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Delbanco Writes About Americans' Complicity With Slavery In His Latest Book


What does the U.S. owe its citizens for past racial discrimination? Democratic presidential candidates have said they are open to reparations. They're responding to a generations-old debate. Part of it centers on recent history - legalized discrimination that affected people still alive. Farther back, of course, is slavery. In a book called "The War Before The War," Andrew Delbanco explores how the U.S. confronted slavery before the Civil War. Delbanco favors reparations for African-Americans in some form.

Who in the United States was involved in one way or another with slavery?

ANDREW DELBANCO: The short answer is everyone was involved. I mean, people in the North, where slavery had been rendered illegal soon after the founding of the Republic, may have persuaded themselves that slavery was somebody else's problem. But the reality was that the banks of State Street in Boston and Wall Street in New York were financing the plantations. The industrial revolution that came to New England in the 1830s, which began with the textile mills - most of those factories were spinning slave-grown cotton into cloth for export or domestic consumption. Everybody walking around with cotton on their backs was involved in slavery.

INSKEEP: What's an example of a detail of the kind that you have researched here that takes slavery from an abstract thing that we can agree is bad but we don't think much about to something that we're forced to think about?

DELBANCO: Well, the detail is the core of the story. The detail is that in 1850, the Congress of the United States passed a law making it incumbent on every citizen in the North to participate in returning fugitive slaves to slavery in the South. So all of a sudden, something that one might have read about in books or in periodicals or heard about in political discussion became an intimate part of one's own life. One could see a human being, who had, perhaps, been one's neighbor in Boston or Syracuse or Cincinnati, being pursued by a legal mob, shackled, carried off to the local jailhouse and returned forcibly into slavery. And under those circumstances, I think it's harder to wave it away and pretend it's not there.

INSKEEP: What did you see when you spent time with the diaries, the letters, the documents of people who actually owned slaves and interacted with them on a daily basis?

DELBANCO: Many decent Christian, upstanding southern citizens found ways to persuade themselves that slavery was a benign institution, that there was no way out of this problem, that they had inherited it and, therefore, didn't bear responsibility for it. Encountering these people through the historical documents is an act of humility, I think, because it reminds us of the things that we live with without questioning ourselves. And it also reminds us that the choices one has to make to extricate oneself from a situation like that are not easy choices.

INSKEEP: There are appalling details of human cruelty in this book. And I want to call your attention to the particular detail, when I was reading, that made me think, I need to call you up and talk about this book. It's on Page 55. And it's, I guess, a diary entry from 1712. I don't know if you have the book in front of you.

DELBANCO: I do, but I remember the entry. It's William Byrd, who gets angry at his wife for her having punished his favorite slave. So his revenge upon her is to punish her favorite slave. By punish, I mean whip. And that passage jumped out at me the first time I read it. I put it in front of my students quite often because, like you, I think it conveys quite vividly the horror of the slave system. These were human beings who were being used as props. They were pieces of furniture. It was as if he took his wife's favorite vase and threw it against the wall. Even if there might have been moments of humanity in the Byrd household, at the end of the day, slaves were regarded as less than human.

INSKEEP: What does it do to you as a researcher after you've read account after account after account of this kind of depravity?

DELBANCO: Well, it does a number of things. You know, I came to this book, I suspect, in the frame of mind that many people have of disapproving of slavery, lamenting it, regretting it, wishing it hadn't happened or it had ended sooner. But reading those kinds of texts and many others about the experiences of slaves makes one realize that the very word slavery is an inadequate abstraction. We have other words that are related to it, like racism or discrimination. These are words that we need, but they tend - they obscure the human reality.

A man named William Wells Brown, who escaped from slavery from Kentucky in the 1830s, was speaking to an antislavery audience in New England in the 1850s. And he says to them, (reading) I would whisper to you of slavery. Slavery cannot be represented. Slavery can never be represented.

And that statement haunted me. It's a subject that's impossible to convey. And yet, I think we have an obligation to try to convey it to ourselves and to our fellow Americans.

INSKEEP: So let me ask now about reparations. As you know very well, slavery ended after a civil war in which hundreds of thousands of Americans died. And large parts of the South were physically destroyed. And there was another century of legalized discrimination. But now there is this discussion of reparations. What do you say to an American who's maybe listening to us and personally responding, slavery was bad, but I didn't enslave anybody. Segregation was bad, but I didn't do that. Maybe my ancestors weren't even in the country at the time. Would you respond that, actually, because I am an American, because I enjoy the benefits of this country, that I am responsible?

DELBANCO: You know, I'm not sure that's quite the right way - I mean, I don't think we should think of it as a zero-sum game. You know, why should I give something to somebody else and, thereby, have it taken away from me when I had nothing to do with the original transgression? We're all in this society together. We want to live in a humane society where people respect one another as human beings. And in order to achieve that, we need to make significant further progress on the race problem in this country. But we want to be in a decent society. And part of the decency is to recognize our history and to try to make, in a moral sense, reparations for it.

INSKEEP: Andrew Delbanco is the author of "The War Before The War: Fugitive Slaves And The Struggle For America's Soul From The Revolution To The Civil War." Thanks so much.

DELBANCO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.