This is part of a series
Jan 13, 2017
Abolitionism and Self-Ownership
Smith discusses the crucial role played by the inalienable right of self-ownership in the abolitionist crusade to abolish slavery.
Abolitionists were those radical antislavery advocates who called for the “immediate emancipation” of slaves. Although American abolitionists had predecessors who influenced them, especially in England, this series will focus principally on the ideas of the American abolitionists, such as William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Lysander Spooner, Frederick Douglass, the Tappan brothers, and the Grimke sisters.
It is not my intention to present a history of abolitionism in antebellum America; rather, after summarizing the basic ideas of abolitionism, I shall discuss in future essays some of the many internal disagreements among abolitionists themselves. These internecine debates will be of interest to many contemporary libertarians for, aside from their historical importance, similar strategic and tactical disagreements are found among modern libertarians. These include the questions: Should abolitionists vote or hold political office to advance their cause? Should abolitionists form a third party devoted exclusively to their ideas? Should abolitionists sanction violence in pursuit of freedom for slaves (as in slave revolts), or should they restrict their methods solely to “moral suasion”? Is the U.S. Constitution a document that abolitionists can support in good conscience? Should abolitionists defend anarchism—or “no-governmentalism,” as they called it? Should abolitionists stress the moral evil of slavery, or should they emphasize its undesirable practical effects? Should abolitionists defend the right of secession, as Garrison and Phillips did when they called for the secession of free states in the North from slaves states in the South? Are we obligated to obey every law passed by the U.S. Government?
Different answers to these and similar questions were given by leading abolitionists. The result was a fascinating outpouring of pamphlets, books, lectures, and sermons that analyzed these issues in detail and that repay close study by modern libertarians. Let’s begin with a summary of the fundamental principles of abolitionism.
However much abolitionists disagreed on some points, they were unanimous in defending the principle of self-ownership. This was a natural position for them to embrace, given that slavery is the claim of ownership of one person (the slave) by another person (the master). Therefore, in rebutting arguments for slavery, abolitionists maintained that every person is a self-owner, that self-ownership is an inalienable right, and that slaveholders are “manstealers.”
Defenses of self-ownership are scattered throughout abolitionist literature. To take just one example, consider Slaveholding Malum In Se, or Invariably Sinful (1837), by E.R. Tyler. Edward Tyler, a native of Connecticut born in 1800, graduated Yale and went on to become a Congregational minister and a roving speaker for the American Anti-Slavery Society, a leading abolitionist organization founded by William Lloyd Garrison and Arthur Tappan in 1833. On July 4, 1837, Tyler delivered two sermons on abolitionism at a Congregational chapel in Connecticut, one of which he printed later the same year as Slaveholding Malum In Se, or Invariably Sinful. As was typical at the time, an angry mob gathered outside the chapel and made a lot of noise, including the firing of cannon, in an effort to drown out Tyler’s sermons. His mother, an eyewitness, described the event in her journal.
Great doings: Edward delivered a lecture on Abolition at the Chapel,—Cannon fired, and all manner of noises made to interrupt the services, no violence, however, offered. At five o’clock, another lecture, and increased noise of Cannon, etc., so much so as to frighten some ladies away from the house, nevertheless Edward proceeded undaunted.
In Slaveholding Malum In Se, or Invariably Sinful, Tyler wrote:
Self-ownership is an original endowment of every human being—the nucleus around which his other rights gather—the circumference within which they all lie. That every man is naturally the owner of himself—the proprietor of his body and mind—is one of those first truths, which need no argument to establish, which unperverted minds universally acknowledge, which is recognized in the phrases, common to all languages, my limbs, my body, my mind. This is the only right, or comprehends all the rights, original to man, inherent in human nature, the birth-rights of our race. All other rights depend on this for their validity.
