Home > Uncategorized > Holding A Wolf By The Ears

Holding A Wolf By The Ears

Thomas Jefferson once said that slavery was “like holding a wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” These days we almost never hear statements with so clear a meaning and that paint such a vivid picture. I like to think that it’s because life today is simply more complex, but it’s not. Life today is just as simple if not more so. So why did Jefferson and the other founders tolerate slavery after (and while) writing the founding documents of this country and declaring:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

It’s really pretty easy to see why. People are not angels. Jefferson, in Federalist 51 states:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

(Thanks for bringing it up Jack.)

The Founders were not, in fact, angels of any kind. They were men as we are today, flesh and blood and just as apt to fall from the ideals they put forth in writing as we remain. Imagine the predicament…

Slavery was so far ingrained in the economy that had they taken on slavery in 1776 (really had bigger issues to worry about like a war) or in 1787 (starting a new nation, is it a good idea to crush the economy at the same time?) we likely would not have survived as a collective nation. Humans are weak and often times take the easy route, regardless of what they think is right and wrong. Assuming that they could have gotten the Constitution ratified with a prohibition on slaves, tehy certainly laid the ground work for it’s possible future prohibition by setting a process by which to amend the Constitution. Just imagine what would happen if you took away electricity today and had to pay people to do what electric machines do now. Mass chaos would ensue. That is somewhat the position we were in at that point in history.

Jefferson owned 200ish slaves when he wrote the Declaration of Independence and 600 over the course of his life. That’s quite a group of men (and women and children) for the man that wrote the Declaration of Independence .

Our country tolerated slavery for about 100 years more after the Constitution and it really does bear mention that like so much else, capitalism made emancipation economically plausible. It also explains perfectly why the South remained filled with slaves and the North swore off the practice. The North industrialized. The South, being more suitable for it, remained with agriculture, and machines that could reap and sow were still a dream. To put it back in flow with the quotes I have here, the North found a way to let go of the wolf without it eating them and the South never figured it out. Just imagine what would happen if you took away electricity today and had to pay people to do what electric machines do now. Mass chaos and economic collapse would ensue. Further, abolition of slavery in America could have very likely been achieved much earlier had race not entered into the mix.

For thousands of years slaves were held by almost every culture on Earth. Race played into it very little, if at all. Europeans started collecting blacks as slaves for no other reason besides the fact that they could. If fact one could say that very few Europeans enslaved any blacks (merely purchased them, which isn’t really better at all). The vast majority of black slaves were rounded up by and purchased from powerful black tribes along the African Coast. Whole rival tribes were captured and sold to slavers and at the point which this started race had nothing whatsoever to do with it. However, as more people started to abhor slavery, the individuals who could be enslaved shrank and eventually left us with only blacks who by their status as one of the few groups of people legally enslave-able and the typically substandard subsistence way of life in Africa, quickly became viewed subhuman.

What makes it even clearer that race is not a traditional part of slavery as an institution is that over a million Europeans were captured and pressed into slavery in Africa, between 1500 and 1780 AD. The Romans had slaves, but they were the spoils of war and a light skinned European was just as legitimate a slave as the darkest of black Africans. In North & South America, prior to European contact, many of the civilizations there often held slaves captured from other nations of people. Lastly there were white American slaves as during the revolutionary period, capture by Muslim slavers in the Atlantic, 7000 would be captured in the 10 years preceding Constitutional ratification.

In short there is no reason to beat up the founders and others about slavery, not only was it economically required but really , there was no other option. Similar to the trolly problem except there is no “right” answer. It certainly doesn’t make it right, but once again, People are not angels.


Categories: Uncategorized
  1. 2011/10/25 at 23:54

    Our country tolerated slavery for about 100 years more after the Constitution and it really does bear mention that like so much else, capitalism made emancipation economically plausible.

    Or war. Or, if we did as the U.K. did, we could have just paid slave owners compensation.

    Similar to the trolly problem except there is no “right” answer.

    Are you talking about Thomson’s Trolley Problem? How are these two things similar?

  2. 2011/10/26 at 00:29

    Well for number 1, and as I mentioned, the North moved toward manufacturing and with the beginnings of the industrial revolution, failed to retain a big usefulness for slaves. Slaves do cost money to keep. Adam Smith talked a bit about how free workers are preferable to slaves.

    At some point it becomes cheaper to hire people to do the work. Hired employees don’t cost anything but their wages, but you can’t starve your slaves no matter how cruel you are. Also hired employees tend to not run away and if one stops showing up for work you can just hire a new worker to replace him. A replacement slave might cost as much as 2K, even back in the mid 19th century.

    But take it a step further, say you do take away electricity (today), but you are able to use slaves instead, that’s less of a problem, now isn’t it.

    As for the trolly problem… You don’t see the correlation? Jefferson knew that trying to end slavery was a nonstarter, as did everyone, because of our dependency. Britain didn’t have that same issue, the importance to the British economy was minimal by comparison. Even some prominent abolitionists recognized the extent to which slavery was a crutch.

