In a contemporary context, you may not find Abraham Lincoln's famous assertion that “if slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong” all that remarkable a statement. You think of that as natural, and always have. In fact, as far as you know, pretty much everyone thinks of it as natural. And always has. If you or someone you know doesn’t feel slavery is wrong, such a sentiment is not likely to get public expression. We all understand that there are plenty of ills in American society today, but we tend to think slavery isn’t one of them, even though there are anecdotal reports of it surfacing again, particularly in poor immigrant communities. Some of those responsible for such evils justify their exploitation of others by distinguishing what they do from slavery – “Hey, she can quit whenever she wants” – and we (perhaps grudgingly) accept that distinction. There’s a line there, a line between slave and free, that’s real and clear.
Except that there isn’t. Even when slavery was widely practiced, there were different kinds. The kind you tend to think of when you think about early American history is chattel slavery, in which some human beings were the personal property of other human beings. They could be bought and sold like livestock or inanimate objects, and had no say in their fate. But elsewhere in the world, and at earlier times in the history of the world, slavery took different forms. In the ancient world, winning armies would take the losers – or, very commonly, their wives and children – as prizes, enslavement as the fruit of victory. In many societies, however, slaves had formal and informal legal rights (like religious privileges), might enjoy some degree of autonomy and mobility, and could hope for earning or receiving their freedom. In ancient Rome, for example, slaves could attain positions of considerable administrative power in managing the affairs of their elite masters, and enjoy at least an element of status greater than most freedmen.
In English North America this was rare. Most slavery was chattel slavery. The practice of indentured servitude, in which individuals were bound to a master for a fixed (in theory) term, was technically not slavery. But during the period when a person was under such supervision, they were for all intents and purposes enslaved – indentured servitude was de facto, if not de jure, slavery. For much of American history, people have also been subject to wage slavery. Unlike chattel slaves, wage slaves are actually paid for their work. But the pay they receive is so meager that they are entirely dependent on their wages for their biological survival. As Karl Marx’s collaborator Frederick Engels explained the concept in 1847, “The slave is sold once and for all; the proletarian must sell himself daily and hourly.”
You may disagree that wage slavery is, strictly speaking, slavery. You may say the same about indentured servitude (though indentured servants were known to sell the services of their own children in the hope of climbing out of debt themselves). But I think you would have to admit that slavery has not really been exactly the same at all times and places, and that whatever essence it may have is more subtle than it appears. (You might also say that no man is a slave who can think for himself or who can find some way to resist or subvert the will of his master – like the proverbial “lazy” slave who can never seem to get work done – and at least some people will agree with you. But not everybody.) To at least some degree, slavery has a threshold – it’s less of a line than a spectrum.
If that’s that case, then what’s the other end of that spectrum? Or, to put it more starkly: what’s the opposite of slavery? I believe most people would say that the opposite of slavery is freedom. But I think the matter is more complicated than that. Yes: slavery is a form of being subject to restraint, and freedom is matter of lacking restraints, but the two tend to interlock rather than diverge. In fact, many people have argued – for thousands of years – that not only are freedom and slavery compatible, but that freedom depends on slavery. For the ancient Greeks, a citizen could only participate in politics when he had slaves to take care of the daily drudgery of maintaining an estate and freeing him for the higher calling of statecraft. Freedom is also more than political: there’s also religious freedom, economic freedom, personal freedom, and so on. There’s also the distinction to be made between positive freedom (freedom to) and negative freedom (freedom from).
In an American context, freedom is typically defined in political terms: a negative freedom, expressed in limits on what the government can do to you (limits like those in the Bill of Rights in the Constitution, for example). One of the most cherished limits in Anglo-American law is property rights – your sense of security in knowing that what’s yours is yours, and that no one can take it away: that’s freedom. Including the freedom to own other people. You think that sounds strange. But for almost 250 years, that was common sense. It was also explicitly the law of the land.
