Abolition and American Origins

The turbulent politics of the present moment have reached far back into American history. Although not for the first time, the very character of the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution have been thrown into question by the hideous reality of slavery, long before and then during the founding era and for eighty years thereafter; and then by slavery’s legacy. In this accounting, slavery appears not as an institution central to American history but as that history’s essence, the system of white supremacy and economic oligarchy upon which everything else in this country has been built, right down to the inequalities and injustices of today. More than forty years ago, when a similar bleak pessimism was in the air, the pioneering African American historian Benjamin Quarles remarked on that pessimism’s distortions. The history of American slavery could never be properly grasped, Quarles wrote, “without careful attention to a concomitant development and influence — the crusade against it,” a crusade, he made clear, that commenced before the American Revolution. Quarles understood that examining slavery’s oppression without also examining the anti-slavery movement’s resistance to it simplifies and coarsens our history, which in turn coarsens our own politics and culture. “The anti-slavery leaders and their organizations tell us much about slavery,” he insisted — and, no less importantly, “they tell us something about our character as  a nation.”  If we are to speak about the nation’s origins, we must get the origins right. As we continue to wrestle with the brutal, and soul-destroying power of racism in our society, it is essential that we recognize the mixed and mottled history upon which our sense of our country must rest. In judging a society, how do we responsibly assess its struggle against evil alongside the evil against which it struggles?

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