The following is the introduction and chapter 1 from the proposal for my nonfiction book, Reasons For Hope.
If you’re like most of us, you wake up in the morning, eat a quick breakfast and drive to work. If you’re lucky, you work at a job that gives you a sense of satisfaction, with co-workers that lighten the load and provide a sense of community. Hopefully, your boss makes things better instead of worse. At lunch you might eat fast food that you know isn’t very good for you or maybe you try to have something light because you’re on a new diet or are trying to save a few dollars.
After finishing the day at work, you start the drive back home. Traffic is probably heavy, with long delays that cause you to pull out your hair and curse at the other drivers. The time in the car might be compounded by taking your kids to and from the activities that you hope will make them happier, smarter and stronger. When you arrive home, you put together a dinner and eat, then try to relax for just a bit before going to sleep.
And through all of it, from morning to bed, you feel tired.
Like most of us, you’re tired not just because of work or because something in your life feels out of balance. You’re tired because throughout the day you have been bombarded, assaulted by an unending wave of bad news. While you ate breakfast, the newspaper or radio told you stories of the latest political scandal or economic disaster brought on by some CEO that walked away with millions of dollars. At work your friends gathered to discuss the latest terrorist bombing and threat that some country might develop nuclear weapons. Driving home, you listened to a broadcast about a super-storm that destroyed part of the country or the suffering caused by a horrible drought. And at home, the news stations were focused on the spread of drug resistant disease and the rising rates of heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
You’re tired because you hear, all the time, how bad things are in our world. You might think about the good-old days and wonder where we went wrong, wonder how hatred and violence and disease could have spread so widely, so quickly. You wonder about the economic hole that we’ve dug ourselves into. You worry about your own health.
If you’re like most of us, you begin to worry that things are only getting worse. You worry that there is no hope that things will get better, not for you, not for your children.
But that isn’t true. What is true is that we are getting more compassionate, more knowledgeable about the world around us. The problems we face are actually getting better instead of worse. But it’s not your fault that you have been trapped into the conclusion that the future is very dim, because that is all you hear.
What you don’t know when you hear all this bad news is that you have been given much less than half the story.
To get the bigger picture, to hear more of the story, let’s step back. Way back. Take yourself back one thousand years to Cahokia, a city of approximately 20,000, then the largest city north of Central America. Like today, you live in a neighborhood and probably work in a specialized field. Sales, manufacturing and farming are common professions. Your family lives close by and grandparents are often babysitters while the parents work.
But while much of life sounds similar, your house in Cahokia is made from a frame of timber with walls of woven grass. Floors are bare dirt or are sparsely covered with rugs that are similar to the walls. Anyone who has lived through a winter in the Midwestern United States will know just how poorly these shelters or clothing made of animal skins would prevent frostbite or keep your family safe from hypothermia.
Though the area surrounding your city is well farmed, all of the local game has been hunted to extinction and the land is not as fertile as it was years ago. If you aren’t rich or part of the small ruling class, you are almost always hungry. Your children might be so malnourished that their growth has been permanently stunted and they may suffer from severe anemia. The water you drink is far from clean and carries diseases that periodically ravage the city.
If you aren’t part of the ruling class, you might be a slave. You might have been born in another community and captured by a raiding party, torn from your family and forced to carry sixty-pound loads of dirt in a basket from a pit to the pyramid-sized mound that is being constructed at the heart of the city.
There is little to no written language, and while there is a strong tradition of storytelling, chances are, your memory will probably not outlive your own children. If you reach the age of thirty five, you will be considered very old. Fifty is almost unheard of.
And yet, with the threat of war, constant hunger, disease, degradation of the environment, short life span, slavery, inadequate shelter and lack of education, you consider yourself lucky.
One thousand years ago in North America, Cahokia was a good place to live.
THE NOT SO GOOD OLD DAYS
Life in ancient Cahokia is only one example of life in the past, from one time period, one location and one culture. But when we look back at other examples, we see similarities.
It’s 221 BC. Emperor Qin Shi Huang has just ended the Warring States Period by defeating all of his rivals and creating a unified China. With the longstanding civil war at an end, there is a chance that your life at that time might improve, but that chance is slim.
Farming is again one of the most common occupations, and your work has been made easier by new iron tools. But the threat of forced labor and slavery is omnipresent. Many citizens are made to construct the now famous Terra Cotta Army, but being forced to work on the Great Wall is a much more common and deadly fate. Hundreds of thousands work and die on the stretches of wall constructed during this period. If you are sentenced to work there, the chance was strong that your body will become part of the wall itself.
