Saturday, January 3, 2009
Mr. Madison's Major Mistake
The United States Constitution, the beloved founding document of a people who worshiped freedom then and do so to this day, completely approved of slavery and did nothing to curtail it. Slaves, almost all of whom were of African descent, were counted as three fifths of humans officially in the census, but in the eyes of the law, they were much, much less. They had the rights given to pack animals.
Slavery has been around for a long time, but over time, many civilizations made laws that regulated the treatment of slaves and made provisions for the freeing of slaves, known in Latin as manumission. In ancient Greece, slavery did not have a racial component, but it definitely had an ethnic component. Aristotle, the Rush Limbaugh of antiquity, believed that nature dictated Greeks to be masters and everybody else to be slaves. The standard way of becoming a slave in ancient times was to be one of a conquered people, and in ancient Greece, the most successful military city state of Sparta was also the least free. Estimates are that 90% of the people living in Sparta were slaves of foreign birth.
Another way to become a slave was through indebtedness. Jewish law had protections for Jews who became slaves of other Jews, and people in that situation had to be freed in the Jubilee year, which means the indentured servitude could last a maximum of seven years. Non-Jews were not given this legal remedy to their plight. In Rome, you could not sell yourself into slavery, but you could sell your children.
In Ancient Greece and Republican Rome, there were no laws concerning the treatment of slaves. Beating slaves was expected and killing slaves carried no penalty. Under the rule of the Roman emperors, slaves began to have rudimentary rights. Augustus famously punished a wealthy citizen named Vedius Pollio, who fed his clumsy slaves to his pet eels. Within a few years, slaves would have legal rights instead of mere protection at the whim of the emperor. Claudius made a decree that if a sick slave was abandoned then survived the illness, that slave was free. Under Nero, physically abused slaves won the right to bring their masters to court. Rules were added to create situations for automatic manumission, such as a female slave giving birth to a fourth child, and by the time of Diocletian, Roman citizens selling themselves into slavery was made illegal. The treatment of slaves became even more compassionate when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
Slavery in the Americas had none of this Christian softness to it, instead reverting to Spartan callousness and lawlessness. The American natives made very poor slaves because of their talent for escape, so the Americans got all Aristotelean and decided they were the natural masters and people kidnapped from Africa and their descendants were natural slaves. Slavery laws stated the condition followed the condition of the mother. Any child born to a slave woman was a slave, regardless of the condition of the father. A free woman giving birth to the child of a slave father could be enslaved herself. Beating and killing slaves carried no punishment under the law.
Mr. Madison did not see this as a problem to be remedied with his freedom worshiping Constitution. Generations later, amendments were added outlawing slavery, but only after about 600,000 Americans in uniform lost their lives in what is still the costliest war in American history in terms of blood. Slavery is gone as an institution, but it still lingers on in both our racial attitudes and the bitter regional differences between North and South. The South still pays the price, leading the nation in backward ideas and practices, shown in the Southern predispositions to greater incarceration of their citizens, higher rates of infant mortality and suicide, lower life expectancies and increased tendencies toward being members of the Republican party, once the party of Lincoln the Liberator and now the most backward facing political organization in the land.
Mr. Madison, you got some 'splainin' 2 do.