It’s my purpose in this paper to actually prove a certain point that anarchists make a lot of time. If a system is inherently corrupt and broken, ineffective, etc. then it doesn’t matter what people get into it so long as the system still exists. This applies to the state sponsored slavery (and we practically are slaves if our labor is being diminished involuntarily and we have no real say in the matter) as well as much more obvious chattel slavery. Therefore I found this essay relevant enough to the concept of anarchism to post it here.
Nick Ford Position paper #6
Can Good People be Slaveholders?
One major theme I found interesting in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, an American Slave was the corrupting nature of holding slaves over people. The prime example of this was Frederick’s new mistress Sophia Auld who at the very beginning to him looked like some sort of angel compared to what he had to deal with during his early years on a plantation. However Sophia would lose her kindness due to eventually realizing what sort of power she had over Frederick. She soon started using this power over Frederick and started using this newfound power over him to make her husband happy. She would refuse to teach him, or respect him or treat him on the same level as she would most people. In fact the institution of slavery itself seemed to change a completely decent woman in to an almost fully fledged slave holder who had known how to do deal with slaves her whole life. My purpose in this paper is to not only to demonstrate that slavery itself was a bad institution but that no matter who got into it that it was the system that corrupted the people not the people who corrupted the system. This is to say that the problem of the institution were not the people in it but it was the institution in of itself and trying to change it by having “nice slaveholders” was a lost cause. Using references to Douglass’s narrative as well as basic knowledge of what slavery is and was I will prove that there could never have been such a thing as a “good slaveholder” in the sense of morality.
The institution of slavery started in America due to some traders off sea being raided by Englishmen and taking the slaves for themselves. They were soon to put to work on plantations and once the tobacco trade grew more and more slaves were used and traded in as what became known as the “slave trade”. All across the ocean between Europe and the newly founded Americans slaves were traded and used for labor for no pay to the slaves in cruel and harsh conditions. All of these things of course were not new to history, the institution of slavery itself had existed a long time before it came to America but the industrialization of slavery is one of the features that successfully grew out of America. The other thing America was eventually known for was being one of the few countries to still not only allow chattel slavery but endorsed it even after the American Revolution. Often many of these same slave holders would say that the slaves were better off that way or that they were treated well or preferred slavery but how real were these situations they described?
According to the former slave Frederick Douglass not only were these people and the conditions not kind and the institution not in any was a benign one but the people who were kind at first were quickly turned into immoral people and cruel slave holders. There is no better example in the narrative than Sophia Auld who was the wife of Capitan Thomas Auld, the man who became the master of Douglass when Douglass first moved to Baltimore. When Douglass first saw Sophia he remarked that he, “…[S]aw what I had never seen before; it was a white face beaming with the most kindly emotions; it was the face of my new mistress…” (42) This was something that was utterly new to Douglass and his experiences with the white race. Before such a face he was used to cruel masters who whipped their slaves relentlessly and often time he was personally a witness to such horrifying events. (p. 21-22) This new face of kindness and empathy for his wellbeing was a profound difference for Douglass and he welcomed this new master. Unfortunately however this sort of demeanor was not to last for Sophia as Douglass remarks, “But, alas! this kind heart had but a short time to remain such. The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands, and soon commenced its infernal work. That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discoed; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon. “ (44-45) So was it that Sophia was inherently a bad person or was it the fact that this institution of slavery gave her this new found power over others? Frederick seems to think it is the latter what evidence points to this conclusion?
The institution of slavery is now widely regarded as one of the most brutal of institutions in all of history precisely because of the power the masters had over the slaves. This was one of the main reasons that slavery was so looking down on in many societies after a while. The dynamic of the slave and master was eventually revealed to be heavily unequal and on the master’s terms with little to no benefit to the slave. The slave was always at a disadvantage, treated poorly, paid nothing and expected to do anything the master wanted regardless of almost no incentive to do this well or even the proper way. So what does this all mean for Frederick Douglass and the institution of slavery as a whole? For one thing this points out the natural violence that can occur at any point. For example if was pointed out several times by Douglass that the black man was, “…worth a half cent to kill…and a half-cent to bury…” (38) and this was done through a few examples in chapter 4. (36, 37) Aside from that the disparity of power and the abuse of their power came from the fact that they could not be held to any sort of law of arbitration for them. The slave masters could easily kill a few slaves and blame them for their lack of work or even excess of work if they wanted to. And they could blame them for not following orders or following orders not quite the way they wanted it. In effect the slave masters held such a power over the slaves that the slaves were guilty before proven otherwise before a white man and a white man was innocent before proved guilty by some miracle.
Sophia soon changes her behavior once she figured out she had this sort of power over another person. Douglass soon says that not only did Sophia take the reins over his life but that she, “…finally became even more violent in her opposition than her husband herself. She was not satisfied with simple doing well as he had commanded she seemed anxious to do better. Nothing seemed to make her angrier than to see me with a newspaper. (49) And, “From this time I was most narrowly watched. If I was in a separate room any considerable length of time, I was sure to be suspected of having a book, and was at once called to give an account of myself. (49) So although the norm was not a huge mistreatment of slaves on a physical or violent level in the north there were as Douglass pointed out some exceptions to this rule.(46, 47)It seems then that Sophia’s attitude eventually changed not because she was a bad person but because the institution of slavery itself changed her. All of the sudden she had so much power over an individual with no accountability or incentives to not do anything to control his way of living. Even the kindest of people could not just turn away from such power if they could hold it with no repercussions, moral or legal. The only way for someone to actually deny this role in the institution was to deny the institution of slavery itself and not accept it as legitimate or moral from the beginning.
The idea of a “good” or “moral” slaveholder is a false one propagated mostly by people who owned slaves themselves and more likely than not did not take care of them. The probability that they did not take care of them stems from the fact that they hold an enormous power over other individuals. Not only that but this power from the narrative that Douglass wrote it is revealed that the slave holders are almost never held accountable legally. To make things worse it is also revealed that even if they were the punishment they would face would most likely be heavily disproportionate to the crime. This huge disparity of power leads all sorts of abused emotional and physical as well as mental and the people who make these marks on the slaves are free to do so. This problem of people wanting and abusing power is necessarily brought out by an institution like slavery for those reasons. In Douglass’s narrative no better example served this than Sophia Auld who went from being a kindhearted woman who cared for Douglass to someone who kept a close eye on almost everything he did and became cruel to him merely after learning what sort of power she had over another human being.