What Tim Kaine Gets Wrong about Slavery — and Why It Matters

Sen. Tim Kaine (D., Va.) speaks in Washington, D.C., May 12, 2020. (Win McNamee/Reuters)

America didn’t invent it, and arguing otherwise makes it harder for us to end its continued practice abroad.

On Tuesday, the Democratic Party completed its unconditional surrender to the forces of historical illiteracy when Tim Kaine, the senator from Virginia and former vice-presidential candidate, announced a startling discovery. One can only imagine the awestruck envy with which venerated historians across the land reacted upon learning from this estimable sage the true nature and origins of American chattel slavery: “The United States didn’t inherit slavery from anybody,” Kaine announced. “We created it.”

Kaine’s reasoning goes something like this: The men, women, and children who were captured and enslaved on the west African coast “landed in colonies that didn’t have slavery.” That is to say, “There were no laws about slavery in the colonies at that time.” The actual legislation recognizing the practice “got created by the Virginia General Assembly” and the other colonial legislatures after the arrival of the first slaves from Africa.

This argument is absurd, and accepting it would require us to believe other demonstrably absurd things about colonial history. Kaine’s premise is that when a group of people arrive in an undiscovered and lawless land, any laws they subsequently pass are entirely their own inventions. By his logic, the colonial settlers were the most creative and prolific statesmen in the history of the world. Among their “inventions” we could number private property, marriage, deliberative democracy, jury trials, the presumption of innocence, laws against murder and theft, the provisions of the Magna Carta, and the entire deposit of both canon and secular law from antiquity through to the discovery of the New World. Since they landed in colonies that didn’t have a sovereign, we would also have to attribute to these settlers the “invention” of the English monarchy.

Clearly, this is ridiculous. Even today, when people move to a different country or culture they bring their own practices and beliefs with them. No one arrives on strange shores and unilaterally divests themselves of their cultural background. Kaine’s argument appears to be that this particular evil originated in America because there were at first no laws permitting it; they had to be instituted voluntarily. But if you go back far enough, there were, at first, no laws either permitting or prohibiting anything in America. Go back further still and there were no laws at all, anywhere in the world. Accepting his argument would therefore mean endorsing the idea that the “inventor” of any given evil is the first person or polity to enshrine it in positive law. This is obviously ridiculous. The first stoning or burning at the stake happened long before either was endorsed by a Bronze Age legal system. Legislation has always been a product of shared moral beliefs before it is a producer of them. According to the historian Martin A. Klein, “There is no evidence that slavery came under serious attack in any part of the world before the eighteenth century.” How colonial Americans are responsible for the invention of slavery when its moral horror only dawned on the horizon of the world in a serious way after the settlement of the New World is therefore unclear.

The parochialism and ethnocentrism of Kaine’s remarks also obscure the true global horror of slavery across time and space. The Atlantic slave trade was only a single sordid chapter in the long and tragic global history of human bondage. The English word “slave” first entered common usage because Slavic people were so widely enslaved in both Europe and the Islamic world. More Africans were enslaved in North Africa and the Middle East than in the entire course of the Atlantic slave trade, and around 1 million Europeans were captured and enslaved by North African pirates between the 16th and 18th centuries. Some of these slaves were still being bought and sold in Egypt years after the end of the American Civil War and the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation. It has also been estimated that there were more slaves in India at one point than in the entire Western hemisphere.

Because of technological limitations, the enslavement of one race by another is actually a relatively recent phenomenon; for most of history, people just enslaved their vulnerable neighbors. Even at the peak of the Atlantic slave trade, for instance, Africans kept more slaves for themselves than they sent to the Western Hemisphere. As historian Daniel J. Boorstin notes, it was only in the 17th century that “for the first time in Western history, the status of slave coincided with a difference of race.” This crucial change was the result of improved transport links with Africa and the consolidation of Europe into nation-states, which made the capture and enslavement of other European peoples more difficult.

