Today, it seems obvious that, as President Lincoln wrote, “if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” Yet through the vast majority of recorded history, in the New World and the Old and in each major religious tradition, slavery was normal, a regular part of the social fabric. Slavery’s abolition is recent and aberrant, perhaps the finest achievement of the West.
American abolition came in 1865 when on June 19, soon dubbed Juneteenth, Union General Gordon Granger freed the last enslaved Africans in Texas.
America’s Juneteenth hardly ended slavery, however. China, Brazil, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Afghanistan, Morocco, all 26 nation-states governing most of humanity, abolished slavery after - in many cases long after - over 300,000 Union soldiers died in large part to end U.S. slavery.
A nation with substantial economic ties with the U.S., Saudi Arabia, only got around to ending slavery in 1962. Yet I would never define Saudi Arabia by its history of slavery, and I bristle when people define America that way. Virtually all peoples have histories of enslaving and brutalizing others, so obsessing over America’s sins while ignoring everyone else’s is anti-American in the purest sense. Alas, such views proliferate in the media, academia, and politics.
For that reason, I commemorate Juneteenth by re-reading Thomas Sowell’s classic essay, “The Real History of Slavery,” written in part to debunk popular misconceptions spread by the likes of Alex Haley’s Roots. A part of his collection of mainly original essays in Black Rednecks and White Liberals, Sowell's essay teaches politically incorrect lessons no longer taught in higher education or pop culture.
First, slavery impoverished rather than built societies, by stigmatizing work and thrift while exalting as role models a slave-owning leisure class. In some respects, slave owners were like Hollywood stars, widely envied, and notorious for their conspicuous consumption and reckless disregard of others. Within places as distinct as China, Brazil, the Middle East, and America, locales with high concentrations of slaves were the poorest and most backward.
Second, Sowell shows that despite claims of a kinder, gentler slavery in non-European societies, “how human beings treat other human beings when they have unbridled power over them is seldom a pretty story or even a decent story, regardless of the color of the people involved.”
Historically, powerful people enslaved their neighbors. Africans enslaved Africans while Turks and Arabs enslaved Europeans. Indeed slave derives from Slav, reflecting the many Slavs sold into slavery by their conquerors, even into the 20th century. People enslaved by non-Europeans likely fared even worse than those in the Antebellum South, with higher mortality. Yet, Sowell observes that “[t]he absence of a critical literature or an anti-slavery movement outside the West left the abuses of slaves in non-Western countries without the kind of exposure or denunciation” that slavery faced in European dominated societies.
Simply put, there is no Arabian equivalent of Uncle Tom’s Cabin because no one wanted to write it.
Relatedly, American’s founders were unusual not in owning slaves, but in their misgivings about owning slaves. Avoiding controversy, George Washington quietly freed some slaves by leaving them in the north when he returned to Virginia post-presidency. In his will, Washington freed all his slaves and funded their fresh start, while regretting that he had ever owned people.
Slave owners like Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Congressman John Randolph pondered ways to end the evil institution without breaking apart their new nation or causing a race war, all the while cognizant that for those enslaved, “slavery was a very poor preparation for freedom.” Accordingly, Lincoln favored incremental ends to slavery, as had happened in Great Britain. For that reason abolitionists refused to support him in 1860. Even after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, abolitionists split on whether to back his reelection.
Finally, Sowell explains slavery’s end. Globally, more peoples became part of nation-states protected by national armies, so those raiding territories to enslave unprotected others increasingly faced military retaliation. Anyone proposing replacing modern nationalism with postmodern, UN-run globalization should imagine a world where slavers like Boko Haram face UN resolutions rather than national armies.
More important was the evolution and spread of Western ideas about individual worth and self-determination. As Sowell writes, slavery pitted “Western civilization against the world” at a time when the West had the power to prevail. Non-Western people generally did not end slavery on their own; indeed, most fiercely resisted abolition. Great Britain played the indispensable role in ending slavery, choosing ideals over interests in the process.
18th century Britain was the world’s largest slave trader, with powerful interests profiting from human trafficking. Yet under religious pressure, 19th Century British parliaments abolished slavery and increasingly employed the Royal Navy and colonial governance to erode the global slave trade, at enormous cost in blood and treasure.
In Sudan, for example, British General G.C. Gordon fought slavery, imposing the death penalty on those convicted of castrating enslaved men to market them as eunuchs. After Mohammad Mahad defeated Gordon at Khartoum, human trafficking again went untroubled until British soldiers returned, among them a young Winston Churchill. Under British pressure, Sudan eventually formally abolished slavery, though informally it exists there to this day.
Sowell attacks the hypocrisy of criticizing the 19th century West for falling short of modern standards, while far more culpable non-Western societies get a free pass. Today, universities rebrand buildings named after long dead slave owners, while courting wealthy sheiks who may have owned people in their youths. President Obama, who removed a bust (in fairness, one of two) of Winston Churchill from the White House, probably never learned at Harvard that Churchill fought slavery in traditional Sudan, Nazi Germany, and Communist Russia.
Obama should read "The Real History of Slavery."
Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, and serves on his local school board.