The subject bubbles up from time to time. The first time I recall hearing about it was maybe 1988 or 1989. When I first heard about it, I rejected it in anger: the whole concept was ridiculous. How could people living today be held in any way responsible for actions of those long dead? For a long while, that is where my opinion rested. But, things change.
In 1776 we adopted as part of our founding document the assertion that “all men are created equal”. If we were to write that today, we would say “all persons are created equal” but the meaning doesn’t change in the least. When Jefferson penned those words and when the representatives of the States in Congress assembled adopted them, they probably didn’t fully grasp what they had just did. It was an astounding thing to say but even more astounding to make it part of a government document.
It is good to keep in mind that the concept wasn’t tied to a Republic or to Democracy. In 1776, most of the world was under monarchy but there were Republics in Holland and Venice and other places – but none of them had any assertion of human equality as their foundation. And, indeed, these Republics were very restrictive on who could be a citizen and who was allowed to be in charge. Outside of a religious concept of a brotherhood of man, inequality between people was taken as a given – and those at the top of society expected – and almost invariably received – deference from the lower orders. This really was something new: we were asserting that all human beings are created equal and, as equals, are all endowed with certain rights (that is also crucial: “certain rights” is a very forthright statement that there is no doubt that the rights exist and all people are endowed with them). My main point here is that it didn’t have to be a Republic making the assertion: any system of government could assert it. The form of government is irrelevant to the statement – but the statement, once adopted, compels a certain manner of government.
Once you make that assertion then it is required that the system of government, as far as practical, act in a manner which treats all persons as equals. You could, in theory, still have a king; still have a hierarchy. But you must treat everyone as equals under the law. Meaning: that nobody is allowed to be under legal disability for reasons other than their personal actions. You can’t, that is, say “you can’t do this because you are that”. That is inadmissible; can’t happen. We’re all equals and we are all allowed to do every legal thing anyone else is permitted to do. And one of the very specific things which immediately became morally and legally impossible in a system founded on “all men are created equal” is slavery. No argument can be made – all men being equal – that one person shall be compelled to labor for the benefit of another.
As I said, I don’t think Jefferson or the Founders fully grasped this – they were thinking of their peers when they wrote it. Men of the 18th century, their world was a world of higher and lower orders and an expectation that those below would serve those above. Some men already saw that slavery was incompatible with any just system, but by far almost everyone simply accepted things as they were and never figured they would change or, indeed, that there would ever be a need to change them. Keep in mind that even free labor was expected to be subordinate and respectful. The franchise wasn’t universal even among white males. In 1776 in no place on Earth was there a system where anyone thought that everyone could rise as high as they wanted: certain avenues of advancement were permanently closed off to this or that group of people for this or that reason. But, still, the Founders went ahead and wrote it down and then adopted it. The Declaration isn’t a law like a part of the US Code is law, but it is the founding document – the legal justification for the existence of a thing called The United States of America. Without it, there is no legal basis for the existence of our nation. And we went ahead and declared all men are created equal. At the very instant we adopted it, slavery was legally and morally defunct in the United States. From that moment on, every person held to slavery in the United States was having his labor stolen under the color of law.
That we did not immediately abolish slavery doesn’t change the fact that we said “all men are created equal”. We still said it. We still asserted it. It was still a dogma we claimed was essential to the justification of our existence as a nation. You can try to slice and dice this any way you like, but you can’t get away from it – starting on July 4th, 1776, the labor of black Americans was unjustly stolen from them (it had been before, as well, but the United States, as an entity, only became responsible on 7/4/1776). And it went on like that for 90 years. And when we finally got around to abolishing the slavery which existed in unjust law, we then spent the next century placing legal disabilities on black Americans. Doesn’t matter why we did that – it was wrong; they were created equal and so had the right to do everything everyone else was allowed to do. But by law and custom black Americans were hamstrung a thousand different ways from exercising the rights we said were theirs – inherent to their humanity – on July 4th, 1776.
Good for us that in 1965 we finally put an end to the injustice under the color of law. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act, we finally said “in law, all people are created equal and we will ensure that”. For most people – including me until recently – that was the end of it. The Law was now, at long last, equal for all. But, there’s a problem: during the time when black Americans were having their labor stolen (1776-1865) and the time they were legally hampered in enjoying the fruits of their labor (1865-1965), a gigantic wealth gap opened up. In other words, by fake laws which were unjust the moment they were placed on the books, we had prevented black Americans – who were just as much American citizens as George Washington on July 4th, 1776 – from gaining what every other American was permitted to gain: wealth.
So, now what? I’m not entirely sure. Well, that’s not entirely correct: I am sure about two things
- In some manner, this injustice visited upon our fellow Americans has to be rectified.
- In no way can we allow the rectification to end up pouring money into leftwing race-hustlers.
Most of those who argue for reparations are merely con artists hoping for a gigantic, taxpayer-funded payday. If you look at the proposals, what you don’t find is money going to actual descendants of American slaves. It is all for “programs” and such…gigantic piles of money to be placed under the control of mountebanks who will then dole it out, mostly to themselves. I don’t want that – and I’ll fight against that.
But, still, something needs to be done. Some means of helping balance the books. And the books are unbalanced. Howard University’s endowment is about $700 million. Harvard’s is about $53 billion. The difference is how much wealth each community was able to generate and thus provide for higher education. Nobody who went to Harvard ever had their earning opportunities curtailed. The people who graduated Howard before 1965, regardless of how brilliant or hard working, had their earnings curtailed as a matter of course.
I admit that I don’t know how this is to be done. I’m descended from a 1776 American, but as far as I can tell no ancestor of mine ever owned a slave. And given they were from New England, there is a high probability they were Abolitionists early on. But the other strain of my ancestry arrived much later; very near the end of slavery. How is my liability to be calculated? And what of the guy who’s ancestors got here in 1910? And 1970? We know that most black Americans are descended from slaves, but a very large portion aren’t. At least, not American slaves. A black guy who’s great-grandfather emigrated from Jamaica in 1890 doesn’t really have any claim, does he? He was never an American slave and he volunteered to come to a society where legal and social disabilities had been placed on black people. But I do believe we need to square accounts.
As a Distributist, my preference is, of course, that individuals and families obtain property. Heck; it isn’t a preference: it is more of a demand. It is the only point of working: obtaining property. The national patrimony is, also, quite large. Uncle Sam owns about 640 million acres of land, after all. Land is property and if we transferred, say, ten thousand acres of land in Southern Nevada to a trust for verified descendants of American slaves and allowed them to develop or sell the property as they saw fit, where’s the skin off anyone’s nose?
It is just an idea: one of probably many people can think of where at least in some measure, we can make up for the fact that black Americans were prevented from building up wealth. The most fun idea I have is confiscating half the Ivy League endowments and transferring them to the endowments of HBCU. Kind of a two-fer there: helps right a wrong and drains money away from upper class far left nitwits. I think it is something we can and, in the end, must do. We must, that is, demonstrate by actions that we, the American majority, really want full participation by black Americans in the life of America. And, yes, I know that the race-hustlers will never stop. I don’t care about them. But I do care that my fellow Americans who are black know that I’m on their side. That I really do know my nation’s history. That I want all of us to go forward, together, and make a more perfect union.