Or, if you are alive in the 1840s and live in Ireland, there is little chance that your life is easy. Although the laws that prevented Catholics (approximately 80% of the population) from owning land had been relaxed twenty years earlier, most Irish still lived as tenants on farms that are owned by absentee landlords.
As an Irish farmer in that decade, you might grow cash crops or raise cattle for export in order to pay your rent. What little land that is left to grow food for your family is often poor and there is only one crop that would grow abundantly and store well enough through the winter to keep your family alive: the potato.
But in 1845, a bacteria (now known as HERB-1) begins to ravage potato crops and the Gorta Mór or Great Hunger starts. With up to three quarters of the crop failing, malnutrition is rampant, especially in rural areas. Food aid is brought in, but food exports from Ireland continue. If you can’t pay your rent, not only are you unable to feed your family, but your landlord evicts you and burns down your meager home to keep you from returning. Diseases like dysentery, scurvy and cholera spread rapidly.
By 1847, the aid from the British government begins to dwindle and if you work more than a quarter acre of land, you are no longer eligible to receive public assistance, even at a workhouse.
Over the next few years, this perfect storm of environmental disaster and political callousness leads to the deaths of 1 million Irish and causes possibly twice that number to immigrate to other countries.
There are more stories like this, stories that deal with suffering, disease, pain, and indifference. There is one thread that runs through them: hardship. Suffering of all sorts, all over the world, was more than common in the past. It was the norm.
We still see these problems today. Starvation, lack of basic human rights, political corruption, cruelty and greed make up the centerpiece of each news source that we turn to. But when we hear and read these stories of the troubles that still plague us, we do not get one vital bit of information. We are not told how our current troubles fit into history. We are not given any context to fit our problems into.
And without this context and perspective, we are left adrift. Each problem floats within our minds and gathers with other worries to form a cloud that keeps us from seeing the road ahead as anything but dark and dangerous.
Study after study has revealed that exposure to the news leaves us depressed and vulnerable. Those who watch or read it the least are generally the happiest. Those who watch and follow disasters closely can even develop symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder.
So, if it makes us so miserable and is so bad for us, why do we listen to the bad news?
THE BAD NEWS BUSINESS
The short answer to the question of why we tune into bad news is that we have no other option. Mainstream and independent media present us with news stories that are overwhelmingly negative. The trend is so strong that anything positive is labeled as fluff or human interest and is far from the front page or is at the end of a news broadcast. But why?
Many theories try to explain why mainstream media focuses on the negative, with the most prominent being that bad news simply sells better than good news. Journalists state that they look for stories with conflict, an essential part of telling an interesting story. They believe that negative news has more inherent conflict, but this is a short-sighted attitude. Negative news doesn’t have more inherent conflict, only more apparent conflict. This kind of attitude reveals one of the biggest problems and reasons that our news is focused on the negative: journalists don’t have time to do the most important part of their jobs.
Writing on the surface of bad news is the easiest, quickest way to produce a news story. The who, what, when, where, how and sometimes why of a disaster or scandal can be explained quickly and delivered on a tight deadline. And these deadlines that reporters must meet are getting shorter and shorter, as much of the news is now broadcast first on the web or by social media. Most journalists do not have the time to dig into the history of a problem to give us a sense of context when they must finish a story in minutes. Bad news is easier because it takes less time and research.
And it is this research that not only provides perspective and lessens the pain of the bad news we feel we are drowning in, but it also shows the interesting, motivating conflict behind the successes we have achieved together. The conflict that makes the positive stories captivating takes more work to explain, as it isn’t the simple clash of one religion versus another or one person’s greed leading to the ruin or death of many others. Instead, when we take the time to look thoroughly at the issues that trouble us, we see that they stretch back into the past and that we have been struggling with these problems for as long as humanity has existed. And more importantly, we see that we have been fighting these problems and are beating them.
Sometimes we see great battles or defining moments, but more often, we see the incremental progress of individuals doing what they knew was right. What looking into the history of our problems reveals is a rich history of heroes fighting for what is right.
A STORY OF HEROES
While this book is intended to provide context for the problems we face and provide a sense of hope that we can overcome these problems, it is, at its core, a book of stories about heroes.
When we look back at the origins of the problems we currently face, we see that they stretch past the beginnings of written history. Details of slavery are shown in ancient artwork. Evidence of war, disease and malnutrition are preserved in prehistoric graves. The problems we face may seem overwhelming, but they are not new to us. And neither is the will to fight against them.
