In Defense of Slavery

One of the lessons I've taken from Fitzhugh's work is the revolutionary nature of the 19th century West. That doesn't say much. Let me try it this way. I knew that the notion of individual rights was relatively new. But it is an entirely different experience to venture into an era where it's actually up for debate. Today we debate the boundaries of individual rights, but we don't really debate the legitimacy of, say, the right to free speech. We believe in it, even if we don't agree on its precise meaning.


After the jump I have excerpted a passage that gets to the heart of this. Fitzhugh is fond of pulling in other sources for his work. Here is a letter from a person who claims to be a philanthropist in England grappling with the problems of the poor. It is quite long. If you don't have time, feel free to skip it.
Whoever is unprepared to cast aside not only his prejudices, but many of what may be considered well-formed opinions, had better not attempt to peruse the following few pages. I must demand of my reader that he come to the perusal, the beau ideal of a juryman. No information that he has gained elsewhere, no feelings that he has cherished as virtues, no sentiments that he has cultivated as noble, and no opinions that he may have formed as infallible, must interfere with his purely and simply receiving the following arguments on their own cogency and truth alone. 

The writer considers he has made a great discovery in moral and political science; and elevated by his subject above all personal influences, he commits it to be worked out by others, without the ostentation of recording his name, or deeming that the applause of present or of future generations can add to his sublime delight, in discovering and applying a "panacea" to the varied and bitter ills that beset three-fourths of the poor inhabitants of the "United Kingdom." 

As some account of the means by which a great discovery has been arrived at is necessary, in order to prepare the mind for its reception with due respect, I shall give a brief outline of the process by which this all-important truth was elicited. Born with natural sensibilities, I early learnt to shrink from pain endured by others, as if felt actually and bodily by myself. Thus constituted, what a scene was displayed to me when I came into the great and moving society of mankind! What mighty heaps of misery did I discern! What details did the records of the various courts of justice disclose! What regions of squalor, misery, and degradation did my travels reveal to me in every city, and every hamlet, I visited! The bent of my future avocation was soon fixed, and I became a philanthropist by profession. Not to make a trade of it at monster meetings, or fancy fairs, but as a pursuit to which I felt myself called by a spiritual voice, as distinct, I should say, as that which ever called a theologian from a curacy of fifty pounds a year to a bishopric of twenty thousand. 

 It is not necessary to recapitulate the horrors I have witnessed in the regions of poverty. It is said that the eras of pestilence and famine are passed, but so will not those say who have visited the dwellings of the operatives of our great manufacturing towns, when the markets are glutted, and the mills and manufactories are closed. Pestilence still rages fiercely as ever, in the form of typhus, engendered by want. 

In the mission I have called myself to, I have stood upon the mud floor, over the corpse of the mother and the new-born child--both the victims of want. I have seen a man (God's image) stretched on straw, wrapped only in a mat, resign his breath, from starvation, in the prime of age. I have entered, on a sultry summer's night, a small house, situate on the banks of a common sewer, wherein one hundred and twenty-seven human beings, of both sexes and all ages, were indiscriminately crowded. I have been in the pestilential hovels of our great manufacturing cities, where life was corrupted in every possible mode, from the malaria of the sewer to the poison of the gin-bottle. I have been in sheds of the peasant, worse than the hovel of the Russian, where eight squalid, dirty, boorish creatures were to be kept alive by eight shillings per week, irregularly paid. I have seen the humanities of life desecrated in every way. 

I have seen the father snatch the bread from his child, and the mother offer the gin-bottle for the breast. I have seen, too, generous sacrifices and tender considerations, to which the boasted chivalries of Sydney and Edward were childish ostentation. I have found wrong so exalted, and right so debased--I have seen and known of so much misery, that the faith in good has shivered within me. 

For a time, when I urged these things in the circles of the comfortable, I received many various replies. By some it was said that it was the lot of humanity--that it had always been so, and, therefore, always must. That to enlarge on the evil was only to create discontent, and so injure "the better classes." It was in vain I urged to these reasoners that for hundreds, and, perhaps, thousands of years, creatures little better than Calibans infested the morasses and forests of Europe. That civilization had an onward progress, and that the history of the world proved the one great truth--that man is the creature of circumstances. By some, the evils were denied: by some few, deplored. By all, the discussion was avoided; though the destruction that menaced the Roman empire from the invasion of the barbarian world was never so imminent, nor could the consequence be so dreadful, as that which the wealthy, and civilization itself, would sustain from the insurrection of outraged poverty. 

I next tried the politicians. I devoted some years to history and political economy. I even entered the senate. In politics, I found no means of relief. The struggle there was for the preponderance in power, and the reply, "Help us to get into power, and then we will see what we can do." The utmost was to institute inquiries; and from the information thus gathered, has been collected a record of misery, such as never was before displayed. It is true, some steps have at last been taken in the right direction; some few noble spirits have spoken out to the "comfortable," the dreadful truths. 

That something must be done, is now acknowledged by all who think. The foolish, the careless, and the truculent, can no longer avowedly declare the cries and groans of the miserable multitude to be seditious discontent; nor ascribe their sufferings to the results of retributive justice. Baffled in every search for a remedy at home, I determined to search foreign nations, and having carefully journeyed through Europe, I sought successively the East and West, until I had traversed the civilized countries of the world. It was in the remote regions of the East and West that I found a clue to my discovery. I here found mankind as multitudinous as at home, but much more happy. Starvation, except in cases of general famine, was unknown; and, on the contrary, I heard the sounds of revelry and dancing, of mirth and leisure, amongst the lowest classes. 

How different to the everlasting toil of the superior Englishman! "These, then," I said, "are the concomitants of bondage!" Having thus struck out the idea, I followed it up with logical severity, and enunciated the truth that slavery and content, and liberty and discontent, are natural results of each other. Applying this, then, to the toil-worn, half-fed, pauperized population of England, I found that the only way to permanently and efficiently remedy the complicated evils, would be to ENSLAVE the whole of the people of England who have not property...

It will of course be asserted that the people would not be contented as slaves, but it is only to make a state inevitable, and humanity is soon reconciled to it, as we are to death, governments, and the income-tax. Besides, what is liberty? a word now almost forgotten; a battle sound used to juggle men in every age and country; in Greece, Rome, and America, the war-cry of slaves to fight for the liberty of slavery. Must we, then, ever remain the tools of words; reject all the true advantages of slavery because we cannot bear the name, and take all its evils, and more, because we wish to renounce the sound? 

What are soldiers and sailors but bondsmen? Indeed, they are a happy specimen of slavery; well fed, clad, and tended; with plenty of leisure and repose. Why, then, should they be happier than the peasant, who pines away his dreary existence on bread and potatoes and water? What is the convict but a slave, who by his crimes has earned his right to be kept well and safe from the elements and want? We reward the criminal with slavery and competence, and leave the honest man to liberty and want. 

If, indeed, the old noble cry of "Liberty and Beer" could be realized, then it were vain to urge my discovery; but as Englishmen, in proportion as they have gained their liberty, have lost their beer, it behooves us to see whether they had not better hasten back to that state, when inventoried with their masters' swine they shared also their superfluities.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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