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How ‘Rogue One’ Backs Up The Founders’ Approach To Slavery


Warning: Spoilers ahead.

Ever since “Star Wars: A New Hope” was released, people have joked about the fatal flaw in the Death Star. How could this massive and sophisticated weapon have such a tiny, simple weakness that, when exploited, would cause a chain reaction that would lead to its complete destruction? Was it poor screenwriting? Was the Empire really that inept?

“Rogue One” explains why that weakness was there. It turns out that this was not a design flaw, poor screenwriting, or ineptness. It was sabotage!

Galen Erso, father of Jyn, was a scientist for the Empire and he helped build the Death Star. He was forcibly taken from his family to work on the project that would eventually kill thousands, if not millions of people.

Why would a seemingly good man be willing, even under duress, to cooperate with the Empire on such a project? Perhaps it was a reasonable desire to protect his daughter. Maybe he was understandably scared and wanted to save his own life, and so he just went along.

Why Galen Erso Helped The Empire Build The Death Star

Galen was eventually able to smuggle a hologram message to extremist rebel Saw Gerrera that revealed the weakness he created in the weapon. In that message, he said that he had considered not cooperating or killing himself. But he decided against both options.

Instead, he decided to make himself indispensable to the project. What?! Again, why would this man, who we don’t know much about but who appears to be good, not only cooperate, but make himself an integral part of such a deadly and immoral project?

In the message, he said that if he had refused to cooperate, or if he had killed himself, the Empire would have built the Death Star anyway. The project of evil and murder would have continued regardless of his opposition to it. There was nothing he could have done to stop it.

His decision to become indispensable to the project was the only way he could eventually bring the project to its ultimate destruction. His participation in the Empire’s effort gave him the ability to include a kind of secret self-destruct button, which Luke Skywalker eventually uses to destroy the Death Star.

Compare to The Founders’ Approach to Fighting Slavery

We can actually compare this fictional scenario with slavery at the time of the American Founding.

Chattel slavery, that immoral and evil institution, was a well-established practice at the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. For a nation founded with the statement, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” critics have argued that not abolishing slavery was more than just a contradiction—it was a moral failure.

But what if the Founders—some of whom owned slaves, but none of whom argued it was a morally fine and good thing (that would come later)—understood the circumstances that they were in? What if they put slavery onto the course of its eventual extinction as best they could?

The men who gathered in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 to write the Constitution knew that if they prohibited slavery (a word, along with “slave,” which is not mentioned in the Constitution), the southern states would never agree to the Union. If those who were against slavery pursued a hard-lined prohibition of slavery, the secession that took place decades later may have happened before the new nation even had a functioning government.

Why Not Abolish Slavery Right Away?

But if those southern states failed to join the Union, they could have enshrined the institution of slavery into the structure of their own government—making it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to remove.

Much like Galen’s decision to make himself indispensable to the building of the Death Star, so that he could plot its destruction, the American Founders tolerated the evil of slavery as little as possible so that it could eventually be completely eradicated.

In 1863, Frederick Douglass explained it this way:

I hold that the Federal Government was never, in its essence, anything but an anti-slavery government. Abolish slavery tomorrow, and not a sentence or syllable of the Constitution need be altered. It was purposely so framed as to give no claim, no sanction to the claim, of property in man. If in its origin slavery had any relation to the government, it was only as the scaffolding to the magnificent structure, to be removed as soon as the building was completed.

The image of scaffolding is well used here. It was necessary for the building of the thing, the government, but not necessary after construction was complete, and indeed could and should be removed at the completion of the project.

The Pursuit of Justice Sometimes Requires a Longer View

In both Galen’s cooperation with the Empire and the Founders’ toleration of slavery when writing the Constitution, the pursuit of justice required that protagonists understand and respond to the particular situations in which they found themselves. They had to pursue justice within the restraints placed upon them, so that the best possible outcome for justice could come about.

Had Galen refused to cooperate or killed himself, the evil plans of the Empire would have gone on. The rebels would not have been able to destroy the Death Star. Many lost their lives, but fewer were lost because Galen made himself integral to the building of the weapon.

Had the Founders tried to eradicate slavery while writing the Constitution, the evil of slavery would have been entrenched into a constitution that would have been unassailable. Many continued their lives in bondage, and many died because of this atrocity, but fewer were bound because the Founders saw that tolerating it and placing limits on it for a while would lead to its eventual destruction everywhere.

Our Efforts to Fight Injustice Are Never Perfect

The Founders may not have been able to build into the Constitution something so effective and overt as the susceptible reactor that led to the Death Star’s destruction. In a constitutional republic, that relies on the consent of the governed—something that would have been an impossible consensus in the late 18th century. Nonetheless, they constricted slavery because they knew that it was not a sustainable prospect.

Thomas G. West addresses the charge that the Founders did not abolish slavery when they had the chance:

[T]hey limited and eventually outlawed the importation of slaves from abroad; they abolished slavery in a majority of the original states; they forbade the expansion of slavery into the areas where it had not been previously permitted; they made laws regulating slavery more humane; individual owners in most states freed slaves in large numbers…. Freedom was secured for the large majority of Americans, and important actions were undertaken in the service of freedom for the rest.

These measures may seem unsatisfactory to us, many generations later. It may not seem like enough. And indeed, slavery got worse before it was eliminated. But the thing to remember is that further measures, measures that aimed at its immediate and complete elimination, would have proved unsuccessful. They would have made the institution impossible to destroy.

Instead, the Founders took steps so that others, when circumstances were more favorable, could destroy the great evils they faced.