February 24, 2020
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Maine has already paid its reparations for slavery

Jacquelyn Martin | AP
Jacquelyn Martin | AP
In this July 10, 2013, file photo, prospective students tour Georgetown University’s campus in Washington. In April, Georgetown University students approved a fee benefiting the descendants of enslaved people sold to pay off the school’s debts, an effort that would create one of the first reparations funds at a major U.S. institution

Recently, there have been renewed calls for reparations for American slavery. Maine: pay attention.

A few presidential candidates seeking the nomination of the Democratic Party have endorsed the idea. The reparations discussion is not about paying a debt to black Americans; it is about politics.

Black Americans are a key part of the Democratic Party’s coalition; candidates want their votes. Endorsing reparations, many believe, signals to black voters that those candidates are on their side.

Political benefits of the reparations issue go beyond the contest for the Democratic nomination. Polls last year showed black approval of Trump above 20 percent. If that is indicative of 2020 voters, Democrats are in trouble.

Since no former slave is alive to request compensation, reparations present a challenge. It would be difficult to administer reparations for the descendants who would make a claim for compensation. Also, coming up with an amount due to those asking for payment would likely be controversial.

After 154 years, it is difficult to put a price tag on the effects of slavery.

It would take a significant gesture to make amends for slavery, if that’s possible. One possibility is that whites could volunteer to live as slaves for 250 years. Probably a nonstarter.

However, a dramatic gesture has already addressed the sin of slavery.

“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. 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,’” Abraham Lincoln said in his second inaugural address, on March 4, 1865.

President Lincoln made a case that the Civil War was God’s punishment for slavery in America. The war would last as long as necessary, to spill as much blood as necessary, to address the length and the brutality of that institution.

Many of those who spilled blood in the Civil War were Mainers. Maine contributed more combatants as a percent of their population than any other state. Those who enlisted fought to preserve the Union. But some Mainers fought primarily for what they viewed a nobler cause: emancipation.

Mainers have already paid reparations for slavery with the blood of those who fought and died in the war. To pay again would dishonor the memory of those who fought and died for the cause of freedom.

Paul Johnson of Falmouth blogs about American history and public affairs.


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