Positive Good Slavery Argument Makes a Comeback at The New York Times

William B. Allen

Editor’s Note: This essay is re-published with permission from Law & Liberty.

One hundred and sixty years ago citizens in the United States (or, at least as many as sufficed) rightly discerned the preposterousness of the claim that slavery was a positive good. They did so despite the zealous efforts of apologists for slavery seeking to advance that very argument.

It is, accordingly, nothing less than stunning that supposedly intelligent 21st century observers have now resurrected the same discredited apology for slavery. Yet, there is no other way to understand the claims of the “1619 Project,” which is an entrenched academic and radical activist project as well as a glossy P. R. Effort by the New York Times.

The “1619 Project” boldly declares that the accomplishments of American material and social development commenced with the arrival of the first African slave in North America and are owing to the development of slavery thereafter. Rightly parsed, this means that the economic and social advances the United States has recorded are strictly (or at least largely) the result of the labors of enslaved persons and thus, the system of slavery. If that were in fact the case, it would constitute a utilitarian apology for slavery as a positive good — producing the greatest good for the greatest number.

The reasoning in support of this has been shown to be specious on historical and economic grounds. To discount the value of free labor (which is not accounted for as an asset class) in comparison with slave labor (which is counted as an asset class, thereby inflating the wealth of slave holders) creates a false impression of relatively very greater wealth in the slave economy. The reality is that, while slave holders could be quite wealthy, the society was decidedly less wealthy as even the qualitative assessments of Alexis de Tocqueville and other impartial observers made clear in the contemporaneous context.

Moreover, it is patent that none of the great industrial, transportation, communications and innovation advances in the United States derived from outputs generated in slavery. The United States became a great financial power in spite of slavery, not because of it. That fact was signaled in Lincoln’s “Address to Congress” that marshaled the evidence of the economic power of the United States independent of slavery to propose a 60 year mortgage on the economy in order to end slavery without warfare. In other words American economic might was in a position to eliminate slavery without any contribution from slavery itself! Lincoln’s address documented the true source of American economic might — namely, free labor.

Why, then, is 21st Century America being treated to a revival of the apology for slavery? As far as the New York Times is concerned that is less incongruous than may at first appear. For that newspaper opened its publishing career in the 1850s by apologizing for slavery. It did so, for example, when it criticized Harriet Beecher Stowe as “embarrassing” her country when attacking slavery before foreign audiences. Thus, the New York Times is now consistent with its origins in treating slavery as somehow integral to American development.

The wider academic and radical activist “1619 Project” seems to derive from different sources or motives, however. Those are related to a predetermination to undermine the claim that free markets and self-governing liberty have produced general improvements in the human condition. In that project it is necessary to undermine the claim of free labor. The only standard to oppose to free labor is slave labor.

It may be further true, however, that the architects of this initiative have only pursued the current radical disposition to discredit any claims deriving from the founding of the United States to have entailed the abolition of slavery. If that is the case — that is seeking an alternative American narrative in order to escape the grip of the Declaration of Independence — then it represents one of the most extraordinary displays of intellectual incontinence the history of ideas has served up. For, in the process this initiative amounts to a complete renunciation of the argument against slavery in the name of reclaiming the dignity of enslaved persons — a fool’s bargain to be sure.

Benjamin Banneker was wiser, when he challenged Thomas Jefferson to live up to the principles of the Declaration rather than rejecting the “rhetoric” as a means of challenging the person of the slave holder. The “1619 Project,” by contrast, imagines that the principles and the persons are indistinguishable. Hence, only a thoroughgoing historical evacuation of all association with principles of American development that are not explicitly founded in the attributed entitlements of enslaved persons can serve the cause of moral rebalancing.

Only when the slaves are understood as creating the wealth of the United States, only then, will their claims to possess and dispose of that wealth be acknowledged. A problem arises, however, insofar as the slaves are long gone and what remain are free laborers who, as such, are indistinguishable from any other free laborers, and from whom and to whom no more can be owing than what hitherto has been acknowledged as owing to and from free laborers. The “1619 Project” can deliver on its promissory only by enslaving free labor.

W.B. Allen, emeritus dean and professor at Michigan State University, is a senior visiting scholar at the University of Colorado’s Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization.

Image: By George Peter Alexander Healy - PQGs5qhOKikdCA at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain; John C. Calhoun was a proponent of positive good argument for slavery. 

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