In yesterday’s Times, the estimable scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. had an odd op-ed article entitled “Ending the Slavery Blame Game. ” What made it odd was its construction. At the heart of the piece was Gates’ very interesting summary of recent scholarship about the complicity of African tribes in capturing African people and selling them to European and American slave traders. Sandwiching this summary, however, was Gates’ bid for op-ed relevance, which was his assertion that this fuller understanding of a broader criminal enterprise would give President Obama “a unique opportunity to reshape the debate over one of the most contentious issues of America’s racial legacy: reparations, the idea that the descendants of American slaves should receive compensation for their ancestors’ unpaid labor and bondage.”
Is the idea of reparations still contentious? I guess it is–if somebody brings it up. But reparations seems to be an idea that had a heyday of argument a decade ago, and was then shelved in favor of ideas more vital. But even at the time of its greatest urgency, it seemed to be one of those self-evidently good ideas that became less good once you got into the practicalities. For one thing, there was the question of where the money should come from. No doubt some of the great slave trade fortunes of the 17th and 18th and 19th have been carefully cultivated and survive, but many have been used up, or, more significantly, destroyed during the Civil War. Moreover, it seems hardly equitable to charge the people whose ancestors arrived on these shores after the Civil War with the cost of paying for slavery. It’s very hard to think how my Malanowski forebears, for example, who arrived here in 1905, profited by the institution of slavery. On top of this is the fact that a great many people struggled against slavery and died fighting it. It may seem logical to argue that the descendants of slaves should be compensated by those who supported the institution, but if that is so, is it not just as logical to argue that the descendants of slaves and others should pay compensation to the descendants of the Union troops who died fighting for their liberation? I wonder how Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan would feel about that.
But what really rankles about the idea of reparations is that is turns slavery into a civil tort–an argument over back pay. Of course it was something much worse, something profoundly more evil, a society-wide, systematic criminal conspiracy. And in his second Inaugural, Abraham Lincoln specified precisely the price that terminating the conspiracy would exact. Speaking a little more than a month before Robert E. Lee‘s confederate forces would surrender, Lincoln said “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 bondsman’s two hundred and fifty 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 three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
I don’t know where you’d like to turn for justice, but if Lincoln and the Lord settle on the terms of resolution, I’m not going to call for the view of Judge Judy. Or, for that matter, John Roberts.
Was all the wealth sunk? Well, Richmond was burned, and Atlanta was burned, and the Shenandoah Valley was torched, and the tremendous value embodied by two and a half million slaves was struck from the books. Was every drop of blood drawn by the lash paid for another drawn by the sword? At least 620,000 soldiers were killed during the Civil War; with the limitations on record-keeping, this figure could easily be as high as 700,000. That was out of a population of 30 million. This does not include the physically or psychologically wounded, or civilian deaths caused by combat, or civilian deaths caused by a lack of food or medicine. And it in no way includes the incredible economic devastation wreaked upon the south, destruction so complete that for a century the south was poorer and more backward than the rest of the country (and let’s face it, Mississippi and Alabama still are.) The destruction fell on north and south alike: sons of southern slaveholders and sons of northern slave ship owners both died, as did the sons of families north and south who did not engage in the slave trade but who acquiesced in its existence. It may no be literally true, but it is no exaggeration to say that no ome in America was unaffected.
And of course, some of the last blood shed belonged to Lincoln, in a futile effort to achieve the long-lost war aims of the south. Lincoln saw that the evil was not civil but moral, that the evil perpetrated was Biblical in its proportions, and that the price that had to be paid was stupendous. Those who seek reparations should visit the Union cemetery at Gettysburg or Hollywood cemetery in Richmond or any of dozens of other battlefield graveyards: there is your treasure.