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Hartmann writes: "One of the most enduring myths we love here in America is that we ended our involvement with slavery after the Civil War."

The majority of garment workers in Bangladesh earn little more than the minimum wage and far below what is considered a living wage. (photo: unknown)
The majority of garment workers in Bangladesh earn little more than the minimum wage and far below what is considered a living wage. (photo: unknown)

America Didn't End Slavery, We Exported It

By Thom Hartmann, AlterNet

28 November 12


ne of the most enduring myths we love here in America is that we ended our involvement with slavery after the Civil War. While our Founders - people like Thomas Jefferson, who wrote "all men are created equal" in the Declaration of Independence but owned slaves himself - were tarnished, morally imperfect hypocrites, in our modern era, we tell ourselves, we've risen above that. We are pure! We're no longer tainted by slavery!

If only it were true.

The recent fires that killed 112 workers in Bangladeshi sweat shops making garments for Wal-Mart and other American retailers show how we, today, are frankly more hypocritical and dishonest about slavery than was Jefferson himself.

As are those Libertarians who argue that the Bangladeshis were "willing workers," when poverty is so severe in that country that working, chained into a firetrap factory, is essential to survival itself. To call the working conditions of much of the developing world anything less than slavery is to ignore the power relationships that keep workers behind fences, locked 24/7 in often-violent dormitories, and the companies that string nets outside windows to reduce worker suicides.

It's to rationalize the role we play in this modern-day version of slavery, the same way 18th Century US slavery advocates (and some modern-day Southern Republicans) argued that slaves at least had free housing, food, and medical care as compensation for their labors.

As I point out in my book "What Would Jefferson Do?," although Jefferson inherited land and slaves as a teenager when his father died, and more, including his wife's half-sister Sally Hemmings, when his wife's father died, Jefferson knew slavery up-front and personal, and worked much of his life to end it.

In April of 1770, Jefferson was practicing law and defended a slave who was requesting his freedom (Howell v. Netherland). In his arguments on behalf of the slave, Jefferson said that "under the law of nature, all men are born free, and every one comes into the world with the right to his own person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it at his own will."

The year before, 1769, as a legislator in Virginia, he had written a bill to abolish the importation of slaves into that state. It was unsuccessful, and even brought down the wrath of many of his peers on him and his relative, Richard Bland, who Jefferson had asked to introduce the proposed legislation.

In his 1774 booklet, "A Summary View of the Rights of British America," Jefferson attacked King George III for forcing slavery upon the colonies, a charge that was repeated in his first draft of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, but deleted from the final draft in order to keep the representatives of South Carolina and Georgia willing to sign the document.

That same year, Jefferson tried to write into the constitution of the State of Virginia a provision that would totally eliminate slavery, starting in 1800, and in 1778 he presented an even more radical bill that would have abolished slavery altogether in Virginia that year. While these attempts failed, he was successful in passing a Virginia law that year preventing any more slaves from being imported into the state.

In 1783, he again unsuccessfully attempted to amend Virginia's constitution, proposing language that said: "The general assembly shall not... permit the introduction of any more slaves to reside in this State, or the continuance of slavery beyond the generation which shall be living on the thirty-first day of December, 1800; all persons born after that day being hereby declared free."

The next year, he proposed at a national level a law banning slavery in the "Northwest Territories" - the Midwest and western states - and stating that any state admitted to the union would have to declare any person of any race born in that state after 1800 to be a free person. His proposal lost by a single vote, although parts of his proposed legislation were lifted and inserted into the Northwest Ordinance, which became law when Jefferson was in Paris in 1787.

Despite his best efforts, and those of his more firebrand contemporaries like John Quincy Adams, slavery was still alive and well as Jefferson was passing into old age.

In 1820, for example, Missouri and Maine were being admitted as states to the Union, and a fierce debate had erupted over whether Missouri should be allowed to join the nation if it continued to allow slavery (Maine was free of slavery). In the ultimate compromise, which was passed by Congress, Missouri was admitted to the union as a slave state.