Tyler clearly understood the meaning of “inalienable,” as that qualifier was applied to certain rights in the tradition of liberal individualism. It means that self-ownership cannot be transferred, forfeited, or otherwise alienated under any circumstances, even with the consent of the rights-holder. To surrender one’s primary right of self-ownership would require the obliteration one’s volition and moral agency, and this would entail a renunciation of personal responsibility for one’s actions. This cannot possibly be done, given the nature of human beings. As Tyler put it: “[S]elf ownership cannot be forfeited by crime; neither can it be alienated by any other act. It is inherent in human nature. It cannot be lost by birth, by gift, by contract, or by captivity.” To attempt to sell oneself into slavery is the moral equivalent of suicide.
As mankind are all created free; as they are endowed by their Creator with birth-rights; as the sum total of these rights can in no way be alienated; it would seem that every slave is now the rightful owner of himself, and fully entitled to liberty. Having been deprived of self-ownership wrongfully, no one ever had, no one could convey, no one could acquire a valid title to him. His title to himself remains, and must remain unimpaired. Though he may have passed through the hands of ten-thousand claimants to his body and soul, he is still in right and justice, his own proprietor. He is a wrong man, into whosoever hands he may fall, until he falls into possession of himself; and the slaveholder is the wrong doer. The same principle applies universally. The rule admits of no exceptions. So says the irrefutable doctrine, that self-ownership is an inalienable right; for enslaving men is divesting them of this right. If the right is inalienable, taking it away under any circumstances is stealing.
This manner of argument, which was extremely common among abolitionists, carried a number of significant implications. For example, it was the foundation of the objection by most abolitionists to the proposal that slaveholders be compensated for the value of their emancipated slaves. This proposal has things backwards. The slaveholder is a manstealer. He is a thief, so he deserves nothing if compelled to restore his slaves to their rightful condition as free moral agents. It is the slave who should be compensated by the slaveholder for the horrendous injustice coercively imposed upon him or her. Here is how the abolitionist position was expressed in the Declaration of Sentiments (written by Garrison) at the National Anti-Slavery Convention, held in Philadelphia on December 4, 1833:
Because the holders of slaves are not the just proprietors of what they claim—freeing slaves is not depriving them of property, but restoring it to the right owner—it is not wronging the master, but righting the slave—restoring him to himself. [I]f compensation is to be given at all, it should be given to the outraged and guiltless slaves, and not to those who have plundered and abused them.
We must appreciate the role played by self-ownership in the abolitionist campaign if we are to understand the meaning and justification of abolitionism itself. Abolitionism, philosophically considered, stood in contrast to various schemes of gradualism, according to which slavery should be phased out gradually, over time, so as to avoid the social and economic disruptions that would supposedly be caused by immediate emancipation. (I shall explore details of the abolitionist/gradualist controversy in a subsequent essay.) An example of extreme gradualism was defended by Abraham Lincoln during his celebrated debates with Stephen A. Douglas in 1858, during the campaign for senator from Illinois. Lincoln was opposed to slavery, but he was also a critic of abolitionism who proposed that slavery be phased out over a period of 100 years—in which case slavery would not have been abolished in the United States until 1958.
In calling for “immediate emancipation,” abolitionists obviously knew that the eradication of slavery would not occur overnight, that emancipation would require a long and arduous struggle even under the best of conditions. In calling for “immediate emancipation,” abolitionists meant that no considerations, whether political, economic, or social, should take precedence over emancipation. There should be no excuses, in other words, to delay emancipation, as found in the common argument that southern agriculture would suffer grievously (and have a detrimental impact on the northern economy as well) if slavery were abolished in one stroke.
As Garrison said, “the right of the slave to himself is paramount to every other claim.” The primacy of self-ownership means that freedom must override every other consideration. No person or government has the right to tell slaves that their rights will be restored at some point, but only after other problems are solved first. Justice demands that slaves be freed immediately, meaning: as fast as is humanly possible. There can be no legitimate excuse for delaying freedom for slaves. Their inalienable right of self-ownership must be the top priority. This was the essential meaning of “immediate emancipation.”