Exactly one hundred and fifty years ago, on the 31st of January 1865, the United States Congress passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The abolishment of slavery remains one of our country's great moral triumphs, a crowning achievement of liberal, enlightened civilization. Unfortunately it was done too late, with too little real effect, and at a terrible price we did not have to pay.
No doubt this strikes a discordant note: dimly retained 5th-grade history seems to recall the abolition of slavery as one of a very few unblemished victories in our checkered national past. Not so.
I suspect that if you asked the Man on the Street (or me a week ago) where the United States fell in the timeline of nations abolishing slavery, they'd probably put it in the heroic forefront. It's patriotic to believe the best of your country, so I'll warrant it comes as a shock to hear that the United States, Land of the Free, came in just about dead last. Argentina abolished slavery in 1813, followed by Colombia, Chile, Central America, Mexico, and Bolivia by 1831. Slavery was made illegal in England in 1833, and the entire British Empire (i.e. most of the world) by 1840. Uruguay abolished it in 1842, followed by all French and Danish colonies, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela by 1854. In fact, the only nations to trail the United States were Brazil, Puerto Rico, and Cuba.
It's worth noting, moreover, that in almost every single one of these instances, the abolition was done peacefully, and the countries quickly recovered from a sullied past.
Too Little Effect:
Not so in the United States. "Black codes," vagrancy laws, Jim Crow, and other forms of white supremacy made a farce of the formal abolition of slavery, subjecting many blacks to quasi-slavery and de facto subjugation. As the writer Thomas W. Knox described, even the northern Reconstructionists were culpable: "The difference between working for nothing as a slave, and working for the same wages under the Yankees, was not always perceptible." The bitter recriminations continued for a century, only really tempering with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
How is this possible? How could so much of the rest of world have resolved its issues of slavery with such relative ease and in such relatively short order? Why did we, who held that "all men are created equal," have such a difficult time shedding such an execrable institution?
Too Great a Price:
I contend that the United States wrestled so ineffectively with slavery because it paid far too high a price for its abolition; an unjust war to maintain a reluctant union unwittingly subjected a nation and a race of people to well over a century of misery and holocaust.
Once again, this probably strikes a discordant note. Wasn't the Civil War fought over slavery? Wasn't Lincoln the Great Emancipator and the savior of southern blacks?
Unfortunately once again, not so.
Lincoln, the myth conveniently lets us forget, was no friend of the black slave. His own words, over and over again, prove this:
"I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races... I am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position. I have never said anything to the contrary." Or: "Anything that argues me into [the] idea of perfect social and political equality with the Negro is but a specious and fantastic arrangement of words, by which a man can prove a horse chestnut to be a chestnut horse." (1858)
William Lloyd Garrison, perhaps the staunchest friend of the black slave, and a true abolitionist, declared that Lincoln "had not a drop of anti-slavery blood in his veins." Even more damning, Lincoln supported southern slave-owners' claim to human property and said he "would give them any legislation for the reclaiming of their fugitives."
Moreover, Lincoln wanted all blacks off American soil, a "glorious consummation" (1852), and advocated the peaceful "deportation" of blacks so that "their places be...filled up by free white laborers." (1860)
These are tough words to swallow. It would have been one thing if Lincoln sent troops on a crusade to forcibly end slavery in the South. He would have had difficulty doing it--the draft riots of 1863 proved this when mobs of whites, violently opposed to fighting for black emancipation, rampaged and victimized blacks. But emancipation was not Lincoln's crusade. The "Great Emancipator" issued his famous proclamation as a desperate military tactic in the defeated days after Fredericksburg. Tellingly, he did not emancipate a single slave (and there were many) under Union control.
No, instead Lincoln waged and conducted a traumatic war that killed nearly a million people in order to prevent the South from declaring independence. By directly contradicting the very Declaration he invoked, Lincoln set up a titanic collision of principle that fueled America's biggest war. That war, and the toll it took, is what made slavery and black inequality such an impossibly hard thing to get over. Deep and perverse consequences, even if unintended and contrary to popular mythology, deserve a reckoning.
Racism and violence can never be excused, but understanding their roots can perhaps help to avoid feeding them. It is impossible to say how much of the white South tyrannized their black brethren in response to the tyranny of "northern aggression," but it is a motive that simply cannot be ignored. Victims often seek victims, and the cycle of violence in the slaveholding South was only compounded, not reduced, by the outcome of the Civil War. White supremacist ideology, which gets no pass, undoubtedly fueled much of the racist atrocity. It is difficult to believe, however, that the South harbored a white slave-owning class any more brutal, ignorant, or entrenched than the white slave-owning classes of all those nations who preceded us in formal abolition. Something else was at play.
Indeed, it has been amply shown that slavery was on its way to a peaceful extinction in the run-up to the Civil War. It was in sharp decline in all the border states and the upper South as early as the 1840s. The economics of slavery were marginal at best by this time, and the trickle of fugitive slaves was becoming a torrent, further eroding the foundations of a moribund and inhumane establishment. Through gradual manumission and compensated emancipation (as in other nations), slavery could very well have ended sooner and certainly at far less sacrifice.
We lost our independence with Lincoln. In forcibly preventing voluntary disassociation, Lincoln not only betrayed American Independence, he also betrayed a long-suffering portion of our best Americans. By guaranteeing that the end of slavery be forever entwined with a simmering hatred of a great injustice, Lincoln (knowingly or not) loaded our nation with a brutal racial tension that we are only barely recovering from.
The 13th Amendment and the abolition of slavery is clearly worthy of celebration. Yet abolition did not have to take so long, do so little, or at such an awful cost. Jefferson famously noted of slavery: "we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go." As the history of other nations' abolition successes show, he was only partly right: the wolf was wounded and dying; its natural death was vastly preferable to our putting ourselves into his jaws for the final mouthful.
I wish to credit Professor Thomas DiLorenzo, of Loyola University, for his book, "The Real Lincoln" which provided the background setting for this essay. I bear full responsibility for tone and conclusions...