You are browsing the archive for slavery.

Slavery Was Believed Permanent Longer Than War Has Been

7:45 pm in Uncategorized by David Swanson

This article is excerpted from the new book War No More: The Case for Abolition.

In the late eighteenth century the majority of people alive on earth were held in slavery or serfdom (three-quarters of the earth’s population, in fact, according to the Encyclopedia of Human Rights from Oxford University Press). The idea of abolishing something so pervasive and long-lasting as slavery was widely considered ridiculous. Slavery had always been with us and always would be. One couldn’t wish it away with naive sentiments or ignore the mandates of our human nature, unpleasant though they might be. Religion and science and history and economics all purported to prove slavery’s permanence, acceptability, and even desirability. Slavery’s existence in the Christian Bible justified it in the eyes of many. In Ephesians 6:5 St. Paul instructed slaves to obey their earthly masters as they obeyed Christ.

Slavery’s prevalence also allowed the argument that if one country didn’t do it another country would: “Some gentlemen may, indeed, object to the slave trade as inhuman and evil,” said a member of the British Parliament on May 23, 1777, “but let us consider that, if our colonies are to be cultivated, which can only be done by African negroes, it is surely better to supply ourselves with those labourers in British ships, than buy them from French, Dutch or Danish traders.” On April 18, 1791, Banastre Tarleton declared in Parliament—and, no doubt, some even believed him—that “the Africans themselves have no objection to the trade.”

By the end of the nineteenth century, slavery was outlawed nearly everywhere and rapidly on the decline. In part, this was because a handful of activists in England in the 1780s began a movement advocating for abolition, a story well told in Adam Hochschild’s Bury the Chains. This was a movement that made ending the slave trade and slavery a moral cause, a cause to be sacrificed for on behalf of distant, unknown people very different from oneself. It was a movement of public pressure. It did not use violence and it did not use voting. Most people had no right to vote. Instead it used so-called naive sentiments and the active ignoring of the supposed mandates of our supposed human nature. It changed the culture, which is, of course, what regularly inflates and tries to preserve itself by calling itself “human nature.”

Other factors contributed to the demise of slavery, including the resistance of the people enslaved. But such resistance was not new in the world. Widespread condemnation of slavery—including by former slaves—and a commitment not to allow its return: that was new and decisive.

Those ideas spread by forms of communication we now consider primitive. There is some evidence that in this age of instant global communication we can spread worthy ideas much more quickly.

So, is slavery gone? Yes and no. While owning another human being is banned and in disrepute around the world, forms of bondage still exist in certain places. There is not a hereditary caste of people enslaved for life, transported and bred and whipped openly by their owners, what might be called “traditional slavery.” Sadly, however, debt slavery and sex slavery hide in various countries. There are pockets of slavery of various sorts in the United States. There is prison labor, with the laborers disproportionately being descendants of former slaves. There are more African-Americans behind bars or under supervision by the criminal justice system in the United States today than there were African-Americans enslaved in the United States in 1850.

But these modern evils don’t convince anybody that slavery, in any form, is a permanent fixture in our world, and they shouldn’t. Most African-Americans are not imprisoned. Most workers in the world are not enslaved in any type of slavery. In 1780, if you had proposed making slavery the exception to the rule, a scandal to be carried out in secret, hidden away and disguised where it still existed in any form, you would have been considered as naive and ignorant as someone proposing the complete elimination of slavery. If you were to propose bringing back slavery in a major way today, most people would denounce the idea as backward and barbaric.

All forms of slavery may not have been completely eliminated, and may never be. But they could be. Or, on the other hand, traditional slavery could be returned to popular acceptance and restored to prominence in a generation or two. Look at the rapid revival in acceptance of the use of torture in the early twenty-first century for an example of how a practice that some societies had begun to leave behind has been significantly restored. In this moment, however, it is clear to most people that slavery is a choice and that its abolition is an option—that, in fact, its abolition always was an option, even if a difficult one.

In the United States some may have a tendency to doubt the abolition of slavery as a model for the abolition of war because war was used to end slavery. But did it have to be used? Would it have to be used today? Slavery was ended without war, through compensated emancipation, in the British colonies, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, and most of South America and the Caribbean. That model worked also in Washington, D.C. Slave owning states in the United States rejected it, most of them choosing secession instead. That’s the way history went, and many people would have had to think very differently for it to have gone otherwise. But the cost of freeing the slaves by buying them would have been far less than the North spent on the war, not counting what the South spent, not counting the deaths and injuries, mutilations, trauma, destruction, and decades of bitterness to come, while slavery long remained nearly real in all but name. (See Costs of Major U.S. Wars, by the Congressional Research Service, June 29, 2010.)

