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Why Learning the History of Slavery in America Doesn’t Have to Be Depressing

By Stephanie Coontz

Professor Emerita, The Evergreen State College

Director of Research and Public Education

Council on Contemporary Families

August 14, 2022

ABSTRACT: This article discusses the long history of slavery and settler colonialism and the paradox of early American democracy, which on the one hand hardened, commercialized, and racialized slavery, yet also produced a powerful ideology and a cross-racial abolitionist movement to challenge both slavery and racism. Only when we fully appreciate the horrors of slavery and settler colonialism, and the racism that developed to justify them, can we also fully appreciate the courage and foresight of those Americans -- Black, Brown, and White -- who fought to implement the revolutionary and historically unprecedented idea that all human beings, not just those of the same nation, ethnicity, gender, race, or class, should have equal rights.

Until relatively recently, most histories of America paid little attention to the fact that the land Columbus “discovered” was already occupied by millions of indigenous inhabitants, who ended up being dispossessed or massacred, and that between 1619 and 1860, 10 million slaves contributed an estimated 410 billion hours of coerced and uncompensated labor to the cultivation of that land1.

As late as 1987, one nationally-used high-school textbook described the history of America as “the creation of a civilization where none existed,” in a land “empty of mankind and its works.” No histories could ignore the existence of slavery, but few acknowledged its centrality to our country’s economic development or fully examined its horrors. Astonishingly, right into the 1970s, schools in Virginia were assigning their 7th-grade students a textbook that described the run-up to the Civil War this way: “Negroes did not wish to leave their old masters…[They] went about in a cheerful manner making a living for themselves and for those for whom they worked.”2

When historians and social activists call for textbooks and public monuments that acknowledge the subjugation of the continent’s indigenous people and the uncompensated labor of enslaved Africans, some observers accuse them of promoting “the pernicious and false belief that America is an irredeemably racist and sexist country.” Complaining that children are being taught to "denigrate the Founding Fathers, denigrate the American Revolution,” in the words of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, legislators in more than half the country’s states have introduced bills forbidding schools from teaching that America’s founding documents had anything to do with defending of slavery or from discussing any other "divisive concepts" related to the history of racism and sexism.3

Typical of such bills are those introduced in the Florida and South Dakota Senates in January, mandating that American history “be defined as the creation of a new nation based largely on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.” They prohibit the use of material suggesting that any individual “bears responsibility for… actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, sex, or national origin” or that makes anyone “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” on account of such past actions.4

This is a new twist on the long-standing efforts of political demagogues to stoke white racial anxieties. Over the past 100 years we have heard claims that “they” are coming to rape “our” wives and daughters, take “our” jobs, waste “our” tax money, steal “our” wallets, and murder us at random. Now, it appears, they’re also coming to hurt our feelings!

But while studying the history of slavery and settler colonialism may -- indeed should -- be disturbing, it doesn’t have to be demoralizing. To tell the story of slavery is also to tell the story of those who championed a revolutionary alternative ideal – that all people are endowed with “inalienable” human rights. When we “whitewash” the past, we not only deny wrongs that still need to be righted, but we fail to honor the men and women --black, brown, and white -- whose struggles for justice and equality prove beyond doubt that no group of Americans is “irredeemably sexist and racist.”

The people who should feel “discomfort” in learning this history are those individuals who instead of building on the efforts and enlarging the vision of their forerunners of 250 years ago, fail to even match that vision. A case in point is the difference between today’s white evangelical leaders and their forbearers, who actually did believe that Black Lives Matter.

To fully appreciate the impressive accomplishments of the cross-racial alliances for emancipation and enfranchisement that arose in the 18th century, and the widening commitments they inspired for other principles such as gender equality and economic justice, it helps to recognize just how revolutionary it was for anyone to claim that all human beings – not just those of the same lineage, religion, ethnicity, nationality, gender, or class – had the right to be treated humanely and equally.

Take slavery, for example, which for thousands of years was a critical source of economic and political power and a key driver of international relations. Slavery was practiced by all the “great civilizations” of the ancient world -- India, Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, Greece, and Rome – and by all the major powers of the early modern epoch well into the 19th century. Some societies preferred female and child slaves for textile production and personal services. Others preferred males, whether for hard field labor or skilled professional work. Sometimes slavery was hereditary, sometimes it wasn’t. Manumissions were common in some societies, though not in others. But whatever its form, for most of history the morality of slavery was never questioned. People resisted being enslaved, but they did not condemn the existence of slavery.5

Athens and the Roman Empire were especially reliant on slaves. Yet the “barbarians” whom the Romans enslaved also practiced slavery. Viking raiders carried off slaves from Ireland, England, and continental Europe. The Venetians and Genoese were particularly active slavers in the Middle Ages. The Scots specialized in forays across the border to enslave the English. But the English were no slouches at slaving either. About 10 percent of the British population in the 11th century consisted of slaves, with the Catholic Church a major slave-holder, and most serfs were bound to the land.

Prior to the 15th century, most slaves sold in Western European markets were “Slavs” -- Eastern Europeans from regions along the coast of the Black Sea. These light-skinned slaves harvested the sugar grown on Venice’s island colonies of Crete and Cyprus and on Spanish-ruled Sicily. But Ottoman merchants, and later Portuguese ones, sold African as well as European slaves. In Renaissance Venice, many gondoliers were Africans, either slaves or former slaves.

In Africa, some societies did not practice slavery at all, while others practiced a non-hereditary slavery that did not involve selling slaves beyond their own territory. But local war lords often raided their neighbors for slaves to sell at shipping ports on the African coast, and the rulers of a few powerful African kingdoms developed business partnerships with European and Ottoman merchants, trading African prisoners for European weapons and cloth. Europeans learned to negotiate respectfully with the sophisticated elites in these kingdoms, sometimes exchanging diplomatic ambassadors.

