This week, New Jersey became the first Northern state to apologize for slavery. The resolution expresses "profound regret ... for the wrongs inflicted by slavery and its aftereffects in the United States...."
Slavery is indeed a terrible stain on America and there seems to be no harm in issuing such an apology. But New Jersey's act trivializes an important issue and contributes to a misunderstanding of the principles upon which the United States was founded.
The fact is that no contrition today can match the eloquence - and atonement - represented by the many "honored dead" who "gave the last full measure of devotion" during the Civil War. Nor can it match the healing rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln.
New Jersey's apology seems predicated on the common notion that America's founding - and its history ever since - is unjust and racist. To be sure, there have been, and are now, far too many racist Americans, and, for a long time, US laws and policies perpetuated the inequality of the races. But the crucial, if rarely recognized, fact is that America's founding principles repudiate racism and racial injustice.
Indeed, it is possible to criticize slavery only because of the creation of the United States, which was based on revolutionary principles now largely taken for granted. Before 1776, the governing principle of action in both domestic and international affairs was the one attributed to the ancient Athenians: "Questions of justice arise only between equals. As for the rest, the strong do what they will; the weak suffer what they must." Slavery, which had existed from the dawn of human history, accords with this principle.
The US was founded on different principles: justice and equality. In the words of the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...." The meaning of this famous phrase is that no one person or group has the right to rule another without the consent of the latter.
This understanding of the Declaration is often rejected or ridiculed because many of the Founders held slaves. But these men compromised on slavery policy out of necessity, clearly understanding the contradictions between slavery and the nation's guiding principles.
As Lincoln scholar Harry Jaffa has written: "It is not wonderful that a nation of slave-holders, upon achieving independence, failed to abolish slavery. What is wonderful, indeed miraculous, is that a nation of slave-holders founded a new nation on the proposition that 'all men are created equal,' making the abolition of slavery a moral and political necessity. …