If you are an American, this letter is addressed to you, personally. You are an incredibly lucky person, and it’s time you cheer up about it.
We should be reveling in our common identity as the luckiest people on the planet. Yet raucous voices are telling us we should be ashamed of our country. Because some of our ancestors held slaves, Americans supposedly can boast of little or no past worth celebrating. Whites owning blacks cancels out whatever we once thought was exceptional about ourselves.
That’s rubbish born of ignorance, malice, or both.
For starters, it wasn’t just white people who possessed slaves in early America. Free black people owned fellow blacks in every one of the 13 original states and later in almost every other state. As late as 1830, according to Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates, 3,776 free American blacks owned 12,907 slaves. In 1860, native American tribes owned some 8,000 black slaves; the Cherokee Indians alone possessed about 4,600.
In Africa, the enslavement of blacks by blacks was practiced widely for centuries, and African blacks were major profiteers in the transatlantic slave trade from its beginning in the 17th century — regularly capturing people from rival tribes and then selling them to slave traders.
Google “Arab slave trade,” and you’ll discover that from the 7th century until the 1960s, Arabs were kidnapping and selling people from Africa as well as from southern and eastern Europe.
On the Wikipedia page for “Slavery in Asia,” you’ll discover that “Slavery has existed all throughout Asia and still exists there.”
And according to research by Ohio State University historian Robert Davis, “From 1500 to 1650 … more white Christian slaves were probably taken to Barbary than black African slaves to the Americas.”
Only one continent has never suffered the scourge of slavery: Antarctica. Because nobody lives there.
I do not raise these unpleasant facts to “normalize” what has been one of human history’s most normal but deplorable circumstances. Slavery is always and everywhere an unconscionable stain, an egregious error, a monstrous outrage, a mortal sin. Every human possesses a natural right to be his own master, so long as he does not deny that same right to others. Sadly, we may take that truism for granted today, but it wasn’t the governing rule of history. Most people who have ever lived were serfs, slaves or subjects of tyrants.
Ours is not a perfect country, nor is any one of the other 194. We’re not exceptional for having slavery in our past; we’re exceptional because of what we did to get rid of it. The process wasn’t a flip of a light switch — on one moment and off in an effortless second. We had to work at it, long and hard.
In hindsight, it’s easy in the smug comfort of our 21st Century blessings to frown on our Founders for not freeing everybody in one fell swoop. But none of us even knows whether, if he had been born in 1740, he would have mustered the courage to fight for anybody’s freedom.
America’s Founders did more to clang the bell for liberty than any other generation anywhere. They proclaimed that “all men are created equal.” We still have work to do to make that complete, but it’s a task we share with every corner of the world. In all too many places, it’s not even a priority.
In my house hangs a plaque I bought years ago. It says:
Lost Dog: Three legs, blind in one eye, missing right ear, tail broken, recently castrated. Answers to the name, “Lucky.”
No matter how battered you might feel right now as an American, you have every right — indeed, every reason — to answer to the name, “Lucky.”
Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education. His most recent book is “Was Jesus a Socialist?” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.