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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
An even larger tragedy was slavery. American slavery provoked criticism almost as soon as it began, some of it from slave owners themselves. Jefferson, in his Notes on Virginia , wrote a famous expression of an uneasy master’s conscience: The “liberties of a nation . . . are not to be violated but with [God’s] wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just” and “that his justice cannot sleep forever.” If the slaves should rise up and enslave their masters, “the Almighty has no attributes which can take side with us in such a contest.” Here was no light talk about rummaging through the Puritans to cook up appropriately solemn sentiments. The nightmare possibility of revolt and race war made Jefferson serious, and while he did not offer an apology for himself and his class, he foresaw with dread a just punishment.
Slavery ended not in a slave revolt but in the Civil War. In his Second Inaugural, a month before the war’s end, Abraham Lincoln argued that Jefferson’s just God had awakened. He called the conflict “the woe due to those by whom the offence [of slavery] came,” and he outlined a stern calculus of punishment: ”. . . If God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.’”
In eloquent words, Lincoln went far beyond words. The time for apology had passed; the debt was being paid in money and lives—Union as well as Confederate: “He [God] gives to both North and South this terrible war.” But the need to apologize marches on. Recently another Protestant church, the Southern Baptist Convention, felt compelled to re-examine its past. The Baptists, like most Protestant churches, had split into Northern and Southern wings because of the slavery question in the 1840s. “It would be unseemly and terribly wrong,” said Richard Land, director of the denomination’s Christian Life Commission, “to celebrate our sesquicentennial without addressing forthrightly the more unsavory aspects of our past.” At its 1995 annual convention in Atlanta, the group sought to make verbal amends.
The end of slavery was not the end of racism, institutional or cultural. Should that be apologized for too? In 1911 a black man named Zacharia Walker was lynched in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, a manufacturing town about forty miles west of Philadelphia. Walker had shot and killed a white man in a scuffle and was burned to death by a mob. A year later John Jay Chapman, a blue-blooded belletrist from New York City, rented a hall in Coatesville and held a prayer meeting to memorialize the deed. (Three people showed up, two of them from out of town.) The lynching, Chapman told them, was “not the wickedness of Coatesville nor of to-day. It is the wickedness of all America and of three hundred years—the wickedness of the slave-trade. All of us are tinctured by it.” Chapman exhorted his audience of three, and all America, to turn “to God through whom mercy may flow into us.”
America will always be drawn to apologizing—and never escape from its conundrums.
If the engine of American apology is Protestantism, then the impulse will be with us for a long time yet. By every survey taker’s measure, Americans are off the curve for piety in the developed world. We may still hunt witches, but we will certainly continue to feel sorry for it.
Another reason that corporate apology is robust among us is the continuity, and the character, of our regime. America thinks of itself as a young country, but its system of government is one of the oldest in the world: The Constitution goes back to 1789, Congress in one form or another to 1774. A government deriving its authority from the people implicates all the people in its actions. When the ruling class is everybody, bad deeds cannot be shuffled off onto the ruling class. When Boris Yeltsin apologized for the murder of the Romanovs, he spoke as a former member of the party that had done the deed; as a rising Communist bureaucrat he had in fact bulldozed the house where the crime occurred, lest it become a pilgrimage site. In a republic, responsibility is more diffused, and in an old republic it runs back a long time.
Even as America will always be drawn to apologizing, it will never escape from its conundrums. How fine should apologies be sliced? Two years before the Sand Creek massacre, the Sioux killed seven hundred white settlers in Minnesota. Does that tribe owe an apology to its victims’ relatives? Do Indian tribes owe apologies to other tribes they subdued or destroyed? Many Indians owned slaves; should their descendants join whites in apologizing for slavery? The U.S. Army in the late nineteenth century included black cavalrymen (the Buffalo soldiers). Do they owe anything to the Indians? While President Clinton was in Africa, Uganda’s president, Yoweri K. Museveni, had a thought: “African chiefs were the ones waging war on each other and capturing their own people and selling them. If anyone should apologize it should be the African chiefs.”