In some cases, one individual may have stood alone against an oppressive system. Against other wrongs, a line of resistance might stretch across continents and generations. But what is most important is that people realized something was wrong and they fought against it. William Wilberforce spent his life fighting slavery. John Muir struggled to preserve wild spaces in the United States. Marie Curie suffered great deprivation in order to focus on research that has enabled us to see illness deep in our bodies. Rachel Carson dedicated herself to creating a world where we could raise healthy children.
The true context of the bad news we are bombarded with is that there have been generations of heroes, armed with a sense that people different from themselves deserved compassion. They accessed a growing knowledge about the world around them. They fought against these problems and have handed a world to us where our troubles are in decline. Wars are smaller and less frequent. It is possible to erase slavery within our lifetimes. We have conquered diseases that once threatened us all. Racism is declining and religious tolerance is on the rise. Our greater understanding of the environment gives us the ability to ensure that our planet will continue to support us. None of these achievements would be possible without the work and sacrifice of those who came before us.
Most surely, our problems are not to be regarded lightly. There is much work still to be done. We have not won the battles we face, but our hardships are not new and our access to knowledge and sense of compassion are growing. These stories of pain and suffering are not in their dark beginnings, as we might be lead to believe, but they are closer to happy endings, thanks to the heroes who have been fighting to make the world better, to make it a place of hope.
Chapter 1: Slavery
A KING’S CURE FOR ALL THE EVILS
Imagine a quiet moment in the White House on February 1st, 1865. It has been nearly four years of war since The Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter. During that time President Lincoln had constantly advocated that the Northern Army aggressively confront the South and in doing so had proved himself a masterful Commander in Chief. But for the last year, he had directed another battle behind the scenes, and achieved victory just the day before, when the House of Representatives passed the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
If Lincoln turned away from the men gathered around the long desk in the middle of the room to look out one of the two tall windows, he would have seen the base of the Washington Monument. The obelisk wasn’t what we see now. It was only one-third finished, its construction in limbo since 1854. If the President looked away from the window, into the room, he would see the line of maps on the left wall that obscured much of the blue diamond patterned wallpaper. As he turned back to the table and settled his feet on the well-worn green and yellow carpet, the twenty-year old chair beneath him undoubtedly creaked under even his slight 180 pounds.
Before him on the table was the document that accomplished something he had always wanted, but had only recently begun to think was possible. Lincoln knew that a presidential signature was not needed for a constitutional amendment, but he took up the simple wooden pen in his hand and it is easy to imagine that he paused before he signed his name. For, after all he had done to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, which would forever end slavery in the United States of America, the President deserved a quiet moment.
The job of passing the amendment had not been easy, not for Lincoln, nor for those who labored with him, and it had almost been derailed by the possibility of peace. The day before, as the House of Representatives was preparing to vote on the amendment a second time, a rumor began circulating through the capital that a peace commission from the south was on its way to Washington, D.C. to discuss terms for the end of the Civil War. Lincoln was fully aware that a Confederate team was on its way to the nearby Fort Monroe, but also knew that peace talks could stall the momentum that had built behind the Thirteenth Amendment. In order to protect the amendment’s passage, Honest Abe stretched the truth when he spoke to these rumors by saying, “So far as I know, there are no peace commissioners in the city, or likely to be in it.”
And this convenient stretching of the truth was not Lincoln’s first bit of political trickery in his fight to abolish slavery in the United States. Because President Lincoln knew what was at stake, because the United States would become that last English-speaking nation to make slavery illegal, because he knew the enormity of the injustice he had to correct, he let nothing get in the way of this amendment.
In 1864, after the Senate had voted in favor of the amendment and it had been voted down once by the House of Representatives, Lincoln knew that he would need more congressional and state support for its passage and eventual ratification. He worried that his Emancipation Proclamation would be struck down at the end of the war, so he set about lining up not only votes in The House to pass the amendment, but also states to ratify it. To this end, he helped turn the territory of Nevada (whose Secretary was Orion Clemens, the older brother of Samuel “Mark Twain” Clemens) into a state. In addition to being 20,000 people short of the 60,000 person population requirement to become a state, Nevada lacked the time to send a copy of its new constitution to Washington by conventional means. So, the entire document was sent by telegraph. The 16,543 word document (the longest and most expensive telegraph ever sent at that time) had to be relayed four times before it reached Lincoln. But on October 31st, 1864, just eight days before the national election, the president declared Nevada a state. Its congressman, Henry G. Worthington voted in favor of the Thirteenth amendment on January 31st of the next year and Nevada later became the fifteenth state to ratify the amendment.