Portugal paved the way for the eclipse of the Mediterranean sugar trade and the vast expansion of the African slave trade by establishing sugar plantations along the coast of West Africa and across the Atlantic. Britain also set up plantations in the New World, importing indentured servants from Europe, including kidnapped children from Ireland, to toil alongside growing numbers of African slaves. Columbus had celebrated his landing in the New World by sending 550 indigenous Americans to be auctioned off in Europe; Spain made extensive use of native slaves in its colonies in South America.6

Prior to the late 18th century, given the variability and interchangeability of the different people who could be enslaved, slavery was not seen as the unique fate of any particular ethnic group. As legal historian Paul Finkelman notes, “In most premodern societies, enslavement could be the fate of anyone, at any time.”7

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During the 17th century, however, plantations worked by African slaves became a lynchpin of European domination of the New World and industrial supremacy in the old. Massive numbers of slaves were sent to Spanish and Portuguese colonies in South America and to the islands of the Caribbean, with smaller numbers later shipped to North America as well. For Africa, the results were catastrophic. At least 12 million Africans were brought to the Americas, with 10 percent dying onboard the ships. Several million more died in slave raids and wars, or while being transported to the ports or held there awaiting shipment.8

Interestingly, though, despite the horrors of slavery, slave-owners and conquerors were pretty much unconcerned with justifying their actions prior to the 18th century. For most of the recorded past, it was totally acceptable to enslave people you conquered in war or bought from others.

Of course, upper classes everywhere tend to think themselves superior to those over whom they rule, and they often develop specific prejudices against people who are compelled, whether by outright coercion or by poverty, to do low-status or degraded tasks. In Russia and Japan, the lowest laborers were stigmatized as inferior despite being of the same genetic stock and physical appearance as their overlords. The harsh, backbreaking labor of plantation gangs in the New World tended to foster greater contempt for slaves (mixed with fear of their physical strength and their numbers) than did slavery in urban areas or domestic households. Still, for most of history, elites felt no need to come up with elaborate justifications for enslaving others.

Far from labeling slaves as inherently inferior, the Athenians had no problem educating them, accepting them as tutors and physicians, and admiring their poetry and scholarship. The Greek philosopher Aristotle did suggest in a few passages that most people who ended up enslaved were not rational enough to be suited for self-government. But this was not a biological or racial justification of slavery, since he noted that one couldn’t tell from people's appearance whether they were "natural" slaves or natural masters and that natural slaves could have offspring who were "masterly" material.

A few Greek thinkers speculated that some types of slavery might be unfair, such as when slaves were obtained though "unjust" wars. But in 416 BC, when the Athenians conquered the island of Melos, putting to death all the grown men they captured and selling the women and children into slavery, their only excuse was that it was unacceptable for “weak” islanders to defy the “masters of the sea.” Most Greeks simply accepted slavery as a precondition for their own “civilized” lives. Aristotle once commented that only when harps could play themselves and “every tool could perform its own work when ordered” would masters have “no need of slaves.”9

The Romans were equal opportunity enslavers, importing dark-skinned Africans and light-skinned Anglo-Saxons alike, and also enslaving some of their own countrymen, even members of the (formerly) elite. In the first century, the philosopher Seneca the Younger urged his fellow Romans to treat slaves more humanely, reminding them that “the person you call your slave traces his origin back to the same stock as yourself, …breathes as you do, lives as you do, dies as you do.” Tellingly, though, it did not occur to Seneca to suggest that their common humanity gave slaves an equal right to liberty.10

Nor did the Bible condemn slavery. In the Old Testament, the Israelites are told that they can enslave their enemies or buy slaves from other nations and bequeath them to their heirs. And while the New Testament declares that there is “neither bond nor free, male nor female,” for all are “one in Jesus Christ,” it also emphasizes that in the here-and-now, slaves must obey their masters and wives must obey their husbands.

The Old Testament has one passage suggesting that hereditary slavery might be punishment for a distant ancestor’s sin. When Ham sees his father naked and does not cover him, the father curses Ham’s son Canaan, his own grandson, saying “a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.” In medieval Europe, it was not uncommon for nobles and churchmen to refer to serfs as descendants of Ham. But since the Bible describes the descendants of Canaan as the “brethren” of those they serve, and there is no mention of skin color in the story, it was quite a stretch for 19th-century slaveowners to justify enslavement of Africans on the grounds that blackness was the curse of Ham.

As Europeans encountered more Africans, their responses varied. Some individuals found them ugly, but others remarked on their fine physiques. Despite prejudices, there were alternative European images of black people in the Middle Ages, from medieval ideals of “sacred blackness,” to the “beautiful” black bride in the Old Testament Song of Songs, often cited by clerics in 12th-century France, to the black monks who lived in Rome and the delegations of high-ranking Ethiopian Catholics who participated in Church councils in Rome during the 15th century.11

So even as reliance on slaves of African origin mounted in the Americas, the increasing association of skin color with servitude did not immediately lead most people to justify slavery on the basis of the slaves’ color, or to justify freedom on the basis of the typical color of non-slaves -- especially since white indentured servants had no freedom, no civil rights, and next to no protection from violent discipline (even fatal violence) during the length of their servitude.

As long as no one was claiming that all human beings had equal rights, there was no pressing need to justify why an enslaved or oppressed group should be excluded from rights extended to others. Until the early 18th century, most Europeans and colonial Americans simply accepted the traditional view that one’s position in the social order was determined by birth, fate, or God’s inscrutable design rather than by individual merit or ability. As the New England Puritan minister William Hubbard explained in 1676, nothing could be “more remote either from right reason or true religion than to think that, because we were all once equal at our birth and shall be again at our death, therefore we should be so in the whole course of our lives.”12

Profit, not racism, was the primary impetus for the expansion of the African slave trade and the establishment of an African labor force in the Americas. But racism gradually became the primary defense of slavery – for an ironic reason. Racial slavery in North America developed at the intersection of two new trends in Western Europe – one that greatly increased the economic incentives for expanding and systemizing slavery and another that produced a powerful challenge to the morality and very existence of slavery. Racism was in part a reaction to the progressive as well as the exploitative innovations of the age.

The first trend was the emergence of a capitalist market economy in Western Europe, which spurred the growth of private investment companies, stock markets, the maritime industry, and new international supply chains, while providing capital for other commercial and industrial investments. Tropical products produced by slave labor were the base of a burgeoning mass market. Annual per capita consumption of slave-produced sugar in Europe soared from 2 lbs per person in the 1660s to 24 lbs by 1790.

