Friday, August 24, 2012

A Perspective on Slavery

One cannot study the Civil War without analyzing the "peculiar institution" of slavery.  While northern historians seem quite content in their view of slavery as an un-American evil, southern scholars often present it as a caring relationship between slave and master.  The historians from Dixie use examples to illustrate the loyalty of slaves and bond to their owners.  The truth, of course, lays somewhere in between.  This brings me to that wonderful statistical graph --- the normal curve.

If we could obtain data on how slaves were treated --- relationship with owners, quality of life, degree of freedom, etc. --- we would find a lovely  curve with data distributed around a mean or average value.  On one end we would see a small percent of the data for those who treated their property as human beings while on the other end  of the graph we would find an equal number of owners who were monsters.  Such is the nature of human beings --- for every Saint there is a Sinner.  The issue becomes of finding the average behavior and range of variation from that behavior.

Let us consider the relationship from the slave's perspective.  The concept of slavery means that you have no control of your life.  It is the essence of negative empowerment.  You have no choices in your existence.  You may be fed, and sheltered, but there is limited or no opportunity to create a better life for yourself.  This state has little to do with how you are treated.  Good masters or bad ones, the ground rules of slavery are the same. Allow me to make a comparison with a household pet.  Irregardless of the master, the rules are the same as for a pet.  You are property, you are confined to an area, you eat when you are fed, you are confined in public on a leash, you must have certain medical treatments and certifications, you mate when and with  whom your master dictates, and you can be bought and sold at his pleasure.  This is your fate just as the slaves, although I doubt that most pet owners would regard their cats and dogs as slaves. 

Now let's turn to the owner.  He has human property and it's rather expensive to purchase and maintain. This property works like a machine, but it has emotions and these emotions make it more difficult to "operate/control."  For the economics of slavery to work, a slave must produce more revenue than his "operating costs."  In the agricultural south, a person's wealth is measured in his property --- land and slaves.  However, the real value is in the slave, because without the slave the land cannot be worked to produce revenue and, without cash flow, the land is worthless.  This issue is at the heart of the Civil War.

Now rational owners would want to treat their slaves well to make sure the "machines of their wealth" continued to operate at their peak.    The significant word is "rational."  Consider those people who don't maintain their assets. They fail to do routine maintenance on their cars and homes,  they let their skills atrophy, and ignore their investments.  Logic is a characteristic not often associated with human beings.  So for every slave owner who realized the value of his asset, there were probably those who fell in the category of not understanding or not appreciating this worth.  Add to this mix, those owners who treated their wealth as a God-given right and resented the notion that any part of it was from the labor of his slave.  This idea would increase with each generation as the entrepreneurial energy of grandparents eroded into expected entitlement of their grandchildren. This issue is also common to other business enterprises.

If we weigh these factors together, we see the "average slavery index" as imprisonment with forced labor whose pain is lessened by rational owners who treated their slaves humanly either because they saw them as human beings and not objects or they were interested in maximizing the performance of their property.  The owners were not all monsters, but they were typical of employers who wanted to maximize the output of their workers and minimize the cost to get this output. 

This employer-employee relationship hasn't changed much in the last 150 years.  Improvements in the relationship were due to government regulations (child labor, prison labor, minimum wages, and health and safety) and the collective power of labor unions. Any questions?  Ask your boss.


Allen Mesch said...

I believe there is a potential fallacy in your argument. You posit the concept of a "rational" slave owner, who would necessarily treat his property well. But my studies have not revealed much evidence of such an owner. My reading of the newspapers, diaries, and other writings of the period indicate that the typical slave owner, even those that were considered relatively humane, accepted the necessity of physical discipline by overseers, the disruption of families by transfers, the refusal of education, and other aspects that virtually all would agree today to be utterly barbaric. In my view, the institution of Southern slavery became increasingly irrational, to the point that Calhoun, Fitzhugh, Stephens, and many more cast it as a positive moral good. Yes, there was certainly a range of behaviors by individual owners. But even if a particular master was relatively humane, the slave was in no way secure in dealing with other household members, encounters outside the household, etc. I also think that we have a great deal of evidence gathered from oral histories taken from former slaves, which strongly support the notion that the experience of a "kindly" master was quite rare.

Allen Mesch said...

This comment is from Andrew J. Weill.