Slavery

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Slavery is the treatment of one human being as the property of another. It is a present-day problem. U.S. leaders with an authoritarian bent have given tacit approval to or at least condoned slavery by putting the problem far on the back burner.

From very early times slavery was a part of American life. After it became unconstitutional, the substance of the institution was substantially preserved by laws, economic institutions, and customs that limited the opportunities of people of color. Currently, criminals in this country still maintain slaves.

General considerations

The surface motivation for slavery, and especially for the maintenance by one person or one family of large numbers of slaves, is economic. Slavery is one way in which an individual can benefit from the labor of others. But pure slavery is different from the economic slavery indulged in by untrammeled capitalism depicted in song by the words, "You load sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt." If people can be held in de facto slavery by predatory hiring for the barest living wage, what are the factors that favored slavery?

The surface factors favoring simple slavery over de facto slavery are the following: (1) continuity of the work force. Economic slavery works because people who refuse to work for the wages offered are fired and workers who become ill or infirm are fired. So the turnover of laborers is high, and incoming laborers are unlikely to be highly motivated and unlikely to be very healthy. Workers held in bondage need to be controlled by rewards and punishments within the community of the enslaved, and health benefits sufficient to maintain the slave owners investment must be provided. Both factors require more money from management, but management has the compensations of a more stable work force. (2) (???)

In The Cotton Kingdom, Frederick Law Olmstead reported that the southern plantations he visited before the Civil War were very inefficient. The plantation owners did not do productive farm work themselves, did exert themselves to control their slaves, but did not live the good lives enjoyed by northern farmers (of whom Olmstead was one). His argument was that a non-slave farming system would have produced higher returns.

Even if slave plantations were equally as efficient as free holdings, there would still be a question as to why slavery was favored by some. Possible answers include the seemingly obvious benefit to the slave owners that they were not required to do hard labor under harsh weather conditions. The trade-off was that they were required to do inhumane things to others, and the implication would seem to be that some dehumanizing influences had to be worked on young people growing up to be slave owners to permit them to do their jobs.

Economic and quasi-economic (work condition) factors aside, both lore and tradition as well as the various depth psychologies developed since the time of Freud indicate that other factors can be important. Current enslavement practices confirm that these factors are relevant and even important.

First, having power over other people is frequently a strong factor in the motivations of some individuals. Any economic advantage in a relationship of slavery may be secondary to the individual who gets profound psychological satisfaction by forcing his/her will on other people.

Second, having sexual access to other people is powerfully motivating to many people. If the normal processes of nurture are thwarted so that issues of basic trust (see Erik Erikson's works on psychology) are not handled properly, affection as a drawing and bonding force between people may be diminished or lacking, and simple sexual satisfaction may take prominence.

Third, the above two factors are frequently found melded together. Enjoying dominion over another may be experienced as strongly reinforcing to or even essential to sexual satisfaction. The importance of the sex trades to various forms of slavery are clear evidence of the relevance of these factors.

Fourth, the enslaved individuals can serve as relatively long-term "whipping boys" for angry and generally dysfunctional individuals who would otherwise react against employees and other people in their circles who would then be driven away from them. While taking sexual advantage of another can be rationalized by protestations of love, taking advantage of others as targets of one's own rage cannot be so facilely rationalized. Therefore it is possible that reports of this kind of abuse of slaves may be more frequent than is reported.

What are the fundamental values and/or the fundamental principles that can guide formation of a coherent progressive approach to this very serious abuse of humans? The central issue is what we as members of a community, of a society, want that organization to be and to do.

A progressive society is one that admits members on the understanding that the group has been formed for the mutual benefit of its members, and that therefore nobody is entitled by the fact of de facto membership to take deliberate advantage of others. The society is not the royal hunting preserve for the big shot who wants to harvest its treasures at will. It is the equal domain of everyone, and it reserves to itself the right and power to limit or void the participation of individuals who do not want to live by its rules.

A progressive society is one that takes seriously the Kantian moral principle that can be stated in homespun fashion as: "What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander." Regarding slavery, Abraham Lincoln said that those who value its benefits so highly should try it themselves. So, in more formal terms, any law or rule of the community should apply to all members of the society. "Equality before the law," is one principle that has been valued from pioneer time in the United States, to the time of the Tiananmen Movement in China (1989), and down to the present. The application to slavery is clear: People advocating slavery for others should be equally liable to be enslaved themselves.

If a progressive national society calls for policies that protect individuals against predation by unprincipled individuals, then that society may look beyond its own borders and ask whether ordinary individuals living in other parts of the world are equally opposed to being enslaved. If the U.S. government can be interested in shutting down drug production in other countries, then it ought equally be interested in shutting down organizations abroad that enslave individuals and on pressuring the governments of countries that condone slavery within their own national borders.

U.S. historical background

In American history, slavery was an institution that lasted, generally, from before the founding of the Federal government to the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, and the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865. More specifically, several of the American colonies were founded with prohibitions on slavery (including Georgia, which later rescinded its prohibition.) Other jurisdictions abolished slavery later in their existences.

Vermont abolished slavery by legislation in 1777. Pennsylvania adopted a gradual emancipation law in 1780, Connecticut did the same in 1784, New York did the same in 1799. Massachusetts eliminated slavery through a court decision in 1783. The importation of slaves into the United States was outlawed by Congress in 1808.

Slavery was extremely widespread throughout America in the first years of its national life. Five of the first seven presidents were slaveholders. For thirty-two of the nation's first thirty-six years, forty of its first forty-eight, fifty of its first sixty-four, the President of the U.S. was a slaveholder. The Speaker of the House was a slaveholder in twenty-eight of the first thirty-five years. The majority of cabinet members before 1860 were slaveholders. The majority of justices on the Supreme Court were slaveholders. The slaveholding Chief Justice Roger Taney, for example, had been appointed by slaveholding president Andrew Jackson to replace slaveholding John Marshall. At the time of the Revolution, one in every six Americans (including white indentured servants) was owned by another. At the time of the Civil War, the figure was one in eight.

The Emancipation Proclamation, based as it was on the President's war powers, only professed to affect those slaves in Southern states engaged in fighting the Union, and in practice only protected those in areas where the Union army held sway, which at the time was Kentucky, Tennessee and the cities of Louisiana. However, it accelerated a mass exodus of slaves to the Union lines, many of whom joined the Union army. (A previous exodus had begun because of a sneaky legal maneuver by a former lawyer turned general, Ben Butler, which would classify slaves as "contraband", which he was allowed to capture, but, because the regulations of the Army prevented it from keeping slaves, he was immediately obliged to set them free. This maneuver kept slaves from being any assistance in the war effort to the Confederacy and was approved by the Congress as soon as they heard about it.)

The 13th Amendment abolished slavery everywhere in the United States, including those border states which had sided with the Union.

Slavery has led to several other issues of Civil Rights, such as Segregation. The support of slavery required the tacit approval of American citizens that it would continue, active repression of the African-American population by a small number of extremely vocal citizens, and an extensive national legal framework. The framework was collapsing on every front by the beginning of the Civil War, and the tacit approval was withdrawn during it.

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