John David Smith: The Evil That Americans Did

Roundup: Talking About History

[John David Smith is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Among his recent books is Black Judas: William Hannibal Thomas and "The American Negro" (Ivan R. Dee, 2002).]

In 1997, Rep. Tony P. Hall, a Democrat of Ohio, proposed that the federal government offer an official apology for slavery, a proposal that President Bill Clinton took to heart when, on June 13, 1997, he issued an executive order establishing the President's Advisory Board on Race. The following day, the president commenced what he described as "a great and unprecedented conversation about race."

Nine months later, when visiting Africa, Clinton sparked an international debate over what has become known as the Apology. "Going back to the time before we were even a nation," he said while in Uganda, "European-Americans received the fruits of the slave trade, and we were wrong in that." Echoing the thoughts of many moderates, the Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page wrote that "as statements go," Clinton's "was about as safe and factually accurate as any could be. He didn't even apologize. Not quite. But judging by the fallout on some radio talk shows, you might think the president not only had apologized but called for reparations." Last fall, Brown University again sparked debate when it reported on the role its founders had played in the slave trade, but it offered no institutional apology and declined to recommend reparations to descendants of slaves.

Slavery's unequivocal evil lies at the heart of debates over apologizing for America's "peculiar institution" and awarding reparations. In The Problem of Evil: Slavery, Freedom, and the Ambiguities of American Reform (University of Massachusetts Press, 2007), a provocative collection of original essays, the editors Steven Mintz and John Stauffer, along with 23 contributors, admonish scholars to place moral questions in general, but especially American slavery and its legacy, at the center of their work.

"Slavery," writes Mintz, a professor of history at the University of Houston, "is a historical evil that the United States has never properly acknowledged or atoned for." Nor have historians grappled with those issues. Stanley L. Engerman, a professor of economics and history at the University of Rochester, and David Eltis, a professor of history at Emory University, find it noteworthy "how little scholarly effort has been expended on explaining how and why evil has been redefined over time, and how much academic work assumes that the values that hold today are somehow unchanging and universal."

As Germans have learned since World War II, coming to terms with one's past is a wrenching and continuing process. The flood of works on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, according to the essay by Catherine Clinton, currently a lecturer in history at Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, has inspired what she terms "a booming enterprise" in the study of evil. In the past few years, books on American reactions to 20th-century genocide, the Soviet Union's forced-labor camps in the gulag, and the Armenian genocide have joined the list. Other scholars are at work on the ethnic tribal wars in Rwanda and atrocities and war crimes in Bosnia. At Yale University, the Cambodian Genocide Program is devoted to documenting the murderous history of the Khmer Rouge.

Still, for all the attention paid to the subject of world and comparative slavery (according to the essay by Joseph C. Miller, a professor of history at the University of Virginia, 15,000 books, articles, theses, and conference papers alone have appeared since 1991), remarkably few historians have examined the ethical and philosophical questions that run like a leitmotif through the history of slavery and race relations in the United States. The lacuna in the historical literature may be because of scholars' attempts to be "objective," but that has meant that much of the work has undervalued slavery's cruelties, especially its short-term and long-term psychological horrors....

comments powered by Disqus