Increasingly, slave-owners responded to these economic opportunities by combining the ruthlessly impersonal cost and profit calculations of capitalist commerce with the cruel personal discipline, intimidation, and humiliation required to extract maximum effort on exhausting tasks while forestalling resistance by gangs of slaves who vastly outnumbered overseers and owners. Slavery became a more extensive and efficient business operation than ever before in history.

But another trend emerged at the same time, and as part of the same process. The expansion of private enterprise associated with the rise of capitalism challenged traditional justifications of social hierarchy and restrictions on individual liberty. During the 16th and 17th centuries, Europe experienced several uprisings aimed at limiting or overthrowing absolutist monarchies, feudal entitlements, and government monopolies. These struggles opened new avenues to economic and social mobility for “commoners.” More and more people voiced demands for “Liberty,” defined as the right to follow their own consciences, order their own lives, have a say in the making of laws and regulations, and accumulate property that would remain free from arbitrary confiscation, unreasonable tolls and taxes, or traditional feudal and communal obligations.

Eventually, the definition of liberty would go far beyond its initial association with property rights, as in the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that mankind’s “inalienable rights” included life as well as liberty, and also the pursuit of happiness. Some people who took that claim seriously would go on, for the first time in history, to build a movement to completely abolish slavery, not merely to free one or another individual or group.

But to the very extent that people took “the rights of man” seriously, those who defended or compromised with slavery could no longer claim that God had decreed some men to be kings and some to be slaves, in a “sweet subordination,” one to the other. Hence the Age of Revolution and the early evolution of capitalism helped inspire both a radical new egalitarian movement for universal human rights and a radical new racist justification for the denial of such rights.13

Neither happened overnight. Initially, claims for liberty were not made on behalf of “mankind” (far less womankind) but on behalf of the freeborn male citizens of one’s own nation (often only those with enough property to have a “stake” in the nation) or on behalf of one’s co-religionists. Legal codes in the Caribbean colonies, for example, initially used the term “Christian” to distinguish free persons from slaves. But as more slaves became baptized, they began to describe free citizens as “white” rather than “Christian.”14

Even so, the fact that most slaves were black and most (not all) slave-owners were white didn’t immediately create a rigid race-based system where color was seen as justification for a person’s subjugation or privilege. Rather, color was seen as a sign that a person was probably subjugated or privileged. A person’s social status as slave or free counted for more than his or her color, a point Boston authorities underlined when they censured a white watchman who had apprehended a free black man for violating a curfew forbidding Negroes from being out alone at night. The act, they explained, applied only to “Negro and Molatto servants.”15

There is some disagreement among historians about whether all unfree black people in colonial America were slaves from the beginning or whether some were treated as indentured servants who had to serve a master for a specified number of years. Slaves were often called servants, and indentured servants were sometimes called slaves. In 1652, the Rhode Island General Court complained that some Englishmen were buying Africans specifically in order to evade the term limits of indenture, and ruled that “no blacke mankind or white” could be forced to serve anyone for a period longer than 10 years. The law was repealed within a few decades, but throughout the colonies free Afro-Americans could own white indentured servants as well as black slaves, and they were not subject to the wholesale denial of civil and legal rights that developed later.16

Take the case of Anthony Johnson, who arrived in Virginia in 1621, probably as a slave. By 1651, however, he was free, along with his wife and four children, and owned a 250-acre estate. At one point Johnson was sued by another black man, John Casar, who claimed to be Johnson’s indentured servant rather than his slave and therefore should now be free to go work for a white man named Parker who hoped to employ him. Casar won at the first trial, but Johnson prevailed at the second, the court ruling that by hiring Casar, Parker had “most unjustly” deprived Johnson of his property.17

Historian Nell Irvin Painter argues that only toward the end of the 17th century did Africans in Virginia become clearly “marked off by race in law as chattel” and definitively separated from indentured servants. The process included passage of a law ensuring that baptism would not confer emancipation, restrictions on interracial marriages, and a ruling that a child’s status followed that of its mother, so that the child of a slave woman impregnated by a free man could not claim freedom.18

By the 1690s, after reports of interracial rebellions in several colonies and the experience of Bacon’s Rebellion (1676-77), where an interracial force of poor farmers, indentured servants, and slaves actually burned down Virginia’s capital, slaveholders were experimenting with policies designed to foster racial divisions among the lower classes, such as offering rewards to white indentured servants and impoverished free whites for informing against slaves.19

Yet despite fears of slave revolts and growing color prejudice, right up to the American Revolution black freemen in many colonies could serve in militias, testify in courts, purchase slaves and indentured servants, and even vote, if they met the property qualifications. In 1811, when New York legislators passed a requirement that black voters present a “certificate of freedom” to prove their eligibility to vote, the state’s Council of Review indignantly objected to subjecting citizens “whose ancestors have uninterruptedly” voted since colonial days to the “humiliating degradation of being challenged” because of their “complexion.20

So even as the bonds of slavery tightened and racial animosities increased, the future of Afro-Americans in America was not yet a settled question, especially in light of the agitation that accompanied the struggle for independence. If the raw materials for a racist system had started coming together by the 17th century, by the 18th century the raw materials for a critique of both slavery and racism were also emerging.

While liberty continued to mean property rights during the Age of Revolution, especially for many of the wealthy men who eventually wrote our Constitution, it developed another meaning as well. To the consternation of traditional aristocrats, as well as many wealthy planters and merchants, growing numbers of people began to define liberty more broadly, as a natural right deriving from people’s common humanity rather than from their possessions, religion, or national heritage. The tension between liberty as property rights and liberty as personal rights explains many of the contradictory ideas and actions of America’s Founding Fathers. (Indeed, it continues to pervade American legal and political debates even today.) But many revolutionaries vehemently opposed the idea of property in other human beings.

