Say No to Reparations: Remembering Slavery, Forgetting the Classical-Liberal Values that Abolished It


Advocates of reparations for the descendants of African American slaves recently challenged socialist Bernie Sanders to embrace their cause, which he refused to do. A leading advocate of reparations, Atlantic contributor Ta-Nehisi Coates, criticizes Sanders for placing class-based politics before race. Lost in the unending debate over reparations is a key point: group reparations ignore the classical-liberal values that abolished slavery in the first place and inspired generations of civil rights activists to fight for racial justice. Among those values: individual rights, impartial rule of law, and colorblindness. As we approach International Slavery Remembrance Day (March 25), it is important to remember the classical-liberal values that led America to abolish the practice. Placed in historical context, we ought to remember the evils of slavery, but also appreciate the classical-liberal values that destroyed it.

A good place to begin is with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ widely-discussed 2014 Atlantic article, “The Case for Reparations.” Coates trots out the usual arguments: most African Americans descend from slaves who deserved restitution for the labor and wages stolen from them. Coates wants the federal government to pay reparations to redress what was lost by slaves (and, Coates argues, their descendants).

Classical liberals did believe in restitution for slaves, but not by the government. Restitution is the “restoration of something lost or stolen to its proper owner (slaves). Antislavery liberals of the nineteenth century, including Frederick Douglass (a pivotal figure in my book Race and Liberty in America: The Essential Reader) believed that slaveowners owed compensation to slaves. Proper restitution meant the wrongdoer (slaveholder) restored the stolen wages to his or her slaves. It was improper for the government to take the property of nonslaveowners who had nothing to do with the wrong to be righted. Coates skips over this point because he believes that all of “society” (excluding blacks) benefitted from slavery indirectly. This is a debatable proposition which ignores what Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and other abolitionists emphasized: the slaveowners were “man stealers” and they were the ones owing restitution to their former slaves.

In his “Case for Reparations,” Coates cites historical precedents for reparations but the examples he offers are in line with the classical-liberal view that individual wrongdoers owed restitution, not “society.” For example, Coates recounts the case of Belinda Royall, a former slave living in Massachusetts. Royall’s owner, a Loyalist, fled America during the Revolution but left property behind. In 1783, Royall petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for restitution. In her own words: “she prays, that such allowance may be made her out of the Estate of Colonel Royall.” The legislature granted Royall restitution paid out of the estate of her former “owner.” This restitution recognized her individual right to petition for redress of grievance and to seek individual justice.

Coates goes on to note how many antislavery Quakers advocated making “‘membership [in the Quaker community] contingent upon compensating one’s former slaves.'” Once again, however, it was the slaveholders who owed compensation. What sense did it make to call upon those who did not own slaves to offer compensation? The act of restitution was not only proper justice but also a demand that slaveholders acknowledge their injustice.

The examples of slaveowner restitution continue: Edward Cole brought his slaves to Illinois, set them free and gave them property to start anew. What sense would it make for Cole to petition the State of Illinois (or the federal government) to right the wrong he had committed?

Finally, Coates interjects the case of Yale President Timothy Dwight, who wrote in 1810:

“We inherit our ample patrimony with all its incumbrances; and are bound to pay the debts of our ancestors. This debt, particularly, we are bound to discharge: and, when the righteous Judge of the Universe comes to reckon with his servants, he will rigidly exact the payment at our hands. To give them liberty, and stop here, is to entail upon them a curse.”

Coates offers no historical context for Dwight’s statement. By 1810, Dwight was an opponent of slavery but he and his family and friends had owned slaves before freeing them. When he spoke of “our ancestors,” it was not the generic collective guilt of “society” but of a specific group of individuals, among them Dwight and his ancestors.

Not surprisingly, modern-day reparation advocates like Coates do not embrace the religious aspect of Dwight’s statement (a righteous “Judge of the Universe” who will judge Dwight and other slaveholders as wicked servants of the Lord). This, too, was part and parcel of the classical-liberal tradition—Christian antislavery leaders, both black and white, believed that God was the one who endowed all people with “inalienable rights” of life, liberty, and property. To own slaves was, in their eyes, not only unjust in the eyes of moral men but also of God. As I note in my book Race and Liberty in America, discussion of figures such as Dwight or Frederick Douglass must take into account their commitment to a spiritual foundation underlying classical-liberal values.

