By: Justin R. Harbour, ALM

Georgetown University is currently engaged in an attempt to research, understand, and repair its role in the perpetuation of slavery in 19th century America. Georgetown University is not the first American university to undertake such an uncomfortable and disheartening reflection. Some of these institutions preceding Georgetown, Harvard and Brown University included, arrived at such a reflective moment through a natural desire to confront their relationship to this most sordid institution of American history. Others have been delivered to this moment through student demands (Yale, Princeton, and Oxford, for example). Georgetown’s deliverance is more of the former than the latter. As MIT historian of slavery Craig Steven Wilder recently observed to the New York Times, Georgetown’s attempt at reconciliation “recognize[s] the humanity of the problem they’re dealing with, [and are treating] it as more than a public relations problem.”  Yet the fact that Georgetown has gone further than any of its peers with respect to research and suggestions for repairs should not be surprising. In the foregoing I will argue that Georgetown’s reconciliation with its relationship to slavery today is the result of a historical development of Catholic Jesuits at a unique place in historical time that makes their contemporary institutions of higher learning an obvious and predictable introspective exemplar amongst its secular peers, and one that should be celebrated.

In order to fully understand how the Jesuits became an obvious vehicle to a more exemplary response to slavery, one must understand America’s historical anti-Catholicism, the prescient centralization and egalitarianism of Jesuit belief, and how such beliefs are seen through in contemporary institutions of Catholic higher education. Such history is lost, however, without an acknowledgement of what exactly Georgetown is trying to do today. The Georgetown University Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation has charged itself with making sense of the evidence available regarding Georgetown and slavery. Research gathered by the group reports on the amount of slaves sold in the 1830s by arguably the two most important leaders of the school’s history. The group also asserts that the selling of these slaves was to maintain the financial viability of the University. These reports, however, are just as telling in what they cannot say with assurance. For example, the working group does not know what happened to the majority of these slaves once they were sold to plantations in the South. Such a lack of knowledge is an unfortunate reflection on the type of historical discrimination common to an era that rarely preserved records or histories of slaves. The mainsprings of America’s assent to global dominance include the growth of its colonial economy, of which slavery was a pillar, and the maintenance of that position into the twentieth century is partly dependent on its universities. As such, these types of investigations between the two interdependent sources of American assent are essential to constructing an honest American identity. The little that Georgetown can assert about its relationship to the antecedent mainspring of slavery is a symptom of America’s willful moral amnesia regarding slavery, and a potential source for fruitful and honest introspection.

Reconciling America’s past reliance on slavery with its eventual geopolitical hegemony is an uncomfortable task. The main source of this discomfort for most Americans are the obvious contradictions between slavery and America’s espoused values and ethics as set forth in her founding documents. The history of anti-Catholic and anti-Jesuit discrimination in America adds yet another uncomfortable contradiction to this milieu. Catholics were rarely viewed as a trustworthy group in early American history, and their questionable allegiance to American ideals was continually subject to the legal whims of a protestant majority. John Winthrop, for example, cited the potential presence of Jesuits in Massachusetts as a reason to support a colonial court order banishing religious dissenters after the Antinomian affair. As the Georgetown report reminds its readers, by the 19th century, Catholic rules and British penal laws against Jesuit “papists” restricted the order to own any land and derive any income therefrom. Hence the lands granted to Jesuits in the Maryland colonial province were necessarily held in trust and turned into farms, whereby they were worked by slaves. These farms provided income to colonial Jesuits and their endeavors, of which Georgetown became a primary beneficiary after its founding in 1789. As the objects of anti-Catholic discrimination dating back to colonial America’s founding, Jesuits are uniquely situated to empathize with an unfounded stigma, of which slavery is our most torrid example.

The need for this slavery-dependent income to maintain Georgetown University’s financial solvency and educating mission was an effect of the unusually enthusiastic belief in the importance of learning by the Jesuits. The Society of Jesus, whose members are called Jesuits, was begun by Ignatius Loyola in 1540. Loyola’s conversion to Catholicism after experiencing battle lead him to understand his spiritual purpose to be administering to the poor and educating the young. Administering to these oft-forgotten people, Jesuits came to value education as an essential element in living out their faith for the dignity it promised, and agency it compelled, to faithful individuals. Loyola hence exhorts followers in his ninth rule to “praise all precepts of the Church, keeping the mind prompt to find reasons in their defence and in no manner against them.” Loyola’s friend and follower Francis Xavier would later herald a similar role for education in emancipating the individual: “the fruit that is reaped by the baptism of infants, as well as by the instruction of children, is quite incredible. These children… by the grace of God, will be much better than their fathers.” This stalwart Jesuit belief in education compelled a missionary effort unrivaled for its time. History records, for example, Jesuit missionary Antony Monserrat at Akbar’s court in Mughal India in the 16th century, and 17th century missionaries Matteo Ricci and Jean de Brébeuf in China and New France during the 17th century respectively. Thus, the promise of an education by such a cosmopolitan order whose founder emphasized “positive and scholastic learning” in order to “define or explain for our times the things necessary for eternal salvation” provided an opportunity for individual dignity across cultures at a time when such learning opportunities were not commonly available to anyone but the elite in any society.

