Critical issues in the American Experience

Introduction

America has an interesting history, which is characterized by migratory patterns from different European communities. The immigrants introduced new farming techniques and established large plantations of cash crops such as cotton, tobacco, sugarcane, and rice. These plantations required human labor to work in them; indeed, they were the root of slavery witnessed in the American continent up to the mid-nineteenth century.

Millions of Africans, especially from the Western and Northwestern Africa, were forcefully transported from their homes to work in these plantations in North, Central and South America. For instance, it has been observed that Brazil received five million slaves from Africa (Davis, para.1). Following this prolonged slave trade and continued immigration of individuals from different parts of Europe to America, the continent ended up with a mixture of races and cultures.

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The United States is a unique nation that emerged as a union of some British colonies in North America. It was formed after representatives from thirteen British colonies came to an agreement to unite (Minkoff and Melamed, 3). These colonies had individuals from different cultures, religions, and traditional systems of government.

The union comprised of individuals with different backgrounds and languages other than English such as French, German, and Spanish. The United States was then challenged to prove the possibility that individuals of diverse origins could settle to form a nation and work towards the achievement of common goals and objectives.

There is a need to examine whether some uniting factors consolidate America or whether it still comprises distinct people living together. The answers to some of these disturbing questions are the subject of this paper. Much focus is given to slavery witnessed in the region and the role played by the government and religious leaders in managing the practice in relations to the objectives of forming United States.

The Mission of the United States

The United States can be considered special due to the witnessed diversity. As a former colony of Britain, different colonies united to fight against oppression and social injustice as well as to promote equality among people of diverse backgrounds. However, after independence, the equality was not immediately realized and the US resembled the colonial government to some extent. The Americans attempted to develop values by which they would live.

This was faced with difficulties owing to diverse origins. There was a common belief that every American should identify the values and beliefs that could define his/her life (Kohls, para.2). This became the problem in identifying the exact values of Americans. Nevertheless, as Kohl illustrated, values like equality, time and its control, personal control of the environment, and change were late identified as some common values of Americans. These values are still practiced by many in the contemporary American society.

The Rise of Slavery in America

Slavery is a form of inhuman treatment involving forced labor under strenuous conditions. It has been termed as the “most extreme form of dependency, exploitation, and domination, in which individuals can be bought and sold, and are legally subject to complete control in decisions of where to live or to work” (Engerman,1).

In ancient America, individuals were often subjected to heavy duties with severe punishments and poor working conditions. The slaveholders and overseers treated the slaves as though they were not fellow human beings, but other animals with different feelings. Unfortunately, slavery was being witnessed in nearly every part the world. It is very likely that any society in the world was at one point in time a slaveholder or slave.

Slave trade involving forceful transportation of Africans to go and work in the plantations in America can be traced back to the early fifteenth century (Davis, para.1). At the beginning of the Civil War in America, about 4 million enslaved African Americans were living in the United States working in the cotton, sugar, tobacco, or rice plantations.

The importation of enslaved Africans to the United States ended officially in 1808. However, thousands of slaves were still smuggled into the nation for the next fifty years following the ban of this international trade (Davis, para.1). The slave trade ended in the northern parts, but the south continued with the trade, arguing that forced labor was still necessary owing to the increased demand for cotton. This would later trigger Civil War between the south and the north.

The Purpose of Anti-Slavery Movements

Slavery in America was characterized by brutality on the slaves, with few legal provisions checking the behavior and practices of the slaveholders towards the slaves. Physical force, threats, and sexual exploitation were the order of the day. In extreme cases, punishments would involve severe bodily harm such as “branding on the flesh of the hand or head with a hot iron applied for 20 seconds, and mutilation of the body by clipping the ears, breaking legs, severing fingers, and slitting tongues” (Davis, para.43).

The slaves who rejected these punishments were even subjected to more severe torture. The slaves could be forced to wear iron chains and masks for several weeks or months for disobedience. In less serious cases, and the most common form of punishment, the slaves were subjected to severe whipping. Indeed, the slave code defined that a common case would be solved by 39 slashes on the bare back (Davis, para.43).

This brutal inhuman treatment of the slaves is what triggered anti-slave movements. In fact, the resistance by the slaves traces back as early as the beginning of the salve trade. The slaves were often not pleased with the kind of treatment they received in the hands of slaveholders and overseers. As such, some of the slaves often escaped from slavery to different destinations.

The Problem of Identity: Racism and Slavery

The concept of identity of a group of individuals is not very clear. It entails a set of values, beliefs, principles, or practices that distinguish a community or societies from others. The identity could include other aspects like skin color and language.

It might be generally considered that groups would capture and enslave other groups that they feel are of different identity – outcasts of the main group (Engerman, 2). However, it is not clear who qualifies to be termed an outsider in order to be enslaved. It is not also clear why other forms of discrimination could not be applied rather than slavery in order to provide identity for different individuals.

This was evidenced in the early forms of slavery witnessed in different parts of the world. Slavery began way back before the issue of scientific racism came to the spotlight. There were cases of groups enslaving individuals of the same race or color. There were racial differences even in these earlier times yet they did not lead to slavery. Individuals were not treated differently due to their racial differences.

The slavery that was witnessed in the United States even after attaining its independence raises the question of the relationship between racism and slavery. The issue of relationship between the identities of individuals and the vicious practices is put to a test. Slavery based on racial segregation began with the settlement of Americans, as well as the intensification of transatlantic slave trade from Africa (Engerman, 2).

