Without modern mechanized methods of farming it is necessary that humans hands perform that labor. That doesn’t mean mass human labor is necessary to become wealthy; without sophisticated machinery, daylight to dark toil is necessary just to have enough to eat. This economic reality gave rise to forcibly capturing people and coercing labor from them. It goes by the common name of slavery and it was universally practiced by all cultures on earth at one time. It was seen as a normal practice and though everyone would object to becoming a slave, neither slave nor master objected to it as an institution. It was just considered the way things are. As technology advanced and our means for creating wealth became greater, the need to co-opt the labor of others lessened. With the spread of the ideas born of the Western Enlightenment slavery quickly became regarded as less the way things are and more the way things should not be. It is now rightly reviled by Western Civilization, but in many ways its shadow hangs over us. The cost of slavery was high in lives and in moral currency. Slavery debases not just those held but the slaver as well. Slaves are deprived of their freedom and the slaver of his humanity. The stone age indigenous peoples of the Americas could not be successfully enslaved. The kind of confinement and structure it required was so alien to them that they simply died when it was imposed on them. The solution was, of course, to replace them with Africans. The slave trade was as old as time in Africa and still thrives today. Europeans desperate for labor in their new colonies eagerly stepped into that market.
I live in the deep south. The Antebellum plantations that pepper my state mostly operate as tourist attractions these days. A few are still profitable as farms but tractors perform the backbreaking work, not humans. If you drive the River Road between Natchitoches and New Orleans, braving the stifling heat and humidity to tour some of these vast forerunners of modern industrial agriculture, you will get an idea of what a monumental struggle it was to produce wealth in the wild and expansive Mississippi flood plain. If you have ever worked in agriculture, your experience will give you a better idea of the scale of the superhuman effort that required.
Of the 12-13 million Africans brought to the Americas as chattel, only a small fraction, some 400,000, were transported to the United States. Right from the start, this practice was controversial. Western European culture was more enlightened than any on earth at the time. The idea of individual liberty blossoming here and the glaring conflict that holding men as property presented with liberty was…I won’t sugarcoat it… problematic to say the least. Charles Carroll, signer of the Declaration of Independence, summed up the prevailing opinion nicely when arguing against slavery “Why keep alive the question of slavery? It is admitted by all to be a great evil.”
In the United States, the slave trade was somewhat unique in that it had strong racial overtones. Everywhere else, a person’s race had little to do with slavery. Historically, slavery was an equal opportunity employer. The slaves here, aside from those held by the indigenous people, were exclusively Africans. The feeble justification was that blacks were inherently inferior, that exposure to western civilization would improve them and advance their race.
That evil practice was ended and not just by the advent of modern machinery and cheap energy or the dawning of a new morality. The intractability of those advocating for slavery eventually had to be overcome with powder and shot. The scale of that destructive war, both in lost property and blood, exceeded anything up to that time and every war after it until WWI. With that the barbarism of enslaving human beings was extinguished in the United States.
Still, the ghost of slavery haunts us all. The advent of 1863 saw President Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation, and after the war he attempted to repatriate those who had been enslaved by birthing the nation of Liberia on the west coast of Africa. Still, there are remnants of that ghastly practice with us. The gussied up corpses of those plantations are still here. Driving south from Alexandria on the old Baton Rouge highway, you will see cabins that housed slaves still standing, now housing renters. The fields and orchards are still here, worked by the relentless plodding of tractors.
At the end of the Civil War, the vast majority of those that had failed to perpetuate a primitive and outdated economy gathered what they could in wealth and property, fleeing to lands more amenable to their culture. The war had brought to a head the animosity between the conflicting cultures of enlightenment with primitivism, so they slipped away from the wrath of the victors. They would have been fools to stay and dead ones, at that. Anyone curious enough can travel to remote towns in various Latin American countries and find bizarre places where Antebellum America still lives, places where those seeking to escape revenge found a refuge to perpetuate that way of life.
Despite the reminders around us, are those ghosts really ours? There is not a person alive in the United States today who has been held in bondage, nor a person alive today who has held another in bondage. Though the struggle was great, every descendant of slaves today enjoys equal standing before the law, on paper anyway, to every other citizen. Those that care too often thrive on equal footing with every other ethnicity.
The vast majority of the white population here does not even have ancestors who held slaves. I can trace my own family back to the late seventeenth century in the Americas, and not one of those individuals held slaves. On my mother’s side, there are only abolitionists, and on my father’s side, no one wealthy enough to afford the purchase of slaves. The majority of white Americans are descended from immigrants that arrived on these shores after slavery was abolished. This is the most common legacy of white Americans today.
In history, the United States is remarkable in the social and cultural progress it has achieved. In less than 200 years, we progressed from a culture that more resembled the old world order, to one that is most unique, one that holds liberty and the sovereignty of the individual above all else. Our founding principles allow us to cast off the yoke of history and forge ahead to new, better cultural ground. In many ways we have dragged the rest of the world with us, though they still have some catching up to do.
These days, my old bones are more comfortable at home. I prefer good food, a warm fire, and, most of all, the company of my wife; but this was not always the case. I have travelled to many places in the world, and one of the things that struck me was the racism and tribalism outside of the U.S. The perception of the U.S. by the rest of the world of America as a country eaten alive with racism, appears to me to be projection. Racism as it exists here in America is mild in comparison to the rabid, virulent racism almost everywhere else.
Why, then, we still struggle so much with the question of race is an interesting and important question. Go ahead, give it your best shot.