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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.

One of the most enduring myths we love here in America is that we ended our involvement with slavery after the Civil War.  While our Founders – people like Thomas Jefferson, who wrote “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence but owned slaves himself – were tarnished, morally imperfect hypocrites, in our modern era, we tell ourselves, we’ve risen above that.  We are pure!  We’re no longer tainted by slavery!

If only it were true.

The recent fires that killed 112 workers in Bangladeshi sweat shops making garments for Wal-Mart and other American retailers show how we, today, are frankly more hypocritical and dishonest about slavery than was Jefferson himself.

As are those Libertarians who argue that the Bangladeshis were “willing workers,” when poverty is so severe in that country that working, chained into a firetrap factory, is essential to survival itself.  To call the working conditions of much of the developing world anything less than slavery is to ignore the power relationships that keep workers behind fences, locked 24/7 in often-violent dormitories, and the companies that string nets outside windows to reduce worker suicides. 

It’s to rationalize the role we play in this modern-day version of slavery, the same way 18th Century US slavery advocates (and some modern-day Southern Republicans) argued that slaves at least had free housing, food, and medical care as compensation for their labors.

As I point out in my book “ What Would Jefferson Do?,” although Jefferson inherited land and slaves as a teenager when his father died, and more, including his wife’s half-sister Sally Hemmings, when his wife’s father died, Jefferson knew slavery up-front and personal, and worked much of his life to end it.

In April of 1770, Jefferson was practicing law and defended a slave who was requesting his freedom (Howell v. Netherland). In his arguments on behalf of the slave, Jefferson said that “under the law of nature, all men are born free, and every one comes into the world with the right to his own person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it at his own will.”

The year before, 1769, as a legislator in Virginia, he had written a bill to abolish the importation of slaves into that state. It was unsuccessful, and even brought down the wrath of many of his peers on him and his relative, Richard Bland, who Jefferson had asked to introduce the proposed legislation.

In his 1774 booklet, “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” Jefferson attacked King George III for forcing slavery upon the colonies, a charge that was repeated in his first draft of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, but deleted from the final draft in order to keep the representatives of South Carolina and Georgia willing to sign the document.

That same year, Jefferson tried to write into the constitution of the State of Virginia a provision that would totally eliminate slavery, starting in 1800, and in 1778 he presented an even more radical bill that would have abolished slavery altogether in Virginia that year. While these attempts failed, he was successful in passing a Virginia law that year preventing any more slaves from being imported into the state.

In 1783, he again unsuccessfully attempted to amend Virginia’s constitution, proposing language that said: “The general assembly shall not... permit the introduction of any more slaves to reside in this State, or the continuance of slavery beyond the generation which shall be living on the thirty-first day of December, 1800; all persons born after that day being hereby declared free.”

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