More than any in living memory, this Independence Day, it’s vitally important that we reflect upon that greatest of all anti-slavery documents, the Declaration of Independence, which launched the greatest anti-slavery movement in human history: The United States of America.
Intrinsic to the founding principles of this country, contrary to progressive critics, America is not a regime with slavery and racism in its DNA. It’s a regime of institutionalized freedom, institutionalized opportunity, and institutionalized justice. That’s why so many people around the world sacrifice so much to come to America.
We need only remember. And we should remember. It might be the only thing that prevents our country from descending further into violent chaos.
First, some context. Slavery is old. Slavery is older than human history, stretching back thousands of years to pre-historic times, before written historical records were kept.
Slavery has taken different forms among different people in different places around the globe, existing at one time or another—often for long periods of time—on every continent, save Antarctica. Sometimes slavery has resulted from war, sometimes from religious persecution, sometimes from debt. Skin color has been important in some kinds of slavery, not so much in others.
When shipbuilding and sailing became advanced enough for the reliable transportation of cargo, trans-oceanic trade in slaves became big business. Large numbers of slaves were sold and shipped to distant lands where they lived among people strikingly different from themselves, creating new and difficult cultural challenges along lines of what was then a new scientific concept: race.
Between 1530 and 1780, for example, North Africans kidnapped more than a million Europeans and shipped them across the Mediterranean Sea to the Barbary Coast where they were sold into slavery.
ATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE
Meanwhile, a much larger and more sophisticated slave business was developing on the West Coast of Africa, what came to be known as the Atlantic Slave Trade.
While the practice of slavery was already present among many native tribes, the Atlantic Slave Trade introduced African slaves to North America, South America, and many Caribbean islands. Over the course of four centuries—from the 1500s through the 1800s—approximately 12.5 million Africans were kidnapped, sold into slavery, and shipped to foreign destinations, more going to Brazil than anywhere else.
Of those 12.5 million kidnapped, enslaved Africans, about 400,000—or 3%—landed in North America.
Of the 3% who landed in North America, most arrived in British Colonies, not the United States of America. The United States did not begin, as a sovereign, independent regime, until July, 1776. The United States then prohibited the importation of slaves from the Atlantic Slave Trade 31½ years later, in January 1808, after President Thomas Jefferson, slaveowner, signed a bill into law forever criminalizing the importation of African slaves into the U.S., punishable by death.
Of the rest of the 12.5 million African slaves, 2 million died during the “middle passage,” a euphemism for the nightmarish lengthy trip across the Atlantic Ocean.
Every African sold to an international slave trader was already enslaved while standing on African soil. The Dahomey, Kongo, Ashanti, and other Africans would often raid neighboring tribes and kidnap African men, women, and children, whose hands were then bound and who were forcibly marched to and offered for sale at slave markets near the water’s edge, close to the Portuguese, Spanish, French, and British slave ships anchored a few hundred yards offshore.
THE GOOD NEWS
There is much ugliness in the stories of slavery and especially the international slave trades. They are subjects to be studied only by those with strong stomachs. It is staggering how many human beings are willing to treat fellow human beings as mere property, to be owned, controlled, used, bought & sold by others.
Injustice is colorblind.
Amidst the sorrows and sadness of slavery—at the very moment international slave trades were growing—one group of morally flawed, imperfect people, dared to declare a universal, true moral idea: that all men are created equal in terms of inalienable natural rights to one’s own life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. And they did more. They attempted to create a new nation upon that idea, without any precedent or model to follow.
The idea was enshrined forever in the American Declaration of Independence, and memorialized in Lincoln’s famous speech at the Gettysburg cemetery.
The idea is perfect. Every human being, regardless of looks, language, or religious beliefs—whether rich or poor or in between—possesses, by nature, a morally rightful claim to his or her own freedom—a rightful claim to whatever he or she rightfully owns—equal to all other human beings.
Lincoln once called this idea the “father of all moral principles.” He was right. Injustices are wrong—theft, rape, and murder are wrong—slavery is wrong—precisely because the American idea is right.
To reach for the American idea, politically, means abandoning all forms of tribalism in our domestic public policies. No dividing citizens, by law, into groups. No special powers, perks, or subsidies for some. No stealing from others. No giving to the politically privileged and the politically preferred what they have not earned.
In the early decades of our republic, Americans made big strides toward their goal. They treated slavery like a cancer: prohibiting the importation of slaves from Africa, prohibiting the spread of slavery to new federal territories, and confining slavery to where it existed in the original states. Between the Declaration of Independence and 1800, a mere twenty-four years, half of the original states abolished slavery.
Never before had a people declared their own independence upon a universal moral idea that applies to all human beings. Never before had so much been done to constrain and eliminate slavery so quickly. The American Founding was the greatest anti-slavery movement in human history, hands down.
That was not the end of the tragic story, of course. Changes in technology and new business opportunities sparked new economic interests in slavery, while 19th century progressive philosophy and science coupled with rigid Biblical interpretations eased the consciences of Southern slavers.
Making matters worse, a new political party was formed, one that would become the oldest and most influential national political party in the United States, still in existence today. That party has rejected the core idea of the Declaration of Independence, and the political goals that flow from it, every step of its sad career, from supporting slavery to Jim Crow to affirmation action to special protected classes of citizens.
Even those changes and new challenges, however, could not prevent ending slavery in America. Through a terrible civil war, Americans abolished slavery by way of a constitutional amendment, slightly more than four score and seven years after the Declaration of Independence, largely because of the Declaration of Independence.
The American idea requires equal protection of the laws for the equal individual rights of each and every citizen. Period.
Let us embrace it. Let us show the world, by example, what institutionalized freedom, institutionalized opportunity, and institutionalized justice look like. All we need do is live up to our own standard in our policies and practices. All we have to do is remember the true ideas contained in our own Declaration of Independence, something worth reflecting upon this Independence Day, 2020.
This article was originally published with edits and revisions at The Daily Signal as “America’s Founding Was Greatest Anti-Slavery Movement in History“.