Though these stretches of political truth, and the other backroom deals that enabled the amendment’s passage, are uncharacteristic of Abraham Lincoln, they were necessary. They were necessary because Lincoln, and those who stood with him, were engaged in a war that was older than the one between north and south. They were fighting a war that was older than written history. Lincoln stood against a power that he had believed unconquerable earlier in his career, even though he despised it. It was a force that had controlled entire economies and civilizations, one that had kept the majority of citizens in many countries as property. But, if he succeeded, made it illegal, then the power of slavery would be dealt a loss that it would never recover from. While some other countries still held on to the ancient practice of owning and controlling other human beings, from the moment of his signature on the Thirteenth Amendment, Abraham Lincoln won the decisive battle in a war that had lasted for thousands of years across the globe and for nearly a century in the United States.
Since the birth of the United States, its Congress had been one of the primary battlefields in the fight between slavery and freedom, but never so obviously as on May 22, 1856.
That afternoon, shortly after the Senate had adjourned for the day, three young men, Preston Brooks, Laurence Keitt and Henry Edmundson strode into the Senate chamber, canes in hand. The first two were members of the House of Representatives from South Carolina and Edmundson was a Representative from Virginia.
As Keitt, the youngest of the three at 31, hung back with Edmundson, Brooks advanced on Charles Sumner, Senator from Massachusetts, who was busy writing at his wooden desk. Two days earlier, Sumner had finished an inflammatory speech about the Kansas-Nebraska Act, a law which had created a situation where pro and anti-slavery forces were fighting to determine the future of the Kansas Territory when it became a state. In the Senate Chamber, Sumner had condemned the violence that was spreading and said, “It is the rape of a virgin territory, compelling it to the hateful embrace of slavery; and it may be clearly traced to a depraved desire for a new slave state, hideous offspring of such a crime, in the hope of adding to the power of slavery in the National Government.” Sumner’s speech had taken two days to deliver and had included personal attacks on South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler.
Preston crossed the semi-circular room, stopped in front of Sumner’s desk and took only a moment to accuse the Senator of libel before he raised his hand. In it, he held a thick black cane, topped with gold.
Perhaps Brooks had been emboldened by news of the attack on Laurence, Kansas the day before, when pro-slavery forces had looted and destroyed much of the Free-State town, or perhaps Brooks needed no push to make him feel entitled to do what he did next. He might have felt that it was not only his obligation, but his right.
He swung the cane down onto Sumner’s head. The Senator raised his arms to block the subsequent blows, but they came too fast and too hard. Sumner fell to the floor, partially under his desk and was followed by Brooks, who kept hammering down with the cane.
As other Senators rushed in to stop the attack, Representative Keitt raised his own cane and warned them to stay back. Brooks pressed on, striking over and over, so hard that his cane broke on Sumner’s head, leaving several two inch gashes in the scalp that went down to the bone.
Brooks was finally pulled away, saying that he had only meant to whip Sumner. The Senator, though able to testify against Brooks less than two weeks later, suffered from the trauma for years.
Edmundson, though he had attempted to attack another Representative in 1854, was not censured after the assault on Sumner. There was a motion in Congress to expel Brooks and Keitt, but it failed to gain the necessary votes. Instead, both men resigned from the House, only to be immediately re-elected. Brooks paid a three hundred dollar fine for the assault and hundreds of southerners sent him new canes to replace the one he had broken.
This was the height of Slave Power in America. The idea that a member of Congress could physically assault another and walk away with no real repercussions seems utterly alien to us now, but that is the level of power that the institution of slavery held at that time. That is the power that President Lincoln was up against.
Though Lincoln never used the terms Slave Power Conspiracy or Slaveocracy, he argued against what these terms stood for: the disproportionate power that slave states had in the federal government. Of the first twelve Presidents, ten were slave owners either before or during their presidency. The two exceptions were John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams. Prior to Lincoln’s election in 1860, the presidency had been free of ties to slavery for only ten years. But even with this bond between slavery and the executive branch of government, the work done by slave owners in the legislative branch was much more significant in entrenching and expanding the rights of slave holders.
In 1787, Congress included the Three-Fifths Compromise as part of the Constitution. It granted slave states more power in the House of Representatives by counting three out of every five slaves in the population figures used to calculate the number of representatives their states received, even though not one of those slaves was able to vote.
Also in that year, the Northwest Ordinance was passed. Though it established the territory around the Great Lakes as free, it also set national precedent that escaped slaves there had to be returned to their masters. This precedent was strengthened with the 1850 passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, which stated that all runaway slaves in the entire country must be returned to their masters.
