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America Didn’t “End” Slavery After the Civil War -- We Simply Exported It

One of the most enduring myths we love here in America is that we ended our involvement with slavery.

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The Founders and Framers, who thought they could take the wolf of slavery by the ears and dance with it to a just conclusion in their lifetimes, were wrong. But it wasn’t for want of trying, and, as Jefferson predicted, the 620,000 Americans who died in the Civil War paid the ultimate price of their failure.

Which brings us to today.  It’s easy for us, in this day and age, to look back 200 years ago and condemn Jefferson. He used the cheap labor resource of his slaves to maintain his lifestyle, and the consequence of the failure of his efforts to abolish slavery was a bloody Civil War followed by a hundred years of legal apartheid.

Although he rationalized his slaveholding by keeping them in a style that exceeded that of most poor whites of the day (both were grim by today’s standards), it was, nonetheless, a rationalization of slavery. Jefferson’s lifestyle was made possible by slave labor, and there is no other way to say it. Recognizing that fact, many Americans are righteously indignant and quick to judge him harshly.

Yet how many of us would willingly free our slaves?

I’m looking into a camera and teleprompter filled with parts made in countries that use slave and prisoner labor.  You’re watching me or reading this on a TV or computer filled with parts made in those same countries. Our rationalization is that no companies in America make many of those components any longer, but it’s just a rationalization, and no less hypocritical than Jefferson’s.

I’m sitting here wearing clothes made by modern-day slaves, and probably so are you.  I’m lit by studio lights assembled in countries where workers who try to organize are imprisoned, as are many of the lights in your home.

We rationalize all the products of distant slaves we use – after all, we don’t have to look into their faces like Jefferson did – but it’s still just a rationalization. 

The stark reality is that we in America didn’t “end” slavery. We simply exported it.

And it’s so much more comfortable for us to criticize Jefferson and his peers for agonizing over – but still using – slave labor 200 years ago, when we don’t have to look into the faces of today’s slaves who are toiling and dying at this very moment to sustain our lifestyles.

Thom Hartmann is an author and nationally syndicated daily talk show host. His newest book is "The Crash of 2016: The Plot to Destroy America — and What We Can Do to Stop It."

 
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