    So for the trolly. Do you push the fat guy onto the tracks and do whats theoretically right, or let the train crash and kill the group on board? I think most people would say, “yes, push the fat guy, lets end slavery!”, but that’s today. When the food you eat, the clothes you wear and many of the products you gathered are gathered with free labor, having to pay people made food prices crash through the ceiling after the Civil War.

    Thankfully the North being industrialized and not so dependent on southern goods was able to do fine without slaves. Also with rising wages in the North, they could better afford higher prices, while much of the South experienced famine after the war.

  3. 2011/10/26 at 18:38

    Metaphorically killing an economy versus maintaining slavery is not the same as literally killing a person to save 5 lives.

  4. 2011/10/26 at 19:54

    For all intents and purposes, we are not talking about the metaphoric killing of an economy. Most in the South and many in the North, including black slave owners (yes kids, they existed) thought and the evidence was there to back it up, that ending slavery would mean very, very bad things for everyone.

    I don’t mean upending the social structure, you don’t need that to live, I mean food on the table and clothes on peoples backs.

    The real problem, as I see it, is choosing between two bad things and trying to pick the one that is less bad. Adding to this that the North was able to multiply the labor of a worker by 10 or 100 fold because of machines, and It does seem from the perspective of the southern plantation owner that while that is wonderful news, but each cotton bud still needs to be picked by hand.

    The growing piety in the North served to embolden the way of life and slavery as an institution. As you know, even when one side has a clearly better argument, some people try and dig in their heels to avoid defeat, only to fall on their face in the end and still have to put up with being wrong.

    Wrong or right stops mattering. Would you cause one catastrophe to stop another? Living slaves are better than tens of thousands of free men dying of famine, right?? You should be able to see how people can justify it even without racial theories. You do often make arguments justifying restrictions on the freedom of others by claiming what I said above, “no one has freedom when they are dead.”

    Do you stand by that logic, or perhaps is there really something sacred about a persons freedom? Is the ability to make your own choices worth more than the length or quality of your life? Or were the slave owners right, slavery improves the quality of life for many people? It is certainly true that by ending slavery many black suddenly had to find their next meal and had a big step down to the quality of life they would enjoy, even if they moved far enough west to escape racism.

    For me, freedom is worth the cost, any cost.

  5. 2011/10/26 at 23:20

    The economic issue is one of things potentially getting shittier for a certain time due to a number of variables, many of which cannot be predicted. The Trolley Problem is a traditional thought experiment where extraordinary parameters are set up in order to draw a stark contrast between one or another choice. They aren’t the same.

    Let’s do just what the Trolley Problem intends: let’s apply an ethical theory to it. Say we have pure utilitarianism. It’s going to be better to push the fat guy off the bridge in order to save 5 lives, provided the result of those lives being saved is more net pleasure (and the result of the fat man’s death is not more overall pain). Or let’s take Kant who says we should not use people merely as a means. He would say we cannot push the fat guy off because while our intention may be good – who doesn’t want to save 5 lives? – we are using fattie mcfatterson as merely a means.

    Now let’s take your favorite ethical theory, libertarianism. We can actually apply this quite aptly to both your economic scenario as well as the Trolley Problem – even though the parallel you want to draw is not there. In the Trolley Problem, we cannot push the fat guy because we will have intruded upon his autonomy, taking away his liberty. We don’t like it, but if we are to be morally good according to libertarianism, we must allow the 5 people to die. The same goes with your economic scenario. The morally right thing to do according to libertarianism is to allow people their maximum potential freedom. That means freeing all slaves, even if the result may be economic devastation. However, that “may” is where the link between the Trolley Problem and economics falls apart. In the former case we have specific parameters that will lead to specific results. In the latter it’s entirely different because we don’t know what the end result will be. If you want these two things to be the same, you will have to stipulate that ending slavery absolutely will result in something as bad or worse than slavery itself.

    I’ve stopped even reading the lies, but if you’re getting your info on this thought experiment from Dishonest Jack, you’re going to want to seriously rethink things. Christ, the guy thinks it all comes down to being a logistical issue (which, in complete genuineness, is literally the most embarrassing thing I have ever seen someone write who claims to know something about philosophy).

  6. 2011/10/26 at 23:35

    You are still looking at it in hindsight, which is almost always 20/20. The weakness of humans is the big issue.

    I haven’t really tried to argue anything else here. I would want to free the slaves at any cost, for just the reasons you mention, but even if a person holds such opinions,

    And you still didn’t catch up to my trolly problem usage. I’m not trying to say its a direct correlation, I’m going so far as to say many people saw both freeing the slaves and not freeing them as bad, and due to our inherent weakness, people often choose the easy path. I’m only trying to make use of having two unsatisfactory choices, no more than that.

    But incidentally, I wouldn’t push the fat guy because he didn’t accept the risk of getting on a train. Unless it was Michael Moore… than I’d absolutely push him.

  7. Patrick F
    2017/08/20 at 07:55

    Jefferson did not write Federalist 51. Madison wrote it. In fact, Jefferson did not author any of the Federalist Papers (Jay, Madison, and Hamilton authored).

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