Philip Jenkins is certainly right about the rising trajectory of demands for reparations for slavery (“For What We Have Done, and What We Have Failed to Do,” Vital Signs, November 2000). I hope, but am doubtful, that he is also right about the potential of this gambit for exposing the root absurdity of liberal social policy. But there is more to be said about the subject, especially in regard to the idea of social debts created by history.

When I think of reparations, I always remember a conversation I had some years ago with a rather aggressive Germanic economist—let’s call him Professor Z. This scholar declared that he did not owe any reparations for slavery because his family came from Europe after slavery was abolished.

Well, it occurred to me there was more to be said about his debt to American society. My forebears came from Europe in the early 18th century. They played a part, albeit a modest one, in the founding of one of the original 13 states and in fighting the Revoluhonary War. Some of their kin helped settle the frontier. None of them owned any Africans, but like everybody else, they would have if they had not been too poor. They have taken part in every U.S. war; an uncle of mine was killed in the Battle of the Bulge, leaving a widow and orphan, and a great uncle was gassed in World War I.

If we are balancing the accounts of history, doesn’t Professor Z owe a debt to those of us Americans whose ancestors made a perilous sea journey to create a free and prosperous country to receive the millions who came later? Why should he freely enjoy all the benefits of American history, but not bear any of the burdens, such as reparations for slavery? By his refusal of responsibility for slavery. Professor Z is the churlishly ungrateful beneficiary not only of my ancestors but of the labor of many generations of African-Americans who long preceded him on this continent.

Of course, the question of the involuntary bondage of Africans in British North America over the course of about two-and-a-half centuries is not likely to receive much light in the debate which Professor Jenkins anticipates, especially considering the politically corrected condition of the historical profession today. But let’s look into forbidden territory.

Begin with a paradox: If there had been no slavery, then there would now be no African-Americans to make claims. Could the institution in that sense be regarded as a benefit? To what extent did the servitude of Africans in the United States exceed in severity’ the servitude of countless millions of mankind in every land and age, including the serf ancestors of many of us? Most certainly, without the forced journey of their ancestors to America, many present-day African- Americans would not exist, because their ancestors would have perished. And how do we weigh the debts for the relative advantage of the Africans who came to the English colonies and proliferated with those sent to Latin America, who were used up before they could leave offspring?

All sensible economic historians are aware that, although servitude is not an enviable condition, the slaves of antebellum America received some return on their labor. In fact, if honesty and reason played any part in our national dialogue, it would be easy to demonstrate from data and from European travelers that the slaves in general fared better in food, housing, health, and working hours than the urban poor of the Northern United States and Europe. In calculating reparations, how do we account for the portion of their labor that they were able to enjoy, or for their relative advantage over the miserable unenslaved poor of past centuries? And can we not subtract the billions spent on the war against poverty since the 1960’s against what is owed for past sins? (Of course, most of that went to upper-middleclass liberals to administer welfare, which was its purpose all along.) I know the Constitution is as dead as reason and honest}’ in public life, but reparations to the living descendants of slaves would qualify as the creation of an order of nobility— that is, special benefits conferred by blood—which is strictly forbidden.

Wliat the American government certainly does owe African-Americans for is the chaos, suffering, and reactive oppression created by their unplanned and violent emancipation in the wrong way (the greatest seizure of property, by far, in American history) and for the wrong reasons (vengeance on recalcitrant Southerners). But in order to assess that debt, Americans would have to reassess the myth that makes a ruthless imperialist-Darwinian war for national consolidation in the last century into a holy crusade. And that would be too painful.

        —Clyde WilsonColumbia, SC

Dr. Jenkins Responds:

So much of what Clyde Wilson says on the subject of racial reparations is so self-evidently correct that I fear I can offer only a pallid “polemic” of my own in return. Most of my own comments are of the sort that one might hear from a congregation encouraging a singularly effective preacher (“Tell it!” “Yes!”).

His remarks are all the more critical since the reparations campaign continues to grow. Last November, Harper’s offered a front-page symposium on the theme of “Making the Case for Racial Reparations.” And if you want to see firsthand the sogginess of the arguments made in such endeavors, look no further than Elazar Barkan’s recent book The Guilt of Nations: Restitution and Negotiating Historical Injustices (W.W. Norton). Barkan resolves the delicate issue of determining the factual basis of claims of historical victimization by the simple device of assuming that every single ostensible victim is truthful and accurate, if not omniscient.

Dr. Wilson’s important point about the universality of serfdom or actual slavery can also be illustrated by a simple mathematical exercise. How many ancestors did you have one generation ago? Why, two, of course, namely your parents. Two generations back means four ancestors, three generations implies eight ancestors, and so on. Ten generations ago, you notionally had a thousand ancestors walking the earth at one time, while 30 generations back, you had no less than a billion. Tracing your family back the 60 generations to Roman times, you should in theory have been descended from some two-to-the-60th-power human beings, a number larger than the actual population of the planet. What this all means is that any given person of European descent can in theory be related to everyone who lived on that continent in ancient or medieval times, including the very substantial number of slaves and serfs who constituted so large a proportion of the European population up through early modern times. Recall that, for most of Eastern Europe, serfdom was only introduced in the late 16th century, when it was dying out in the West, and that, in various times and places, serfdom had the worst characteristics that we associate with African slavery in the New World. Even in the 17th century, Western Europeans faced the ever-present threat of kidnapping, enslavement, and forced conversion by Muslim coastal raiders. One way or another, we are all descended from people who were bought and sold, who were whipped and raped by their owners, who saw their children stolen and sold by their masters. If we believe in reparations for past misdeeds, at what point in time does the debt cease? Does the horizon of blood-guilt lie at 200 years, or five? Why?

Where I disagree with Dr. Wilson is in his remarks about the end of African-American slavery, about “the chaos, suffering, and reactive oppression created by their unplanned and violent emancipation in the wrong way . . . and for the wrong reasons.” That emancipation and Reconstruction were carried out disastrously, no reasonable observer could doubt: Without such blunders and injustices, how could the very diverse and contentious white South of the 1860’s have been transformed into the solid political bloc that prevailed throughout the first half of the 20th century? My only question is, what were the alternatives? The fact that slavery was so common in historical terms does not justify its existence, and I have no sympathy for any claims that Southern slavery was to the slightest degree redeemed by a sense of paternalism, nor is Dr. Wilson seeking to offer any such excuses, hi the circumstances of 1865,1 fail to see that airy federal regime could have acted otherwise than ending the institution with all deliberate speed, as soon as that option fell within its power.