Friday, March 18, 2005


Reader Joe writes:

I generally enjoy your blog very much, and I hate to detract from the
important points you're making in the historical context post, but in the interest of accuracy, I want to point out that this:

"But slavery's immorality was only established or 'discovered' fairly recently in historical terms, before the Founding. From time immemorial till shortly before the Founding, slavery's moral legitimacy went unquestioned. So while our Founders knew it to be wrong, they had inherited an institution and had not yet found a way to end it. Even though many of them did want to end it and other Western nations (but no non-Western nations) were in the process of ending slavery in that relative time period (late 18th Century, but mostly early to mid 19th Century)."

really doesn't bear close examination. The moral legitimacy of slavery was questioned long, long before the Founders. As far back as the 5th century, Saint Patrick soundly condemned the institution, and it was legally abolished in Sweden in 1335 (although that law had its limits, in nature and in enforcement).

The tradition of abolitionism and moral objections to slavery was already of long standing, well-known, eloquent and public, at the time of the Founders. It's probably more ahistorical to ignore that tradition than it is to accuse the Founders of racism.

The post as a whole is too strong to let it get slippery on that point, and it's a point that tends to bug me--I've heard Columbus defended with a similar "he didn't know any better" argument, and that one, too, completely ignores the fact that many of his own contemporaries (Las Casas, notably), certainly did know better, and said so, loudly.

Sorry to nitpick, and I do recognize that your main point in that paragraph (and the post) was that the Founders were primarily and generally on the *right* side (or the "left" side?) of the slavery question (and other questions), even though they didn't completely outlaw the institution.

Anyhow...Keep up the good work!

I haven't had time to check up on his exact historical points, but will try to do so in the future. Any other readers have thoughts on the history of slavery in the West and the Founding?

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