Saturday, July 24, 2004


America and slavery

The New York Times recently published this interesting article on the practical merger of the Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History with the New-York Historical Society.  The article deals broadly with the issue of political and private influence over the preservation and presentation of historical archives.  It considers, for instance, the possibility that an upcoming exhibition on slavery at the N-YHS has been "recast" to reflect the viewpoint of trustee Lewis Lehrman, "as expressed in an interview in the society's journal."

Quoting from the Times: "'This was an institution supported throughout the world, but Americans took the initiative in destroying it,' Mr. Lehrman said in that interview, adding that he deplored the view that 'American history consists of one failure after another to deal with the issue of slavery.'"

Much as we might "deplore" the facts, it is frankly wrong to suggest that "Americans took the initiative" in destroying worldwide slavery.  Both the British and the French abolished slavery before the United States.  In the nineteenth century, the British also liked to talk as though they were the first to take the initiative against slavery, but this too was inaccurate; in the French colony of Saint Domingue (now Haiti), for instance, a successful revolution led by slaves in the 1790s resulted in emancipation long before the British abolition act of 1833.

The history of British emancipation also tells us that claiming to be the first emancipators can have highly ironic consequences; British self-congratulation for taking the "initiative" against slavery underwrote justifications for imperialism in Africa and elsewhere, often forcing the British into paradoxical detentes with indigenous forms of Islamic slavery in new portions of their empire.  This is why it's important not to misrepresent the chronology and pretend that one of the last nations to destroy slavery was actually one of the first.  The British pretended the same thing, to sometimes disastrous effect.

Collective Improvisation:

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