Congressman John Holmes of Massachusetts wrote to an elderly Thomas Jefferson to inform him of the compromise, and on April 22, 1820, just six years before his death, writing with a quill pen, his hands cramped by arthritis, Jefferson candidly expressed his despair in his response to his old friend and colleague. In it, he foresaw the day, after his canoe or "bark" had crossed the River Styx to his death, when the nation would be torn apart across a "geographical line" over the issue of human beings being considered "that kind of property."

"I thank you, dear Sir," Jefferson wrote, "for the copy you have been so kind as to send me ... on the Missouri question. ... I had for a long time ceased to read newspapers, or pay any attention to public affairs, confident they were in good hands, and content to be a passenger in our bark to the shore from which I am not distant.

"But this momentous question, like a fire-bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union.

"It is hushed, indeed, for the moment. But this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.

"I can say, with conscious truth, that there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would to relieve us from this heavy reproach, in any practicable way. ...

"But as it is, we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go."

After pondering the legal issues involved, Jefferson - who, as president, had signed into law an 1808 Act banning the slave trade with Africa - finally poured out his anguish in this private letter to Holmes, again foreseeing the unthinkable possibility of a civil war over slavery, which gave the lie to freedom in America and was thus a "treason against the hopes of a world" that looked to America as the beacon of liberty.

"I regret that I am now to die," Jefferson wrote, "in the belief that the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of 1776, to acquire self-government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be, that I live not to weep over it. If they would but dispassionately weigh the blessings they will throw away, against an abstract principle more likely to be effected by union than by scission, they would pause before they would perpetrate this act of suicide on themselves, and of treason against the hopes of the world."

The Founders and Framers, who thought they could take the wolf of slavery by the ears and dance with it to a just conclusion in their lifetimes, were wrong. But it wasn't for want of trying, and, as Jefferson predicted, the 620,000 Americans who died in the Civil War paid the ultimate price of their failure.

Which brings us to today. It's easy for us, in this day and age, to look back 200 years ago and condemn Jefferson. He used the cheap labor resource of his slaves to maintain his lifestyle, and the consequence of the failure of his efforts to abolish slavery was a bloody Civil War followed by a hundred years of legal apartheid.

Although he rationalized his slaveholding by keeping them in a style that exceeded that of most poor whites of the day (both were grim by today's standards), it was, nonetheless, a rationalization of slavery. Jefferson's lifestyle was made possible by slave labor, and there is no other way to say it. Recognizing that fact, many Americans are righteously indignant and quick to judge him harshly.

Yet how many of us would willingly free our slaves?

I'm looking into a camera and teleprompter filled with parts made in countries that use slave and prisoner labor. You're watching me or reading this on a TV or computer filled with parts made in those same countries. Our rationalization is that no companies in America make many of those components any longer, but it's just a rationalization, and no less hypocritical than Jefferson's.

I'm sitting here wearing clothes made by modern-day slaves, and probably so are you. I'm lit by studio lights assembled in countries where workers who try to organize are imprisoned, as are many of the lights in your home.

We rationalize all the products of distant slaves we use - after all, we don't have to look into their faces like Jefferson did - but it's still just a rationalization.

The stark reality is that we in America didn't "end" slavery. We simply exported it.

And it's so much more comfortable for us to criticize Jefferson and his peers for agonizing over - but still using - slave labor 200 years ago, when we don't have to look into the faces of today's slaves who are toiling and dying at this very moment to sustain our lifestyles. your social media marketing partner


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+22 # DemocracyNeedsDefenders 2012-11-29 00:43
Bravo, Thom Hartman, superbly written.
For those concerned about the export of American jobs overseas, perhaps this is the best argument for keeping them here. Exporting jobs fits with the American way of free market profits so it is always hard to fight on economic grounds. Exporting jobs directly clashes with American values of freedom and fairness, as Thom has revealed, and should be intolerable for that reason alone.
It is possible to impose customs duties on imported goods produced by unfair means. With duties applied, sweat shops would not be so attractive. To do this, US manufacturers must allege harm from the imports, and the rest of us should support them in the fight. Can we organize this?
+15 # in deo veritas 2012-11-29 08:30
As practiced "free market" simply means that corporations are free to do as they damned well please regardless of the effect it has on people here or overseas. They worship money and nothing else is held sacred. Their time will come sooner than they think and not by the government biting the hand that feeds it.
+1 # mdhome 2012-11-29 20:14
Would there be any way that a company (if there was one) that paid a good wage and treated the workers fairly did not have to be charged as high a customs duty?
0 # Dion Giles 2012-11-29 22:14
Good point! Exploitation-in dexed tariffs would at first be calculated country by country for simplicity but should be extended to company by company on the basis of applications from companies with a case for lowered tariffs.
+13 # DurangoKid 2012-11-29 00:51
US exports slavery. I said this 25 years ago. Was anyone listening?
+9 # cafetomo 2012-11-29 01:10
We are none of us, free. Chained to need, bound to desire, we exchange our essence for foolishness as others do more, and receive less. As we trade on their exploitation for an existence of relative ease, we refuse to see that one has been sold to the other in order to keep them both, eternally beneath their masters.

