“To be given dominion over another is a hard thing; to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion of yourself to another is a wicked thing.” ― Toni Morrison, A Mercy
With the 4th of July celebrations round the corner, let’s trace our steps back to the origins of slavery, its journey to todays United States racism and understand what liberty meant when Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence(1776).
The history of slavery spans nearly every culture, nationality and religion, and from ancient times to the present day. Slavery was a legally recognized system in which people were considered the property or chattel of another irrespective of the slave’s ethnic or racial origins.(1) Classical Greek and Roman empires were based on slave labor. They were most often prisoners of war or conquered people.
Socialist historian of the Haitian Revolution, C.L.R. James, explained:
“Historically it is pretty well proved now that the ancient Greeks and Romans knew nothing about race. They had another standard—civilized and barbarian—and you could have white skin and be a barbarian and you could be black and civilized.”
From the 10th through the 16th centuries, slaves in Western Europe came from Eastern Europe. In fact, the word “slave” comes from the word “Slav,” the people of Eastern Europe. In Eastern Europe, Russia stood out as the major area where slaveholders and slaves were of the same ethnicity. Of course, by modern-day racial descriptions the Slavs and Russian slaves were white.(1)
The agrarian societies kept blooming and the plantations grew in size and so did their need for labor. Europe turned towards Africa due to its geographical proximity thus giving rise to the African slave trade. Contrary to the belief that the African tribes traditionally ‘sold their own’; demand created the supply. Also sometimes the African kings formed alliances with European nations to fight wars on their behalf and handed over the prisoners of war as slaves.
On the plantations, slaves were subjected to a regimen of 18-hour workdays. All members of slave families were set to work. Since the New World tobacco and sugar plantations operated nearly like factories, men, women and children were assigned tasks from the fields to the processing mills.
Slaves were denied any rights.(1)
The African slave trade helped to shape a wide variety of societies from modern Argentina to Canada. The planters instituted barbaric regimes of repression and meted out horrific treatments to prevent any slave revolts. The slaves as a class were looked down upon. But none of these became as virulently racist—insisting on racial separation and a strict color bar—as the English North American colonies that became the United States. Slavery in the 17th and 18th centuries was primarily as a means of producing profits. It was cheap labor.
The European colonies in North America were set up as private business enterprises in the early 1600s. The colonists tried forcing the indigenous population into labor but they resisted and escaped. They of course knew the land better. Then the English turned to white servants – usually English or Irish—who were required to work for a planter master for a fixed term of four to seven years.(1)
Subsequently, moving towards full-fledged black labor simply made economic sense. A planter could buy an African slave for life for the same price that he could purchase a white servant for 10 years. To ensure the property rights of the slaveholders, states like Maryland passed laws (1664) determining who would be considered slaves based on the mother’s condition – whether slave or free (as establishing paternity was difficult) and enforced penalties on “free” women who slept with slaves. This ensured the children of slaves remain enslaved and paved the way for racism in the future years.
Race does not explain the law. Rather, the law shows society in the act of inventing race.(1)
Clearly understanding that African slaves would cultivate major cash crops of the North American colonies, it became important to build black slavery into society’s fabric itself. The planters then moved to establish the institutions and ideas that would uphold white supremacy. Most unfree labor became Black labor. Laws and ideas intended to underscore the subhuman status of Black people—in a word, the ideology of racism and white supremacy—emerged full-blown over the next generation.(1) A way to justify slavery and protect and secure their ‘property’ into the future.
Then came the American fight for Independence – American Revolution (1775-1783) or more precisely, the battles between the Kingdom of Great Britain and its 13 North American colonies. Free America became the United States of America and the continental congress asked Thomas Jefferson to write the ‘Declaration of Independence’ (1776).
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
— Declaration of Independence, 1776
This was so revolutionary and daring an idea in the way that nothing like it had been heard before in Governments – ‘Governments are for the benefit of the people who are being governed.’(2)
Jefferson’s original text described slavery as against “most sacred rights of life and liberty.” From July 2 through July 4th, Congress made changes to Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration. His words were cut by about a fourth. South Carolina, Georgia and New England did not agree to his words on slavery. Finally, all reference to slavery was removed from the declaration.(3) The slaveholders were not up to giving up their key resource. (Jefferson himself owned more than 100 slaves).
It would take another 85 years and a civil war for the African-Americans to achieve a sense of ‘liberty’ and many more struggles to gain ‘equality’.
By ‘all men’, the Declaration meant all free, white, property-owning males and the document reflects the views of society at the time. Slavery had proven economic benefits all through human history and definitely within the American economy then and the idea of race created to keep slaves in check.
The lofty idea of ‘all men are created equal’ also left the women out. Jefferson might have used ‘men’ to mean ‘men & women’ (we are not sure) but the final document surely did not.
Under the laws of the new United States, women were denied property rights, lacked the ability to vote and could not make or enter into a legal contract. In colonial America, women were pushed to the sidelines as dependents of men. Married women were under control of their husbands. Before and during the Revolutionary War, women played a critical role by boycotting British goods and organizing fundraising activities to support the mission of the patriots. The necessity of war allowed for women to participate fully in the development of the new independence. Following independence, however, social and economic inequality returned and women were once again relegated to household tasks. The Revolutionary War had little impact on African-American women either. They continued as slaves in every state except Massachusetts.(4)
So while the African-Americans (men & women) were discriminated against and the identities of race used to justify slavery; the second-class citizen status bestowed on women simply needed no discussion or justification – it was a given!
It was to be another 150 years when the women would gain the right to vote – the only one constitutional right.(5)
On this 239th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the American women still do not have constitutional equal rights. The rights that have been gained, are all statutory, not constitutional. That means a hostile Congress or Supreme Court could take them away in the dead of night. An Equal Rights Amendment to the constitution was introduced in 1923. It was voted out of Congress and sent to the states for ratification only once (1972). It failed three states short of the required 38 – Advocates in Congress are still working to get the amendment passed.(5)
Today, ‘men are created equal’ expands to include all men but women are still not guaranteed equal rights in the U.S constitution.
6. Feature Image – http://www.wisegeek.com/what-are-slave-codes.htm