Opinion: Slavery does not define U.S. history. Freedom does.

A Juneteenth Parade makes its way down Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Atlanta. Juneteenth Day --  June 19  -- commemorates the end of slavery.  (Photo by Phil Skinner)
A Juneteenth Parade makes its way down Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Atlanta. Juneteenth Day -- June 19 -- commemorates the end of slavery. (Photo by Phil Skinner)

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

As we celebrate Juneteenth, professor points to America’s repudiation of slavery

In a guest column, a professor of public policy and leadership delves into the escalating debate over how we teach students about slavery in the United States.

Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas and a former school board member. You can read earlier columns by him here and here.

By Robert Maranto

As America rightly commemorates Juneteenth, June 19, 1865, when Union General Gordon Granger freed the Confederacy’s last enslaved African Americans, we should understand that slavery is part of American history but does not define America history. Freedom does.

Unlike the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, the reconstruction of Europe and Japan after World War II, and our nation’s indispensable role in defeating the twin evils of fascism and communism, there is nothing uniquely American about racial oppression or slavery. For this reason, educators should never define America by its slavery.

To modern Americans it seems obvious that, as President Lincoln wrote during the Civil War, “if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”

Notwithstanding Lincoln’s heartfelt words, globally, across cultures and in every major religious tradition, until recently most people considered slavery normal. It is instead slavery’s abolition which is relatively recent, largely imposed on the rest of the world by the West.

Dr. Robert Maranto
Dr. Robert Maranto

As an example, consider the remarkable irony that slavery emerged as an issue in the most recent presidential elections in America and Mauritania, two countries with little else in common.

The question of how to present America’s slave-owning past even became a flashpoint in the 2020 election, leading to the creation by Donald Trump of the politically motivated 1776 Commission. Predictably, the new administration quickly disbanded the 1776 Commission. But now the Biden Department of Education — and as an aside I voted for Mr. Biden — has in my view mistakenly proposed funding school curricula using the 1619 Project, which portrays slavery and oppression as defining the American story. Advocates portray 1619, when enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia, as our true national founding, replacing 1776 when the founders declared the Declaration of Independence.

The 1619 Project includes numerous historical distortions. Native Americans practiced slavery long before Europeans arrived in the hemisphere, and the first enslaved Africans (and first slave revolt) came to what are now U.S. shores not in 1619, but in 1526. Historians who study the period agree the founders did not fight the Revolutionary War to save slavery. Most of the founders saw slavery as contradicting the ideals of 1776. They (mistakenly) expected slavery to wither away once they banned the importation of enslaved peoples. Studying their mistakes should inform all Americans.

Though a slave owner, Thomas Jefferson, who authored the Declaration of Independence, proposed the gradual emancipation of slaves in his native Virginia. In 1784 Jefferson came within one vote of securing a congressional ban of slavery in the West, including the lands that would become Alabama and Mississippi. Jefferson lamented that his narrow defeat had doomed “millions unborn.”

Ironically, while Americans argue about whether our nation’s past, disavowed history of slavery defines their nation, in Mauritania slavery continues today. Under international pressure, Mauritania formally outlawed slavery in 1981 and officially criminalized the practice in 2007. Yet an estimated 90,000 remain enslaved. Just as in 19th century America, in 21st Century Mauritania slavery is tied to ethnicity, with mainly Arab slave owners and Black African enslaved peoples.

In the 2019 Mauritanian presidential election, anti-slavery activist Biram Dah Abeid won just 19% of the vote. Often jailed and harassed by the government, Abeid complains of a coalition of slave owners and “the state, police, judges, and imams—that prevents slaves from leaving their masters.”

Some denounce Abeid as anti-Islamic for opposing slavery; he has faced threats as a result. In truth, Islamic societies came late to emancipation. Muslim regions like Northern Nigeria, Egypt, and Sudan abolished slavery largely because of British military pressure, as Thomas Sowell documents in “The Real History of Slavery.” Saudi Arabia ended slavery only in 1962.

Yet Islam is beautiful. It would be both misleading and bigoted to define Islam by its former associations with slavery. No educator should do this.

It is equally wrong to define America in so awful a way, all the more so since, as my collaborator Wilfred Reilly wrote in Quillette, “America paid a diverse butcher’s bill of hundreds of thousands of lives, during the Civil War, in order to free the slaves,” including 360,222 Union Army battle deaths.

Juneteenth is a great day, and America is a great nation, defined by freedom rather than slavery.

Robert Maranto, the author of this guest column, is a political scientist who researches education reform, public policy and leadership.

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