A Brief History of Slavery

(AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), the man who would have been Hillary Clinton’s vice president, made waves on Tuesday by declaring that “the United States didn’t inherit slavery from anybody. We created it.” In context, Kaine wasn’t exactly claiming that the United States created slavery from whole cloth, but his statement draws attention to the broader history of slavery before it arrived in America.

“The first African Americans sent into the English colonies came to Point Comfort, Virginia, in 1619. They were slaves. They had been captured against their will. But they landed in colonies that didn’t have slavery. There were no laws about slavery in the colonies at that time. The United States didn’t inherit slavery from anybody. We created it,” Kaine said in a speech.

The senator later doubled down on his remarks, providing more context. “There was no law mandating slavery on our shores when African slaves came ashore in 1619,” he told The Washington Examiner. “Did slavery already exist in the world? Of course. But not in the laws of colonial America at the time.”

“We could have been a nation completely without the institution. But colonial legislatures and courts, and eventually the U.S. legal system, created the institution on our shores and maintained slavery until the 13th Amendment. As I said, we didn’t inherit it. We chose to create it,” Kaine argued.

Even by his own account, the senator is wrong. The United States did indeed inherit slavery because Britain took part in the slave trade for centuries. When those slaves came to America, they came on British sailing vessels that also brought slaves to the Caribbean.

Slavery is a nearly universal human institution. The Sumerians had slaves. The Babylonians had slaves. The Egyptians had slaves. The Chinese had slaves. The Romans had slaves. The Greeks had slaves. The Incas had slaves. The Aztecs had slaves. The Muslims had slaves — and the Islamic State (ISIS) infamously took women as sex slaves. Most interpretations of Sharia (Islamic law) condone slavery, and it features prominently in the Quran and the history of Islam.

Even the Ashanti people of Ghana — whose clothing Democrats (including Tim Kaine) wore in their virtue-signaling tribute after the death of George Floyd — had slaves.

Even the ancient cities and republics to whom many European thinkers looked as examples of civic virtue and good government, such as Athens, Sparta, and Rome, achieved what they did on the backs of slaves. The great philosopher Aristotle taught that some people are slaves by nature.

The true conundrum about America was not that its laws eventually incorporated slavery but that slavery did not exist in America for a time and that the United States ultimately abolished slavery.

As it turns out, the Christian doctrine that all men are created equal by God inspired the end of slavery in Europe in the 800s. While some forms of oppression, like serfdom, persisted, the slavery of the ancients died out in the Middle Ages.

Yet slavery persisted in the Muslim world, where millions of Europeans were sold into bondage. Slavery also persisted in Africa, where Europeans began to interact with the locals as the great European maritime empires expanded. Europeans embraced slavery again as they came in contact with these cultures and as the Spanish and Portuguese conquered Central and South America. Even at the height of Spain’s empire, thinkers in the Spanish Enlightenment condemned the way the Spanish enslaved the natives and violated their rights.

The West has a complicated history with slavery. While its Christian foundations condemned the institution, the riches of the slave trade and the need for cheap labor on sugar plantations led the Portuguese, British, and Spanish to embrace the horrific institution. Slavery in the Americas was also worse than ancient slavery in many ways.

While slavery was universal, race-based chattel slavery was relatively new. In most societies, men and women defeated and captured in war would be enslaved, but they could often work to earn their freedom or win freedom in other ways. In the Americas, however, black people were seen as racially inferior and relegated to slavery as a racial status.

Slavery was far worse in the sugar islands of the Caribbean than it was in the United States. In many Caribbean islands, masters intentionally worked their slaves to death.

In South America, racism has a wider impact than just the history of slavery. The social hierarchies of Europeans, natives, Africans, and various mixes between them still exist to some extent. The United States may be more racially tolerant than these cultures.

While the United States did indeed embrace slavery, Americans have always seen slavery as a heresy against the country’s founding principles. Although the Founders allowed slavery, they created a stipulation for Congress to abolish the slave trade early on in American history, and they prevented slavery from extending into the Northwest Territory.

Ultimately, Tim Kaine’s comments are not about history but about the left’s narrative of demonizing America for its history of race-based slavery. That narrative is too harsh, and this history illustrates why. America has a hard history — from slavery through to the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1900s — but the country has made tremendous strides toward equality, and equality is enshrined in our founding documents.

Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.

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