Victor Nuovo: A nation conceived in sin
Editor’s note: This is the 43rd in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.
American slavery was a crime committed against black Africans by white Bible-reading Anglo-Saxons, who regarded their victims as movable, disposable property, household animals or livestock, whose only value was in the labor of their bodies. It was a savage institution, unrestrained in its brutality, totally vile. Slave masters and their overseers often took sadistic and prurient delight in beating their slaves, especially if they were women and even more if they were shapely and desirable. American slavery was a crime against humanity, propelled by greed and sustained by a host of other depraved passions; it lasted not just for decades, but for nearly two and a half centuries — the first slaves imported by an English colony were brought to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619, and the institution of slavery continued through independence until 1865, when it was abolished by the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment.
Slavery has been called this nation’s original sin. This religious expression is not inappropriate. The biblical roots of the idea lead us to Psalm 51:5, a penitential prayer attributed to King David: “Behold, I was shaped in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” “Conceived in sin” seems antithetical to “conceived in liberty.” And yet both apply to the founding of this nation, and no clear understanding of it and of its historical meaning is attainable without pondering this contradiction.
But first, it is necessary to be clear about the meaning of “original sin.” The Psalmist’s utterance, “in sin did my mother conceive me” must be taken figuratively. It is not about sexuality, but about moral wrongdoing. The Psalmist understood the nature of things. His purpose was to give expression to an evil impulse rooted in an individual’s very being, joined by a sense of personal unworth, of shame, remorse and guilt. The Psalmist’s utterance is deeply personal; yet it has universal meaning; it rings true.
Do nations have souls? If by “soul” we mean not a rare ethereal entity that survives death, but a vital spirit that quickens the body and endows it with an inner sensibility, then, I think, they do. To be sure, nations are not persons, but they are convened and constituted by a community of persons who fashion themselves into a civil society, and who do so with serious purpose, and these purposes are conserved and recoverable in the products of civilized life, in a nation’s literature, and art and recorded history. These are the expressions and the artifacts of a nation’s soul.
That purpose is expressed in the Declaration of Independence. It was this founding moment that Abraham Lincoln referred to at Gettysburg, when he described the birth of this nation, “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The institution of slavery contradicted this founding, and had done so from the very beginning. Slavery is evil. Hence, it makes sense to join these expressions, when describing the founding of our nation: “conceived in liberty; conceived in sin.”
Many who endeavored to found this nation and frame its constitution were slaveholders: chief among them Washington, Jefferson and Madison. John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay did not. Among occupants of the office of president, nine of the 15 presidents prior to Lincoln were slaveholders. They were also all Christians, committed to the principle of doing to others as you would have others do to you.
William Lloyd Garrison (1805–79), the great abolitionist, regarded slavery as sin, and charged the framers of the Constitution with casting this founding document in favor of slaveowners and their posterity. He charged the framers with making a “covenant with death,” an “agreement with hell.” He was not exaggerating. By carefully reading the text, scholars have unearthed contradictions in the original text of the Constitution, and in the arguments among the framers. For example, Article I, Section 2, Paragraph 3, provided slave states with greater representation in Congress by counting slaves (or, 3/5 of their number) along with “free Persons” and indentured servants residing in each state. (Unlike slaves, indentured servants serve by contract and for a fixed period of time; they were counted as whole persons.) The 3/5 provision was doubtless a compromise. This provision was repealed by the Fourteenth Amendment.
Article IV, Section 2, Paragraph 3, dubbed the “fugitive slave clause,” required that persons in servitude (either indentured servants or slaves), who escape to another state, including free-states, must be returned, if the owner demands it. This provision was repealed by the Thirteenth Amendment. These are but two examples of constitutional provisions that facilitated slavery. There are more, but these are enough to show the impurity of our national beginning.
Garrison proposed to set things right. He demanded immediate abolition as the only proper way to eradicate the sin of slavery, and the full integration of free blacks into American society, fully free and fully equal. His position is absolutely consistent; it was and is only right course or path to take, and one that this nation has not yet attained.
The theological narrative of sin runs from wrongdoing, to its acknowledgment, repentance, forgiveness and redemption. To use this sequence as a paradigm of American history, it is necessary for white Americans, even today, to acknowledge the sin of their founders, and its affects, such as racism and numerous other prejudices which are still at work in our misshapen American society, and to pursue the goal of redemption by achieving a society that is inclusive of all, without distinction, where all are free and equal. And what of forgiveness? Its fruition lies in the hope that, in the end, when our society is truly whole, mutual trust and respect of all for all will prevail. One need not be religious to see the point of this narrative of sin and redemption. I believe that it contains the very meaning of our nation’s history as it makes its way into the future.
Postscript: In preparing this essay, I have relied on an excellent book by Paul Finkelman titled “Slavery and the Founders,” and also the notes of James Madison on the first constitutional convention, transcribed with comments in “The Constitutional Convention,” edited by Edward Larson and Michael Winship. I also recommend the works of David Brion Davis, “The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture,” “The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution” and “The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation”; all in paperback editions, and very readable. Consult your local bookshop.
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