It was based on the identity of the individuals with the settlers considering the enslaved Africans as outsiders. The Africans become a part of the nation when their services were needed in the farms. However, they were denied in access to other essentials of life. The United States also had racism without slavery, which involved other forms of discrimination such as the denial of rights to vote and to elect a government, rights to education and occupations, and freedom of movements by the blacks (Engerman, 2).

There were severe restrictions on the movements of the blacks. This was witnessed in Illinois in 1813 when some legislation was passed, preventing legal entry of blacks. The individuals that did not follow the law would be whipped (Engerman, 13). The issue of racial identity continued in the United States.

The Fight For Equality in the U.S

The quest to end slavery faced difficulties with the North abolishing the trade, whereas the south insisted on the trade following high demand of cotton in the world. This would later result into Civil War between the North and the South, in which the later wanted to secede from the union.

They were defeated and the right of equality was extended to the African Americans. Other forms of discrimination such as gender discrimination continued in the United States. For instance, women were not allowed to participate in the election till the first half of the twentieth century. However, several changes have been seen in contemporary America, and some form of equality is being seen in the US.

Even though there is difficulty in identifying the exact American values, equality is one of the values by which most Americans live. It is intended that every individual should be given special attention and equal opportunity. In the contemporary America, issues like social class or wealth play little roles when it comes to treatment of different individuals.

It has been pointed out that individuals of high ranks and social status from other parts of the world are often disappointed by the kind of treatments they receive in the US hotels or restaurants (Kohls, para.20). This is because the waiters and other service providers consider them equal to any other client and provide similar attention.

Religion and the Anti-Slavery Movement

The United States was formed from colonies with diverse religious beliefs and practices, even though Christianity was quite dominant. The country has since maintained freedom of worship. The religious beliefs define most of the values by which the Americans live.

Religion, especially Christianity, played diverse roles towards the fight to end slavery in the United States. In her article ‘The Neglected period of anti-slavery in America’ in the book ‘Exploring America: perspectives on critical issues,’ Alice D. Adams focused on the neglected contributions that the church made towards the abolition of slave trade and slavery in America. In the initial stages, there were mixed reactions about slavery by members of the clergy, with some feeling that slavery and slave trade could be pardoned for some reasons.

This led the clergymen being blamed for not correcting the authority in order to protect themselves. The church leaders often fled regions of slavery to free areas, leaving behind their families, friends, or followers (Adams, 202). However, they all generally concluded from different religious scriptures that it was inhuman to trade on fellow men and subject them to forced labor under harsh conditions.

The teachings of Christianity about morality and the divine personality of man had significant impacts in the American society in the nineteenth century. It contributed significantly to the end of slavery and the fight for equality in the country. The religious leaders gradually began to support the anti-slave movements, rejecting the believers who were slaveholders.

The synods and presbyteries advocated for freedom of the slaves even more than the General assembly (Adams, 204). In some instances, they even called upon the slaveholders to pay wages to the slave laborers. The slaveholders were not allowed to involve in ministerial activities and in some cases, they were rejected completely in some Christian churches.

The Individual and the State

The individuals in a given society have a mutual relationship with the government or the society. The government should provide security and protection on the rights of its citizens. It should take care of its citizens and enact proper legislation to ensure this security is observed. The government has to ensure that the law is enforced and that the law-breakers face the necessary penalties.

Human rights are developed on the grounds of the needs of human beings and they have relations with the traditional laws, customs, and religion in a society. The fundamental rights protect individuals from arbitrary persecution and punishment. Similarly, every individual is expected to contribute towards all aspects of development of the community.

They have to participate in nation-building activities. In the event that the government fails to provide this protection, then it would be justifiable for the members of the public to disobey other civil laws when advocating for their rights. It is upon this basis that the anti-slavery movements were established. Slavery was a violation of different human rights, and a legal intervention was necessary to end the practice.

Conclusion

The United States has had vast experiences with slavery and slave trade that ended in the mid nineteenth century as some of the significant histories of the nation. The nation that was developed to uphold human rights and advocate for equality was latter challenged, and these objectives were not to be realized until very recently.

Slave trade and other forms of discrimination continued long after independence, leading to the anti-slavery movements and other movements. The diversity among its citizens was evident up to the twentieth centuries when some equality was realized.

The government should protect the rights of its citizens. Other organizations like the church should also intervene to ensure that human rights are not violated. Indeed, human rights form a basis upon which the laws of a given nation are enacted. Members of the public also should strive to uphold the sovereignty of the state by being patriotic and responsible members of the society. Failure to have an agreement between the government and the citizens results into revolutions like the ones witnessed in America.

Works Cited

Davis, Ronald. Slavery in America: Historical Overview. California State University, Northridge, N.d. 03 November 2011. http://www.slaveryinamerica.org/history/hs_es_overview.htm

Engerman, Stanley L. Slavery without Racism, Racism without Slavery: Mainland North America and Elsewhere. Proceedings of the Fifth Annual Gilder Lehrman Center International Conference at Yale University, 2003. 03 November 2011. http://yale.edu/glc/events/race/Engerman.pdf.

Kohls, Robert L. The Values Americans Live By, N.d. 03 November 2011. http://www.cmc.edu/pages/faculty/alee/extra/American_values.html

Minkoff, Harvey & Melamed, Evelyn B. Exploring America: perspectives on critical issues. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers 1995. Print.

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