The Basis For Slavery

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The belief in racial inequality has been fairly expensive, considering the lives that have been spent because of it. Out of it we got, among other things, the institution of chattel slavery in the United States. Slavery is gone, but we fought a four-year war to make it go, and now and then it occurs to us that the war somehow grew out of the belief that there are in this world, by an unalterable law of nature, a master race and a subject race.

Negro slavery and its part in bringing about the American Civil War have been studied, questioned, and hashed over for the better part of a century, and the whole business has suffered just a little because it has been sicklied o’er by the pale cast of what now and then passes for thought. The war was fought because many things had gone wrong, and it is easy enough now for studious men to examine trends, social and economic developments, and the hidden intricacies of roughhewn American politics and conclude that the whole war was a tragic mistake that could easily have been avoided if the men of the 1860’s had only managed to have the benefit of the serene wisdom which their grandchildren were able to attain threequarters of a century later. This is quite possibly true: and yet the point does remain that the war somehow had its beginning in the simple fact that one race held another race in slavery, and beyond that there lies the fact that the owning race considered itself infinitely superior to the race that was owned.

This was a rather expensive attitude, since it led to the loss of some 600,000 lives. If today we are paying rather more attention to the approaching centennial of the Civil War than the situation really seems to warrant, the trouble probably comes from this business of the race problem, which Aristotle helped bequeath to us.

And the race problem does date back to the notion that there are inferior and master races on this earth. For several years, a classic discussion of this matter has been Dwight Dumond’s Antislavery Origins of the Civil War in the United States . This is now available in a paperback reprint from the University of Michigan Press, and it is a book of peculiar timeliness today.

Antislavery Origins of the Civil War in the United States , by Dwight Lowell Dumond, with a foreword by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. The University of Michigan Press. 133 pp. $1.65.

From the beginning we had slavery in the United States, and from the beginning this fact pressed heavily on the national conscience. This conscience was quieted, for a long time, by a number of factors, among them the tragic fact that even the people who did not believe in slavery did, for the most part, believe in the inequality of the races. One race was inferior to the other, as Aristotle had said; set it free and you would create a completely insoluble problem—equality between basically unequal races. No one was quite ready to look such a development in the eye, so antislavery agitation in this country began by demanding a system of colonization.

In the course of time—say by the middle 1830’s…men who considered slavery an unendurable wrong began to see that colonization was not quite the answer. Slavery infringed on the idea of freedom, and that idea is one which has to be taken straight; it runs all across the board, or it is phony. So either slavery or liberty would eventually have to go, and the antislavery movement could no longer base itself on colonization, or on any other adjustment to the notion that there is an unbridgeable gap between the races. The story of the antislavery movement in the 25 years preceding the Civil War is very largely the story of the effort to put this point across. Freedom and abolitionism were on the defensive in 1834, but slavery was on the defensive by 1860. Public opinion, in the North, swung over to a new orientation.

Mr. Dumond does not hold to the traditional belief that it was mostly New England that led the way to this new viewpoint. The thing was settled in the great Mississippi Valley, as he sees it; if the old Southwest was the great stronghold of slavery, the old Northwest was the area in which the antislavery decision was finally reached, and “had the region east of the mountains somehow been blotted out in 1830 and these two western regions been an entity unto themselves, things would not have happened very much differently from what they did.…” The hard determination to abolish the evil came out of what we now call the Middle West, as Mr. Dumond interprets the matter; and the South viewed things correctly when it saw Lincoln’s election in 1860 as a final, fatal threat to the continued existence of the peculiar institution.

For Lincoln, besides being a personal opponent of slavery as an institution, had a radically new notion about the nature of the federal government. While he was on his way from Springfield to Washington he said, in effect, that the states were really political subdivisions of the United States, and bore about the same relation to the nation that a county bore to a state. In his inaugural address, “he enunciated a political philosophy designed to make the mandates of an unrestrained numerical majority the operative law—it was a complete endorsement of the doctrine of the higher law.” The Republican victory in z 860 was essentially a victory for the higher law doctrine, and this meant that the governmental machinery, which previously had protected slavery, would no longer be adequate.