“Original Sin,” Slavery, and American Innocence

“Slavery, America’s original sin” is one of the most common ways in which human bondage is invoked in journalism, punditry, and popular history today. What is suggested by this theological metaphor for a brutal history of exploitation—and where does it come from?

The phrase is regularly invoked by writers attempting to put contemporary racism in the historical context of the “peculiar institution.” It made a recent appearance in this New York Times editorial on the racism of the Electoral College. A sign of its reliability as a historical cliché, perhaps, is its common appearance in headlines, like this LA Review of Books essay, also on the racism of the Electoral College. Roger Cohen, the New York Times pundit, is a particularly big fan. Jonathan Chait’s new book Audacity includes a slight variation, on “America’s Primal Sin.” And a typical usage comes from this piece in The Atlantic, written shortly after Dylann Roof’s murder of nine men and women at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina:

The person whose election brought so much hope about the trajectory of race relations in the United States, a country that has perpetually suffered from the original sin of slavery, is spending these days desperately trying to calm the anger over police killings of African Americans and the protests and violence that have ensued.

And there was this article in the New York Times reflecting on Barack Obama’s election victory in 2008, when unnamed “commentators” were said to be nursing the hope that the nation’s “original sin” might be expiated by its talented young president-elect:

Seven years ago, in the gauzy afterglow of a stirring election night in Chicago, commentators dared ask whether the United States had finally begun to heal its divisions over race and atone for the original sin of slavery by electing its first black president.

Grant the metaphor this much: it is an attempt, sort of, to understand contemporary racist violence historically. However, after the common fashion of what James Baldwin often described as American “innocence,” it approaches this history by piously evading it. Original sin is a sin, after all, for which no atonement is ever possible; it is also impossibly confusing. Slavery as original sin is a foggy, opaque mystery, buried in the southern soil, knotted in the wisteria vines, mired deep inside the networked rabbit holes of the Catechism and the Protestant doctrines of original sin, rabbit holes I am only now beginning to claw my way out of as I draft this essay.

As I remember it from Catholic school, original sin describes mankind’s condition of separation from God. When Eve, tempted by the serpent, tastes the apple from the tree of knowledge, she betrays the creator. Her sin, says the Catechism, is the sin of disobedience. By seeking knowledge, Adam and Eve betrayed God’s trust, vainly seeking to know what He knew. As a consequence, they came to know shame and became separated from their “original holiness.” The land no longer gave its abundance freely; this now had to be earned, God told Adam, “by the sweat of your brow.” And Eve, anguished by the pangs of childbirth God decided to punish her with, bore Abel and his brother Cain, whose crime furnished one of the most enduring of white supremacy’s biblical sanctions for slavery. Creation, once harmonious and holy, was now subject to the “bondage of decay,” as Paul puts it in Romans, using one of the slavery metaphors of which he was quite fond.

Original sin, in other words, is a condition of our imperfect humanity, and not an act for which we are condemnable as individuals. As the Catholic Catechism puts it, “it is a sin ‘contracted’ and not ‘committed’—a state and not an act.” Nor is it is a sin for which we can ever really do penance, as we might seek forgiveness for a cruel deed. Talented politician though he is, not even Obama can “atone” for anyone’s original sin, as the Times article above suggested he might: only the Messiah can do that.

“The transmission of original sin is a mystery that we cannot fully understand,” concedes the Catechism. Original sin is baffling enough just on its own terms, even before you try to untangle the Bible’s figurative language of bondage, sin, and toil from Americans’ biblical justifications for the material reality of slavery. It’s harder still to separate these from Americans’ self-exculpatory evasions of slavery’s legacy after the emancipation. At the risk of, as literature students sometimes protest, “reading too much into it,” here is the major problem with describing slavery as an “original sin”: in the examples above, the phrase becomes a sort of ritual performance of a generalizable guilt, in which the sin, and therefore the repentance (or the fiery retribution, depending on how wrathful you and your God are feeling), resides nowhere and with no one in particular. Rather than a social institution built by venerable presidents, revered institutions (like the White House, Yale University, etc.), and regular people, like some of this article’s readers’ and author’s great-grandparents, slavery becomes an abstraction that belongs to a remote timeline. And inquiring into slavery’s origins and its afterlife can in this way start to seem like a scholastic exercise, like counting angels on the heads of pins. If original sin is our punishment for seeking knowledge, it makes sense as a metaphor for avoiding it now.

And this distancing effect was precisely why the phrase first gained favor—among antebellum slavery apologists. One of these, the philosopher Thomas R. Dew of William & Mary, conceded cleverly in 1831 that slavery was a sin, but it was an original sin—in other words, not a sin you can do anything about. Because ending slavery would bring ruination upon slaveowners and (Professor Dew thought) slaves alike, the greater sin would be emancipation. The abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner responded to this line of argument in an 1845 speech opposing Texas’ admission to the union as a slave state. “Slavery, we are speciously told by those who seek to defend it, is not our original sin,” Sumner said. “It was entailed upon us, so we are instructed, by our ancestors; and the responsibility is often, with exultation, thrown upon the mother country.” Calling slavery an “original sin” was a metaphor of eager self-absolution, rather than contrite confession. Is it really so different, though, today? The intentions have surely changed, but you know what they say about good intentions: the effect of metaphorically attributing slavery to an ancient transgression is one of the ways we use the nation’s past as a pious deflection of present obligations.

And who, exactly, counts as the nation in this formulation, anyway? In 1862, Orestes Brownson, a Catholic abolitionist New Englander, argued with the Christian apologists for slavery by pointing out in his Brownson’s Quarterly Review that original sin made no sense as a justification for slavery. From a Christian point of view, he observed, original sin was a general trait of human beings, not localizable in either citizens or slaves, English or Americans. It was “the sin of the race, and all men have alike incurred its penalty, the free as well as the bond,” he wrote. Enslaved people cannot be called to account for the original sin of their own enslavement, Brownson argued, nor can Americans blame it all on the British. And thus we can’t describe slavery as “America’s original sin” if we consider enslaved people, their descendants, Native Americans, and other non-whites fully American. Surely they bear no guilt for this transgression. In attributing the bloody origins of our nation and its wealth to an abstract, shared biblical past, we are definitely also saying that they merit no reparation in the present—at least no more than we can wring from our pious hands.1

  1. I thank Lara Cohen for pointing this out to me in conversation.

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John Patrick Leary

John Patrick Leary is assistant professor of English at Wayne State University. He is the author of A Cultural History of Underdevelopment: Latin America in the U.S. Imagination, out now from the University of Virginia Press. He writes Keywords for the Age of Austerity, a primer for the culture of inequality.