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Apr 27, 2018

Defending Slavery by Attacking Capitalists

Smith explains how some Southerners defended chattel slavery by contrasting it favorably with “wage slavery” in the North. 

Abolitionism took off in America after the Missouri Compromise of 1820. After Missouri had applied to join the Union as a slave state in 1819, many voices were raised against the proposal, since this would upset the delicate balance of power in Congress, in which the slave states were evenly split with the free states. A compromise was reached when Maine (carved from Massachusetts) was admitted as a free state, and slavery was thereafter prohibited north of the latitude 36º30’. Many Northerners objected that the compromise involved the federal government in the sanction of slavery, whereas many Southerners protested that the federal government had exceeded its constitutional powers in forbidding slaveholders equal rights to transport their slave property into land that should be open to all Americans. This became the standard southern response to future calls to prohibit slavery in the territories. All Americans, without discrimination, should be permitted to import their property into the territories.

The South had its fair share of antislavery types, but the atmosphere became increasingly hostile after the Missouri Compromise was passed. In the North, blacks became active in the antislavery cause, and their writings undoubtedly influenced William Lloyd Garrison to move from colonization to abolitionism, beginning with his founding of The Liberator in 1831. Indeed, it is doubtful that The Liberator would have survived its first few years if not for the support of black subscribers. As Benjamin Quarles wrote in Black Abolitionists (1969):

On the day before the first issue, James Forten [a black abolitionist] sent the money for twenty-seven subscriptions, a $54 windfall that enabled Garrison and his publishing associate, Isaac Knapp, to buy the necessary ream of paper. “I seriously question whether there would even have been a Liberator printed,” wrote Garrison later, “had it not been for that timely remittance.” Five weeks later Forten sent $20 for additional subscriptions. For the first three crucial years the majority of the paper’s subscribers were Negroes; in April 1834 whites comprised only one-quarter of the 2300 subscribers.

In addition, the aborted plot of Denmark Vesey, a free black who was executed in June 1822 for planning a slave attack on Charleston, when combined with Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831 and the publication of David Walker’s An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World in 1829—which condemned not only slavery but the racism of Thomas Jefferson and other opponents of slavery—alarmed Southerners and prompted them to develop “positive” defenses of slavery. A popular method of argument, which goes back to the late 18th century, was to argue that slaves were better off than any of the other laboring classes in Europe and America. In a speech delivered in 1838, John C. Calhoun, Vice-President under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, and a leading defender of slavery, said:

Many in the South once believed that it [slavery] was a moral and political evil. That folly and delusion are gone. We see it now in its true light, and regard it as the most safe and stable basis for free institutions in the world. It is impossible with us that the conflict can take place between labor and capital, which makes it so difficult to establish and maintain free institutions in all wealthy and highly civilized nations where such institutions as ours do not exist. The Southern States are an aggregate, in fact, of communities, not of individuals. Every plantation is a little community, with the master at its head, who concentrates in himself the united interests of capital and labor, of which he is the common representative. These small communities aggregated make the State in all, whose action, labor, and capital is equally represented and perfectly harmonized.

This argument for slavery, which would be repeated many times by subsequent defenders, focused on the supposed conflict between “capital and labor,” and this generated the attack on “capitalists” that would become fairly common in the pro-slavery literature. Capitalists were those industrialists in the North who ruthlessly exploited their workers, paying them barely enough to live on (if that much) and discarding them when they were too old or too ill to be of any use to the capitalist. Not so with the plantation system in South, where workers (slaves) were assured of food, clothing, and other material goods needed for their subsistence, even when they became too ill or too old to work. Southern slaves, in other words, enjoyed a security unknown to Northern laborers. This was largely because slave communities were managed by an owner who made sure that workers received a fair remuneration for their labor, rather than depending on a free market that invariably benefited the capitalist at the expense of the worker.

Of course a common response to this argument was that industrial labor in the North was free, whereas Southern slave labor was coerced. To this some slavery apologists replied that this was a distinction without a difference. If a Northern laborer were to survive, he had no choice but to accept a job with long hours and low pay. Thus did the expression “wage slavery” enter into many defenses of slavery. The only significant difference between wage slavery and chattel slavery, according to slavery apologists, was that factory workers in the North were slaves without masters. And such masters were necessary to protect workers from the inherent exploitative tendency of an unregulated market.

The most thorough defense of the perspective outlined above appeared in a tract by George Fitzhugh, Cannibals All! Or, Slaves Without Masters, published in 1856. From a libertarian perspective, perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this book is Fitzhugh’s reliance on Stephen Pearl Andrews, a disciple of the individualist anarchist Josiah Warren. Fitzhugh quoted several pages from Andrews’s Science of Society, a book that was admired by Benjamin Tucker and his followers. After praising Andrews as “far the ablest writer on moral science that America has produced,” Fitzhugh continued:

Though an abolitionist, [Andrews] has not a very bad opinion of slavery. We verily believe, there is not one intelligent abolitionist at the North who does not believe slavery to capital in free society is worse than Southern negro slavery.

Although Fitzhugh may have exaggerated, he had a point. Many individualist anarchists of the time, working from a labor theory of value, agreed with Andrews that cost rather than value (i.e., what a good is subjectively worth to the participants in an exchange) should be the “limit of price.” To illustrate his point, Andrews (in the passage quoted by Fitzhugh) posits a wheelwright in a small village who encounters a carriage with “certain valuables” that has broken down. The carriage will take the wheelwright one hour to repair, so he is justified in exchanging one hour of his labor for that repair. But if the wheelwright knows that the owner must get his valuables to a ship quickly or forfeit a good deal of money, he might be willing to pay $500 to get his carriage fixed in a timely fashion. So what should the wheelwright demand as equitable pay for his one hour of work—the cost of twenty-five cents, which Andrews posits as the monetary equivalent of his labor, or $500, which would be the amount demanded by the “value principle?”

This is not a realistic example, but Andrews didn’t intend it to be. He created an exaggerated example to make a point, namely, that a wheelwright who charged $500 for one hour of work would be widely condemned in his community. Nevertheless, the value principle is regarded as acceptable, and even as praiseworthy, when acted upon by businessmen every day. As Andrews explained:

The Value Principle, in some form of expression, is, as I have said, the only recognized principle of trade throughout the world. “A thing is worth what it will bring in the market.” Still, if I were to charge you $500, or a fourth part of that sum, and, taking advantage of your necessities, force you to pay it, everybody would denounce me, the poor wheelwright, as an extortioner and a scoundrel. Why? Simply because this is an unusual application of the principle. Wheelwrights seldom have a chance to make such a “speculation,” and therefore it is not according to the “established usages of trade.” Hence its manifest injustice shocks, in such a case, the common sense of right. Meanwhile, you, a wealthy merchant, are daily rolling up an immense fortune by doing business upon the same principle which you condemn in the wheelwright, and nobody finds fault. At every scarcity in the market, you immediately raise the price of every article you hold. It is your business to take advantage of the necessities of those with whom you deal, by selling to them according to the Value to them, and not according to the Cost to you.

So how did George Fitzhugh use this passage by Stephen Pearl Andrews to support chattel slavery? I shall explain in my next essay.

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