Was American Slavery a Bad Thing?

Column by new Root Striker Patrick Chkoreff.

Exclusive to STR

I saw that question on a message board, asked honestly and with good intention, and I decided to answer not only the original question, but some related ones as well. Here is what I put together.

Slavery was very bad, both in America and Brazil. The question was what to do about it. As I see it, the South should have been allowed to dissolve its political bonds with the North and deal with the issue of slavery the same way Brazil did 20 years later, and Britain did 30 years before.

In Britain, there was a gradual phasing in of emancipation, with compensation to slave owners. In Brazil, emancipation also came gradually, aided by the liberalization of laws against manumission, which were very strict in the American South. By 1872, three quarters of blacks and mulattoes in Brazil were already free, and that was sixteen years before formal abolition.

Reading through the various Articles of Secession, and various newspaper editorials of the time both North and South, it is abundantly clear to me that the South was concerned with far more than the loss of its property in slaves, as they were legally designated in the United States at the time.

In 1859, what terrified the South more than anything was the possibility of Northern abolitionists inciting a slave revolt like the bloody Haitian revolt of 1791. The Texas Ordinance of Secession referred to it as "servile insurrection." That fear is what crushed Southern abolitionist societies virtually out of existence by 1800.

Northern writers tried to calm the panic in the South. The New York Tribune wrote, in the wake of John Brown's raid: "The present panic which prevails in Virginia calls to mind the bloody delusion with which this City of New-York was visited a hundred years and more ago, and at the bottom of which, then and now, lay the terror of negro insurrection. ... We trust also that in a much shorter space than a hundred years Virginia may be as safe against any panic based on the existence of Slavery as we now are in New-York." Abraham Lincon himself, in his Inaugural Address delivered just six weeks before the hostilities at Fort Sumter, pledged that he had no intention to interfere with the institution of slavery.

Northern forces did not invade the South for the purpose of abolishing slavery. They did it to force the South to remain in the Union, continue to pay exorbitant tariffs, and continue to supply cheap agricultural products produced with the benefit of slave labor.

Two years after the start of hostilities, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation as a propaganda ploy, so that his war of economic conquest would be seen instead as a war for morality. This would ensure that neither England nor France would recognize or aid the Confederacy.

Note that the proclamation applied only to slaves held in Confederate territory, and not to slaves held in Union territory such as Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri. Secretary of State William Seward wrote: "We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free." In London, the Spectator wrote that the principle of Lincoln's proclamation "is not that a human being cannot justly own another, but that he cannot own him unless he is loyal to the United States."

Abraham Lincoln himself did not conceal his cynicism when he wrote:

"I view the matter (of slaves' emancipation) as a practical war measure, to be decided upon according to the advantages or disadvantages it may offer to the suppression of the rebellion."

"I will also concede that emancipation would help us in Europe, and convince them that we are incited by something more than ambition."

At one point, the Southern abolitionist Moncure Conway came to believe that Northern abolitionists were more interested in conquering the South than achieving liberty for slaves, exclaiming "I for one wash my hands of it forever!" and leaving for England.

Slavery in the American South was very bad indeed, and many Southerners knew it, but hundreds of years of tradition supported by Biblical theology are hard to buck, especially when the alternative is turning the slaves free like wild animals and losing the farm.

Although some of the narratives from freed slaves do show a certain fondness for the master and the security of life on the plantation, they also show a backdrop of abject horror and atrocity which were the real teeth of enforcement against anyone who got out of line. This is why slavery had to end: because it violated the doctrine that relations among people should be by mutual consent, or not at all.

Slavery ended in Britain and Brazil through a peaceful and orderly process, motivated by the evolving moral conscience of the people. Slavery ended in the United States by a complete accident, through a cynical wartime ploy of a president whose one true desire was to prevent the South from achieving independence and escaping his economic domination. This was a disaster of the ages, precipitating 150 years of horror at the hands of tyrannical governments, and a spiraling hostility between the races.

Your rating: None
pc's picture
Columns on STR: 1


Paul's picture

Stefan Molyneux has some interesting observations about slavery here:

Apparently no matter how bad slavery was in the US, it was much worse in Muslim Africa and the Middle East, where male slaves were all castrated and the survival rate of slaves was essentially zero. It's why there are no black populations left there, unlike America. Everything is relative...

I was looking through the minutes of the Montgomery Convention, where the Confederacy formed. The impression I get is that what distressed these ruling class Southerners the most was the fact that the part of the Constitution protecting slavery was increasingly ignored by the Northern states. Back then it seems the Constitution was not a figurehead, but actually adhered to. But the Southerners could see where things were going. If ignoring parts of the Constitution was permitted to proceed, then there was no Constitution. Thus the secessions...