The Old ‘Slavery Wasn’t So Bad’ Canard

by Rich Lowry

Cliven Bundy turns about to be a paleo-libertarian of a certain stripe. He mused the other day about slavery in a quote published by the New York Times:

“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” he said. Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, “and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids – and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.

“And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

This is so stupid and noxious it isn’t really worth rebutting, but a couple of points anyway.

The entire point of slavery was coercion. That was its competitive advantage, as economist Robert Fogel points out in his book Without Consent or Contract. He notes the common explanations for why slavery thrived in parts of the New World — the scarcity or expense of free labor, for instance — then says they miss the main point:

These answers slide past the most distinctive feature of New World slavery, a feature that made planters prefer slave to free labor even when free labor was relatively abundant, and even in climates, such as those of Maryland and Virginia, that were as congenial to Europeans as to Africans.

This feature is the enormous, almost unconstrained degree of force available to masters who wanted and needed to transform ancient modes of labor into a new industrial discipline. Centuries of tradition made it difficult to achieve that desired conversion without force; and the more rapid the rate of conversion the greater the amount of force that was necessary. Centuries of tradition also shielded European laborers from the degree of force that was permitted against African or Afro-American slave.

People like Bundy who minimize the horror of slavery tend to consider it a paternalistic institution that had something to offer the slaves. This is nonsense.

In his book Half Slave and Half Free, Bruce Levine writes,

The literature of “slave management” that owners wrote for one another did repeatedly inveigh against “excessive” whipping, whipping for the pleasure of it, whipping “from mere passion and malice.” But the same writers considered the use of the whip essential to enforce rules necessary to the plantation’s efficient functioning and to break rebellious spirits among the slaves.

In a case in North Carolina in the 1820s, a slave woman was shot by a man renting her. The attorney general tried to prosecute the man under the theory that it was his obligation to care for her the way a parent would for a child. The state’s Supreme Court rejected this paternalistic argument, asserting instead,

With slavery . . . [t]he end is the profit of the master, his security and the public safety; the subject, one doomed in his own person, and his posterity, to live without knowledge, and without the capacity to make anything his own, and to toil that others may reap the fruits.

Finally, what about slave family life? Here is Levine again:

Slave families had no external guarantee of survival. The law accorded them no force at all; much less did it protect them against dissolution at the pleasure of the master. Once again, some masters — Thomas Jefferson among them — tried to keep slave families intact. But the structure and exigencies of the larger system commonly frustrated such efforts. Owners with economic problems often sold off individual members of slave families, separating husbands from wives, children from parents. A slave owner’s death was often the occasion for distributing slave family members among the deceased’s various creditors and heirs. Masters also sold slaves away from their families as a punishment for various infractions of the rules. Nor was sale the only cause of such calamities. Marriages linking slaves owned by different masters were shattered when one of those masters decided to move (along with his human property) deeper into the cotton kingdom. In these and other ways, masters forcibly broke up somewhere between a fifth and third of all slave marriages. 

Someone should send Bundy a copy of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. He obviously has a lot more to learn about the meaning of freedom.