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America The Apologetic

June 2024
10min read

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.

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!”

Confession flourished alongside another religious rite, which was corporate: the day of fasting. In times of peril whole communities sought divine assistance by subjecting themselves to symbolic privation. Even as late as the last half of the supposedly enlightened eighteenth century, Americans humbled themselves when they called on God’s mercy. In May 1774, after the British closed the port of Boston, the Virginia Assembly declared a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer, “devoutly to implore the Divine interposition for averting the heavy calamity.” Thomas Jefferson, who helped write the measure, recalled years later that he and his colleagues “rummaged over” an old book for the “forms of the Puritans” and “cooked up a resolution” that would “arouse our people from the lethargy into which they had fallen.” In 1797, when war with France threatened, Alexander Hamilton recommended “some religious solemnity to impress seriously the minds of the people.” Hamilton, though he was not American-born, had lived here long enough to learn what made Americans tick. “A day of fasting, humiliation and prayer,” he wrote, and besides being “very proper, it is very expedient.” For the deist Jefferson, the ceremony of collective humiliation was a political tool, as his breezy language (”rummaged,” “cooked up”) suggests. Hamilton, though he wrote more respectfully, was also a pragmatist. But for their countrymen, who had been humbling themselves as individuals for more than a century, the call to humble themselves together struck a chord.

Though fasts were not apologies for any specific deed, they mirrored the psychological process of repentance: Confession, like humiliation, was a way of making things right again. When a fallen American brought himself lower still by proclaiming his wrong, then he could rise, in the opinion of God, his neighbors, and himself.

Corporate apology, of the kind that President Clinton almost made in Uganda, grows naturally out of our religious past. Two events in American history, ever present in the nation’s dream mind, seem to merit this form of recompense: the conquest of the American Indian and slavery. These form the template of American guilt. Every other grievance, from internment camps for Japanese-Americans in World War II to anti-Jewish quotas at Ivy League colleges, is secondary to these dramas.

From the first Thanksgiving to the latest New Age drumming ceremony, the Indian has been the aboriginal other, the familiar stranger. It was hard at first to apologize for ill-treating him, because he was not just a victim but often an effective enemy. Besides the wars that Indians themselves launched or suffered, they were major players in every white man’s war from the colonial period to the War of 1812.


Only after the Indian threat disappeared from Eastern states did it occur to American whites that their old foe had been wronged. The Leatherstocking tales of James Fenimore Cooper (published from 1823 to 1841) were an early expression of white second thoughts. The story, which stretches over five books, begins in the French and Indian War, when the Wild West is in upstate New York, and ends sixty years later, when it has reached beyond the Mississippi. Over that time Natty Bumppo, the white hunter and scout, watches his way of life vanish. Change falls even more heavily on his Indian friend, Chingachgook, whose people vanish as well, victims of peace as much as of war. By the time of The Pioneers , set in the 1790s, Chingachgook is a drunk in a frontier town and renamed Indian John. “When John was young,” he boasts, “eyesight was not straighter than his bullet.” But now he has the shakes. “Is John old? . . . The white man brings old age with him—rum is his tomahawk!” In the religion of romanticism, apology is transformed into nostalgia.

With the final closing of the frontier and the passage of time, the Indian wars became distant enough to allow more white people to share Cooper’s regrets. In 1996 the United Methodist Church did something more specific. Its General Conference, meeting in Denver, apologized for a particular event. In 1864 Col. John M. Chivington, a cavalry officer and a Methodist lay preacher nicknamed the Fighting Parson, raided a camp of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians at Sand Creek, in eastern Colorado. More than a hundred Indians—most of them women and children—were killed, despite the fact that they claimed government protection. A congressional committee at the time called the operation “a foul and dastardly massacre.” A century and a third later, Chivington’s co-religionists voted a “Sand Creek Apology,” offering the “hand of reconciliation” to all Cheyennes and Arapahos and asking forgiveness. “This was a tragedy in U.S. history that needed to be addressed,” said the Reverend Alvin Deer, a Methodist minister and an Indian, who had pushed for the apology.

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.”

Americans are a practical people. What should an apology accomplish? “I say that our need is new life,” declared Chapman in Coatesville, “and that books and resolutions will not save us, but only such disposition in our hearts and souls as will enable the new life, love, force, hope, virtue which surround us always, to enter into us.” But most people would prefer resolutions to do something concrete. “The question is where shall we go from here,” said Jesse Jackson during the President’s African trip. “Without a plan for building buildings, education,” and other policies, “one will have missed the point.” Politicians will argue about the Reverend Jackson’s to-do list. If it is a good one, then it should be done anyway, with or without accompanying contrition.

Appropriately enough for such a moral topic, there is a question about the morality of blaming. For that is what the corporate apology always involves. The spokesman who delivers it usually implicates—and thus, speaks for—himself. But he also calls all his fellows in wrongdoing to account. Lincoln, surprisingly, remembered this in his Second Inaugural. Both sides in the war “read the same Bible and pray to the same God. . . . It may seem strange,” he went on, “that any man should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.” Then the quiet kicker. “But let us judge not that we be not judged.” In the most sweeping act of prostration and condemnation in American history, Lincoln embedded the reminder that no man can know everything. Those who humble themselves may have to learn a further lesson in humility.

The main purpose of apologies is moral and religious, and their main beneficiary is the person who makes them. They do not repair the deeds that provoke them, or their effects. They cannot change the past, and they cannot by themselves change the present. They put the apologizer—whether he is the wrongdoer or some remote associate—in a better frame of mind with himself and, if he is a believer, with his Deity. The process runs the risk of moral self-indulgence and smugness. But it can also, by reasserting buried truths, untangle an old life and allow, as Chapman said, a new life, and its new duties, to begin.

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