The untold truth about slavery

By Edward Achorn

Last week, Tim Kaine made a ludicrous statement: “The United States didn’t inherit slavery from anybody. We created it.”

It is shocking to hear a U.S. senator, a former Virginia governor and a former major-party candidate for vice president spout such nonsense, particularly at a time when racial tensions have been ratcheted up, with rioters looting and burning neighborhoods.

Even a cursory reading of world history would reveal that America did not create the institution of slavery (though North America’s colonies permitted it to take hold here). Slavery goes back many thousands of years.

And Africans have not been the only victims. Virtually every human culture has embraced it, in huge numbers, notably including China and India. It existed in the Americas — practiced widely and with awful brutality by indigenous peoples — before Christopher Columbus arrived. In the ancient world (see the second century mosaic of Roman slave servants above), slavery was ubiquitous. Jews were famously enslaved in Egypt, and led from bondage by Moses.

Slavery exists around the world now, disgracefully tolerated. National Geographic estimates some 27 million people are still held in bondage.

As the great economist Thomas Sowell has noted (see his “The Real History of Slavery”), at least 1 million white people were enslaved by North African pirates between 1500 and 1800. The very word slave derives from Slav — white Europeans who were enslaved.

The monstrous African slave trade involved the sale of prisoners of war taken in tribal battles, greatly enriching some African leaders and tribes. I suspect few people know that only a small fraction of the black slaves sent to the New World went to North America.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., a professor in Harvard’s Department of African and African American Studies, explained:

“Between 1525 and 1866, in the entire history of the slave trade to the New World, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World. 10.7 million survived the dreaded Middle Passage, disembarking in North America, the Caribbean and South America.

“And how many of these 10.7 million Africans were shipped directly to North America? Only about 388,000. That’s right: a tiny percentage.”

Arab slave traders engaged in their brutal business of selling Africans for centuries before that. Some scholars believe African slaves died in greater numbers while being transported across the Sahara Desert than even during the Middle Passage to the New World. Those who survived were worked to death in the Ottoman Empire’s Sahara salt mines.

Here’s what was different about America: Western civilization is the first culture that seriously advanced moral arguments against slavery. America’s founders were among the first of those who denounced the institution, even though some of them owned slaves.

“Slavery was just not an issue, not even among intellectuals, much less among political leaders, until the 18th century — and then it was an issue only in Western civilization,” Professor Sowell wrote in his book Ever Wonder Why?

Among those who turned against slavery in the 18th century were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and other American leaders. You could research all of 18th century Africa or Asia or the Middle East without finding any comparable rejection of slavery there. But who is singled out for scathing criticism today? American leaders of the 18th century,” Mr. Sowell wrote.

It was an American — Abraham Lincoln — who said, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” It was America that fought a horrific Civil War over slavery, one that claimed 750,000 American lives in bringing about slavery’s destruction.

And it was America that embraced Abraham Lincoln’s words at his Second Inauguration, the subject of my new book, Every Drop of Blood: “Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword as was said three thousand years ago so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

Americans did not only accept that interpretation of the war, they erected a massive monument to Lincoln that features those words chiseled in stone, raised to the level of American scripture. Americans worked together, black and white, to fight racism and remove legal and other obstacles to the advancement of black Americans. Meanwhile, African Americans achieved success in every realm of American society.

Efforts to obliterate or distort this history are underway, such as The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which argues preposterously that America’s history is one of advancing bondage rather than freedom. Serious historians have debunked it, but schools are going forward with using it in classrooms. The ideological message seems to be spreading that America is “systemically racist” and uniquely bound to slavery.

In truth, this nation, though imperfect, is unique in its noble devotion to ideals of individual liberty; its restraints on government power, particularly through the Constitution’s Bill of Rights; and its advocacy of equal rights for all — the time bomb against slavery that the Founders implanted in the Declaration of Independence.

Endless disparagement of this country and its founding — requiring a grotesque rewriting of its history — seems to me to have a pernicious aim. It is designed to undermine Americans’ love for their country and its ideals, with the idea of overturning its system of self-government. Those attacking America downplay the history of totalitarian alternatives, which ought to have been thoroughly discredited by the 20th century, with the murders of tens of millions of people by their own governments.

In the heat of this ideological firestorm, Americans are now being fired for speaking out against racial animosity and violence. I pray that reasoned and factual history will survive in a country that Lincoln aptly called “the last best hope of earth.”

(Read Edward Achorn’s books about American history.)


  1. I am absolutely riveted to your mini essays on subjects relating to the birthing and struggles of America.


  2. This is a variation of the argument that slavery wasn’t so bad and the slaves were happy. It ignores Jim Crow and attempts to keep the slave like system going. Its celebration of US exceptionalism undergirds the moral justification of the right wing for US colonialism and imperialism. To say the founders turned against slavery is to ignore that the majority of them did not turn against it enough to sell their slaves. This is a whitewash of US “original sin.”


    1. I did not see that in the article. No where did it imply anything about happy slaves or that slavery was in anyway a good acceptable institution.


      1. Yes, the piece argues that slavery was an evil institution that the West, with its championing of human liberty, brought crashing down.

  3. You can add that over a million Europeans were enslaved in North Africa For about 200 years from the 17th to the 19th centuries.

    Only the US has a system capable of self-correction. It was our efforts to ban slavery here that have led to much of the world banning it. If it wasn’t for the US being guilty of it, and then correcting it, we wouldn’t have pressured the rest of the world to stop it and it would still be widespread today.


    1. Great Britain made slavery illegal and blocked the slave trade across the Atlantic with their navy long before1861.


  4. The one comment above misses ur point completely. Your essay is on point and factual as opposed to the NYT’s pandering blame game piece.


  5. Although I agree with most of what you said, America wasn’t first. England abolished slavery in 1833.


    1. Ms. McElvain, thank you! England indeed abolished slavery before America. This piece does not argue otherwise. But America’s Founders were among the first in history to condemn slavery. I believe, with the Declaration of Independence in 1776, they planted the time bomb that ended up destroying slavery. I would add that England had no comparable economic and social investment in slavery — which is why a terrible Civil War costing a vast number of lives was required to end it in America.


  6. You can not put today’s morals on the past. As pointed out Slavery did not start in the U. S. it existed long before. No one is innocent of slavery, NO ONE. History is how we learn, grow, and change for the better. Anarchy will not do it.


  7. Your writings are great to read. I would like to see your reaserch find out what percent of our nation has any stain from slaverly. I believe the number would be very small. It is rediculous to push this blame on all. Just consider the people that came here well after slaverly was gone. Would it be right to blame all Germans for Hitler. I don’t believe that most of the people in the US have any problems with black people. The protest and burnings is not the way to gain friends.


  8. Like Lincoln I descend from Rev. Obidiah Holmes of Newport making him my sixth cousin four times removed. I also descend from the same Lincoln family in Hingham, Massachusetts.


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