It's Time to Stop Calling Slavery America's 'Original Sin'Roundup
tags: slavery, racism, abolition
A modest proposal: It's time to stop calling slavery America's "original sin."
There is no need for me to name names. So many people do it. Secular people as well as religious people; lay historians as well as men and women of the cloth; rabbis as well as ministers and priests; people who believe that Adam and Eve's disobedience resulted in their expulsion from paradise and the estrangement of human beings from God, and people who have never given the Fall and its consequences a moment's thought; left-wingers, right wingers and just about everyone in between. It is one of the few things about which longtime political opponents Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and former President Barack Obama agree: Slavery was America's original sin.
The habit might seem harmless, shorthand for saying that slavery was distant, deeply embedded and bad. All history is hindsight. We often see things that people couldn't or didn't see at the time. We tell stories and offer interpretations that depend on our knowledge of events that happened between then and now. We make comparisons and all kinds of judgements. We employ metaphors.
The idea that slavery was America's original sin is one such metaphor, used at least as far back as the debate, in 1819, about the admission of Missouri to the union as a slave state. The problem is that it is a weak, misleading metaphor, concealing much more than it reveals about early American history, the institution of slavery, the aftermath of slavery and the messy business of making a nation. We should abandon it. Here are a few of the reasons why.
For starters, the phrase is a theological characterization of a secular institution. For those of us who do not believe in divine law or sins against God, it is an unnecessary confusion of sacred and profane.
As history, it is anachronistic. Today, most devout people believe that chattel slavery was a sin. The rest of us agree that it was a violation of the values we hold closest to our minds and hearts. Yet none of us can deny that in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, human beings were enslaved all over the world, as human beings had been enslaved for thousands of years. Some people, including some of the earliest abolitionists, considered slavery a sin. But many others, including many clergymen, defended it, often on religious grounds, favoring a literal reading of the New Testament that conformed with their values and met their political needs.
Then there is the question of who committed "our" original sin. Was it the European slave traders and enslavers -- first Portuguese and Spanish, then Dutch, French and English, all aided and abetted by African enslavers and traders -- who began to transport Africans to the Americas in the early 1500s? Were they our Adam and Eve, leaving everyone who came after them as the inheritors of their sin? Or was it the former British colonists, who, in the Declaration of Independence, nearly three centuries later, argued that all men are created equal and condemned King George III for inciting domestic insurrection?
Or was it the men in Philadelphia, 11 years later, who produced a Constitution that preserved and protected slavery in significant ways, including the fugitive slave clause and the three-fifths clause. The former ensured that an enslaved person could not legally escape bondage by fleeing from a slave state to a free one, while the latter designated each enslaved person as three-fifths of a free person for the purpose of taxation and congressional representation. Practically, the three-fifths clause allowed enslavers to maintain political power disproportionate to their numbers.