COMMENT & ANALYSIS: In bondage to historical false memory:
America has no need to consider reparations for slavery: the civil war
settled its moral and financial obligations:
Financial Times; Aug 21, 2001
By ERIC RAUCHWAY
If Americans had a better understanding of their own history, the idea
the US government should now pay cash to blacks to make up for
encouraging slavery until 1865 would impress nobody. But with attitudes as
confused as they are, respectable bodies such as the United Nations and the
US Congress are considering reparations. Politicians and pundits generally
treat fibbing about the past as harmless - but now it might cost real money.
The White House proposes to boycott the UN conference on racism in
Durban this month if reparations make the agenda. Reparations have a legal
basis: advocates point out that slavery falls under the "crimes against
humanity" provisions of the 1945 Nuremberg tribunal and the 1998 Rome
statute for the International Criminal Court. They argue that the US
government never acknowledged its guilt in the crime of slavery or paid any
penalty for it and that as crimes against humanity carry no statute of
limitations, now is as good a time as any for the guilty to pay up.
But the US government, and the American people as a whole, did recognise
their guilt and paid in the most awful currency. The claim that all Americans
bear responsibility for slavery and must pay for it came out of the mouth of
a US president. On March 4, 1865, while the US civil war still raged,
Abraham Lincoln called down the wrath of God and history on the voters
who had just re-elected him: "Fondly do we hope - fervently do we pray -
that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills
that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man'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 it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous
More than an apology, it was a confession of guilt and an acknowledgment
that the penalty was as much devastation as God cared to mete out. But
Lincoln was a lawyer as well as a theologian: the terrible war was, he
reckoned, not only atonement but also a way of spending the profits from
slavery on the cause of ending slavery.
Lincoln said, and Americans knew, that the war had but one cause - slavery
- and could have but one effect - the end of slavery - and only that cause and
that effect justified the loss of life. The US civil war killed more Americans
than any other war; its slaughter - which included trenches, machineguns
and muddy fields over which infantry had to advance against both - was a
foretaste of the first world war. Only expiating the great national crime of
slavery could justify such carnage. To recognise the enormity of the crime,
and the price paid for it, the American people built a tem ple in Washington,
DC, in which they chiselled Lincoln's indictment of the nation.
Only a moral imbecile would compare the price-tag of the civil war with
of slavery - can we really comparison-shop among historical horrors? - but
we are all business-minded people these days and we like to see numbers.
Here they are, as calculated by the historian Claudia Goldin: the war to end
slavery cost the American people about Dollars 6.6bn in 1860 dollars,
including wages, materiel and the cost in human capital of the dead. That
would have been enough to buy into freedom every slave in the country, give
40 acres and a mule to each and leave remaining a fund of Dollars 3.5bn -
worth about 100 years of back pay.
Perhaps the cost of ending slavery did not clear the whole account of
expropriated labour and loss of life in bondage - but it was a significant
down-payment. Slavery could not have been ended without it. Throw in the
cost of 12 years of military occupation of the South and the incalculable cost
of altering the Constitution to increase national power over civil rights and
the debt dwindles dramatically.
How, then, can we say amends have never been made and responsibility
never acknowledged? Simple: no sooner had the war ended than Americans
began trying to forget its moral lesson in the name of national reconciliation
among white people. If the war was about ending slavery, the South was in
the wrong. White Southerners have never liked this idea, preferring to claim
that they fought for the grand principle of states' rights to local control.
(States' rights to local control of what? Slavery, of course, but this is never
admitted.) Southerners thought, and think, of the war as a war to prevent the
federal government from interfering in local affairs (local affairs concerning
slavery - but this is never admitted, either).
Ever since air-conditioning was invented, Americans have moved south for
the sunshine. With more Southerners, Southern politics and culture have
become more important: along with country music, bass-fishing,
professional wrestling and President George W. Bush, the Southern view of
the civil war has risen to national respectability. Its romantic emphasis on the
lost cause of local control suits modern conservatism and it is espoused by
members of Mr Bush's cabinet.
The truth is not that the US government never acknowledged its guilt in
crime of slavery, or that the American people never paid any price, but that it
has been politically convenient to lie about the acknowledgment made and the
Lying about the civil war made racial segregation possible and it made
modern civil rights movement necessary. It made the 1960s expansion of the
welfare state necessary. It may now make reparations payments necessary.
It is, all of it, far too high a price to pay for the privilege of pretending that
the Southern way of life had nothing to do with keeping blacks in chains.
We cannot write a cheque to pay in full for slavery, nor should we try.
rather than duck the issue, Mr Bush should send representatives to Durban
prepared to deal honestly with the past. Paying money for the upkeep of
myths cannot represent a real commitment to fight racism. Those battles
were fought on the fields of the war that ended slavery and the one that
produced the Nuremberg tribunal.
The writer is associate professor of history at the University of California,