The Paradoxes of American History

I’m reading a great book at the moment, “America, Empire of Liberty”, which is basically a recent, re-thought history of America written by Cambridge professor David Reynolds. Helpfully for European readers like myself it obviously lacks the shallow patriotism and misrepresentation of facts which often comes with what is associated with American history as it is taught in their nation, and takes a structured and detailed look at the growth of the nation which started, of course, BEFORE Columbus. (But as I understand it not necessarily every American knows that.)

Anyway, it highlights in particular the great paradoxes and contradictions of the nation, and this is nowhere more starkly portrayed than in its history with the slave trade. Today I found a great quote from Governeur Morris of New York, spoken when George Washington was presiding over the Constitutional Convention of 1787. In discussing the fact that in Southern states (where slaves were more numerous and the land depended upon them somewhat more) the slaves were counted as part of the population, Morris sought to raise the moral and ethical objection that we know was all-too-often overlooked at this time in the West:

‘upon what principle is it that the slaves shall be computed in the representation? Are they men? Then make them citizens and let them vote. Are they property? Why then is no other property included?’ Counting the slaves into the population allowed these Southern states to increase their seats in Congress, and so, Morris pointed out, someone from one of these Southern states ‘who goes to he Coast of Africa and in defiance of the most sacred laws of humanity tears away his fellow creatures from their dearest connections and damns them to the most cruel bondages shall have more votes in a Government instituted for protection of the rights of mankind than the citizen of Pennsylvania or New Jersey who views with a laudable horror so nefarious a practice.’

I wish I had the skill to so succinctly swipe at the ills of a corrupt system with my words! Very good Morris.

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