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On the shifting role of racism in American slavery

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 20, 2016

In a recent episode of his EconTalk podcast, host Russ Roberts talks with Michael Munger about a paper Munger co-authored about how white Southern attitudes toward slavery shifted from around 1815 to 1835. The episode is interesting throughout,1 but I want to highlight this attitude shift Munger writes about in the paper, something I was previously unaware of.

Sifting through documents from the era between the American Revolution and the Civil War, Munger and his co-author Jeffrey Grynaviski found that Southern whites believed, in the first decade or two of the 19th century, that owning slaves was evil but necessary. There was this system in place and it was bad but we’re gonna go with it because, whaddya gonna do? But in a period of about 20 years, due to a variety of factors, mostly economic, the justification for slavery shifted primarily to a racist one: that black people were inferior and needed to be cared for by whites. Southern whites came to believe, like really believe, that they were doing their slaves a favor by enslaving them and that the slaves were better off than they would be in Africa.

The way we defined it in this paper was that racism became a substitute justification for slavery. And the reason was, the original justification for slavery, which was the Roman one of wasn’t good enough. And so Southerners cast about and found basically an alternative, which was the Greek justification for slavery. And let me just say very briefly what those two are. The one justification for slavery, and it was pretty common in Rome, was that if you lost a battle and were captured, then you might either be killed or kept as a slave. And there is a mutually beneficial exchange, if you will, in the sense that you’ve already lost. So, me saying, ‘I tell you what: I won’t kill you if you will agree to act as my slave for the rest of your life. And I may free you; I may not; but that’s up to me.’ And you say, ‘Killed/be a slave: I’m going to go with the slave thing.’ But, it meant that some slaves were very excellent. And in Roman society some slaves occupied very high positions, positions of respect. It’s just that they made this promise. It was an economic institution. And that was the way that slavery had existed in Africa: if you lost a battle, then you would be captured by the other side. It was almost like indentured servitude: you could work it off.

Well, that didn’t work in the American South because they wanted to maintain slaves, to be able to identify slaves and to have a justification that would allow them to enslave the children — which the old Roman justification would never have allowed. You are not going to be a slave if you are born to a slave, because you didn’t lose in battle: you would have been free.

So, the Southerners needed a different way, so they were looking for the Aristotelian notion of slavery, which is that slaves are people who are either morally inferior or lack the judgment to make independent choices. They are like children or like horses. That means that you actually have a positive-good justification for enslaving them: if I have a thoroughbred horse or a fancy dog, it would be cruel of me to set it loose to let it run around, because it’s not capable of taking care of itself. I have obligations to take care of it. My ownership actually gives me obligations. And what’s interesting and what this paper is about is how Southerners worked that out between about 1815 and 1835, and started to understand the implications for how they had to change the economic institutions of slavery to match this new ideology that they were creating.

Yet another example of how powerful economic self-interest is in shifting moral beliefs.

  1. Although it was uncomfortable at times listening to two privileged pro-market white guys talking about slavery, particularly in the moments where they discuss matters from the slaves’ perspectives. But in fairness, they do a good job in admitting their privilege and the awareness that their economic beliefs may not square with things like human rights and justice forms the basis of a fascinating conversation.

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