While the Missouri Compromise of 1820 drew a line that limited slave states to the south, the real power play at the time was the unwritten compromise in Congress that for every free state admitted to the union, a slave state must also be added. But this limiting factor of the north/south division was erased with the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, which eventually fueled Sumner’s provoking speech. This law, co-written by Stephen Douglas, who Lincoln would repeatedly debate in Illinois, allowed new states to decide whether they would be free or slave no matter where they were located.
Some argue that the Slave Power Conspiracy was a myth, but political and personal attacks like these need not involve clandestine meetings in smoke-filled rooms. A simple enough explanation is that those who enjoyed the economic benefits of slavery were anxious to keep the power and money that were in their hands. No organized conspiracies were necessary for them to use whatever leverage they could to hold on to what they valued.
But the reasons that the slave states fought so hard to keep this power that they would secede from the United States are not just about the power and money that slavery brought. Part of this struggle for power was the fact that slavery had met so little organized resistance over its history. And that history stretches back farther than any of us can know.
The upright box, covered in a mosaic of blue lapis lazuli, red limestone and white shells, stands less than a foot high. The thin end panels taper up at the top and only have space for three images each, but the long sides stretch the action out into something like long cartoon panels, though the subject matter is a bit more serious.
One side shows images of a feast and people carrying heavy loads and tending to animals, but the other side of the nearly 5,000 year old Sumerian artifact known as the Standard of Ur shows what may be the earliest recorded evidence of slavery. On this panel, captured prisoners, who have been stripped of all clothing, are taken before a conquering king, almost assuredly to become slaves.
Much more detail on the function of slaves in early human society is provided by the code of Hammurabi, which was written during the Babylonian king’s reign, from approximately 1795 to 1750 BC. It gives detailed laws concerning slavery, including the return of sick slaves to their seller and trial periods for female slaves.
Slavery also existed in ancient Egypt. Not only prisoners of war became slaves, but sometimes Egyptian citizens sold themselves into slavery to pay debts or to avoid forced hard labor. In an early form of manumission, Egyptian slave owners were able to adopt their slaves and grant them freedom. The children of slaves were also sometimes adopted, given their freedom and treated as one of the master’s own offspring.
As civilization spread throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean, it left other records of slavery. Slave owners were often outnumbered by slaves in ancient Greece and there were many classes of slaves. Some were allowed to reside in their own homes, while others lived and worked and died in brutal conditions.
The Roman Empire continued the practice of enslaving captives, turning many Greeks and other conquered peoples into slaves, and some of their rights fluctuated under Roman rule. Slaves could no longer own property, but if they were able to purchase their freedom, they became full citizens with the right to vote. But even with these rights, their living conditions could still be brutal and their lives were often short.
But slavery was not limited to these areas. It flourished in the rest of the world as well. Every major civilization has left records of some form of slavery. Incan citizens had to spend part of every year in forced labor. Vikings, who called their slaves thralls, expanded the trade of slaves throughout Europe. And though slavery seemed less widespread in ancient China, there was a time when the families of convicted criminals became someone else’s property.
In all of these countries, conditions were hard for slaves. In many places murdering a slave was not a crime and many of them were worked to death in mines or were forced to fight in wars or slaughter each other as entertainment. Their lives tended to be short, without comfort and subject to the whim of those that ruled them.
But while slavery continued to spread and gain power throughout the world, there were a few who stood against it. And most of them paid a very high price.
The road from Capua to Rome was gently raised in the middle to let water run off to the ditches and low curbs on each side. Even though the road was nearly two hundred and fifty years old, the paving stones still fit together tightly.
Of the two main roads from Capua to Rome, the Appian Way was the quicker route, shorter by nearly fifteen miles than the Via Latina, and it stayed closer to the western coast of Italy. And, in the spring of 71 BC there was a crucified body every hundred feet along the 130 mile stretch of the Appian Way between the two cities.
The 6,000 bodies crucified along the road were the last survivors of the 70,000 escaped slaves who had stood up with the former gladiator Spartacus. Their revolt, the Third Servile War, had lasted two years before being crushed by Marcus Licinius Crassus and the 50,000 legionnaires he commanded. And in order to cement his reputation after the victory, the expense of the 6,000 crucifixions was most probably paid by Crassus himself.
Kitchen knives were the first weapons used by Spartacus and the seventy-three gladiators who initially escaped with him. Afterward, they were able to steal better weapons, attracted other slaves to their revolt and then defeated every Roman force they met until Crassus ended their uprising. The tactics that Spartacus used were innovative, but his goals and motivations are still a mystery to us. He had several opportunities to strike north, out of the Italian peninsula and back to his native Thrace, but he didn’t take them. Also, there are no writings that show his desire to end slavery in the Roman Empire. All we can really know is that Spartacus wanted freedom for himself, and to do this, he had to fight for it with a stolen sword. For at that time, no one stood up for the slaves.