As early as 1763, James Otis, the colonist who made famous the claim that “taxation without representation is tyranny,” declared that all “colonists, black and white,… are freeborn British subjects, and entitled to all the essential civil rights of such.” He ridiculed the idea “that ’tis right to enslave a man because he is black.”21

Four years later, a pamphlet issued by several anti-monarchical colonists charged their fellow protesters with hypocrisy for failing to link the independence struggle to an anti-slavery one: “Oh! Ye sons of liberty, can you review our late struggles for liberty, and think of the slave trade at the same time, and not blush?” In 1766 a Massachusetts judge asserted something even more radical. Ruling in favor of a slave’s suit for freedom, he noted that the case was a contest between two important principles, “liberty and property.” But “liberty” he concluded, was “of most importance.”22

By 1775, one colonial supporter of the British monarchy was complaining about how “popular” it had become to claim “that the whole human race is born equal,” and that a man “can be made subject to another only by his consent.” Such ideas, he warned, were not only “fallacious” but “dangerous.”23

How right he was. Few people went so far as the French Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot, who in 1770 called for a black Spartacus to overthrow slavery, or the white Presbyterian preacher who at the Kentucky constitutional convention of 1792 honored the slave rebels of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) who had sacrificed their lives “on the altar of liberty.”24 But enough people began to accept the idea that humans are born equal to make it increasingly difficult to justify treating other human beings – even those of a different religion, ethnic group, or color -- as a “species of property.”

Slaves had long asserted their humanity by running away, fighting back, and organizing revolts. Despite growing attempts to forbid slaves access to education, many also found opportunities to demonstrate their intellectual prowess. Job Ben Solomon came to England from Maryland in 1733, and his ability to translate Arabic manuscripts got him elected to the Gentlemen’s Society of Spalding, an elite scholarly association.25 In America, Phyllis Wheatley had learned Greek and Latin by age 12 and while still a slave produced a book of poetry that garnered international acclaim.

Slaves also immediately recognized the extent to which they could use the new revolutionary rhetoric to support their struggle for freedom.26 In the 1770s, dozens of slaves and former slaves petitioned for freedom, pointing out the “flagrant injustice” that occurred when those “contending in the cause of Liberty” did not apply that principle to the rest of God’s creatures, “made of one blood and one kindred.” In 1774, Caesar Sarter, a former slave, urged the revolutionaries to liberate the slaves as “the first step” toward freeing themselves. In the same year, an anonymous “Son of Africa” challenged the revolutionaries to “pull the beam out of thine own eyes.”

Many white Americans rose to the challenge. Vermont abolished slavery in 1777, giving black men the vote. In 1781, two Massachusetts slaves, Elizabeth Freeman and Quok Walker, sued their masters for freedom. Both managed to convince white jurists that slavery violated the state’s constitution, which stated that “all men are born free and equal.” Even before that, slaves were filing and winning suits for their freedom. All but one of the 28 freedom suits that came to trial in colonial and early revolutionary Massachusetts were successful.

Not everyone who opposed slavery supported immediate and uncompensated abolition. Often, however, this was not because of color prejudice per se. Astonishing as it may seem to us today, the dual meaning of the 18th century definition of liberty posed a moral dilemma for many people. Slave owners, they argued, had purchased slaves in good faith, building their lives around these “property” investments. If their slaves were taken from them against their will, they ought to get compensation. Although all the Northern states abolished slavery by 1804, such arguments helped convince the majority to adopt gradual emancipation schemes that required slaves to work for their original owners for a period of years: They were forced to compensate their owners for the loss of themselves as property!

Immoral as this seems to us today27 -- and as it did to many abolitionists at that time -- gradual emancipation seems to have been based more on veneration for property than on the explicit racism that came to dominate the 19th-century cultural terrain. Consider the views of William Pinkney, a lawyer and legislator in Maryland. In 1788, arguing against repeal of a bill that allowed for the manumission of slaves, Pinkney expressed surprise that people who countenanced the “curse” of slavery did “not blush at the very name of freedom.” Yet he objected to “compulsory abolition” as a “violation of acquired [property] rights” even while he adamantly rejected claims of black racial inferiority. “Can it be supposed that thy almighty providence intended to proscribe these victims of fraud and power” from inclusion in society simply “because thou hast denied them the delicacy of a European complexion?” Calling color prejudice a “flimsy pretext” for ill treatment, he declared that blacks were “in all respects our equals in nature,” endowed “with equal faculties.”28

This complicated mix of views created some opportunities for free blacks to participate in civic life. In 1777, the Continental Congress allowed “Indians” and “negroes” to vote on ratifying the Articles of Confederation. When South Carolina moved to insert “white” after the word “free” in describing the rights of citizens, Congress defeated the motion. In several states black men voted in the elections to ratify the Constitution. And as of 1790, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Vermont, and New Jersey all permitted free black men to vote on the same terms as Whites, while Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware authorized some form of black suffrage, though not on equal terms.29

In the 1790s and early 1800s, there were enough black voters in several states that politicians such as John Hancock in Massachusetts and Aaron Burr in New York explicitly courted their votes. And as of 1850, despite intensifying restrictions and disenfranchisements during the first three decades of the 19th century, thousands of black men in several states could vote. Some even got elected to office.

It would be interesting to know which way eligible black voters actually voted on ratification in 1789, because the Constitution, while taking care not to officially legalize slavery, reinforced it in important ways. Many delegates to the Constitutional Convention sincerely opposed slavery. But when Southern slaveholders demanded protection against the abolitionist spirit that had spread during and after the revolution, most of the wealthy men debating the issue -- even those who personally believed slavery to be wrong -- were unwilling to strip slave-owners of their valuable “property.” Some had financial interests in slavery. Others, fearing Southern slave-holders would torpedo any new constitution unless they got safeguards against an influx of new voters or states who might vote to abolish slavery nationwide, looked for ways to compromise on the question.

One outcome was the notorious Three-Fifths Compromise, which allowed Southern states to count 60 percent of their large and growing slave population – delicately referred to as “persons held to service” -- toward each state's total population when it came to determining how many seats they would get in the House of Representatives. This measure gave eligible voters in the South, who were mostly white, about a third more votes in deciding national policy and electing presidents than they would otherwise have been entitled to. The framers also agreed to delay any ban on the foreign slave trade for 20 years.

