Following the release of the film 12 Years a Slave, Jason McKenney reflects on the lessons that the whole of America can learn from slavery. He also argues that from the time of American independence, slavery was in demise in the USA and considers the importance of slavery in US history.

This article is provided by Jason McKenney from


Simply a Shame?

With the recent release of the film 12 Years a Slave, there has been a gale of new commentary on slavery in the United States. The film is based on the autobiographical account of Solomon Northrup, a black man born free in New York State before being kidnapped and sold down the river where he was to live the life of enforced bondage in Louisiana until his escape.

Most of the reviews of the film are as much about slavery as they are about the movie itself. Based on several reviews posted at, slavery was a “tragedy of countless thousands of souls beaten down,” an “unrelenting horror” and “our national shame.” Thoughts like this aren’t a surprise when dealing with such an emotional and gut-wrenching subject. No sane person would disagree with these statements, but it almost feels like we’re tilling the same ground over and over here without planting any new seeds. Could there be a more positive lesson to pull out of the awe-inspiring struggle so many black slaves endured to make progress towards freedom? Is there a lesson that keeps the evil aspects of slavery in perspective while also giving us a better understanding why it was so important that black liberation succeeded?

A Ride for Liberty - The Fugitive Slaves. Eastman Johnson, 1862.

A Ride for Liberty - The Fugitive Slaves. Eastman Johnson, 1862.

Slavery and its relation to the black experience in the United States are frequently thought of in just those terms: the black experience. There are not many lessons that the white population currently take from the long struggle for emancipation beyond the fact that slavery was America’s so-called “national shame” and that whites should treat blacks as equals. Other groups such as Latinos and Asians may feel even further removed from this chapter in US national history. However, there is much more for all Americans to learn from the liberation of black slaves than it simply being the right thing to do.


Fueling the Fire of Liberation

The demise of slavery in the United States began almost the moment the nation declared its independence from Britain.

“But how can that be?” you ask. “Slavery still had decades of massive growth ahead of it after 1776.”

I will concede that point if you also concede that the broader principles, arguments and justifications for ending slavery were making unprecedented leaps and bounds in the 18th century. The philosophical movement known as “The Enlightenment” produced writers and thinkers who argued against slavery on humanitarian grounds because the treatment of slaves was growing more brutal by the moment. While valid in tone, the weakness to this argument is that it makes slavery more acceptable as long as the slave isn’t treated poorly. More complete arguments against human slavery claimed that it violated basic natural rights, including the right to liberty of person. These were ideas that had been virtually unheard of prior to The Enlightenment, and with the US Declaration of Independence, the birth of the first nation founded principally on Enlightenment Ideals was underway.

“But the Constitution made indirect allowances for slavery when it was first ratified!” you say.

“And many of the Founding Fathers owned slaves!” you say.

As the 18th century English writer Samuel Johnson put it, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” True and true, but as most writers will also say, perfection rarely arrives in the first couple of drafts. It can take years of delicate crafting to go from a small kernel of truth and stretch it out to a full-fledged cultural paradigm. In other words, who cares if Thomas Jefferson owned slaves? The principles of individual rights, human liberty and religious freedom which the agrarian redhead supported helped fertilize the soil out of which the fight for abolition grew.  This was because, at their heart, many of the Founding Fathers knew their ideal of personal freedom from tyranny was incompatible with chattel slavery. They believed it would only be a matter of time before the peculiar institution either phased itself out or resulted in a climactic and violent civil war.

During the eighty-nine years between the Declaration of Independence and the Surrender at Appomattox, many African-Americans, both free and slave, fought with as much heart, courage and fearlessness to free their people as any lieutenant in General Washington’s army. The fight took many forms. Frederick Douglass and William Still gave us words, stories and history. Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey gave us conspiracy and execution of violent slave revolts in the antebellum countryside. Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth showed us that even caught in the brambles of soul-crushing bondage, a woman’s spirit could rise above the situation and show others that a better life was possible.

Each of these people and thousands of others just like them, whether they knew it or not, were acting out natural human impulses codified in America’s Founding Documents. America was built on liberty and independence because the Founding Fathers believed that was the natural state of humankind; to be free and self-governing and not tied down to another power whether it be an English despot or some Southern plantation owner.


An Inspiration for Others

I think that too often, the black struggle for liberation is viewed as an ancillary offshoot of American history and not part of the main course. Most Americans think of US history between the 1770s and the 1860s as basically the Revolution, maybe the War of 1812, the growth of slavery, westward expansion, and then the Civil War where the slaves were freed (with a Second Great Awakening mixed in for good measure). When attention is paid to events like the Underground Railroad, Douglass’ North Star and the early 19th century slave rebellions, they are sometimes viewed as isolated or even minor events that played third fiddle to the larger strains of the American narrative. They will also tend to be viewed as sources of pride exclusively for the African-American population and less so for other ethnicities who claim this nation as home. Instead, these events should be viewed as a vindication of the ideals of the Enlightenment, justification in the founding of the United States and proof that the struggle for the abolishment of black slavery was a more tangible representation of the abstract models fought for by the Founding Fathers.

The examples given by people like Tubman, Still and Northrup to modern Americans of every stripe and color are just as powerful and just as meaningful to the blended DNA of freedom that underlies the United States as any treatise by Jefferson, maneuvers led by Washington or speeches given by Lincoln. These men and women of color fighting for their independence and inspired by the spirit of our Constitution serve as great examples of what it means to be American. Their actions will naturally carry deeper meaning for other African-Americans, but Americans of every ethnic background should take pride in living in a country that has produced such amazing leaders as these.


Jason McKenney was born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky, and now lives in the suburbs of Los Angeles. His education background is in technology and business, but he has a passion for history. His adventure series Time Trip is his attempt to introduce young adult readers to famous historical events in a new and exciting way.


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