To reject reparations was not a call to “do nothing.” Classical liberals fought to amend the Constitution to make effective the individual rights to life, liberty, and protection of the law. Douglass saw the Constitution as a “Glorious Liberty document” and its amendment by the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments were important steps toward “justice for all.” Tragically, white supremacist Democrats used private lawlessness (the Ku Klux Klan) and State power (disenfranchisement of blacks, segregation, and convict labor) to subvert enforcement of constitutional rights.

The story of the century between the end of the Civil War and the late 1960s is one of civil rights activists fighting against the governmental deprivation of individual rights in the South (and elsewhere). Continuing the classical-liberal tradition of individual rights and rule of law, NAACP lawyers sued in Court to have segregation statutes overturned. Their first desegregation victory came in 1917 as the U.S. Supreme Court struck down residential apartheid laws (Buchanan v. Warley). Such laws prevented blacks and whites from engaging in consensual contracts to buy or rent property. Thus, capitalists were better friends of African Americans than the lily-white unions who excluded blacks and physically assaulted them when companies hired or promoted them. This is not surprising, as capitalism was another cornerstore of the classical-liberal tradition. Streetcar companies allied with blacks in fighting segregation statutes which were bad for business. In short, classical liberals believed the dollar was as colorblind as the Constitution, which they fought to have courts recognize, triumphing in the 1950s and 1960s with a series of desegegration victories.

It bears emphasizing that “government was the problem, not the solution.” Reparation advocates view the government as a potential instrument for good. Like many on the Left, their credo might be “government was sometimes the problem but always the solution.” Yet, the history recounted by reparation advocates is one of governmental injustice abetting private wrongdoing. To trust that “government will make things right” is both ahistorical and dangerous.

As late as the 1960s, the NAACP and most civil rights activists rejected reparations–an idea formulated and popularized by black radical James Forman in his “Black Manifesto” (1969), which demanded that churches and synagogues make reparations. Still committed to colorblind law, the NAACP called Forman’s proposal “illogical” and impractical. The African American socialist Bayard Rustin (who organized the 1963 March on Washington) also voiced what many civil rights leaders believed at the time:

“The idea of reparations is a ridiculous idea. If my great-grandfather picked cotton for 50 years, then he may deserve some money, but he’s dead and gone and nobody owes me anything.”

The classical-liberal values of individualism, demands for individual justice, and constitutional protection for all Americans were key to not only achieving political progress, but also the economic advancement of African Americans. On this score, I will let Frederick Douglass have the last word. A former slave, Douglass spent his whole life advocating justice for all Americans. He saw no inconsistency with demanding equality under the law and advocating economic advancement based on self-help. In 1893, shortly before his death, Douglass delivered one of his most popular lectures entitled “Self-Made Men”:

“Personal independence is a virtue and it is the soul out of which comes the sturdiest manhood. But there can be no independence without a large share of self-dependence, and this virtue cannot be bestowed. It must be developed from within.

I have been asked ‘How will this theory affect the negro?’ and ‘What shall be done in his case?’ My general answer is ‘Give the negro fair play and let him alone. If he lives, well. If he dies, equally well. If he cannot stand up, let him fall down. . . .’

The nearest approach to justice to the negro for the past is to do him justice in the present. Throw open to him the doors of the schools, the factories, the workshops, and of all mechanical industries. For his own welfare, give him a chance to do whatever he can do well. If he fails then, let him fail! I can, however, assure you that he will not fail. Already has he proven it. As a soldier he proved it. He has since proved it by industry and sobriety and by the acquisition of knowledge and property. He is almost the only successful tiller of the soil of the South, and is fast becoming the owner of land formerly owned by his old master and by the old master class.”

The classical-liberal struggle for justice and fair play, along with commitment to personal economic advancement, has enabled African Americans to succeed. We ought to remember slavery and segregation as great evils, but also appreciate how they were overcome. Those values are the key to further advancement of all Americans, regardless of race.

Jonathan Bean is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, Professor of History at Southern Illinois University, and editor of the Independent book, Race & Liberty in America: The Essential Reader.
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