Apologizing for Slavery

Last spring, when President Clinton raised the question of whether the United States should formally apologize for slavery he stirred a debate that has raged ever since.

Apologizing for slavery has become such a controversial issue not only because few understand what it will accomplish, but also because even more than 130 years after its end, the peculiar institution still haunts our nation’s soul.

That is why Steven Spielberg’s new film, “Amistad,” promises to be a blockbuster. Why the idea of a slave memorial on the Washington Mall is becoming more popular. And why the Founding Fathers have remained under great scrutiny. Often at issue is what they failed to do rather than the benefits we have reaped by their achievements. We do not know whether to honor them for establishing an independent nation or to reject them for their sins of omission.

To be sure, slavery was not only a moral injustice but a disgrace to humankind and must never be forgotten. We should always reexamine the past and those institutions that shaped it, for better or worse. In no other way can we understand how slavery continues to define contemporary attitudes on race. At the same time, however, it is irresponsible to apply contemporary standards to the past without making appropriate allowances for prevailing historical conditions.

Founding Fathers such as Franklin, Washington and Jefferson relied on the tacitly understood moral conventions of their time in deciding what they could and could not do to help others. The concept of equality that is universally recognized in our contemporary society as a basic tenet of democracy only had its beginnings in the 18th century; it did not emerge full-blown from the Declaration of Independence.

Nevertheless, there were those Founding Fathers who sought to bring the civil law of their time, which condoned slavery, into compliance with natural law and the moral principles underlying the Declaration. Jefferson, for example, felt compelled to write a clause into the Declaration condemning the slave trade. Similarly, Franklin, as president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, signed a petition to the Continental Congress recommending the abolition of the institution itself. Had these measures been adopted, they would have committed the United States to emancipation much earlier than 1865. Instead, both measures were rejected. To pursue the issue further, Congress believed, would have jeopardized the primary goal, American independence.

If we revere the Founding Fathers, then, we should do so for their genuine attempt to push the moral conventions of their time past the limits that justified slavery. If, on the other hand, we fault them for the sins of omission, we should at least acknowledge that they were products of the 18th century and, as such, were limited by the ethical standards of the time.

But apologizing for their inability to abolish slavery is not only historically irresponsible, it is the easy way out of a much more complex racial dilemma that only we, of the 20th and 21st centuries, can resolve.

William C. Kashatus's is a writer for the History News Service. His most recent book is "Money Pitcher: The Tragedy of Indian Assimilation."

December, 1997