The Corner

The Old ‘Slavery Wasn’t So Bad’ Canard

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. 

Rich Lowry — Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via email: 

Most Popular

PC Culture

Hate-Crime Hoaxes Reflect America’s Sickness

On January 29, tabloid news site TMZ broke the shocking story that Jussie Smollett, a gay black entertainer and progressive activist, had been viciously attacked in Chicago. Two racist white men had fractured his rib, poured bleach on him, and tied a noose around his neck. As they were leaving, they shouted ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The Strange Paradoxes of Our Age

Modern prophets often say one thing and do another. Worse, they often advocate in the abstract as a way of justifying their doing the opposite in the concrete. The result is that contemporary culture abounds with the inexplicable — mostly because modern progressivism makes all sorts of race, class, and ... Read More
PC Culture

Fake Newspeople

This week, the story of the Jussie Smollett hoax gripped the national media. The story, for those who missed it, went something like this: The Empire actor, who is both black and gay, stated that on a freezing January night in Chicago, in the middle of the polar vortex, he went to a local Subway store to buy a ... Read More

Ilhan Omar’s Big Lie

In a viral exchange at a congressional hearing last week, the new congresswoman from Minnesota, Ilhan Omar, who is quickly establishing herself as the most reprehensible member of the House Democratic freshman class despite stiff competition, launched into Elliott Abrams. She accused the former Reagan official ... Read More

White Progressives Are Polarizing America

To understand how far left (and how quickly) the Democratic party has moved, let’s cycle back a very short 20 years. If 1998 Bill Clinton ran in the Democratic primary today, he’d be instantaneously labeled a far-right bigot. His support for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Defense of Marriage Act, ... Read More

One Last Grift for Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders, the antique Brooklyn socialist who represents Vermont in the Senate, is not quite ready to retire to his lakeside dacha and so once again is running for the presidential nomination of a party to which he does not belong with an agenda about which he cannot be quite entirely ... Read More
PC Culture

Merciless Sympathy

Jussie Smollett’s phony hate-crime story could have been taken apart in 24 hours, except for one thing: Nobody wanted to be the first to call bullsh**. Who will bell the cat? Not the police, and I don’t blame them. Smollett is a vocal critic of President Donald Trump who checks two protected-category ... Read More