By the 1800s the Jesuits had established a network of evangelization throughout the developed, developing, and underdeveloped world. As a moment in the development of world history, the international presence of Jesuits, and the types of networks and international coordination required for it to maintain its missionary purposes, foreshadows the emergence of transnational and interdependent economic systems to emerge in the early modern economies of the 19th century. Jesuit networks similarly foreshadow a reorganization of the major organized religions during the same period. According to global historian C.A. Bayly, the world’s major religions in that era sought to reëstablish a less decentralized institution with regards to their teaching and conversion efforts. Instead, these world religions hoped to direct a more unified vision of their faith by a centralized authority, just as its politically imperial colleagues were in the process of doing. Because the Jesuits were already operating a well-established and far-reaching international evangelization effort prior to the 19th century, Jesuits represented an important vanguard of religious development and believer in coordinated educational efforts in an age of empires.

The significance of the international presence of Jesuits may be seen in their potential to challenge and destabilize emerging concepts of the modern nation-state that did not conceive of individual agency in such an egalitarian way. As Bayly notes, the reorganization of world religions prior and during the 18th and 19th centuries “made it easier for priests, mullahs, and preachers to become guardians of the poor and protectors of ‘true’ spiritual values.” Jesuits had always placed at the core of their teaching care for society’s most marginalized groups, as was discussed above. Loyola furthered this objective by pursuing education in the same way that religious and spiritual instruction in the church was pursued for time immemorial: teacher-centered, with little input or agency for the student. “We ought to be more prompt,” says Loyola, “to find good and praise well the Constitutions and recommendations as the ways of our Superiors.” Though seemingly unsuitable for honoring individual dignity, orienting education in this way made it accessible to anyone capable or willing to accept the authority of the teacher – a necessary precondition at a time when education was only made accessible to those with the means and resources to afford such a luxury. Such an orientation is all the more exceptional since it emerges at a time when the individual is starting to be considered as a capable and rational public actor, and thus a necessary site for the instigation and maintenance of political legitimacy, and an object for political regulation. By producing an egalitarian educational philosophy that implies the presence of equal dignity in spite of class or status, the Jesuits hence foreshadow an essential development of world history: an equality of public-sphere agency via education.

It is important to acknowledge, however, that such dignity was not afforded to the slaves of Georgetown. This unfortunate reality reveals a central paradox between espoused principles and pragmatic necessities that modern democracies must learn to navigate. That is, to uphold espoused beliefs in a globalizing and interconnected world often means denying their equal application to all affected parties at some point. The egalitarian conception of education that the Jesuits embrace does suggest a strikingly modern belief in the equality of individuals that modern democracies eventually come to accept.  Further, it is the presence of this belief that compels the type of centralization that the early modern nation-state in its imperial guise comes to embrace in its own way. Yet when confronted with a choice between maintaining their principle of equality or maintaining the solvency of Georgetown, erected to carry out their principles, the Jesuits chose the latter. In doing so, the Jesuits can be seen to once again be foreshadowing the type of conflict between political principles and the economics of 19th century governance that come to shape some of America’s most significant conflicts later in the century. Nonetheless, when combined with their unusually international presence, the Jesuits found themselves in an envious, if not prescient, position within the development of world history by the time they embark on their educating mission in early America. For then does such an international presence by a religious order like the Jesuits portend a legitimate challenge to the emerging secular nation-state and its claim to the right to structure public-sphere activity of individuals.

As fraught as the application of their principles in early America is, the Jesuit attempt to recompense today for yesterday’s sins is made all the more laudable when one recognizes the foundation for such a drive to seek reconciliation. For the Jesuit response today is borne from a unique intellectual relationship with larger analytical traditions and histories. If one can grasp the presence of this relationship, and acknowledge the headwinds that face the embrace of this tradition to compel such introspectively-driven reconciliation, then the Georgetown response emerges an obvious exemplar that can and should be embraced other institutions attempting to reconcile their sordid role in slavery. Specifically, the response by Georgetown’s Jesuits are a notable example of Catholicism’s robust history and engagement with ideas and questions about human purpose and agency. Western religion’s origins in the stoic philosophy of ancient Greece place it as a contemporary among the other intellectual traditions to also emerge out of Greece that attempt to address similar questions. Philosophy writ-large, in other words, has always been an engaged partner to Christianity and Catholicism, if not a competitor at times, and the ability to engage its competitor made the need for education amongst Catholics all the more expedient.

