`Unrequited toil'

March 28, 2007

Slavery is the darkest stain on American history. It began in Maryland in 1639, and lasted more than two centuries. Now the House of Delegates is expressing its "profound regret for the role that Maryland played in instituting and maintaining slavery and for the discrimination that was slavery's legacy."

Can today's politicians cure the problem with a resolution? No. Is the expression of regret worthwhile? Yes, and the key is in that last phrase, "the discrimination that was slavery's legacy."

The ill effects of slavery exist in American society today, and all Americans must live with that, whether their ancestors were slave owners, or slaves, or abolitionists, or foreigners who had yet to immigrate when slavery came to an end. It is a national legacy.

But there is a point that we believe must be made: The United States did deal with slavery, in the most terrible war in the country's history. Historians have argued about whether it was primarily a war to preserve the Union or one between conflicting economic systems - but without slavery there would have been no Civil War, and after the Civil War there was no slavery.

By 1865, 364,511 Union soldiers - white and black - had died fighting against the Confederacy, and their sacrifice must not be made little of. Maryland, it is worth noting, though a slave state, sent more soldiers to the Union army than to the Confederate.

Yet in March 1865, Abraham Lincoln had come to see, in one sense, no distinction between the sides, and in his Second Inaugural he distilled the essence of the war: "Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, `The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'"

All the blood spilled, on both sides, was an atonement for slavery. Maybe, at more than a half-million dead, Union and Confederate, it wasn't a sufficient one, but it was a high price for any people to pay.

But then - then came the failure of Reconstruction, the failure to make amends to the former slaves, the failure to create a just society, the failure to deal with the legacy of slavery. That's why, in 2007, Maryland's General Assembly is still grappling with the issue.

And here, too, the failure belonged both to the North and the South. It was a national legacy. And that's where the regret really belongs.

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