A mistaken apology for slavery

New Jersey's 'profound regret' trivializes an important issue.

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 United States...."

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 guiding principles.

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."

In the 18th century, the Founders could go only so far toward justice. As Lincoln explained: "They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit."

Lincoln's view of the Founders is supported by the most vociferous defenders of slavery, including South Carolina Senator John Calhoun, who said in 1848: "[the proposition "all men are created equal"] as now understood, has become the most false and dangerous of all political errors.... We now begin to experience the danger of admitting so great an error to have a place in the Declaration of Independence."

Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, asserted in 1861 that the Confederate Constitution would correct the error Calhoun identified. "Our new government," he said, "is founded upon exactly the opposite idea ... that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery ... is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth."

Lincoln contended that the Founders believed they had placed the institution of slavery on the road to extinction. But as the tragic events of mid-century were to prove, they were wrong. It took a bloody civil war to extirpate slavery finally, to purify America's "republican robe."

At his second inaugural, Lincoln attributed the Civil War to the will of God, "as the woe due to those by whom the offense [of slavery] came.... Fondly do we hope – fervently do we pray – that his mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still must it be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.' "

What apology today could compare with that?

New Jersey has expressed regret for its role in slavery. But several years ago, the state rejected a bill that would have required students to recite a portion of the Declaration of Independence. That's too bad, because the more substantial work of atoning for slavery lies in correcting the false philosophy that supported it – and affirming America's founding principles that rejected it.

• Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

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