It was an ugly compromise. And it got even uglier as slavery expanded in the early 19th century. All of America’s largest cash crops -- tobacco, indigo, sugar, rice, and increasingly cotton, which soon outstripped them all after the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 -- depended on slave labor. As historian Steven Mintz points out, the almost complete dependence of the Southern economy on slavery undergirded not just the fortunes of the plantation owners there, but also supported a whole set of industries in the North -– banking, shipping and ship-building, canal building, rum manufacturing, and, from the early 1800s, the textile factories that depended on Southern cotton. While Southerners feared slave revolts and retaliation, many Northern whites worried about the potential political clout and economic competition of free Blacks.30

In the early 1800s, several states began enacting laws that limited or banned black voting. New Jersey restricted the suffrage to white tax-paying men in 1807. In 1811 and 1815, New York passed the equivalent of voter ID laws, for blacks only, requiring them to produce a “certificate of freedom.” The move was orchestrated by a coterie of politicians who correctly noted that black voters tended to favor Federalist candidates, and in some cases could swing a close election. In 1821 delegates to the New York constitutional convention, after initially voting to extend the franchise on racially equal terms, reversed themselves and ruled that black men could vote only if they owned a $250 freehold and had lived in the state three years.31

In 1835 voters in North Carolina amended their constitution to exclude any “free negro, free mulatto, or free person of mixed blood.” In 1837 Pennsylvania, which had accepted African-American voters ever since allowing “every freeman” to vote in its 1790 constitution, added the qualifier “white” to the term freeman. In 1837, Maryland, whose 1776 constitution had not mentioned slavery and whose courts allowed slaves to sue – frequently successfully – for freedom, passed a law declaring that slavery could not be abolished without a unanimous vote of the General Assembly and full compensation to slaveholders. Two years later, the Assembly retroactively ruled that slavery had been legal since the colony’s “earliest settlement.”32

Racist invective, which historian Van Gosse notes had been “episodic prior to the 1810s,”33 became far more common and considerably more vicious in the ensuing decades. The timing of all these changes suggests that the triumph of racist ideology was more an outcome of slavery and settler colonialism than its original cause -- an outcome fueled, ironically, by the threat to slavery posed by the progressive ideals of the Age of Revolution.

Once people ceased to insist that “sweet subordination” was the desirable state for everyone but the privileged few and that equality would produce chaos “and every evil work,”34 those who supported – or even tolerated – the subjugation of other human beings were put on the defensive. They had a powerful incentive to explain why there must be exceptions to the newly desirable ideal of equal rights. As sociologist Karen Fields and historian Barbara Fields have put it, people who held that liberty was inalienable, but also held “Afro-Americans as slaves, were bound to end by holding race to be a self-evident truth.”35

This is because very few people like to admit it -- even to ourselves, and certainly not to others -- when they put selfish interests ahead of widely-held moral convictions. Patrick Henry, the famous orator who supposedly once declared “Give me liberty, or give me death,” strikes me as an exception to a rule that reveals something important about the psychology of racism.

In 1773, the Quaker abolitionist Robert Pleasants sent Patrick Henry an antislavery pamphlet, hoping to convince him to join the abolitionist movement. When I first began reading Henry’s answer, I thought the pamphlet had done its trick. In line after line, he describes slavery as an “Abominable Practice” that contradicts our age’s “pretentions to…refined morality.” It is, he declares, “a Principle as repugnant to humanity as it is inconsistent with the Bible and destructive to Liberty.” In another long series of sentences, he urges the Quakers onward in “their noble Effort” to abolish slavery.36

So I was shocked when Henry goes on to admit that he himself owns slaves and has no intention of freeing them, due to the “general inconvenience of living without them.” He labels his conduct “culpable,” saying “I will not, I cannot justify it.” He wishes the Quakers success. But for Henry, avoiding the “inconvenience” of abolition outweighed the claims of conscience -- decisively enough that at his death in 1799, Henry still owned 67 slaves, whom he bequeathed to his wife and sons.

Very few people can live with that level of cognitive and moral dissonance. Most of us look for ways to portray our actions – or lack of action – as consistent with moral principles. I believe that is what happened to many Americans during the consolidation of a nation in which equal rights was an increasingly cherished ideal but enforced inequality was an increasingly profitable reality.

In the late 18th century, and especially in the first half of the 19th, a sustained campaign was launched to explain away the contradiction between proclaiming human rights while enforcing slavery and racial exclusion. Blacks, Indians, and other non-European groups began to be described as less than fully human, or at least as incapable of exercising the responsibilities of equality.

A new pseudo-scientific racism drew on pre-existing stereotypes about the lack of rationality among people who labored in degrading conditions, on 16th-century Spanish ideas about purity of blood, and on extrapolations from new experiments with animal breeding. It mixed these together to suggest that instead of all humans being made in the image of God, there was a racial hierarchy that expressed itself in different physical characteristics, intellectual capacities, and moral proclivities. These assertions reached new extremes in the first decades of the 19th century, with “scientific” racists even claiming that Africans were more closely related to orangutans than to white humans.37

The racism that emerged and hardened in this period was appalling, and the consequences for both enslaved and free black Americans horrific. Violent riots against blacks flared up in the North, reaching a high point during the 1830s, then again in 1863, when demonstrators against the Civil War draft often vented their fury on black neighborhoods. But to my mind these terrible trends make the resistance to such behavior by a courageous minority of Americans all the more inspiring.

And resistance there was. Two recent books, The Slave’s Cause by Manisha Sinha and Standard-Bearers of Equality by Paul Polgar, describe in detail how a “radical, interracial movement” of men and women, black and white, consistently advocated for racial equality from the 18th century onward, managing to mobilize mounting support even as racism hardened and slaveholders pushed their interests more aggressively.38

By the 1840s, black orators such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Sarah Parker Remond were attracting admiring audiences of all races. White legislators in Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire were routinely defying exclusionary federal regulations. Interracial anti-slavery organizations operated throughout the free states and crowds often spontaneously formed to rescue men and women caught up by slave catchers. African-Americans frequently took the lead in these rescues, or carried them out on their own, but the 1840s and 1850s saw interracial rescues in nearly every free state, with dramatically large turnouts in Chicago, Syracuse, Detroit, and Buffalo. In many cases, armed interracial crowds punished slave catchers with public humiliation as well as beatings and whippings.

