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America The Apologetic
Should our leaders say they’re sorry about slavery? About Indians? About their personal behavior? Such questions are hardly new; public contrition has been a national preoccupation for centuries.
December 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 8
Before President Clinton went to Africa in March of this year, his press secretary, Mike McCurry, made a double announcement. The President would discuss American slavery while visiting the continent from which America’s slaves had come. But he would not apologize for it. “He certainly is going to talk about the legacy of slavery and the scar that it represents on America,” McCurry said. But an apology would be “extraneous and off the point.”
The President fulfilled both promises in Uganda, in a talk to students in a rural village. “Going back to the time before we were even a nation, European Americans received the fruits of the slave trade. And we were wrong in that.” Clinton walked the line McCurry had drawn with the care of a motorist taking a sobriety test. He said “we were wrong,” but he put that wrong deep in the past (slavery lasted almost ninety years after the United States became a nation). He also put the wrong in the passive voice: That we “received the fruits of the slave trade” made the slaves sound like a hospitality basket left on the nation’s doorstep.
American reactions to the President’s not-quite-apology covered the gamut of judgments, from not enough to too much. The reason Clinton didn’t apologize, wrote Derrick Z. Jackson of the Boston Globe , is that “slavery is a living thorn, still spreading and pricking America.” The columnist Pat Buchanan blasted Clinton’s “stubborn refusal to apologize for his own sins” (the four-minute speech that would or would not address this complaint had not yet been given). Jesse Jackson, midway between them, called Clinton’s comment “statement enough on that matter.” The world was given one of its favorite sights: those strange Americans, enacting yet another episode in the ongoing story of their uneasy national conscience.
But is the American conscience the only uneasy one in the world? Five months after Clinton’s African trip, eight Russians made a trip to St. Petersburg: Czar Nicholas II, his wife, three of their children, and three servants. Eighty years after the Communists had murdered them, they were buried in the Romanov family vault. Boris Yeltsin attended the service, said, “I bow my head before the victims of political violence,” and inclined his head, hand over his heart.
Only once the Indian threat was over did Americans think their foe had been wronged.
So when it comes to revising the manuscript of history with the blue pencils of confession and contrition, is America ahead of the world or laggard? Is it both at the same time? Why is it that the doubly public apology—made in public and on the public’s behalf—strikes us as both a compelling rhetorical device and one that is so difficult to wield?
Americans began apologizing long before there was a United States. They were encouraged by Christianity to confess their misdeeds as individuals. Since many Americans had come to the New World for religious reasons, the impulse was strong, and since they were overwhelmingly Protestant, it could not be gratified in the confessional. When they felt a conviction of sin, they said so—if not publicly (which they did often enough), then to God in prayer or reflection, an equally painful performance even though it was to an audience of One.
Puritans in New England, Quakers in the middle colonies, and frontiersmen in camp meetings bared their souls in different ways, but they all believed they ought to be bared. Even a high-living Virginia grandee like William Byrd II (1674-1744) felt and expressed the bite of remorse. In a secret diary he recorded a long list of his misdeeds, from forgetting to say his prayers at night to doing other things at night instead: ”. . . picked up a woman and went to the tavern where we had a broiled fowl and afterwards I committed uncleanness. . . . went to Mrs. Smith’s where I met a very tall woman and rogered her three times.” After noting such offenses, Byrd often added the thought “for which God forgive me.” He could not remember to live right, but he seldom forgot to say that he was bad.
In the colonial theocracies repentance was a more formal matter. Samuel Sewall (1652-1730), a Boston jurist, a strict Calvinist, a critic of slavery, and a patron of missionary work among the Indians, had more on his conscience than did William Byrd, for he was one of the judges on the commission that condemned the nineteen witches of Salem to death in 1692. Five years later, after the Massachusetts religious establishment decided that the evidence on which they had relied to bring in the convictions was untrustworthy, Sewall stood in a public meeting to take the “blame and shame” for “the guilt contracted” upon himself and to ask pardon.
Failure to confess a sin was an additional, and worse, offense. In The Scarlet Letter , Nathaniel Hawthorne’s backward look at the Puritan personality, the evil that wears away the life of the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale is not his adultery with Hester Prynne but his years-long concealment of it. “Be true! Be true! Be true!” declares Hawthorne, the not-so-post-Puritan, at the novel’s end. “Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!”