...but that second flat screen was such a goddamn deal...
+15 # Dion Giles 2012-11-29 02:10
The irony is that exporting slavery imports it. The purpose of tariff-free international trade is to drive down wages and working conditions at home and abroad.

Trade is a class question, a UNION question which the unions by and large ignore. Campaigns against cuts in wages and conditions are rarely linked with campaigns over foreign trade and for that reason are ultimately a losing battle.

The economic answer to this competitive slavery is import duties calculated to cancel the price-competiti ve advantage of importation.

Competition can still reign, but provided tariffs are based on nothing other than the price advantages of lower foreign wages and conditions (including environmental practices) it is competition on quality and on good business practices directed to customer satisfaction. This also opens up opportunity for slaves to push for decent wages and conditions.

Exploitation-indexed tariffs aren't just a natty idea. They are part and parcel of the goal of defending wages and conditions at home. It's a class struggle against decades of neoliberalism and unless it is incorporated in union goals the unions will go on being outflanked and marginalised, and permanent recession will be the price paid for cheap imported goods.

+4 # leedeegirl 2012-11-29 02:24
what's the matter with everyone? afraid to comment? i would, except the author already relayed MY feelings on the subject ... come on Tea Partiers ... i want to hear what you have to say ...
+18 # RMDC 2012-11-29 04:44
Thanks, this is good. I too wonder how many americans or europeans know the conditions under which most of the items they consume are made.

Our model now is different from the social model Jefferson faced. We now have capitalism and its attitude toward labor. The "free market" mythology of capitalism tries to persuade us that we are always dealing with willing workers and willing employers. But that is a mask. Capitalism sees labor as simply a cost to production. It is like all other costs. They have an inverse relationship to profit -- maximize profit by minimizing costs. this may be OK in the case of fuel, taxes, land, and so on.

But labor is human beings. I always find it offensive to see a "human resources" department in a business, as if humans are a resource like iron ore or crude oil. Minimizing the cost of human resources means minimizing the lives of humans.

The world needs a human centered economy in which laborers and consumers both are the primary reason for economic activity. Capitalism hates labor and would like to minimize it out of existence.

Marx thought that the wage slavery of capitalism was actually worse than the chattel slavery of Jefferson. At least the slave owner had some interest in the health of the slave. The capitalist has no interest in the health of the worker; corporations can always find millions of new workers after they work one crew to death.
+13 # in deo veritas 2012-11-29 08:26
Very good observation about the differnece between wage slavery and chattel slavery. I am from WV and well aware that the coal industry practiced wage slavery unabated for generations with the company town system. This was with the cooperation of state and federal government. During the coal strike in the early 1920's the government even sent in aircraft against the strikers. The remains of one were found several years ago in the Greenbrier River. This was before the New deal came along. Indeed the capitalist has only shown any interest in the worker's welfare when forced to by law. You can see this clearly with Wal-mart and others but the present administration has turned its back on us just like the Bushes did.
-23 # RLF 2012-11-29 07:03
The premiss is total crap! These people live in countries that are responsible for this and when those countries go through the painful process (that we have forgotten in the US)...that of creating unions and fighting for decent treatment...the y will be treated decently. The US is powerful but as the guerilla fighters in both Afganistan and Iraq have shown...not with weakness. I avoid sweatshop goods when I can but I'm poor. I can't afford to be careless with my money like so many young 'liberals' who never fought for anything and are still on mom and dad's health insurance. If these people let them selves be treated like crap...they have no one to blame but themselves.
+8 # BradFromSalem 2012-11-29 10:44

You are in denial, as we all are to some degree. The forces that create the horrendous defacto slavery throughout the 3rd world are the same ones that performed the greatest robbery in history. These are the forces of the capitalistic regulation of Capitalism.

