Thu 29 Jan, 2009
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.