Paul Craig Roberts
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Was slavery a wrong or an inherited institution?
Did slavery originate in the English colonies in North America in the 17th century or do its origins go back before the time of recorded history?
Is slavery racist or is it based on economic motive?
If a person wants understanding, these are important questions.
But if a person wants to engage others in emotion for the purpose of gaining preferment and its rewards, money and power, or simply to enjoy the self-righteousness of moral denunciation of one’s fellows, these questions are in the way. The fact that these questions are never asked and are not a part of black studies programs in universities or the New York Times’ fake history project–the 1619 Project–is conclusive evidence that today slavery is an emotive word used to demonize white people and to bring preferment to black people.
Slavery is presented to American school children as something that white people did to black people. Therefore, white people are racists and must pay in some way for the slavery of black people that ended in the US 156 years ago.
There are so many unasked questions. For example, how did the blacks brought to North America become slaves? Who enslaved them? The answer, which explodes the narrative, is that blacks were enslaved by other blacks.
The main source of slaves for the slave trade was the black Kingdom of Dahomey. Dahomey engaged in slave wars with other black kingdoms or tribes and became the dominant power.
As Encyclopedia Britiannica says, “Dahomey was organized for war, not only to expand its boundaries but also to take captives as slaves. Slaves were either sold to the Europeans [or Muslims] in exchange for weapons or kept to work the royal plantations that supplied food for the army and court.”
The socialist Karl Polanyi wrote the classic work: Dahomey and the Slave Trade published in 1966. The book does not fit our woke time and the black studies agenda, and it is no longer available in print.
Today Dahomey is known as Benin. On the beach at Ouidah there is a contemporary monument, the Gate of no Return, commemorating the lives of the Africans captured by the black Kingdom of Dahomey and sold to Arabs and Europeans as slaves or traded for firearms.
In other words, the origin of black slaves was black slave traders.
Why did European sea captains bring black slaves to North America? The answer is that there was fertile land capable of producing profitable crops and no labor force. Those who held land grants or charters from the English king needed labor to make the land useable. There was no other work force.
Slaves were brought to the US not because of racism but for economic motives. Black Africans sold other black Africans to merchants for firearms that established Dahomey’s dominance. The merchants sold the slaves as a labor force to those who held land that originated in land grants or charters from the English monarch and had no one to work it. Slavery was established as the agricultural labor force long before the United States existed.
This brings us back to the opening question of this essay. Was slavery a wrong or an inherited institution? Whether or not something is wrong depends on the morality of the time. At the time the black Kingdom of Dahomey and the other blacks with whom Dahomey engaged in slave wars did not consider slavery wrong. Neither did the Arabs who for centuries had raided European coastal towns for white slaves. Neither did the Europeans who brought the purchased slaves to North America. Neither did the colonists who purchased a labor force. Neither did the original slaves, captives who themselves had fought in slave wars.
Slavery had been a fact of life for millenniums. Long before white peoples had black slaves, they had white slaves, and were themselves slaves owned by Arabs. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries North Americans were enslaved when US merchant ships were captured by North African provinces of the Ottoman Empire. For some years the US Congress paid large sums to ransome Americans enslaved in Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. President Thomas Jefferson tired of it and sent US Naval forces that captured Tripoli and broke up the practice of enslaving captured American merchant ship crews—thus in the US Marines anthem—“to the shores of Tripoli.”
Slavery was everywhere. It was an inherited institution. In the African slave wars, a man could begin the battle a free person and if defeated find himself a slave. A person born to slave parents knew no other life. In North America where slaves comprised the agricultural labor force, everyone was born into a society in which slavery was an established institution. It was the result of a choice made in a distant time when there was no alternative labor force.
The American and French revolutions, as they are called, resulted in an idealism of the free autonomous person, and those affected by this ideal turned on slavery as wrong, as it seems to be under this ideal of Western Civilization. However, it was not wrong in black Dahomey.