You cannot fight against it with guns. Although, it may at times resort to that. But the fight is mainly about quality of life. Just as Jefferson eased his conscious by treating his slaves as well as any slave owner could and still be a slave owner, we need to make sure that companies that import goods from foreign countries treat their employees to a standard that is higher than other nations demand.

The article is far from crap. It is another item on a list of the injustices in the world. One by one, two by two, the world must be healed.
+6 # crespen 2012-11-29 07:10
I only disagree to say it's not a "rationalizatio n" of ignorance. It's ABSOLUTE ignorance! The mostly honest ignorance one has when they have no idea which companies benefit directly or indirectly from slave labor. Perhaps there is a list or resources you can share so we can have a better idea of how to make a difference.

While I appreciate the insight on Jefferson your article stops short of solutions.
+7 # MidwestTom 2012-11-29 08:05
The other slavery in this country is to the bankers. Our society teaches that if you want something, co get it now, buy it on credit, and pay for it later. Our lack of a saving cylture is what got us into the current housing mess. Pay cash for what you want, and you will be much happier. Fewer toys, butfewer worries.
+8 # in deo veritas 2012-11-29 08:19
Nor did the Civil War end slavery here. It just changed the name to tenant farmers and/or sharecroppers. Moreover it enabled the Northern war profiteers to use their blood money to take over the government, open the floodgates to immigrants working for slave labor wages, and carpetbag the South. Thanks to the corruption in government, we are in the same situation again and even extending it to other countries through the perverted concept of "manifest destiny" that has been used as a rationale for the conquest and exploitation of peoples far and wide.
+4 # cenglish10 2012-11-29 10:29
The cancer of slavery has metastisized and moved beyond the organ of origin. We are in Stage III of this disease of the world. There is still hope but treatment must begin, i.e. demand that the multinational treasonous corporations pay living wages to their workers and allow them to leave if they desire. Wages that are not enough to live on are not true wages. No ability to leave a company is not freedom. It is our responsibility to not buy iphones when chinese workers leap out of windows.
+1 # mdhome 2012-11-29 20:37
I do hope you do not think America originated slavery! Slavery goes back many thousands of years, well before written language.
The payment of slave wages is hardly different from having slaves.
I have often pondered wether it best to buy a pair of pants made by someone in third world country getting a few pennies or buying from closer to home. Wondering if the few pennies were better for them than nothing that they may have. The "suicide" nets is just sickening, makes me glad I do not have a Ipad or Iphone. I do however own things that may have been made under similar conditions?
+1 # brux 2012-11-29 17:58
Our media and political system is all just sophisticated window dressing to keep Americans having minimal effect of their own lives or the lives of other people in other countries on the planet. Somehow we are supposed to keep believing and playing along with a leadership that breaks its every law, goes against its every stated goal, is causing misery for the majority of people while supporting greed and abuse by its own top most powerful members, what else is this but a broken system.

It either moves to correct itself or it is in violation of all American's rights by which it governs.
+3 # lorenbliss 2012-11-29 18:31
Some of us have awakened to the fact that without economic democracy, there is no freedom at all.

But when will we awaken to the fact that -- for all save the One Percent -- capitalism is therefore slavery?
+1 # mdhome 2012-11-29 20:40
Lorenbliss: I really like your last line, right on the money with that.
0 # Shanti 2012-12-31 14:54
I am so glad to see someone defend Jefferson. If Jefferson treated his slaves better than other slaves or poor whites, then freeing them would have only added to their burdens. What about those today who live in 10,000 square foot houses while others live in 400 square foot apartments?
I have also been trying to determine, since I found out that Sally Hemmings was Jefferson's wife's half-sister, how his sleeping with her would have been different than any black man sleeping with her?
Again, thanks for your defense.

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