Slavery central to American Identity?

In a recent article Seattle Times columnist Jerry Large takes on a subject closely related to the one we're talking about here. Large argues that slavery is central to any understanding of American identity (although he doesn't use the term identity). And you can't talk about slavery without discussing the Confederacy:

In 2011, as the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War approached, Pew Research Center asked Americans what was the primary cause of the conflict , and 48 percent said states' rights, while 38 percent said slavery.

The South fought to preserve and spread slavery . Facts matter. Truth matters.

There's a lot to unpack in that article, but let’s start with this: if Americans in general disassociate slavery from the Civil War in their minds, they also have separated the Confederacy from slavery. And if Americans outside the South think the Confederacy was not particularly about slavery (i.e. assuming displaying the Confederate flag is about heritage, not politics), then it is easier for them to rationalize identifying with Confederates.

A second point Large makes that we should consider is that, no matter our personal history, this country as a whole benefited economically from slavery, and some of its greatest early leaders and thinkers participated in it. In that way, Confederate thinking has been part of American identity from the beginning. It didn't start and end with the Civil War. It's not suddenly reappearing now. It's growing strong again from roots that run deep.

Large believes that if we, as a nation, come to be a clearer understanding of just how real and pervasive slavery was, we would be better able to counter it's lingering effects. In his article it literally goes without saying that slavery is wrong in every sense. In this project, however, we should not take that for granted. The very premise of a rising Confederate identity means we have to assume that some people's minds were not changed by the Civil War.

The historic reservoir of pro-slavery sentiment lessens the anti-Confederate inhibitions of people in the North and West. While most of us may work to balance the truth of Jeffersonian ideals of liberty and equality with the life he lived, the Confederate would see justification for his world view. This line of reasoning can be put this way: If Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, then slavery is not un-American.

Consider whether we have experienced a social slight of hand with slavery – distancing it from the Confederacy with one hand, and tying it closer to our shared American identity with the other. These two forces can serve Confederate identity in the U.S. today.

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