Reader: Slavery Ain’t So Bad

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Here’s an email I received from a reader (CW) in response to my post on slavery and abortion:

Mr. McMaken, let me make an objection to your remarks today. “Both views produce similar outcomes.” This is not true. You quote the great Christian theologian James Henley Thornwell’s accurate remarks about the sides in the War for Southern Independence and draw the wrong conclusion. Nobody was killing the slaves of the Old South. You utterly mischaracterise Thornwell and distort the history referred to by quoting an abstract theory. In fact, the slaves of the Old South were proliferating abundantly. Nor does servitude, which runs through history, equate with killing. In fact, it is often thought that servitude was a humane substitute for killing of captured prisoners. The character of the abolitionists and the abortionists is very similar. Both were selfishly determined to upset the settled order. Thornwell very correctly described the forces that triumphed in the great war of 1861–65. Pay some attention to history. Arguing by abstract, present-centered theory is a trick of the evil Straussian cult.

Well yes, of course it is worse to murder people before they are born than it is to kidnap them, put them in chains, deprive them of human dignity, separate them from children and spouses, and work them to death.

But you’ll forgive me if I consider both things to be despicable practices.

CW attempts to muddy the waters by equating black chattel slavery with the enslavement of war captives. Of course, the two things are not comparable at all. Many Southern defenders of slavery have no doubt told themselves that the two are somehow comparable and some slavemasters of old fancied themselves as saviors of blacks by “protecting” them from free-market economy in the North (which Southern anti-capitalist conservatives like George Fitzhugh hated), but such views are quaint at best, and ghoulish at worst. Chattel slavery was much, much worse, as described by Rothbard here, and it also involved the enslavement of women and children, with the male slaveholders taking liberties with the female slaves.

CW accuses me of relying on “abstract” theories and that my thinking is too “present-centered,” as if I would necessarily find slavery to be more acceptable if I lived in another time. Okay, fair enough. How about I just defer to the thinking of my own ancestors who lived in Ohio in the time of slavery.

My great-great-great uncle Mark Campbell McMaken was an abolitionist and an operator of a stop on the underground railroad in southern Ohio (and thus a criminal according to Federal law). Other McMakens were abolitionists as well, and all generally opposed slavery. As some of the earliest settlers of western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, the McMakens ran dairies, farms, and taverns. They worked 12 hour days (or longer) during the busy seasons and helped build the economies of the American midwest during the nineteenth century. And yet, somehow, they managed to do all this without kidnapping, whipping, and enslaving other human beings. I have no doubt they lacked the refinement and fine clothing of their fellow planters in the South, who lived off the sweat of captives, but the McMakens somehow survived their low breeding.

According to CW, Mark McMaken, by virtue of being an abolitionist, was “selfishly determined to upset the settled order” and like other abolitionists was apparently “similar” to abortionists by wanting to free slaves (a truly incoherent assertion). And yet there was nothing “abstract” about slavery for the people of southern Ohio. Fortunately, many people of that time and place were far too practical to fall for the nonsensical theories constructed by the slavemasters. I’m no supporter of Abe Lincoln’s murderous war, nor will I restrain my contempt for bizarre and noxious apologias for the slavery of old, which many a decent middle-class Ohioan of that time could see perfectly well was despicable and wrong. I know it takes no courage for me to oppose slavery today, but others had courage and opposed it then. I can’t believe it even needs to be said, but: they were right, and the slavemasters were wrong.

5:06 pm on January 17, 2014