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Of slavery and Reagan 

Two feel-good resolutions praising modern presidents, one conceptually factual and the other mostly baloney, popped up in the Arkansas legislature in the last week with decidedly different fates.

Lawmakers stymied the factual one and, if previous votes are a guide, the fanciful one will be adopted without a demurrer. That usually happens when history is used in the service of political posturing. These memorials, which are adopted by the dozen at every legislative session, are ordinarily victimless documents, if you don't count the truth and the state's reputation.

Rep. Stephanie Flowers filed a resolution congratulating President Barack Obama for his historic victory, but it was killed in a committee after Republicans objected to a phrase referring to the United States as a “nation founded by slave owners” because, they said, some founders were not slaveholders. Flowers resurrected the tribute by deleting mention of slave owners and substituting “a country whose history includes the shame of slavery,” a phrase to which the Republicans cannot find a nuanced objection.

The eight Republican senators followed with a resolution declaring Friday “Ronald Reagan Day” in Arkansas. It credits him with ending the Cold War, dismantling the Soviet Union, restoring accountability and common sense to government, producing unprecedented economic expansion and opportunities for millions of people and lowering crime and drug use across the country. Though all those lofty claims are largely at odds with history, I will be shocked if they get flyspecked before the ritual vote to adopt the resolution.

Let's look at the facts behind all those claims.

Flowers' mention of a nation founded by slave owners earned her a rebuke from the Democrat Gazette for resurrecting racism. The paper said she airbrushed out founders like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin, who condemned slavery. That was true but each man owned slaves until his death. Flowers didn't say “a nation founded by slavery lovers.” Franklin willed the freedom of one of his slaves upon his death but then outlived him. Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, owned up to 223 slaves and never gave them up.

Jefferson's first draft of the Declaration of Independence condemned King George for promoting the slave trade, but the Second Continental Congress took it out because Southern representatives objected — Northerners, too, owing to financial interests in the slave trade.

But were the delegates who adopted the Declaration of Independence and who signed the Constitution slave owners? Studies have never settled on exactly how many owned slaves at the time but they usually fixed the number at between 17 and 24 of the 55 independence signatories and more than a third of those who voted for the Constitution and obviously many more who did not want to disturb the issue for political reasons: Half the states would have backed out. James Madison's copious notes on the slavery debates in the Convention give you a good idea of where people stood.

The Constitution they adopted enshrined slavery and set the nation on a course toward civil war, where arms finally settled the issue. It counted a slave as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of fixing representation in Congress (Northerners did not want them counted as humans at all). It prohibited Congress from outlawing the slave trade for at least 20 years, placed a tax of up to $10 on the importation of slaves and required states to return runaway slaves to their masters “on demand” without emancipation. You judge. Were Flowers' words too casual?

What about the boasts for Reagan?

Accountability? He tripled the national debt. A lower crime rate? It went down for four years and then soared to new records and then declined steadily for eight years under Bill Clinton (the whole trend reflected a declining population in the crime-prone age group). The economy? The Reagan years produced two recessions and 18 million new jobs, 4 million fewer than the Clinton years, but fantastic compared with George W. Bush.

Ending the Cold War and dismantling the Soviet empire? Most historians credit Mikhail Gorbachev.

The premise of the Reagan hagiographies is that his military spending, tough talk and threats to build a nuclear missile shield worried Gorbachev so much that he broke up the communist empire. The Republican resolution said he built the military “to win the Cold War.” Actually, the military never fired a shot at a communist unless you count the Marxist militia in Grenada.

Minutes of the Politburo, which surfaced in the 1990s, have caused historians to give Reagan a little more credit for the Soviet demolition, but for directly opposite reasons. They show that Gorbachev and Politburo members considered Reagan's missile shield stupid, as it proved in practice, but Gorbachev did not want to get into an arms race. He wanted to disarm and went to the summit with Reagan at Reykjavik to get him to agree to a 50 percent reduction in nuclear arsenals. He (and Reagan's advisers) were shocked when the president proposed scrapping all nuclear weapons and developing and sharing the missile shield with Russia.

Politburo minutes and his own recollections suggest that though the summit fell apart Gorbachev returned convinced that Reagan would never launch a strike against the Soviet Union and sincerely wanted to eliminate all nuclear weapons and so it was perfectly safe to continue glasnost and perestroika — the radical economic reforms, expansion of personal freedoms, defense cuts and transformation of relations with the satellite nations and the West.

It was not Reagan the hawk but Reagan the pacifist who gave Gorbachev his cue.

Tweak the resolution and pass it. Give the man his day.

 

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