did not have to be created for him.

  20. JohnT says:

    Come to grips with it!

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