Who Should Pay for Slavery?

An Address to the Members of the New York City Council Originally published at The New York Sun

[This title of this article as published in the June 3, 2003 edition of The New York Sun is “An Address to the Members of the New York City Council.”]

Members of the City Council, I stand before you today to congratulate you on your efforts to redress the great historical wrong of Slavery. Your pioneering initiative has not only moved New York toward redress, it has stimulated similar actions in other parts of the country. In the past weeks, the city councils of Chicago and Los Angeles have joined you in vowing to get to the bottom of the great historical question, “Who supported slavery and how can they be held responsible?”

It is important to confront these insurance companies, railroads, and manufacturers who were in business at the time and may have been complicit in furthering this great historical wrong. It is also crucial that these corporate enterprises be explored for potential financial liability. Needless to say, at a time when the governments across the country are facing serious budget shortfalls, it is important to explore every means by which some financial settlement can be extracted from righting old wrongs.

The reason I stand before you today, however, is to propose something far more ambitious.

There is one great corporate body that is more closely associated with the defense of slavery than any institution in American history. Not only did this group support slavery throughout the 19th Century, it continued to reap benefits from these efforts throughout the entire 20th century. I speak, of course, of the Democratic Party.

The Democrats, or the “Party of Slavery” as they were known in the 19th century, had noble beginnings under Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Brushing aside the old Federalist Party in 1800, the Democrats ruled without opposition throughout the “Era of Good Feelings” of the 1820s.

With the rise of John C. Calhoun and other Southern political leaders, however, the Democrats became more and more closely identified with the defense of slavery. Northern Whigs — really European-style aristocrats — spoke for the early nation’s commercial interests but never really found a popular following. Instead, the Democrats achieved their popular zenith during the era of Andrew Jackson. After that, however, the Democrats were represented by a string of ever-more-mediocre Presidential candidates whose only virtue was that they were Northerners unopposed to slavery.

As the Abolitionist Movement reached its crescendo in the 1850s, the Whigs were swept aside and replaced by the brand-new Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln won the Presidency in 1869 over Stephen Douglas, a Democrat who — true to form — argued that slavery was acceptable if the majority of the people in a slave-holding state approved it. Being sore losers, the Democrats promised to “leave the country” if Lincoln were elected. They did just that, attempting a secession movement that divided the Union and precipitated the Civil War, which led to the death of 400,000 Americans, including many New Yorkers.

After the Civil War, the Confederacy regrouped around the Democrats, which came to be called the party of “rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” (the rebellion being the Southern secession). Southern Democrats established Jim Crow regimes across the South. They denied the right of voting to former slaves, resisted industrial progress, and generally continued to “fight the Civil War.” The vestiges of this effort can be seen even today in the biographies of Congressional leaders such as former Democratic Senate majority leader Robert Byrd, who began his public career as a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Throughout the 20th Century, the Solid South delivered the largest single voting block in the country to the Democratic Party. The bargain was that Southern Democrats be allowed to keep the legacy of slavery alive. By delivering one-quarter of the Presidential electoral vote every four years and tying up key chairmanships in Congress, Southern Democrats offered a power base to Northern liberals, a relatively small faction enamored with European socialism. Beginning in the 1930s, this unlikely pairing ruled the country for sixty years.

Only in the 1990s did this unholy alliance break up. Pioneering Republicans such as northern transplant Newt Gingrich finally convinced the Old South to “stop fighting the Civil War” and follow its conservative instincts into the Republican Party. Abandoning its Civil-War concerns, the South quickly integrated itself into an interior voting block now referred to as the “red states” — forming a solid, progressive coalition that represents mainstream America. This has left liberals isolated in the “blue states” on the East and West Coasts, where their influence is gradually diminishing.

The Democratic Party, then, not only supported slavery before and after the Civil War but continually reaped the benefits of this support right through the last decade. For this they owe the American people just compensation. Today I am announcing a class action against the Democrats on behalf of the American people for $1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 plus punitive damages in compensation for the harm done in defending the cause of slavery. I promise to spend the money wisely.

And while the Democrats may be unable to meet their liabilities, other defendants can be held responsible. According to the principle of joint-and-several liability established so well in the civil courts, for example, the trial lawyers of America can be made to bear financial responsibility. The Association of Trial Lawyers of America, after all, is a “deep pocket” and the Democratic Party’s largest financial contributor. Also named as defendants will be Hollywood and its movie stars. Hollywood is not only a major financial contributor to the Democrats but the industry has benefited handsomely from movies glorifying the Ante-Bellum South, such as “Gone With the Wind.”

Since New York City suffered so many wrongs from the practice of slavery (lives lost during the Civil War, the draft riots), I believe the city can claim just financial compensation. I therefore ask you to join me as co-plaintiff. Tucker-vs.-the-Democrats not only promises to redress America’s great historical wrong but will also solve New York City’s budget problems for years to come. I am also wondering if, since you are joining me in this great undertaking, if you could vote a very small appropriation of $100 in order to pay the filing fees.

William Tucker is a Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute and columnist for The New York Sun.