Anti-slavery guilt rant

Greetings, loyal minions. Your Maximum Leader sometimes hears of, or reads a story, that simmers slowly in his consciousness for days or weeks. Then, after properly stewed and triggered by something, the rant comes… In this case the story has been stewing for a few weeks and the trigger was a piece on APM’s Marketplace today.

So it is that your Maximum Leader is going to rant for a moment about slavery guilt…

In late June your Maximum Leader first started to see the news articles. They were predominantly British articles. A number of scholars are beginning to go over the records kept by the British government concerning reparations paid out to compensate slave owners when Britain outlawed slavery in the whole British Empire (in 1833).

Your Maximum Leader remembers a Financial Times article detailing how two old-line British firms may have profited from slavery. The big firms were the Rothchild Bank and the law firm Freshfields. The Financial Times article opened:

Two of the biggest names in the City of London had previously undisclosed links to slavery in the British colonies, documents seen by the Financial Times have revealed.

Nathan Mayer Rothschild, the banking family’s 19th-century patriarch, and James William Freshfield, founder of Freshfields, the top City law firm, benefited financially from slavery, records from the National Archives show, even though both have often been portrayed as opponents of slavery.

If you go on to read the whole piece you would see that Freshfield and Rothchild were, in fact, abolitionists. In the case of Freshfield, his firm acted as trustee for Caribbean slave owners and set about getting reparation funds on behalf of the clients. In the case of Rothchild, the bank sought reparations for slaves that were collateral for broader transactions.

Now, one can certainly make a case that Freshfield and Rothchild could have instructed their firms not to deal at all with slave owners and not to agree to act as trustee for slave owning estates or use slaves as collateral for loans. So your Maximum Leader isn’t trying to put them completely off the hook here… But there is profiting from the slave trade and slavery, and then there is what Freshfield and Rothchild did. It may be a matter of degrees here, but perhaps these are important degrees to examine. If a lawyer is a trustee for an estate, he damned well had better do what he can to effectively and profitably manage the estate on behalf of its beneficiaries. And in the case of a bank, if you have chosen to accept slaves as collateral in a loan transaction, then when the government is removing the collateral’s value and offering reparations; the bank needs to take the money.

Your Maximum Leader is not sure how Freshfield and Rothchild are villains in this story. Especially given the large role the Rothchild Bank played in financing the reparations the British Government made…

But the part that sets your Maximum Leader off is the chorus of people who believe that the sins of the dead should be revisited on the unrelated living… This is especially true in how your Maximum Leader views the calls in the US for reparations for slavery. The Financial Times points out in their piece how JPMorgan has set up scholarship funds to “repay” the decendents of slaves in the US as a way of saying “We’re sorry” about the role some predecessor banks mortgaged slaves. The FT piece also mentions how Aetna and New York Life have apologized and paid for “educational efforts” to in essence make up for insurance policies they wrote on behalf of slave owners.

There is also the fact that the US Senate passed a resolution (which contained clauses saying that the resolution couldn’t be admitted into evidence in a court of law) apologizing for slavery.

If one views institutions like banks and insurance companies (and the US Senate) as continuing entities across time, then one might (just barely might) be somewhat justified in asking them to own up to a wrong they did in the past and say their sorry. Your Maximum Leader is not trying to let these companies off the hook for other transgressions they may have committed in the past; but he is willing to draw a line about slavery in America.

It would behoove people to remember that there was this thing called the American Civil War. That war was all about slavery. The war ended slavery in America. There was no reparation for freed slaves paid to rebellious slave owners. There was no compensation issued for destroyed farms and cities in states in rebellion. Northern bankers weren’t repaid for lost collateral and property they had claim to in the South. Insurance policies weren’t cashed out. The pro-slave and anti-slave forces pretty much took sides and decided the question on battlefields. Upwards of 650,000 men were killed or wounded fighting for the Union to decide the issue of slavery. Your Maximum Leader will suggest that those men paid in blood any reparations that might be owed slaves. He further suggests that it is wrong to extract monetary reparations from people who have never owned slaves or suffered as slaves.

It is not for your Maximum Leader to decide how the British should or shouldn’t settle the question of who might be owed what for profiting off slavery. But from what he’s read the case against Freshfield and Rothchild seems quite overblown. If he had to offer advice he’d recommend a heartfelt and tearful apology. Because this is more about how people feel things should be than actual wrongs. After an apology, move along…

Carry on.

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