Allen C. Guelzo : Should blacks get reparations?

Roundup: Talking About History

[Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College, and the author of "Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President."]

... [O]n the surface, the case for reparations to African-Americans has all the legal simplicity of an ordinary tort. A wrong was committed; therefore, compensation is due to those who were wronged. But just below that surface is a nest of disturbing complications that undercut the ease with which Robinson, Mr. Burris, and other reparations activists have put their case.

1. Who was legally responsible for slavery? Not the federal government. Slavery was always a matter of individual state enactments, which is what made Lincoln's initial attempts to free the slaves so difficult.

When it was written in 1787, the Constitution only obliquely recognized the existence of legalized slavery in the states, and only mentioned it directly when it provided for the termination of the transatlantic slave trade in 1808. Congress twice passed laws regulating the capture of fugitive slaves. But there was no federal slave code and no federal statute legalizing slavery.

Nor was slavery confined only to the 11 Southern states of the old Confederacy. It was legal in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey as late as the 1820s. If reparations are what's in view after an apology, the real target has to be the states; and if reparations are demanded from Alabama, it will want to know why it's more guilty than other states.

2. Who should be paid? At first glance, the answer seems obvious: the slaves. But the victims of slavery are now long dead; it is the heirs of those victims who stand next in line for compensation. Still, the line is a shaky and complicated one, with the chief complication lurking in the genes of African-Americans themselves.

Slavery was a system of bondage; it was also a system of forced rape and violent sexual exploitation across the old slave South. The mixed-race offspring of slavery were plain to see on every plantation.

And the long-term result is that the average African-American today has been estimated, in genetic terms, to be approximately 20 percent white – and much of that 20 percent includes the genes of the white slaveholders who originally owned his great-grandparents.

By what logic do we pay reparations for slavery to those who, in all too many cases, are literally descendents of the actual slaveholders? And should reparations for slavery include the descendents of those blacks who – like President Obama – did not arrive in the US until after slavery was ended?

3. What about the Civil War? Slavery did not end by evaporation. It took a catastrophic civil war, which cost 620,000 dead – equivalent to nearly 7 million today; it cost $190 billion (in today's dollars) to wage and multiplied the national debt by 400 percent; and it inflicted a casualty rate of 27 percent on Southern white males between the ages of 17 and 45, the very people most likely to own slaves.

At that time, there was no shortage of racists in the North who insisted that the Civil War was being waged only to preserve the Union, not to abolish slavery. But Lincoln knew otherwise, and he charged both North and South with knowing it, too. Slavery "constituted a peculiar and powerful interest" in the South, Lincoln said in 1865, and "all knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war." ...

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James W Loewen - 7/25/2009

Guelzo makes such a poor case against reparations that one has to wonder if he is a secret radical pro-reparations plant! To treat his points seriatim:
1. The federal government supported slavery in many important ways. It allowed slavery in all federal installations in Southern and Border states and the District of Columbia. The Dred Scott decision required it to guarantee slavery throughout the territories. It "hired" slaves to build the Capitol and other federal buildings in D.C. and elsewhere. It pledged to put down slave revolts and indeed did capture John Brown's raiders. Etc.
2. What kind of weird essentialism is Guelzo following when he suggests that paying reparations to a person with 20% white ancestry is paying 20% to a white person?! Race is socially defined and ascribed. His "reasoning" here is too silly to warrant further comment.
3. That the Civil War amounts to reparations would not be totally silly if Guelzo meant that a white family, for example, who had lost a father/husband as a U.S. casualty had in a sense PAID reparations already. But no, Guelzo seems to think that a CONFEDERATE death somehow is reparation for slavery. Does he recall that Confederates committed treason on BEHALF of slavery?
To conclude, there are issues about and with reparations. A good article would advance our thinking about this topic. I know my own thinking needs some advancement. Guelzo is laughably inadequate. Sigh.

Joel Rosenblum - 7/24/2009

First the history. You would think a famous historian such as Guelzo, writing specifically about his area of investigation, should be able to make a better argument than: because most slave masters were between 17-45 years old, and because most casualties of the civil war were of that age group, then therefore most casualties were slave owners, and therefore the debt has already been repaid in blood. First, obviously, most people in the South of any age group were not slave owners. Second, slave owners were less likely to fight than non-slave owners. Why? Well, quite simply, someone had to keep running the plantations and make sure the slaves were kept from general insurrection (not to mention keep the Southern economy going to support the war effort). Would it make sense that the slave masters left their plantations at the charge of poor whites in order to go fight the Civil War? If a historian is to make such a bold and ridiculous assertion, s/he must provide extraordinary proof. None is provided. I did a quick search of Civil War books on Amazon and the top two books which treated the topic of "who fought the Civil War and why" had no mention of slave masters doing any fighting. None. Thus I stand by my obvious conclusion that few slave masters, numerically and percent-wise, fought in the war.

Now for the question of reparations. I will respond point by point.

1) The Federal Gov't was responsible for slavery. It sanctioned it (in the positive sense of the word) officially and unofficially. The author mentions the Fugitive Slave Act but then disregards its importance. Slavery would not have been possible in much of the South if the Federal Government allowed northern states to give slaves refuge from their masters.
Of course, state governments are also responsible, but as the author mentions, it would be impractical to sue each state in court one by one. You might as well sue white people one by one, if you don't mind being totally impractical.

2)Who should be paid? Rather than have a few justices decide who should be paid, let's have blacks come together in town hall meetings and decide for themselves, with the help of experts on the subject, what remedies would be acceptable to them as a group.

3) The Civil War was not reparations. 40 acres and a mule (taken from the slaves' masters) might have constituted reparations (ignoring Africa's claim for reparations for a moment), but that was never given. As I said in the beginning, slave masters were not significantly represented in the bloodshed. But even if they were, the country as a whole benefited from the economy which rested on the backs of slaves.

Aside from the legal tort issue, let's remember that the effects of slavery on the economic and political inequalities between blacks and whites continue to weigh heavily on this country and on the world. I personally think one fair arrangement would be to redistribute wealth between the countries which controlled and which were victimized by the slave trade, such that all "Latin" Americans and Africans and Afro-Americans would have the same income and wealth as the average white American or French or Spanish or English or Portuguese citizen. Then as a measure toward political inequality we could institute racial quotas for public office and the 4th estate.

People at this point generally argue to me that if we start the reparations ball rolling, where does it stop? Should poor whites get reparations from rich whites for being exploited? Sure! Why stop the reparations ball? I think it will destroy capitalism if nothing else. And I'm all for that. Let's start with reparations for slavery.