With historic governments fighting to preserve slavery from the beginning of written history (The Code of Hammurabi declared the death penalty for any who harbored a fugitive slave.), one would expect that the earliest and strongest voices against it would be from religious groups. Sadly, this wasn’t so. While there was some early opposition to slavery from religion, particularly from the Jewish Essene and Therapuetae sects, most faiths offer a mixed position on slavery. Scriptures from many religions put down rules for the fair treatment of slaves, but did little to try to abolish it in ancient times.
Philosophy did little better. The thinkers of Greece and Rome held conflicting views on slavery. While Plato’s star student Aristotle believed slavery was natural, the Sophists believed in the equality of all people, and that no person was made a slave by nature. The Roman Stoics also believed in the equality of all humans, but they did nothing measurable to stop slavery until the reign of Marcus Aurelius, who greatly expanded the legal rights of slaves.
Without substantial help from religious organizations, philosophers or others opposed to slavery, the earliest people to fight against it were slaves themselves. And that meant attempts at escape and revolt like Spartacus’ Third Servile War. These revolts continued sporadically in the Roman Empire and throughout the rest of the world, but in the end the sporadic resistance did little good. Slavery only became more politically, socially and economically entrenched, especially as European slavers found a way to increase their profits.
THE FIRST HOLOCAUST
They were cargo, and as such, they were transported as efficiently as possible. On some ships they were forced into decks that were three feet high, so that they had to sit leaning against each other. Or, they would have to lie side by side with less than seven square feet of space each, with the sleeping platform above them so close that they couldn’t turn onto their sides. They were often chained to each other, sometimes in long rows, sometimes in twos or threes. Though they would occasionally be led onto the main deck for air and forced exercise, they could spend days locked below, packed so tightly and with so little fresh air that many suffocated. The conditions were so severe that one slave might murder the next just to have a chance to breathe easier.
The odor of the cramped compartments was an overpowering mix of waste and decay. Disease was rampant. Dysentery made each deck into a sewage pit. Smallpox could ravage the people packed onboard. Ten to twenty percent of the slaves on each voyage were expected to die before they reached the slave markets in the Americas, and they weren’t always removed promptly. The living could be chained to a decomposing corpse for days before it was thrown overboard.
Many would attempt suicide, as it was the only escape they could see. They would try to starve themselves, or jump overboard, if there weren’t nets on the side of the ship to keep them trapped.
This was the Middle Passage, one leg of the three stage journey a slave ship took around the Atlantic Ocean. This section alone could take months to complete.
While slavery remained a constant in the Middle Ages, it wasn’t until Columbus’ venture to the New World in 1492 that slavery began its period of largest growth. Barely thirty years after the European discovery of the Americas, the transatlantic slave trade began and it quickly became very efficient, a triangular trade route, with profitable cargo on board at every stage.
Though there were different routes and variations in the triangular trade, the most common first leg carried European goods to West Africa, where the ships were then loaded with slaves. The second stage, the Middle Passage, took the tightly packed slaves to South America, the Caribbean, and North America. From there, agricultural products such as sugar and tobacco were carried back to Europe. At each stage of the trip, slavers could make a profit. But the costs were immeasurable.
The number of human beings transported across the Atlantic in slave ships has been estimated between eleven and fifteen million. Ten to twenty percent died during the Middle Passage trip, with more dying in harsh conditions in the Americas. But the largest number of deaths in this system was the six million or more killed by African slavers during the wars and raids that provided the captives.
This was the system that fed the slave-oriented economy of the southern United States. The power it held was what Abraham Lincoln had to face: hundreds of years of building economic and governmental power that had convinced him early in his political career that no matter how much he despised slavery, he would not be able to conquer it, especially while trying to preserve the Union. But while that Slave Power was still strong in the South, things had begun to change elsewhere.
As Spartacus had, the slaves on the ships bound west across the Atlantic sometimes rebelled, but finally, they did not do it alone. The brutality of the slave trade and the growth of its power did not go unnoticed, and this time some individuals started to regard it with revulsion. They saw it not as a fact of life, but as an injustice that had to be stopped. Slowly, a movement began to form that would show a President what was possible and would change the world forever.
The conditions they were shipped in and the abuses suffered by slaves were well known to Quaker merchants on both sides of the Atlantic in the 17th century as many of them were then involved in the shipping and selling slaves.