On June 20, 2013, the Atlantic published an article called “No, Lincoln Could Not Have ‘Bought the Slaves’.” Why not? Well, the slave owners didn’t want to sell. That’s perfectly true. They didn’t, not at all. But the Atlantic focuses on another argument, namely that it would have just been too expensive, costing as much as $3 billion (in 1860s money). Yet, if you read closely—it’s easy to miss it—the author admits that the war cost over twice that much. The cost of freeing people was simply unaffordable. Yet the cost—over twice as much—of killing people, goes by almost unnoticed. As with well-fed people’s appetites for desserts, there seems to be a completely separate compartment for war spending, a compartment kept far away from criticism or even questioning.

The point is not so much that our ancestors could have made a different choice (they were nowhere near doing so), but that their choice looks foolish from our point of view. If tomorrow we were to wake up and discover everyone appropriately outraged over the horror of mass incarceration, would it help to find some large fields in which to kill each other off in large numbers? What would that have to do with abolishing prisons? And what did the Civil War have to do with abolishing slavery? If—radically contrary to actual history—U.S. slave owners had opted to end slavery without war, it’s hard to imagine that as a bad decision.

Let me try to really, really emphasize this point: what I am describing DID NOT happen and was not about to happen, was nowhere remotely close to happening; but its happening would have been a good thing. Had slave owners and politicians radically altered their thinking and chosen to end slavery without a war, they would have ended it with less suffering, and probably ended it more completely. In any case, to imagine slavery ending without war, we need only look at the actual history of various other countries. And to imagine big changes being made in our society today (whether it’s closing prisons, creating solar arrays, rewriting the Constitution, facilitating sustainable agriculture, publicly financing elections, developing democratic media outlets, or anything else—you may not like any of these ideas, but I’m sure you can think of a major change that you would like) we don’t tend to include as Step 1 “Find large fields in which to make our children kill each other in huge numbers.” Instead, we skip right by that to Step 2 “Do the thing that needs doing.” And so we should.

This article is excerpted from the new book War No More: The Case for Abolition.

What Slavery Cost

11:50 am in Uncategorized by David Swanson

As I head off to a rally for Trayvon Martin, I notice a column by Bob Koehler in which he says the unpaid work of slaves in the United States is now estimated at $1.4 trillion.  Oddly, that’s not terribly far from the $1.2 trillion or so, possibly more now, that we spend each year preparing for and fighting wars.  If we abolished war we could perhaps afford to compensate descendants of those victimized by slavery.  If we abolished prisons, we’d have at least another $100 billion.  And, of course, we’d have all those savings again the next year and the next year and the next year.

Folk slave painting

A look at the costs of slavery.

I wrote a review recently of a film called Copperhead, and I brought up the idea of compensated emancipation.  Wouldn’t it have been wiser, I asked, to have compensated the slave owners than to have fought the Civil War.  Since then, a number of readers have been sending me information on the extent to which compensated emancipation was discussed, proposed, or attempted — some of which I was unaware of.

I want to try to make this point clearly if I can.  When I say that slave owners and everybody else would have been better off with compensated emancipation than with war, I don’t mean that they agreed with this at the time.  I don’t even mean that they agreed in retrospect, after the war — although many very well might have.  I mean that they would have been better off as we see things — obviously better off, with less dying and suffering and burning and looting and bitter resentment left behind for decades to come.  That compensated emancipation was proposed in various ways and rejected doesn’t contradict this point.

In Washington, D.C., compensated emancipation was enacted by the federal government, and it worked.  It is the focus of an annual celebration on April 16th to this day in our nation’s capital.  Congressman Abraham Lincoln had introduced a bill for compensated emancipation in Washington, D.C., in 1849.  Such a bill was not passed until 1862, when President Lincoln signed it.  The terms were of course outrageous.  Slave owners were not punished but rewarded with $300 per freed person.  And those freed persons were given $100, but only if they agreed to leave the country.  But this was an alternative to something far worse: five years of hellish war.  And it was an alternative that had worked in British colonies, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, most of South America and the Caribbean, and would go on to work well in Brazil and Cuba.

