The reunionTuesday, November 23, 2021
THEY all gathered in Philadelphia as they had done in historic fashion almost 250 years before — John, Benjamin, Alexander, the other John, Thomas, James and George. They had become deeply concerned that after all this time their vision of a more perfect union seemed to be in tatters. They purposely brought with them Abraham and Martin, both of whom had paid the ultimate price in seeking to secure the union's perfection.
Thomas opened the discussion. “We founded this nation on the principle that all men are created equal. We knew then that it would never become a perfect union unless that principle was universally accepted, cherished, and protected. But it is obvious that this has not happened. Why?”
Martin: The problem, Thomas, is not with the principle. That principle that you so beautifully drafted provided a conceptual framework for a great nation — and if you and those who came after had genuinely believed it, and faithfully defended it, we would have achieved as much perfection as is possible outside of God's kingdom.
It would have been a template for human relationships, so commandingly persuasive that nations all over the world would make a beaten path to our door. But you betrayed that principle from the very beginning when you excluded from that entitlement to equality the Negroes whose forefathers were abducted in Africa and brought here. They and their descendants were held in slavery and forced to work in the cane fields, cotton fields, and tobacco fields of Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, and the Mississippi River Valley.
All of you were comfortable to be slave owners. How could you have proclaimed that all men are created equal but yet you clearly did not mean that to include the Negroes whom you, yourselves, held in bondage? That grave error has sustained for more than 200 years the greatest obstacle to achieving that perfect union which today remains a fleeting illusion.
James: Context is important. We were 13 separate colonies of Great Britain engaged in large-scale production of sugar, cotton and tobacco for the British market. We were building a strong economy and we were accumulating great wealth. The use of Negro slaves was the very foundation of that success.
Britain became envious and laid claim to a greater share of that wealth, which led us into a courageous war to rid ourselves of British rule. To recognise the Negro slave as equal and therefore entitled to be free would have destroyed our economy and strengthened the hands of the loyalists who insisted on retaining British rule. Our declaration of independence would have failed, and the resistance that George so successfully led would have collapsed.
But we made a start. We decided that a Negro slave was three-fifths of a human being. The remaining two-fifths could come later.
George: James is right. That's why we spoke of building “a more perfect union”, knowing that the perfection we sought would have to evolve. What leaves me flabbergasted is that it has been taking so long.
Abraham: We did make progress — even if it was slow in coming. We faced tremendous opposition here at home and all across Europe, but we eventually embraced the abolitionist movement. It almost led to the break-up of the union, and we had to wage a bitter civil war to preserve a nation that would no longer allow slavery. That's how the 13th amendment to make slavery illegal came about. But I, too, am saddened that 150 years later that founding principle that all men are created equal seems to be resting on shaky footing.
Martin: It took 100 years even after that, Abe, for the Negroes to earn the right to vote and for racial segregation to be outlawed — and many people, including little children attending church, lost their lives in that struggle. But laws can do only so much. They cannot eliminate racial prejudice which is as prevalent today as it was more than 50 years ago when I recounted my dream at the site of your memorial statue.
Abraham: With all due respect to you, Martin, and I absolutely admired your courage and strong leadership, but I always doubted that we could ever truly accept the Negro as our equal. I recall a discussion with General Benjamin Butler in which I said that I could not see the South and North living in peace unless we could get rid of the Negroes, and that it would be better to export them all to some fertile country.
So I invited a delegation of freed Negro men and women to the White House in 1862 and told them that it would be better for us to be separated. I even offered to assist them to return to Africa and suggested Liberia, since that was where most of their forefathers came from or, alternatively, to Haiti, since that was close by, but they angrily rejected my suggestion.
Martin: Abe, how could you expect them to do otherwise? You all were born here, but your forebears came from Europe. The Negroes, too, were born here, although their forebears came from Africa. We were both sons and daughters of this soil and the Negroes did more for the building of the economy than the white margin gatherers who profited from their forced labour. They had greater claim to this land than they did to Liberia, and certainly none to Haiti, which had enough of its own problems.
Thomas: It seems that the sons and daughters of those for whom the union was conceived firmly retain Abe's view that they and the Negroes should pursue separate paths. Look at what is happening today! Martin's movement might have masked the discomfort for a few decades, but his dream, although so well articulated, has not found favour with many of them and, increasingly, they are making that clear.
Look at what now goes on in Congress and at political rallies. Look at the conversations on social media. Nineteen states have now enacted laws to curtail the right of Negroes and other minorities to vote. A senator from Texas is even raising the spectacle of secession if the federal government overturns those laws. The union could be in danger of disorderly fragmentation. There is clearly a need for separate spaces. It may be necessary to reconfigure the union. There are over 50 states now — not just the 13 colonies that we had to deal with. The Negroes can have their own space, live their own lives, and the union can then move on to achieve its perfection.
Martin: That would create an unfathomable conundrum. Negroes today make up 14 per cent of the population scattered across every state. They are outnumbered by Hispanics, whose presence did not exist when you were devising the union. Plus, there is now a sizeable Asian population. Where would you put all of them?
Who would get the states rich in mineral resources or those in the farm belt or industrial Midwest? What about the $130 trillion of net reserves? How would that be shared up? And what of the almost 400 military bases scattered across all 50 states? Who would control those?
Abraham: Another civil war? God forbid!
Bruce Golding served as Jamaica's eighth prime minister from September 11, 2007 to October 23, 2011.