Slavery in America

Michael Medved looks at six facts about slavery in the US.

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1. SLAVERY WAS AN ANCIENT AND UNIVERSAL INSTITUTION, NOT A DISTINCTIVELY AMERICAN INNOVATION. At the time of the founding of the Republic in 1776, slavery existed literally everywhere on earth and had been an accepted aspect of human history from the very beginning of organized societies. Current thinking suggests that human beings took a crucial leap toward civilization about 10,000 years ago with the submission, training and domestication of important animal species (cows, sheep, swine, goats, chickens, horses and so forth) and, at the same time, began the “domestication,” bestialization and ownership of fellow human beings captured as prisoners in primitive wars. In ancient Greece, the great philosopher Aristotle described the ox as “the poor man’s slave” while Xenophon likened the teaching of slaves “to the training of wild animals.” Aristotle further opined that “it is clear that there are certain people who are free and certain who are slaves by nature, and it is both to their advantage, and just, for them to be slaves.” The Romans seized so many captives from Eastern Europe that the terms “Slav” and “slave” bore the same origins. All the great cultures of the ancient world, from Egypt to Babylonia, Athens to Rome, Persia to India to China, depended upon the brutal enslavement of the masses – often representing heavy majorities of the population. Contrary to the glamorization of aboriginal New World cultures, the Mayas, Aztecs and Incas counted among the most brutal slave-masters of them all --- not only turning the members of other tribes into harshly abused beasts of burden but also using these conquered enemies to feed a limitless lust for human sacrifice....

2. SLAVERY EXISTED ONLY BRIEFLY, AND IN LIMITED LOCALES, IN THE HISTORY OF THE REPUBLIC – INVOLVING ONLY A TINY PERCENTAGE OF THE ANCESTORS OF TODAY’S AMERICANS. The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution put a formal end to the institution of slavery 89 years after the birth of the Republic; 142 years have passed since this welcome emancipation. Moreover, the importation of slaves came to an end in 1808 (as provided by the Constitution), a mere 32 years after independence, and slavery had been outlawed in most states decades before the Civil War. Even in the South, more than 80% of the white population never owned slaves. Given the fact that the majority of today’s non-black Americans descend from immigrants who arrived in this country after the War Between the States, only a tiny percentage of today’s white citizens – perhaps as few as 5% -- bear any authentic sort of generational guilt for the exploitation of slave labor. Of course, a hundred years of Jim Crow laws, economic oppression and indefensible discrimination followed the theoretical emancipation of the slaves, but those harsh realities raise different issues from those connected to the long-ago history of bondage.

3. THOUGH BRUTAL, SLAVERY WASN’T GENOCIDAL: LIVE SLAVES WERE VALUABLE BUT DEAD CAPTIVES BROUGHT NO PROFIT....

4. IT’S NOT TRUE THAT THE U.S. BECAME A WEALTHY NATION THROUGH THE ABUSE OF SLAVE LABOR: THE MOST PROSPEROUS STATES IN THE COUNTRY WERE THOSE THAT FIRST FREED THEIR SLAVES....

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There is much more.

His fourth point deserves special attention because it one of the fundamental problems of the slave economy that has nothing to do with the moral issues that were ultimately to end the practice. Before the Civil War the north was already much more prosperous and industrious than the south. This had a lot to do with the fact that its economy was more capitalistic and incentive based.

In a slave economy the only incentives for productions are negative. That is one way it earned its brutal reputation. In the capitalist economy profits motivate production and creativity. This is one reason why slavery as an institution would have been doomed eventually anyway.

I am reading the first book in Bruce Catton's Civil War trilogy entitled The Coming Fury. It is a wonderful book that I have been intending to read for 40 years and I am glad I finally picked it up.

In the arguments that led to the Civil War there is no indication that either side understood the fundamental economic problems with slavery. This is important because, on one side you had those who wanted to do away with the practice because they had come to the conclusion that it was immoral and on the other side you had people who believed that their economy would be destroyed by the abolition of slavery.

It is possible that the most costly war in the history of this country might have been avoided if the science of economics had been far enough along to demonstrate the inherent economic benefits of switching from the slave economy to a capitalistic economy and provided some economic incentives for doing it. It certainly would have been less costly in both lives and treasure.

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