So if the opposite of slavery is not freedom, then what is? I’m not sure. But if slavery is a spectrum, I believe the far end of it is equality. Equality – social, political, whatever – means treating everybody the same. It means all people having an equivalent degree of power in their relationship with each other, which means that no one has the ability, or the right, to dominate or control anybody else. Equality is in this sense a check on freedom, but the experience of equality is also a form of freedom, a knowledge that domination cannot be achieved nor imposed. Conversely, inequality is the power differential, the enabling mechanism, by which slavery becomes possible. Not inevitable – it’s possible to have inequality without slavery: there’s space on the spectrum for that. But there can be no slavery without inequality, and the greater the concentration of inequality the greater tyranny can be.
The thing that I find endlessly compelling – fascinating, confusing, troubling – is that while slavery is virtually inadmissible in American life today, inequality is not. Plainly put, we take it for granted. In a way, that’s not hard to understand at all. Certain kinds of inequality not only seem permissible or necessary, but are actively celebrated, like the championship team that prevails over its rivals and is rewarded with a wealth of attention. Others are more ordinary: there are certain things I can do, wages I will receive, by virtue – note that word – of this degree or that expertise.
One reason we don’t find this especially problematic is that some kinds of inequality have a sense of reciprocal responsibility built into them. Parents have all kinds of power children don’t, but there’s a collective social understanding that they are accountable for the welfare of their children. That doesn’t always happen, of course. But it’s what we expect. Similarly, as a teacher I have certain privileges that students don’t – I don’t get detention – but my job is to aid your intellectual and social development, and if I fail to do that there are any number of negative consequences that will follow, ranging from you tuning me out, to making fun of me behind my back, to me losing my job. One of the reasons I (unlike some) don’t really consider the medieval institution of serfdom in medieval feudalism to be a form of slavery is that there was always an understanding that the serfs of a manor had a right to expect protection from their lord, which is one of the reasons why medieval warfare so often took the form of armies ravaging the countryside as a way of showing peasants that their current lord is failing them and that they should transfer their loyalty. One could make the argument – some did – that slavery, too, rested on reciprocal responsibility, but slaveholders were inconsistent at best in making that argument, and it was never codified as such in law. Under chattel slavery in the United States, you had no more obligation to your slave than your hat.
There are forms of inequality in contemporary life where there is no such sense of reciprocal responsibility, either. Take good looks. We all know that some of us are more physically attractive than others, and that while there’s some degree of subjectivity involved in this, there’s general consensus about who’s attractive and who’s not. But we don’t feel that being beautiful confers any particular obligation to those who are less so. Unlike a college degree, attractiveness is not something you can systemically acquire (even if it requires increasing amounts of maintenance and will ultimately perish). Beauty falls into the realm of what might be considered God-given. Like intelligence. Or health. Or, to a great degree, wealth, which is very often inherited, and where there’s no formal expectation you should simply give it all away, even if there are pressures, internal or external, to convert it to some good use.
One key difference between feudalism and more contemporary forms of inequality is that unlike feudalism, we tend not to think of our inequalities as fixed. Children are not the equal of parents at the start of their lives, but they often grow up and become parents themselves. Intelligence, like wealth, may be inherited, but knowledge and money can be earned – and such earned capital may prove to be more pivotal than the inherited kind. Health gets gained, lost, and is relative. Even ugly ducklings can turn into swans.
This is an important reason why we don’t simply live with equality – we embrace it, even promote it. A life where everyone was equal in every way seems boring at best and oppressive at worst. But, as we know, the reality of inequality imposes its own oppressions, some of them very great. Moreover, if we look hard, we often find that inequalities are a lot less fluid than they might seem. Not all ugly ducklings become swans, or even that many. Enough do – or we tell ourselves enough do – so that we can get away with assuring ourselves that the inequalities we live with are temporary, inoffensive, even good.
This doesn’t happen with slavery: we don’t accept it, much less celebrate it. We assume slavery is – was – bad. But that’s a problem. To be clear: I’m not saying slavery is good, though I am saying it that it might be helpful to understand a little better why there was a time when its evil was not an assumption – in particular, I want to zero in on a specific moment when slavery was aggressively upheld as a positive good – and to get a better sense of its allure. Perhaps by acknowledging the appeal of slavery for those who advocated it, we might gain a new understanding of its relationship with inequality. In the process, we might also gain a better of the what freedom, the concept that sits uneasily between them, really means.
Next: Freedom an inequality before the Civil War