In 1854, Anthony Burns, a fugitive slave from Virginia, was arrested in Boston. An interracial crowd stormed the courtroom in an unsuccessful rescue attempt. After the judge ordered Burns returned to slavery, authorities mobilized 1,500 militiamen and 145 federal troops to prevent a possible rescue while Burns was being escorted to the ship that would return him to slavery. An estimated 50,000 people lined the streets shouting "Shame! Shame!" The windows of stores and offices were covered with black crepe. American flags were hung upside down and protesters displayed a coffin with a nameplate indicating that “Liberty” was about to be buried. The officials who participated in the rendition were hung in effigy all across Massachusetts.39

In July 1863, New York City saw horrific anti-draft demonstrations where white mobs destroyed entire black neighborhoods and at least 120 people were killed. Yet just seven months later, 100,000 New Yorkers, white and black, lined the streets of New York to cheer the Twentieth U.S. Colored Regiment as it marched down Broadway to be honored in an event that the New York Times labeled “The Negro’s Vengeance for the July Riots.” And a recent examination of Civil War diaries and letters reveals that seeing slavery up close during the war, while fighting alongside black comrades, turned many initially skeptical white soldiers into strong supporters of both abolition and equality.41

Legislators who worry that school children exposed to an unexpurgated history of America will “denigrate” our founders are probably correct in thinking that youths who discover Patrick Henry’s elevation of convenience over conscience are unlikely to be thrilled by his “liberty or death” oratory. But there are plenty of other heroes –black, brown, and white -- to take his place. In fact, many young white people will probably find some groups of white Americans from the revolutionary era and the early 19th century more worthy of admiration than their modern-day counterparts.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, for example, white and black evangelicals alike were among the most ardent abolitionists in America. Black ministers often preached to racially mixed – or even all-white – audiences. After the African-American evangelist Samuel Ringgold Ward became the pastor of two all-white churches in central New York during the 1840s, he tripled his congregation’s membership and convinced his flock to offer their church as a “station” for the Underground Railroad.42

All Americans would benefit by learning about the heroic work of black evangelicals such as Ward, Amanda Berry Smith, Charles Bennett Ray, Willis Hodges, and so many others. But they might be especially surprised to learn that many white evangelical leaders were also ardent abolitionists who would have been horrified by the recent migration of prominent white evangelicals into the camp of White Christian Nationalism.

Jonathan Blanchard, for example, founder of Wheaton College, the pre-eminent Christian evangelical college in America, spent a year in Pennsylvania working as a full-time “agitator” for the American Anti-Slavery Society. All men “are of one equal blood,” Blanchard insisted, labeling slave-holding “a social sin” that could only be addressed by immediate abolition.

The famous revivalist Charles Finney claimed that when a church failed to embrace the anti-slavery cause she was “perjured, and the Spirit of God departs from her.” Finney occasionally prevaricated on some racial equality issues, but white evangelicals such as Theodore Weld, Charles Turner Torrey, Beriah Green, and William Goodell advocated complete equality between blacks and whites. The wealthy brothers Arthur and Lewis Tappan contributed most of their fortunes to abolitionist causes. Lewis Tappan’s house was ransacked by a mob furious about his unconditional support for “amalgamation,” as integration was then caused.

And then, of course, there was John Brown, the devout Reformed Evangelical who organized and led the armed attack on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry in 1859, hoping to seize enough weapons to arm slaves to fight for their freedom. Captured by troops led by Robert E. Lee, he was tried for insurrection and hanged (a fate that Lee and his fellow rebel Confederate generals escaped). Yet his stand against slavery later inspired Union troops to march into battle singing “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, but his soul goes marching on… He captured Harpers Ferry with his nineteen men so few, And he frightened ‘Old Virginny’ till she trembled through and through. They hung him for a traitor, themselves a traitor crew, But his truth is marching on.”

Evangelical abolitionists opposed other injustices as well. In 1838 several white Baptist and Methodist preachers not only protested the forced relocation of the Cherokees but actually marched with them along the Trail of Tears. Many joined the Liberty Party, which opposed the war with Mexico and condemned the exploitation of Chinese, Mexicans, Native Americans, and Irish immigrant laborers. Some evangelicals were early supporters of female equality.

Above all, abolitionist evangelicals firmly rejected that part of the Enlightenment tradition that gave property rights equal weight with human rights. They objected to the common practice of relegating Blacks to separate “Negro pews” and renting the most desirable pews for money, asserting that this violated Jesus’s call to minister to the needs of the poor. As people who condemned “extravagant living, affluence, hoarding money” and businessmen who did “not for others, but for self,” they would have been profoundly shocked by Jerry Falwell’s 1980s claim that “God is in favor of freedom, property, ownership, competition, work, and acquisition.”43

Nor were they willing to compromise with slavery in order to preserve church unity. In 1840, when the Baptist board ruled slave owners were ineligible to serve as missionaries, and in 1844 when the Methodists censured a bishop who had acquired slaves by virtue of marriage, the national boards of both churches rebuffed Southern protests. In response, the Southern delegates seceded, anticipating their political counterparts by several years.

In the 1840s, some evangelicals went so far as to become “universal reformers.” The Wesleyan Methodist Connection, for example, took sides “with God’s suffering poor” and advocated for “Anti-slavery, Peace, [and] Temperance.” Among their hymnal’s “Songs for the Reformer” was this:

We will speak out. We will be heard.

Though all earth’s systems crack.

We will not bate a single word

Nor take a letter back.

We speak the Truth, and what care we

For hissing and for scorn

While some faint gleamings we can see

Of freedom’s coming morn.44

If our histories refuse to acknowledge the extent and brutality of the injustices that accompanied our nation’s founding, how can we or our children honor the idealism and courage of those who struggled to implement and enlarge the revolutionary demands for equal rights? And if we don’t understand the inconsistencies and fluctuations in people’s belief systems, how can we hope to build on the best parts of our heritage and rise above the worst? American history shows that people can change their minds when dedicated activists make the effort to explain why and how we can build a more just world.

1J. David Hacker, “From ‘20. and odd’ to 10 milion: The growth of the slave population in the United States,” Slavery Abol. 2020; 41(4): 840–855. Published online 2020 May 13. doi: 10.1080/0144039x.2020.1755502

2 Francis Butler Simkins et al, Virginia: History, Government, Geography, quoted in Dana Millbank, “Glenn Youngkin’s No-Guilt History of Virginia for Fragile White People,” Washington Post, February 1, 2021; Richard Current, Alan Brinkley, and T.H. Williams, American History: a Survey (Knopf, 1987) quoted in Charles Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2005, p. 15 Black historians such as George Washington Williams had been pointing these aspects of our history out all along, but their histories were very seldom assigned in schools.