But in 1688, a small group of Pennsylvania Quakers started a petition against the slave trade. Sadly, it failed to gain any traction there (though it was unearthed and published again seventeen years before the U.S. Civil War). In order to make a difference, their anti-slavery message had to cross the Atlantic to England and ferment there for over 100 years before it could come back stronger, before it could be presented to Abraham Lincoln as a real possibility.
In England, in the late 1700s, Quakers began to reach out to other denominations in England in order to stop the slave trade, but even with the help of other Christian groups, the Quakers made no progress with the British government until they began to work with Member of Parliament William Wilberforce, who began to campaign against the slave trade in 1789.
Though his efforts were defeated over and over, Wilberforce did not give up on his goal of ending the British slave trade. He continued to press for it, and slowly gained the necessary allies that helped him pass the Slave Trade Act in 1807. Then, over the next eighteen years, he fought for the complete abolition of slavery in Britain. In 1833, Wilberforce, then retired, learned that the Slavery Abolition Act was soon to be passed. He died three days later.
This eventual success would be enough to fix Wilberforce’s place as a hero of abolitionism. His unwavering devotion served as a catalyst that showed that slavery, no matter how powerful or entrenched, could actually be defeated.
POWER CONCEDES NOTHING WITHOUT A DEMAND
Wilberforce, stooped, weak and frail at 74 years of age, had suffered from a bout of influenza earlier that year, from which he had never fully recovered. But in the summer of 1833, he welcomed the visit of a young American abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison. The young newspaper publisher idolized the British statesman and spoke often of the man’s intellect, spirit and dedication to the cause of abolition.
Over two days, the two men sat and talked for hours. They ate together and Garrison noted that while Wilberforce was weakened, he was still in possession of an “amazing energy.” After their meeting, Garrison returned to the United States to continue the publication of his anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator.
Over a publishing career that lasted forty years, Garrison constantly spoke out against slavery, and often put himself at risk. In 1835, he was dragged through the streets of Boston and was nearly lynched before he was saved by the police. Later, the state of Georgia offered a five thousand dollar reward for his arrest.
And while Garrison’s fight against slavery would continue through the Civil War, the torch of hope and dedication that he picked up from Wilberforce was about to be passed to another.
Fredrick Douglass was tall, imposing, stern of face and had a passion that turned him into a speaker who would not hesitate to condemn anything that he regarded as unjust. When he met William Lloyd Garrison in 1841, he had only escaped from slavery three years before. His thick hair, seen streaked with gray in so many photographs, was still solid black, and parted on the side instead of swept straight back.
Born in 1818 under the name Fredrick Augustus Washington Bailey and taught to read (which was illegal then) by the wife of one of his owners, he had lived his entire life as a slave until 1838. After two earlier failed escape attempts, the young man was aided by Anna Murray, who would soon become his wife. She gave him a sailor’s uniform and part of her savings to aid him. With identification papers from a freed black sailor, Fredrick’s third attempt took less than a day and ended with him safely in New York. Anna Murray joined him and they were married within days and soon adopted Douglass as their last name.
In 1841, Douglass met Garrison and the two became friends and collaborators. Douglass’ reputation as a lecturer spread quickly throughout the North and also to Great Britain when he traveled there to escape being recaptured by his former owner. English abolitionists prized his input so much that they raised the money needed to purchase his freedom so that he could return to the United States as a legally free man after his two-year trip.
But after his return, something began to change within Fredrick Douglass. He began to believe that the Constitution of the United States, even with the Three-Fifths compromise, did not actively support slavery. This view clashed with Garrison’s position that both Constitution and the union of the states should be abolished. Douglass’ evolving view that the United States government, though plagued by slavery, was still valid became a key to his future work, for he believed that the government itself could work to abolish slavery.
He brought this view, this hope, with him when he visited the White House unannounced in the summer of 1863. Though he and Lincoln knew each other through public discourse, and had often disagreed about what could be done about slavery, they had never met. Yet, when Douglass arrived at the White House to discuss equal pay for black army volunteers and found himself at the end of a long line of petitioners he was immediately ushered in to meet the President. At that meeting, they began a friendship that helped to change Lincoln and the world.
Lincoln, like Douglass, had come from virtually nothing. Both men had educated themselves and both had a fundamental hatred for slavery. The primary difference between them was simply that President Lincoln had thought for almost his entire career that the abolition of slavery was not possible for many years to come while Douglass had always advocated for its immediate end.
In one of his debates with Illinois senator Stephen Douglas, Lincoln stated that he believed the framers of the Constitution had been forced to deal with the issue of slavery as they found it. “They did not make it so, but they left it because they knew of no way to get rid of it at that time.” This is the same viewpoint that plagued Lincoln early in his presidency.
