Memo to a Dead President

September 22nd marks the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation to free slaves in Confederate states during the Civil War. Slavery, however, still exists in the U.S. In fact there has never been a day in American history without it. If Lincoln were still president today, this is what I would tell him […]
September 21, 2012

September 22nd marks the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation to free slaves in Confederate states during the Civil War.

Slavery, however, still exists in the U.S.

In fact there has never been a day in American history without it.

If Lincoln were still president today, this is what I would tell him about how to achieve real, not just legal, abolition.


MEMO: Progressing to a Slave-Free America

TO: POTUS (Abraham Lincoln)

Congratulations. Firstly, Sir, thank you for your Emancipation Proclamation. It led the way to outlawing slavery nationwide through the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and it created a context in which a slave-free America is possible. The complete eradication of slavery from the United States will be a fitting tribute to your leadership and sacrifice, and the realization of the core American value of human freedom. This memo proposes ways to finish what you have started.

Prevalence of Slavery Today. As a hidden crime invisible to most statisticians, estimates of current U.S. slavery are imprecise. Conservative estimation suggests 40,000 to 100,000 slaves in the U.S. today (.00033 of population). Key areas of modern enslavement are commercial sexual exploitation, agricultural work, domestic service, restaurant and hotel work, and small-scale manufacturing. Traffickers and slaveholders are strongly linked to other criminal enterprises. Victims are both foreign nationals and U.S. citizens. Victims are also likely to be young and economically productive, tricked into slavery because their desire for gainful employment prompted them to trust someone offering a job. Federal trafficking cases have been pursued in all 50 states. Most occur in urban areas with international transit links.

Political Implications. Ending slavery in America is backed by strong bipartisan agreement and commitment. Ideological motivations differ, but there is robust concurrence on the desired outcome. No one argues that slavery is allowable or necessary today.

Budget Implications. Current federal expenditures on reducing the criminal activity of slavery and human trafficking are less than that devoted to military bands within the Defense Department.  The estimated cost of global slavery eradication over 25 years totals $11 billion (one-half the yearly cost of the War on Drugs). More detailed estimates will be needed, but a slave-free America should cost no more than $1.2 billion over a 5-10 year period.

Economic Stimulus Outcomes. Immediate stimulus will result from nationwide eradication. Since slavery is a drag on the economy, increased productivity and consumer consumption by freed slaves – along with a reduced need for law enforcement expenditures — will foster economic growth. Tax revenues from freed slaves will benefit governments at all levels.

Program Components and Steps to a Slave-Free America.

  1. National Plan for Eradication of Slavery – Ten years ago the government of Brazil initiated its national slavery eradication plan. It brought together all relevant agencies, law enforcement and non-governmental organizations. It unified and resourced legal responses to slavery. Their first year (2003) results were 4,789 slaves freed. A unified plan and model should be adapted and improved here in the U.S.
  2. Mobile Anti-Slavery Teams – Brazilian experience also shows the value of specialist federal anti-slavery squads that include labor inspection and enforcement specialists. This matches existing FBI and Justice Department staffing profiles for drug enforcement. It can be easily adopted into current law enforcement procedures for trafficking.
  3. Dramatic Need for Increased Law Enforcement Training – According to a State Department estimate, there are around 15,000 new slaves trafficked into the U.S. each year – equivalent to the 15,000 homicides committed here annually. Across all law enforcement (local, state, and federal police/agents) there are about 45,000 trained homicide specialists, but only about 200 trained anti-slavery specialists. This disparity in trained personnel results in national homicide clear-up rates of 70 to 75 percent, and slavery/trafficking clear-up rates of less than one percent. Expansion and training of enforcement personnel will be critical to success. Enhancing law enforcement’s capacity to target traffickers who pose as legitimate foreign labor recruiters will provide immediate results.
  4. Enforcement and Expansion of Laws on Slave-Made Goods – The Smoot-Hawley Tariff (1929) and subsequent laws banned the importation of slave-made goods. But slave-produced goods and commodities now flowing into U.S. include minerals for cell phones and computers, shrimp and fish, iron used in car building, biofuels, timber, and cotton. Cooperation with business and increased emphasis on enforcement can assure clean supply chains and satisfy consumer demand. Expanding rules for corporations to investigate and clean-up supply chains will accelerate progress. The U.S. government is one of the world’s largest customers for goods and services, and it can lead the way by refusing to purchase slavery-tainted products.
  5. Environmental Impact – Slave production of goods in Africa, South America, and Asia significantly increases deforestation and uncontrolled pollution. Collectively, slave-based businesses, primarily aimed at producing products for U.S. and European markets, are the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the U.S. Closing markets for slave-made goods will help slow global warming and preserve endangered habitat and species.
  6. Caring for Freed Slaves – Our abolition of legal slavery in 1865 led to a botched emancipation. Millions of African-Americans suffered second-class status, prejudice, discrimination, and violence. The result was generations of wasted talent and productivity. Freed slaves are ready to work for themselves and their families; we have to make sure they get the care, tools, and support to do so.

Significance and Legacy. As a nation founded on the ideal of freedom, the complete eradication of slavery in our country will serve as a beacon of possibility and hope — to our own citizens and to the world.

Mr. President, you, and the hundreds of thousands of citizens who sacrificed their lives in conflict, set us on a road to true freedom. The war we fought to begin the end of slavery was devastating – but as Yeats wrote, “Nothing can be sole or whole that has not been rent.”

The Emancipation Proclamation was the first step to a slave-free America. Today there are only a few short steps remaining until we truly arrive in the Land of the Free.

(Editor’s Note: Kevin Bales is a Free the Slaves co-founder and Professor of Contemporary Slavery at the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation, University of Hull. Information about his groundbreaking books on slavery can be found on the FTS website. His most recent video is a tool for businesses to train employees and suppliers about removing slavery from their product supply chains.)

Can you help end the conditions that cause modern slavery?

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