The U.S. and the Reparations Quandary: Are we really worse than other nations?

By Ken Lambert

NY Times: “The inaction of Great Britain …. has been not only absurd, but almost criminal.”

The recent talks on Capitol Hill about reparations for African American slavery has reignited the topic across the country. Generally, politicians on one side are in favor of monetary reparations to be paid to current descendants of former slaves held in the United States. Their general argument is that the U.S. owes something concrete and substantial to many African Americans because of the centuries of slavery in the United States and in its colonial predecessor, and also because we were “late” in abolishing slavery.

I’m certainly not against the further detailed study and logistics of possible reparations.

That said, when looking at the following key dates it is pretty clear that the U.S. was not significantly worse than other countries or colonies with interests in the New World.

Dates when countries ended Slavery:

  • 1817 – France bans slave trading, but ban not effective until 1826
  • 1819 – Portugal abolishes slave trade north of the equator (but continue south of the equator)
  • 1833 – Britain passes Abolition of Slavery Act, ordering gradual abolition of slavery in all British colonies. ** see below for England’s buying of US southern cotton.
  • 1846 – Danish governor proclaims emancipation of slaves in Danish West Indies, abolishing slavery
  • 1848 – France abolishes slavery (15 years before the USA; roughly 5% earlier than the USA)
  • 1858 – Portugal abolishes slavery in its colonies (just 5 years before the USA), although all slaves are subject to a 20-year apprenticeship
  • 1861 – Netherlands abolishes slavery in Dutch Caribbean colonies (only 2 years before the USA)
  • 1862 – U.S. President Abraham Lincoln proclaims emancipation of slaves with effect from January 1, 1863; 13th Amendment of U.S. Constitution follows in 1865 banning slavery (roughly 300 years after major slave trade in the Americas/ New World started.)
  • 1886 – Slavery is abolished in Cuba
  • 1888 – Brazil abolishes slavery (25 years after the USA)

Denmark, the Netherlands, Portugal, and France all ended slavery shortly before the United States- but certainly in the same general timeframe. Cuba and Brazil abolished slavery much later than America. Brazil ended up having many more African slaves in its country than we had in our country, for what that is worth.

Often it is mentioned that England ended slavery 30 years prior to the United States, which I admit is significant. However, England was essentially an instigator of slavery in the southern U.S. for the decades leading up to the U.S. Civil War, due to its escalating purchases of U.S. cotton. See the excerpt below from an 1861 article printed in the New York Times:

England and the Cotton Supply
(JUNE 1, 1861)

“The inaction of Great Britain in relation to the production of cotton by free labor in various tropical regions, has been not only absurd, but almost criminal. While her Abolition Presses and orators have denounced, in the bitterest terms, the slaveowners of the South,… the nation at large has been steadily increasing its pecuniary support of Slavery, by doubling its consumption of Southern cotton every ten years. England now must suffer, and it should suffer without petulant querulousness, the consequences of its own folly and want of foresight.

Cotton has been well defined by the African Aid Society of London, to be “bread for its laboring classes.” Nearly one million of operatives are employed in the manufacture of cotton in Great Britain, upon whom, at least five or six millions more depend for their daily subsistence. It is no exaggeration to say, that one-quarter of the inhabitants of England are directly dependent upon the supply of cotton for their living.”

As far as the sin of slavery is concerned, I don’t think that Great Britain is less guilty than the United States and unlike the U.S.A., Britain has not attempted any form of affirmative action in its country. Say what you want about affirmative action, but it is at least some effort that has been made (for over 50 years) to try to help bridge the gap that has still existed between the wealth and opportunity between whites and African-Americans.

For two generations, the U.S. federal government has attempted to help African Americans (and some other minorities) in employment, housing, and education.

Slavery in this country was eradicated in 1863, which was 156 years ago. That is roughly six generations ago. To help give it some context, the oldest person living in the country is 114 years old. They were born in 1905. Their own parents were born 12-20 years after the slaves were freed.

Don’t punish those with zero involvement in slavery

In discussing reparations, we would be indirectly punishing (white) people living today whose grandparents and great-grandparents had absolutely nothing to do with slavery.

Also, what about those (white) persons who are immigrants or whose families had immigrated here over the past 50-100 years? Those groups had zero involvement in the American slave trade and they were not slaveholders. Should they also pay or contribute to reparations?

These are just a few of the very real questions with which any Commission will have to grapple.

At its core we need to ask ourselves as a nation if we (Americans) are as evil as some today would have us believe. Human beings have always sinned; slavery was a major stain on humanity, and on the history of this country and its colonial structure prior. But, in a practical sense, are reparations happening (and are they working?) in countries like England, France, Brazil, Cuba, Denmark, and others?

Catholic Business Journal invites you to comment on this topic. What do YOU think about this issue, in light of Catholic principles?


Ken Lambert is a serious Catholic who has been heavily involved in construction, sales, real estate, and as an advocate for mental health for more than 25 years. He holds a U.S. Patent for a type of loan software program, and is an established writer, consultant and speaker in several fields. He has written for both secular and religious publishers, including a book he co-wrote entitled Top Ten Most Influential Christians since the Apostles. 

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