President Lincoln seems to have made a big push for compensated emancipation only once the war had begun and the war fever long since taken hold.  Racism and ignorance might have required that those freed leave the country — an enormous injustice that would have had to be weighed against the injustice of war.  But the governments of the border states and the rebel states rejected compensated emancipation, opting instead for ongoing war.  The Delaware legislature came close to passage, but failed.  Once again, my contention is not that they didn’t do this, but that they shouldn’t have — and even more so that we shouldn’t make a similar decision in the future.  If we decide to abolish prisons or address global warming or make any other big change, we shouldn’t kill each other in large numbers first.  And if we do, we shouldn’t claim that we had to.

If the North had made an all-out and timely effort for a compensated emancipation plan, and if the South had refused, the South could have been allowed to leave.  There would have been no returning of fugitives escaped to the North.  The global trend toward the abolition of slavery would have continued, and would have reached the South.  So, the choices were not limited to emancipation or war.  But, assuming that they were, President Lincoln wrote to California Senator James McDougall making a remarkable case for emancipation in financial terms, a comparison familiar to the opponents of all kinds of wars and military spending down through the ages, including those lobbying Congress this week against another gargantuan appropriations bill.  Lincoln wrote:

Read the rest of this entry →

The Original Abolitionists

12:07 pm in Uncategorized by David Swanson

If you’re like me, there are some things you would like to abolish.  My list includes war, weapons, fossil fuel use, plutocracy, corporate personhood, health insurance corporations, poverty wages, poverty, homelessness, factory farming, prisons, the drug war, the death penalty, nuclear energy, the U.S. Senate, the electoral college, gerrymandering, electronic voting machines, murder, rape, child abuse, Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, and the Washington Post.  I could go on.  I bet you can think of at least one institution you believe we’d be better off without.

Cover of Bury the Chains

Bury the Chains by Adam Hochschild

All of us, then, can almost certainly learn a thing or two from the men and women in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in England who abolished first the slave trade and then slavery within the British empire.  I highly recommend watching a film about them called Amazing Grace. If you like it, you’ll love a book called Bury the Chains.

You’ll discover that this was in many ways the original activist movement.  It created activist committees, with chapters, newsletters, posters, speaking tours, book tours, petitioning, boycotts of products, theatrical props, and investigative journalism — pioneering all of these now familiar tactics.  It achieved great success without voting, as only a tiny fraction of the population could vote.  That, in itself, should be a lesson to those who believe elections are the only tool available.

The abolition movement had stamina.  Looking back, its gains appear stunningly swift.  At the end of the 1700s the world was dominated by slavery.  Slavery was the norm.  Before the end of the 1800s it had been outlawed almost everywhere.  Yet, those who worked night and day against the current of their times to create the abolition movement faced endless defeats.  Many of the hardest working activists didn’t live to see the final success.  And yet they kept working.  That too may be a lesson for us.

A war between England and France halted progress, and could have stopped it cold.  But the war ended, and the movement was revived — in large part with a new cast of characters, a younger generation of radicals.  Freezing all forward momentum for wars has been the rule over the ages.  It’s a hard lesson for us to face, as we’ve now accepted that we live in an era of permanent war.  The difficult truth may be that we must escape that era if we are to make headway on numerous fronts.

When the abolition movement sprang into being in England, it was a moral movement demanding rights — but, unlike most movements we’ve seen — demanding rights for other people.  The Britons were not demanding their own freedom.  In fact, they were willing to make sacrifices, to risk a reduction in their own prosperity, and to boycott the use of slave-grown sugar.  This is a useful fact in an age when we are often told that people can only care about themselves.  Never mind the dead Afghans and Pakistanis, we’re advised, just make sure that Americans know the financial cost of the wars.  Perhaps that advice can be questioned after all.

However, Adam Hochschild, the author of Bury the Chains, believes that Britons were able to appreciate the evil of the slave trade because of their own experience with the practice of naval impressment.  That is to say, because they themselves lived in fear of being kidnapped and enslaved by the British Navy and forced to sail naval vessels around the world, and in fear of their loved ones meeting that fate, they were able to imagine the misery of Africans living in fear of being kidnapped and sold into slavery in the West Indies.

Where might this insight lead us?  Americans do face random senseless gun violence.  Can we appreciate the evil of a drone buzzing over a village and then blowing up a family because we know that our shopping mall or school could soon be the scene of mass murder?  Americans have also been taught to fear foreign terrorism.  Can we appreciate the need to stop funding foreign terrorism in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, foreign terrorism carried out by the U.S. military?

Read the rest of this entry →