The Jesuits were a natural heir to carry the tradition of intellectual engagement with competitor analytic traditions. As a transnational entity, the Jesuit perspective could not help but confront competitor belief systems in non-Western civilizations. Adequately confronting disputes to emerge with native intellectual traditions and belief systems was made possible because of Catholicism’s continued maintenance of, and engagement with, philosophy. What’s more, emerging from Western Europe at a time when questions about free will and human agency found new vehicles in the emerging concept of the Nation-State, the Jesuits could not help but learn to situate their missionary purpose within a larger analytical framework with newer, non-religious interlocutors. In this sense, philosophy served as an equalizer from which all modern arguments about individual agency would ultimately stem. Being in possession of the analytical tools to engage intellectual competitors provided to Catholics a shibboleth of sorts, maintaining their intellectual relevancy during the first stages of what we now understand as globalization.

The strong and necessary history with analytical competitors is what currently compels Jesuit institutions like Georgetown, and Catholic schools at large, to maintain academic disciplines increasingly marginalized in other learning environments in our austere contemporary times. For these disciplines help to arm the individual with the tools and examples needed to confront the types of existential and intellectual conflicts that modernization (e.g., between the economic benefits of slavery and its conflict with ideals of liberty and equality) brought to the fore then and now. In a recent article on Commonweal extolling for the maintenance of philosophy requirements at Catholic universities, Notre Dame Professor Gary Cutting reminds that the purpose of philosophy for Catholics is to “introduce students to the problems, concepts, and arguments that philosophers, from Plato to the present, have developed to think rigorously about the fundamental questions of human life.” Philosophy, in other words, provides another avenue to understand the same types of fundamental questions that Catholicism also pursues. In evaluating similar questions through a different analytical lens, Catholicism’s beliefs can be reaffirmed, challenged, or clarified for any believer. Pursuing similar problems through philosophy, therefore, provides fruitful insights into the intellectual history of the church, if not also the particular challenges to the church at particular times.  Philosophy is thus an essential element in Catholicism; not just for its perpetuation and diffusion, but also for its ability to compel introspective confrontations with ourselves over our own temporal agency with all of its glory and all of its shame.

The news of Georgetown’s project to reconcile its role in slavery is therefore not a surprising revelation. The tenets of Catholicism require reflection on, confession, and the seeking of spiritual recompense for past sins. Catholicism also expects a willingness to engage ourselves in the types of hard and public introspection that often unsettles. Perhaps most importantly, Catholicism and other western religions expect followers to act within the intellectual tradition of their faith. Catholicism has laudably insisted on maintaining its relationship to philosophy at a time when many American institutions of higher education are not willing to entertain any such activity that is not ostensibly contributing to the realization of immediate, short-term, and material gains. Catholicism’s relationship to philosophy ensures instead an increased willingness of it and its followers to engage with the discomfort of past sins, and make reparations therefore. As Cutting asserts, philosophy uniquely provides students with the “philosophical distinctions and argumentative strategies…that they need to intelligently assess challenges to faith.” Without such distinctions, attempts to understand and make reparations for one’s past relationship to slavery are unlikely.

It is no surprise then that Georgetown’s working group is going further than any of its peers in higher education. The New York Times has advocated for one such reparation to be scholarships offered to the descendants of the slaves owned and sold by Georgetown University. Such scholarships cannot fully recompense the indignity of slavery. But such scholarships are better than merely research on the topic of slavery. They are also better than memorial plaques acknowledging the presence of slavery on its grounds, as recently revealed at Harvard University. Given the financial status of Harvard and its Ivy-league peers, it is curious why no similar offers to descendants of slaves have been offered. But we should not be surprised to see Georgetown once again in the vanguard of its contemporaries. For the Jesuits have a history of being ahead of its historical peers. Just as the Jesuits foreshadow the centralization of authority necessary for the emergence of the age of empires, and predict the types of principled conflicts inherent in any democracy that make equality and liberty simultaneous objectives, so too may they be currently offering a template to address the sins of America’s past. Where the public sector has been unable to agree on how best to repay for slavery, perhaps private institutions like Georgetown, Harvard, and other private actors will step in to repay for their role in perpetuating slavery. Whatever form such reparations may take, a continued engagement with philosophy, and a belief in the benefits of learning that accompany a truer living of religious principles, make the Jesuits a formidable partner in confronting some of history’s most troubling memories.


Mr. Harbour is currently the Advanced Placement Economics and Western Civilizations Instructor at La Salle College High School in Wyndmoor, PA, and was previously the Senior Instructor for Advanced Placement World History at Mastery Charter Schools-Thomas, in Philadelphia, PA. Mr. Harbour has been previously published in the World History Bulletin, and was a founding member and contributor to the Harvard and Slavery: Seeking a Forgotten History research project.


Image: The ship manifest of the Katharine Jackson, available in full at the Georgetown Slavery archive. Image Text: Manifest of Negroes, Mulattoes, and Persons of Color, taken on board the Katherine Jackson of Georgetown whereof John G. Duarry is Master, burthen Four hundred fifty six /35 Tons, to be tranported to the Port of Alexandria for the purpose of being sold or disposed of as Slaves, or to be held to service or labor.

National Archives, Fort Worth, TX, “Manifest of the Katherine Jackson, 1838,” Georgetown Slavery Archive, accessed July 13, 2016, http://slaveryarchive.georgetown.edu/items/show/2.