I regret that I am now to die in the belief that the useless sacrifice of themselves, by the generation of 1776, to acquire self-government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be that I live not to weep over it. If they would but dispassionately weigh the blessings they will throw away, against an abstract principle more likely to be effected by union than by scission, they would pause before they would perpetrate this act of suicide on themselves and of treason against the hopes of the world. To yourself, as the faithful advocate of the Union, I tender the offering of my high esteem and respect.
The Fire Bell in the Night, Monticello April 20, 1820
Thomas Jefferson to John Holmes
Thomas Jefferson, in his letter was talking about the Missouri Compromise that allowed entry of a new state into the Union as a Slave State, something Jefferson was vehemently opposed to. In fact as early as 1787 the issue of Slavery was discussed by the nation’s founders as one that would ultimately destroy the new Republic. Though many of the founding fathers were slaveholders, there was a firm belief the nation could not for long support the buying and selling of human chattel and remain on the right side of history.
During the convention, on June 6 James Madison first raised the issue of Slavery, despite being a slave owner himself like many others he abhorred the practice of the slave trade and wanted to see it ended. His first comment during the convention were;
“that we have seen the mere distinction of colour made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.”
His feelings were echoed by others, in the end the compromised language of Section 9 is what was agreed to. The fear expressed by many of the signers of the Constitution is Twenty years was a long time for mischief to be gotten up to, they were right of course, slavery spread instead of ending and before those twenty years were up, though importation became illegal in 1808 by then America could well supply its own. What we ended up with was a compromise in Section 9 Article 1 of the Constitution:
The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.
Our history of xenophobia; our fear of other has remained a cornerstone of legislative actions though we try to whitewash this.
Slavery is a terrible stain, eventually leading to the Dredd Scott decision, ultimately giving heft to Reconstruction,
Jim Crow and legal Segregation; decades of Separate and Unequal. The framework of Dredd Scott set the standard for other equally
terrible actions by our government and jingoistic acts of our people.
Let us look for a minute at some of the other terrible stains and what they meant;
Ongoing – Decimation of the Native Tribes through broken treaties, acts of aggression, intentional infection, starvation and ongoing poverty.
1882 – Chinese immigration explodes spurred by the California Gold Rush and results in the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Exclusion Act restricts further immigration and prevents those individuals already in the US from becoming Citizens, ever. The Chinese immigrant was so hated this Act remained in place until 1943.
1942 – Japanese Internment of approximately 110,000 United States citizens of Japanese descent. Racial prejudice was the primary fuel of the Japanese Internment, not any real acts of treason, General DeWitt who was in charge of Internment repeatedly told newspapers “A Jap is a Jap”.
1876 – 1965 Jim Crow, is there anything that speaks the heart of this nations underlying racial conscious more than nearly one hundred years of laws designed to strip equality
from an entire group of citizens? We think of Jim Crow as something that was a southern problem and indeed the south was open in their racial segregation, but nowhere in this nation were we truly free of Jim Crow thinking only the outward symbolism might not have been so blatant.
2001 – Islamic Backlash; the attack of 9/11 has created wave after wave of legislation at state levels banning Sharia Law from our justice system, which has never been a threat. While the attack by a group of Islamic Fundamentalist on 9/11 was both terrible and heartbreaking, like Pearl Harbor it was not conducted by US Citizens. We have chosen, even those elected officials who should be more restrained in their language, instead to fan the flames of religious and racial hate. Rather than condemning religious and racial intolerance we fall in line behind the Christian minister, burning the Quran on the front lawn of his church and the Congresswoman calling for an investigation of an aide to the Secretary of State because she is a practicing Muslim.
I would like to think these are not pernicious attacks made out of ignorance, I know better. These like every other example are simply more of the same, more vitriol made by ignorant and fearful people trying to keep their piece of the rock safe from ‘other’.
My personal opinion is a nation that can justify the enslavement of a people based entirely on the color of their skin is able to justify any other evil. A nation that sits in church and listens to their minister rail against ‘other’, as this nation continues to do, is capable of any evil. We embrace hate though we don’t recognize it in ourselves. We wrap ourselves in the mantle of self-righteousness and flag pins, point our fingers at the other side and call names, ‘Progressive Scum’, ‘Socialist’ and ‘Feminist’ are my personal favorites.
We allow Ministers of the Word of Christ to fill our airwaves with Hate and Lies, we nod our heads and say ‘Amen Brother’, when they tell us Homosexuals, Muslims and sometimes women are not of the same quality of human being as ‘the rest of us’ and are sometimes even deserving of death. We vote to strip entire groups of our fellow citizens of their civil rights and we smile as we leave the voting booth, convinced we have done the right thing, we are on the side of God, Mom and Apple Pie.
We now have the book ends, over one hundred fifty years apart of Dredd Scott and Citizen United, one confirmed human beings as property with no rights the other confirmed corporations as people with greater rights than some of our own citizens.
Post Racial America? Please spare me the rhetoric, we aren’t even close. We haven’t embraced the truth of our past as we attempt to rewrite it in more pleasant terms.
“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Matthew 25:45