3 Jon Jackson, “Critical Race Theory Banned From Florida Public Schools Curriculum,” Newsweek, June 10, 2021. Many of the bills explicitly forbid use of any material from works using Critical Race Theory (CRT) or from The New York Times’ “1619 Project.” CRT is an academic theory arguing that past racist practices and assumptions are deeply embedded in many American institutions and thus tend to reproduce unequal outcomes even without ongoing intentional discrimination. The 1619 Project directs attention to the extensive involvement of America’s founders in the system of slavery. Some (but hardly all) of the authors who explore these issues are more convinced than I am that most American revolutionaries intended to defend the institution of slavery and more pessimistic than I about the undeviating intractability of racism. But all of them agree, contrary to legislators who have never read their work, that racism is a social construction, not something in the DNA of White people. For a balanced discussion of CRT, see Randall Kennedy, “The Right-Wing Attack on Racial Justice Talk,” The American Prospect, September-October 2021. Adam Serwer brings the same nuance and evenhandedness to his account of the debate over the 1619 project in “The Fight Over the 1619 Project Is Not About the Facts,” The Atlantic, December 23, 2019 See also David Waldstreicher,“The Hidden Stakes of the 1619 Controversy,” Boston Review, January 24, 2021.

4; South Dakota Bill 1018:

5 For information on slavery through the ages see David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1966) and The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975); Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery, [1944] Third Edition (Univcrsity of North Carolina Press, 2021; Robin Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800 (New York: Verso, 2020); Seymour Drescher, Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery (Cambridge University Press, 2009); Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People (New York: Norton, 2010); Norman Naimark, Genocide: A World History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016;) Gerald Horne, The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016); Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist ideas in America (New York: Bold Type Books, 2016), Howard French, Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War (New York: Liverwright Publishing, 2021); Thomas Holt, Children of Fire: A History of African Americans (New York: Hill and Wang, 2010). For an excellent account and critique of the different historical interpretations of slavery and abolition over the years, see Manisha Sinha, “Problem of Abolition in the Age of Capitalism,” American Historical Review, (Feb 2019) v 124.

6 For more on the extent of Indian slavery in the Americas, see Andres Resendez, The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America (BostonL Hughton Mifflin, 2016).

7Paul Finkelman, “The Significance and Persistence of Proslavery Thought,” in Steven Mintz and John Stauffer, eds, The Problem of Evil: Slavery, Freedom, and the Ambiguities of American Reform (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007, p 97.

8French, Born in Blackness, p. 8.

9 For justifications for slavery through the ages, see note vi plus Norman Naimark, Genocide: A World History (New York: Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 2016; Gerald Horne, The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016); Karen and Barbara Fields, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (London: Verso, 2014). My thanks to Charles Pailthorp, my philosophy colleague at The Evergreen State College, for helping me interpret some of Aristotle’s rather ambiguous comments on slavery.

10 David Riesbeck, “Aristotle, Seneca, and Gregory of Nyssa on Slavery,” July 1, 2019

11 For a fascinating discussion of Black saints and Black confraternities, the impact of the slave trade on images of blackness, and the activities and free black Catholics in Europe in Spain and elsewhere, along with antislavery activities, see Erin Kathleen Rowe, Black Saints in Early Modern Global Catholicism (Cambridge University Press, 2019).

12 William Hubbard, “The Happiness of a People in the Wisdome of their Rulers,” Election Sermon May 3, 1676 (Boston: John Foster, 1676).

13For a powerful counter argument emphasizing how often European and American definitions of freedom have been limited to whiteness, see Tyler Stovell, White Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021). But this equation was not made by everyone inspired by the notion of freedom, and it was not inevitable, witness the heated demands so many people, white and black, made for extending freedom to all. I do agree, though, that the equation of freedom with whiteness had early ideological roots in the Enlightenment, became a powerful cultural meme in the first half of the 19th century, and in recent years has been used by racist and rightwing forces as a substitute for human rights. To illustrate this, one need only recall the insistence of segregationists in the 1950s and 1960s that their resistance to integration was in defense of "freedom," or one can simply look at the political platforms and rhetoric of the current Freedom Caucus in the House of Representatives.

14Katharine Gerbner, Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania press, 2018, p. 74. See also; Roxann Wheeler, The Complexion of Race: Categories of Difference in Eighteenth-Century British Thought Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000).

15Willie Lee Rose, Slavery and Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982).

16James and Lois Horton, In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community, and Protest Among Northern Free Black, 1700-1860 (New York: Oxford, 1997); Albert von Frank, “John Saffin: Slavery and Racism in Northerth Massachusetts,” Early American Literature, 29 (1994) pp. 256, 259; Fields and Fields, Racecraft, pp. 122-23; ; Nell Irwin Painter, "How we think about the term 'enslaved' matters," The Guardian, August 14, 2019

17Holt, Children of Fire), pp. 53-63; Ira Berlin, Slaves without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (New York, 1976T. H Breen and Stephen Innes, “Myne Owne Ground" : Race and Freedom on Virginia's Eastern Shore, 1640-1676 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

18Nell Irwin Painter, "How we think about the term 'enslaved' matters," The Guardian, August 14, 2019

19Coontz, Social Origins, p. 136; T.H. Breen, “A Changing Labor Force and Race Relations in Virginia, 1660-1710,” in Breen, ed, Shaping Southern Society (New York 1976), pp. 116-134. See also the powerful argument by Lerone Bennet, Jr., “The Road Not Taken,” Ebony, v 25 (August, 1970), later included in his book, The Shaping of Black America. Chicago: Johnson Publishing Co., 1975.

20Willie Lee Rose, Slavery and Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982); Lerone Bennett, Jr. “The Road Not Taken.” Ebony 25 1970 and The Shaping of Black America (Chicago, 1975); Sarah Gronningsater, “’Expressly Recognized by Our Election Laws’: Certificates of Freedom and the Multiple Fates of Black Citizenship in the Early Republic,” The William and Mary Quarterly 75 (2018), p. 471.