The Atlantic slave trade did not, then, amount to the invention of slavery. In fact, Thomas Sowell points out that “slavery was common to all civilizations, as well as to peoples considered uncivilized” and “only one civilization developed a moral revulsion against it, very late in its history — Western civilization.” It was because of this developing moral repulsion that appeals to racism were increasingly required in the United States to justify slavery’s practice. For most of human history, on every continent and archipelago, the relationship between master and slave was regarded as an entirely natural one, and the former could engage in casual cruelty toward the latter without even a prick upon his conscience. It was only when the whole edifice started to shake in the West that the beneficiaries of slavery required a rationale for their inhumane practices. Racial theories were balm and salve to the minds of slavers who wished to persist in their wickedness after the moral awakening of the West.

Already this picture looks a lot different from the one popularly presented in the media and, increasingly, in the academy. It is commonly assumed that slavery is an exceptional or particular sin of the United States and her people, and that its eradication amounted to a belated reunion with the rest of the civilized world. The truth is precisely the opposite. The whole human race was the guilty party in the matter of slavery, and the United States was one of the first nations to realize that there was anything wrong with it. Throughout the history of the world, only the British Empire has spent more blood and treasure than the U.S. to end the practice of slavery. It took a long time before countries outside the West were even interested. When Lord Palmerston encouraged the leader of Zanzibar to abolish slavery in 1841, the reply came back that Arabs were not “like the English and other European people who were always reading and writing” and that they could not understand the anti-slavery viewpoint. General C. G. Gordon’s attempts to eradicate slavery in British Sudan were opposed by a native army led by Mohammad Mahad, who defeated Gordon’s army at Khartoum in 1885 and killed him. The young Winston Churchill was among the British troops who retook the region in 1898. When a broader view of world history is taken, the decision of the American government to ban the importation of slaves on pain of death in some of its earliest legislation puts the United States at the vanguard of the global antislavery movement. The problem, as the Founders of the American Republic saw it, was precisely that the United States had inherited slavery from the Old World. Here is Sowell again:

If the institution of slavery and the presence of millions of slaves were facts of life, within which many decision-makers felt trapped by having inherited the consequences of decisions made by others in generations before them, the continuing trade in slaves, whether from Africa or within the United States, was a contemporary problem that was within their control. Thus, decades before slavery was abolished, the United States joined in the outlawing of the international slave trade. Even many Americans not yet ready to support the abolition of slavery as an institution nevertheless made the bringing of more slaves from Africa a capital offense in the United States.

Banning the importation of slaves is a fairly counterintuitive way for the American government to ensure the continuing function of its signature “invention.” The eradication of slavery certainly took decades longer than it should have in the United States, but no historically literate individual can argue that the American Founders envisaged the indefinite perpetuation of the practice on these shores or viewed it as a uniquely American creation that was indispensable to civic life or national flourishing.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Senator Kaine’s discussion of slavery is his silence about its continuing existence in the world today. The senator’s focus was clearly upon the need to address domestic racial inequality that has resulted from its practice, which is both laudable and necessary in policy terms. But in Mauritania, India, China, Uzbekistan, and elsewhere, slaves are living in abject subjugation right now. The senator laments that “we have stopped some of those practices, but we’ve never gone back to undo it [sic],” which is only to say that we’ve as yet failed to invent time travel. But instead of complaining about the absence of a woke Marty McFly who can undo the sins of American history, the United States should be using these sins as an impetus to throw its considerable weight behind ending slavery as it exists abroad today. To do this, however, would require at least a modicum of belief in America’s ability to be a force for good in the world, an idea that is increasingly foreign to Democrats in 2020.

It’s important to confront and acknowledge the troughs in American history as well as the peaks, but once this acknowledgement descends into a repudiation of the United States itself, we are left with despair where there should be action. The world is desperately in need of America’s sensitive national conscience, but this conscience only serves a constructive purpose when it is operationalized by the conviction that despite the ravages and shortcomings of history, the American creed is still a promise worth keeping. John Brown’s body may lie moldering in the grave, but his soul has come to an ignominious halt in the Democratic Party — and only a renewed confidence in American power will get it marching again.