The Central Fact Of American History

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There were strong economic reasons for the broad national reach of American slavery. Southern slave-grown cotton was the nation’s leading export. It powered textile-manufacturing revolutions in both New England and Europe and paid for imports of everything from steel to capital. Accordingly, in the nineteenth century, slave values more than tripled. By 1860 a young “prime field hand” in New Orleans would sell for the equivalent of a Mercedes-Benz today. For a considerable time the fortunes of New England manufacturers and New York merchants depended on a northward flow of cotton, a fact that carried the deepest implications for politics as well as for banking, insurance, and shipping. It should be no surprise, therefore, that abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison were portrayed as a lunatic fringe and that most Northerners long agreed that the Constitution prevented any interference with slavery. The gag rule of the 1830s and 1840s prevented Congress from hearing hundreds of petitions calling for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, for restrictions on the interstate slave trade, and for limits on the expansion of slavery into Western territories. This clear violation of the First Amendment did not faze a government that sanctioned the destruction of antislavery mail addressed to the South.

A crucial and final point: a frank and honest effort in classrooms to face up to the darkest side of our past, to understand the ways in which social evils evolve, should in no way lead to cynicism and despair or to a repudiation of our heritage. The development of maturity means a capacity to deal with truth. The more we recognize the limitations and failings of human beings, the more remarkable and even encouraging history can be. Acceptance of the institution of slavery can be found not only in the Bible but in the earliest recorded documents in the Mesopotamian Near East. Slavery was accepted for millennia, virtually without question, in almost every region of the globe. Even in the nineteenth century there was nothing inevitable or even probable about the emancipation of black slaves throughout the Western Hemisphere. This point is underscored by the appalling use of coerced labor in the twentieth century, especially in various forms of gulags or concentration camps. Yet the history of New World slavery and antislavery shows us that people can change course, that they are not compelled to accept the world into which they are born.