And Lincoln’s views on slavery were equally clear. “I have always hated slavery, I think as much as any abolitionist.” But they were tempered by what he thought was politically possible. From the early stages of his career, his speeches contained the double message that while he held only disdain for it, he felt that he could not stop it. And at his first inaugural address he tried to appease the southern states by stating that he had no lawful right to interfere with slavery where it existed.
And yet, along with his growing friendship with Fredrick Douglass, Lincoln surrounded himself with abolitionists. Nearly his entire cabinet was made up of opponents of slavery and he was good friends with others, such as the injured Senator Sumner. These abolitionists, and later Frederick Douglass, had Lincoln’s ear, and gradually he began to believe that ending slavery was possible.
In 1862, Lincoln laid the groundwork for the Emancipation Proclamation, which he signed on January 1st, 1863. This proclamation, which freed slaves in the rebelling Confederate states, was issued months before Lincoln and Douglass met. And though it did not free slaves in the Union Border States that still permitted slavery (the executive branch did not have the power to override state laws within the Union), the Emancipation Proclamation did much to calm the anger that the abolitionists felt about Lincoln’s slowness in freeing the slaves. And it was after this meeting with Douglass that Congress and Lincoln began to work on the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.
FINISHING THE BATTLE
It was this thread of compassion, the belief and hope that slavery could be stopped, handed down from Quakers to Wilberforce to Garrison to Douglass and other abolitionists and finally to Lincoln that came to a culmination on February 1st, 1865. The political and social power of the slave holders was finally broken and never regained its strength. The seeds planted by generations of abolitionists bloomed when Lincoln made slavery illegal in the United States.
Abolitionism continued to spread and more countries outlawed slavery after the United States. The final holdout, Mauritania, abolished slavery in 1981 and made it illegal in 2007.
Finally, after thousands of years of sanctioned slavery, this crime is now illegal everywhere in the world.
Sadly, the battle with slavery is not completely won. It is hard to estimate how many are still living in some type of slavery today. Experts estimate that as many as 27 to 29 million people are held in some form of slavery or involuntary servitude. If these numbers are accurate, this is the highest number of people living in slavery in human history, but when looked at as a percentage of world population, and we take even the highest estimate of 29 million and divide it by the current population of 7.2 billion we see a drastic decline. Less than one half of one percent of humanity is now enslaved. This is by far the smallest percentage of people living in slavery in history.
Hundreds of years ago, the number of people in slavery wasn’t measured in percentages, but in fractions. For centuries, one third to one half of Koreans lived in slavery. In parts of Africa, half to three quarters of the people were slaves.
To give an example of how much slavery has truly declined, compare the number of slaves in the Roman Empire to the number of humans living in some type of slavery today. A safe estimate is that 30% of the Roman population was made up of slaves. If we expanded that to the population of the world today, that would mean there would be 2,160,000,000 slaves today. Slavery on that scale is gone. Forever.
Slavery also produces a vastly smaller economic impact than it once did. Prior to the Civil War, the southern half of the United States was fueled by slave labor and now slavery contributes to less than one half of one percent of the global economy. And because of this, it is vulnerable, more vulnerable than it has ever been.
For thousands of years, longer than any written record, slavery has existed, and it still does. But within the last two hundred years, we have stood together against it. And in that time, we have taken a problem that touched every human on the planet and turned it into something that experts believe we can completely end in our lifetime. A crime that has plagued humankind for over five thousand years could be eliminated in the next thirty. That is because of the work that the abolitionists did and continue to do.
For thousands of years, people suffered in slavery. They lived in terrible conditions, died prematurely, and had no power over their own lives. Not only that, but the people who controlled them suffered as well. Regardless of the cultural norms of the times, slave owner’s lives were cheapened and degraded by what they did. Today, all of our lives are better because slavery is near its extinction.
For thousands of years, we limited our compassion to those in our immediate group: our family, our tribe, our race or our nation. But in the last two hundred years we have begun to realize, as a species, that basic compassion for others not only should, but must legally apply to everyone. Our circle of compassion has grown and we are all bigger for it.
Never again will there be a war over slavery. Never again will someone try to publicly declare it is legal or moral or justifiable in any way. There is hard work ahead to end it, to wipe out its every form in this war against freedom that has lasted thousands of years, but thanks to abolitionists past and present, this fight is in its end stages. It will take time to clean up after this war, but with inspiration from the likes of Wilberforce, Douglass and Lincoln, we can finish it. Within our lifetimes, we can live in a world without slavery.