21James Otis, The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved (1763) available at; Richard Brown, Self-Evident Truths: Contesting Equal Rights from the Revolution to the Civil War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), p. 108

22Micah Alpaugh, Friends of Freedom: The Rise of Social Movements in the Age of Atlantic Revolutions (Cambrdge: Cambridge University Press, 2022), pp. 177-8.

23Brown, Self-Evident Truths, p. 25.

24Devin Vartija, “Revisiting Enlightenment racial classification: time and the question of human diversity,” Intellectual History Review, 31:4, 2021, p. 614; Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven: Yale University Press), p. 93.

25Victor Mtubani, “The Black Voice in Eighteenth-Century Britain: African Writers against Slavery and the Slave Trade,” Phylon, v 45, 1984.

26For the following paragraphs on support for racial equality during and immediately after the American Revolution, see Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven: Yale University Press) p. 41-47; Holt, Children of Fire; Coontz, Social Origins, pp. 133-156; Paul Ortiz, An African American and Latinx History of the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018).

27Morals do change over time. It’s possible that future generations will have equal moral qualms about a legal system that grants corporations the rights of persons and refuses to set limits on political spending on grounds that every dollar spent is an expression of the right to “free speech.”

28Quote in William Thomas III, A Question of Freedom: The Families Who Challenged Slavery from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020), pp.38-39.

29For this and the next paragraph, see Van Gosse, The First Reconstruction: Black Politics in America from the Revolution to the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021), pp. 6-35 and passim; Sarah GRonningsater,“”Expressly Recognized by Our Election Laws’: Certificates of Freedom and the Multiple Fates of Black Citizenship in the Early Republic,” The William and Mary Quarterly, v 75, 3 (2018).

30Steven Mintz, “Introduction: Slavery and Freedom as Moral Problems,” in Mintz and John Stauffer, eds, The Problem of Evil: Slavery, Freedom, and the Ambiguities of American Reform (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007, p. 24.

31GRonningsater,“’Expressly Recognized by Our Election Laws’”

32Thomas, A Question of Freedom, p. 6

33Van Gosse, The First Reconstruction, p. 3

34William Hubbard, “The Happiness of a People in the Wisdome of their Rulers,” Election Sermon May 3, 1676 (Boston: John Foster, 1676).

35Karen and Barbara Fields Racecraft, p. 121

36The letter is quoted in full in Robert Meade, Patrick Henry: Patriot in the Making (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1957), pp. 299-300.

37Steven Mintz, “Introduction,” in Mintz and Stauffer, The Problem of Evil, p. 8; Manisha Sinha, “Of Scientific Racists and Black Abolitionists: The Forgotten Debate Over Slavery and Race,” in lisa Barbash, Molly Rogers, Deborah Willis, eds, “To Make their own Way in the World: The Enduring Legacy of the Zealy Daguerreotypes,” (Cambridge, Mass.: Peabody Museum Press and Aperture, 2020). Sinha also describes the powerful, intellectually rigorous rebuttals made by Black intellectual and activists.

38Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016); Paul Polgar, Standard-Bearers of Equality: America’s First Abolition Movement (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

39 Robert Churchill, “When the Slave Catchers Came to Town: Cultures of Violence along the Underground Railway,” The Journal of American History December 2018;

40“Ovation to Black Troops”, New York Times, March 6, 1864.

41Chandra Manning, What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War (New York: Vintage Civil War Library, 2007)

42Unless otherwise noted, the sources for my discussion of 19th-century evangelicalism can be found in Stephanie Coontz, “Social Reciprocity, Family Values, and Christianity,” in "Human Families: Identities, Relationships, and Responsibilities," edited by Jacob M. Kohlhaas and Mary M. Doyle Roche, College Theology Society Annual, Vol 66. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2021) ; Randall Balmer, “‘An End to Unjust Inequality in the World’: The Radical Tradition of Progressive Evangelicalism,” Church History and Religious Culture 94 (2014); Donald Dayton, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1992); and Donald Dayton with Douglas Strong, Rediscovering an Evangelical Heritage Second edition with new introduction (Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Academic, 2014); Allen D. Hertzke, “Evangelicals, Populists, and the Great Reversal: Protestant Civil Society and Economic Concern,” Conference on the Politics of Economic Inequality in the Twentieth Century, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, 1996. See also Jane Ann Moore and William F. Moore, Owen Lovejoy and the Coalition for Equality: Clergy, African Americans, and Women United for Abolition (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2019)

43Falwell quoted in Randall Balmer, review of Darren E. Grem, The Blessings of Business: How Corporations Shaped Conservative Christianity, in The American Historical Review 122, no. 3 (June 2017): 866.

44Dayton and Strong, Rediscovering an Evangelical Heritage, Second edition (2014), p. 123. Many of these reform efforts tapered off in the late 19th century -- or were actually expunged from our history books -- after the terrorist counter-attack that tore down the remarkable interracial coalitions and democratic achievements of Reconstruction. But they did not disappear entirely, and it might surprise readers of mainstream history to know that in 1887 the official publication of the evangelical Salvation Army claimed that “the chief social evil” in the world was the “unequal and unjust distribution of wealth.” Ballington Booth, commander of the American Salvation Army, declared that trying to right this evil “by charity is like bailing the ocean with a thimble. . . . We must adjust our social machinery so that the producers of wealth become also the owners of wealth.” For the Reconstruction era, see Eric Foner, Forever Free: Emancipation and Reconstruction (New York: Vintage, 2006);; Lerone Bennett, Jr. Black Power U.S.A.: The Human Side of Reconstruction, 1867-1877 (Chicago: Johnson Publisher, 1967); Alana Semuels, “Segregation Had to Be Invented,” The Atlantic, February 17, 2017 . For the radical economic ideas of the founders of the Salvation Army, see Norris Magnuson, Salvation in the Slums: Evangelical Social Work, 1865-1920 (Metuhen, NJ: Scarecrow Press and the American Theological Library Association, 1977). Quotes are on pp. 165-6. For a powerful argument about how over the past 75 years, White Evangelicals rejected the masculine gentility and humility preached by 18th and early 19th century Evangelicals for a more aggressive and bellicose stance, see Kristin Lobes du Metz, Jesus and John Wayne (New York: Liveright. 2020).

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