Academic journal article The University of Memphis Law Review

Ancient Slavery versus American Slavery: A Distinction with a Difference

Academic journal article The University of Memphis Law Review

Ancient Slavery versus American Slavery: A Distinction with a Difference

Article excerpt

In this article, I address an important issue in the debate on redress for slavery: Should our government apologize for slavery when, in fact, the institution dates back to the beginning of recorded history? In other words, given the fact that chattel slavery-the use of human beings as a commodity and in a bestial manner-was a universally accepted practice during the time the government enslaved blacks, does that absolve the government of any obligation to tender an apology? My answer is no. The federal government still has a moral obligation to apologize for its practice of chattel slavery (hereinafter "African slavery").

Slavery has a long presence in Western civilization. From the times of ancient Mesopotamia to 1888, the year Brazil freed its last slave, human beings were used as a form of currency. They were used as commodity for a variety of purposes, such as to retire debts or as items of barter. Human beings were, in addition, treated like domesticated animals or pets. The latter-what Orlando Patterson refers to as the "Sambo" stereotype1 and David Brion Davis calls the "effort to bestialize human beings"2-is the common thread of all systems of slavery. Yet, none of this justifies or even explains the singular evil of slavery in the Americas initiated by the Portuguese in the fifteenth century. The Atlantic slave system was not slavery as usual. More than that, the United States government gave crucial life to the system. The government should, therefore, apologize for its participation in African slavery.

My argument proceeds along two lines. First, even if the entire world truly believed that slavery was a morally acceptable form of human behavior, we now realize that human bondage was without question morally wrong. That realization is a sufficient reason for the government to issue an apology. This is especially so in light of the moral enormity of African slavery. Second, the federal government's culpability in bringing this unprecedented brand of human bondage into the new republic was so egregious that an apology is well warranted. "By the eve of the American Revolution," David Brion Davis observes, "there was a remarkable convergence of culture and intellectual developments which at once undercut traditional rationalizations for slavery and offered new ways of identifying with its victims."3 The founding fathers not only ignored this convergence of thought, breathing new life into a morally moribund institution, but they also participated in a form of slavery that was far more diabolical than that which had existed since ancient times. African slavery was far more appalling than the inter-tribal slavery that had existed in Africa prior to the European influence. Slavery in the Americas introduced the troubling element of race into the master/slave relationship. For the first time ever, dark skin became the indelible mark of chattel slavery. Furthermore, as a means of justifying this new look given to an ancient institution, the enslavers and their supporters created a race-specific ideology of condemnation. This false rhetoric not only removed the interchangeability of slave and master-the ancient prospect that a slave could someday become even his master's master-from the realm of cultural and political possibility, but it also outlasted slavery itself. I shall take a few moments to expand upon these points.

My first argument is more philosophical than the second. It begins with the following assertion: even if most of the "civilized" world once thought slavery was morally acceptable, we now recognize that slavery was an enormous immorality. That alone is reason enough for our government to apologize for having participated in this evil event. To refuse to issue an apology on the basis that slavery was deemed moral when it was practiced seems somewhat evasive. It is much like the corporate scandals of 200102 in which corporations like Enron, WorldCom, Global Crossing, and Qwest Communications International sought to defend unethical accounting practices on the ground that, inter alia, other corporations within their respective industries were doing the same things to stay in business, but just had not been prosecuted. …

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