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
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
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. …