Slavery does not define the black American experience

By Wilfred Reilly

Slavery was horrible, but it was not the primary factor that built this country, and its historical existence does

Slavery was horrible, but it was not the primary factor that built this country, and its historical existence does not permanently stain our nation’s legacy. It should never be denied — and no one in fact does deny this — that the “land of the free” once used captives from other societies almost as cattle. However, the reality is that virtually all societies existing before the modern era did so, and only one became the United States of America. Logically, something other than our past indulgence of evil must be responsible for our current greatness.

Slavery in the United States existed, by definition, only from our actual national founding in 1776 until the end of the Civil War in 1865, and existed almost entirely in the agrarian South during that period. There is essentially no evidence that the practice boosted the wealth of that region beyond that of the rest of the U.S.: The South was widely considered a feudal backwater even before the Union Army conquered it, killing roughly one in four military-aged males in the region during the process. Virtually all American industrial and economic development has taken place since that occurred.

Further, and importantly, slavery does not empirically seem to be the cause of most modern problems even in the black community. Remarkably, the black illegitimacy rate was far lower under slavery than it is today.

Every point just made matters and is worth hashing out. First, almost literally no one denies that slavery was bad. American bondage was a fairly harsh form of chattel slavery, a system within which individuals are deprived of personal liberty and forced to submit to an owner — who can buy, lease or sell them like any other form of property. The writings of the ancient Greeks, who knew this system well, describe (often unintentionally) its dehumanizing brutality. The writer Xenophon recommends treating slaves like intelligent domestic animals, while great Aristotle himself describes the life of a slave as being composed of “work, beatings” and if the poor fellow was lucky, “feedings.” American slave masters seem to have been no better than Greek ones: To read through slave narratives is to be deluged with stories of coarse and scanty food, brutal whip-wielding overseers, runaways chased down by dogs, and young children “sold down the river.” Portions of American, and human history, are written in blood and can be difficult for modern eyes to read.

But, with all that said and unexcused — this essay will not dwell on the significantly greater prevalence of slavery in Latin America, or the Muslim states of the Middle East, than in the United States — the plain fact is that the U.S. did not begin in 1619, and even slavery that existed in 1776 had a fairly limited impact on who we are as a society today. In 1619, the year during which the New York Times recently declared that America actually began, there were an estimated 210 English-speaking settlers on the North American continent, perhaps 20 of whom were black slaves. Even by the time of the first national census in 1790, more than a decade after independence, there were roughly 3.9 million Americans. Only 19.3 percent of these people were of African descent, and by no means were all of the blacks slaves. More than a few, in fact, were slave owners.

As early as that same year, slave-holders of whatever race would have found their “peculiar institution” welcome in less than half of the country. By the 1770s, black New Englanders, thousands of whom were Revolutionary War veterans, had begun sending petitions to northern state legislatures demanding an end to slavery. These, essentially, worked. By the 1790s, 10 states and territories, containing more than 50 percent of the free population of the new nation — Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, the North-West Territory, and the Indiana Territory — were free land by law. And, the anti-slavery upswell continued apace.

In 1794, the U.S. Congress prohibited any participation by American ships in the Atlantic slave trade. In 1808, the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves took effect, making any shipment of enslaved persons from abroad into the U.S. a crime. Finally, in 1865, all slavery was declared to be illegal, at the constitutional level, in the United States. Since that latter milestone, the population of the country has grown 874 percent (38 million to 333 million ) and our GDP has increased 11,796 percent ($15 billion to $18.638 trillion). Both increases were driven largely by modern-era foreign immigration.

Even within the South, even when it legally existed, there is little or no evidence that reliance on feudal serf labor made American slave states richer than their free counterparts. Rather, the opposite. Historian Mark Schulman has pointed out that, immediately before the Civil War, “the vast majority of industrial manufacturing” and other competitive industrial work was taking place in the North. In 1860, the South had about 25 percent of the United States’ free white and black population, but “only 10 percent of the country’s capital.” The same was true for physical plant: The North had five times as many modern factories, and 10-12 times as many trained factory workers. Overall, “at least 90 percent” of the nation’s skilled-trades workers were based in the North. In his book, “Black Rednecks and White Liberals,” economist Thomas Sowell goes a step beyond Schulman, arguing that the prevalence of slavery in the antebellum South resulted in a mocking and disparaging attitude toward hard work that continues to plague both “white trash” and inner-city black communities today.

Of course, any cost-benefit analysis of the impact of slavery on the United States would be incomplete without including the costs of the war that freed the slaves. In dollar terms alone, the price tag for the Civil War was a high one. Between 1861 and 1865, the national debt of the United States surged from $65 million to $2.77 billion, an increase of tens or hundreds of billions in today’s dollars. However, even this pales in comparison to the great conflict’s human toll. According to’s Jennie Cohen, the generally accepted figure for Union Army battle deaths during the Civil War is 360,222. The equivalent figure for Confederate deaths, which many historians consider something of a low-ball, is 258,000.

All told, about one-tenth of the American men who were of military age in 1860 died as a direct result of the Civil War. Among specifically southern white men in their early 20s, 22.6 percent — nearly one in four — died during the war. It seems no exaggeration to estimate that roughly one Union soldier died for every nine to 10 slaves freed. If the U.S. owed a bill for slavery, we have, quite arguably, already paid it in blood.

A final point here is critical. To the activist political left, troubles in the black community almost invariably are attributed to “the legacy of slavery,” or to “racism” more broadly. However, the fatal flaw of this argument is that many such problems have worsened dramatically in recent years. Illegitimacy — out-of-wedlock child-bearing — is perhaps the most dramatic example of this. As the conservative black economist Walter Williams has pointed out, widespread illegitimacy within the black community is an almost entirely modern phenomenon. Back in 1925, in New York City and similar metropolitan areas, 85 percent of black homes were headed up by stable two-parent families, a rate that persisted into the 1950s.

Even under slavery, Williams points out, “In up to three-quarters of the families, all children had the same mother and father.” In contrast, the black illegitimacy rate today is 75 percent. It seems essentially impossible to attribute this to bigotry, given much less disturbing figures from past historical eras when racism was far worse. And, illegitimacy does not stand alone as an outlier: African American rates of incarceration, drug use, STD infection, and unemployment all have been far worse throughout most of the modern era than they were in 1950 — or, one suspects, in 1925.

Empirically, contemporary factor variables such as pay-per-child welfare, no-fault divorce and the normalization of illegitimacy, under-policing of black neighborhoods, and the outsourcing of blue-collar jobs seem primarily responsible for contemporary problems in black communities — and poor white ones. Just maybe, we should focus on and discuss these factors as much as we do the ethnic conflicts of 200 years ago.

In sum, the 1619 Project is correct that slavery is an existential horror. However, this practice was not a unique moral failure on the part of the United States. Slavery was the norm everywhere in the world until Western societies began to fight to end it, and the large majority of America’s slaves were purchased from powerful West African and Arab slave traders “of color.” Further, historical slavery did not shape most of the modern institutions of American society. The American region reliant on slave labor was by far the poorest in the country, and almost 700,000 lives were lost when we conquered it and freed the slaves.

Finally, today’s problems in American minority communities — most of which, by the way, are doing rather well — often have nothing whatsoever to do with the atrocities of 154 years ago. Ironically, more than a few of them seem to be the result of “compassionate” liberal social welfare policies implemented during just the past few decades. As in virtually every other context, it is not hard to take an ethical position on slavery that is to the right of the New York Times.