How one disposes of an entire labor institution and replaces it was never described by those who wanted an end to slavery in the 19th century. Landowners owned the land and the labor. To require them to free their slaves would be to deprive them of a large part of their capital. If they freed their work force, they would have to hire them back with wages, but after such a capital loss where would the wages come from? Would taxpayers fund a government program to compensate owners for freeing their slaves? These are major questions during a time period when many other major questions took precedence. To reconfigure a country’s established institutions is an extraordinary undertaking. The Communists attempted it in the 20th century, and did not meet with success.
Mechanization has replaced the bulk of the agricultural work force, but it wasn’t an available alternative at the time. If it had been, what would have provided the livelihood for the freed slaves? In the end it was sharecropping, which kept the former slaves tied to the land as they had been as slaves and as medieval serfs had been tied to the land. Instead of wages, sharecroppers shared in the ownership of the crop and the proceeds from the sale.
In the US the heavy immigration would have eventually produced a free labor force except for the fact that until the frontier was closed at the end of the 19th century, immigrants could move west and claim land they occupied. Most prefered working their own place to working as labor for another person.
Jobs offshoring has eliminated most of the American manufacturing labor force, and those who had manufacturing jobs find themselves today with diminished living standards. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robots are eliminating much of the rest of human employment. The question of human employment in a world of automation and AI remains an evaded question, just as abolitionists evaded the question of the fate of freed slaves. President Lincoln wanted to send them back to Africa or to a Central or South American destination.
If slavery was such an evil, why did Congress resurrect slavery with the 16th Amendment in 1909 and the states ratify it in 1913? To understand what I mean, ask yourself what is the definition of a slave? A slave is a person who does not own his own labor or the products of his labor. If you are subject to an income tax, you do not own your own labor.
Part of a slave’s work goes to his own maintenance. Otherwise, if he is not fed, clothed, housed, and his health attended to, his owner loses his labor. The rest of his labor could be appropriated by his owner to cover the cost of the slave’s purchase and to turn a profit. For a 19th century slave in the US the tax rate was approximately 50%. For a medieval serf, the tax rate was lower as he had less technology and therefore was less productive. A medieval serf could not reproduce if his tax rate exceeded 30%, or such was the view years ago when I studied the medieval economy. Unlike a slave, a serf was not bought and sold. He was attached to the land. Like a slave, he was taxed in terms of his labor. The lord of the manor had use rights in the serfs’ labor, and the serfs had use rights in the land.
Formerly serfs were free farmers. After the collapse of Roman power, they had no protection against Viking, Saracen, and Magyar raiders. To survive they provided labor to a chieftian who constructed a walled tower and maintained fighting men. In the event of raids, serfs had a redoubt to which to flee for protection. In effect, serfs paid a defense tax. They exchanged a percentage of their labor for protection. Serfdom became an established institution and continued long after the raids had stopped. In England serfdom was ended by the Enclosures which stripped serfs of their use rights in land and created a free labor market.
Consider the US income tax. When President Reagan was elected the tax rate on investment income was 70%. The top tax rate on wages and salaries was 50%. In other words, the privileged (mainly white) rich were taxed at the same rate as 19th century black slaves.
How is an American on whose labor the government has a claim a free man? Clearly, he is not a free man. We can say that there is a difference between a present day American and a slave, because the government only owns a percentage of his labor and not the person himself–unless the person does not pay his taxes, in which case he can be imprisoned and his labor hired out to private companies who pay the prison for the use of the prisoner’s labor.
The extraordinary failure to ask the relevant questions discussed in this essay has caused a racial division in the US infused with hatred. This hatred is cultivated every day by an irresponsible media, by the Democrat Party, by the universities, by the NY Times 1619 Project, and by the critical race theory taught in public schools. Now that all this hate has been created, how do we get rid of it? With misinformation passing as scholarly fact, how do we recover truth and escape the lies that are destroying us?