The first in an occasional series on failures of imagination in historical writing.
Suppose, for a moment, that you are a conscientious historian who has decided that Americans must be made to understand exactly how the individual slaveowner of the antebellum South was personally responsible for the evils of slavery. You will do so with a searing appeal to America’s conscience; or, in other words, with an article in Slate. So you sit down to your Macintosh to type, and…
And in the back of your mind you feel a little pricking. For some reason your memory has chosen that moment to replay an article you read somewhere about appalling conditions in Apple factories in Asia—conditions that have more than once been described as “slavery.”
You shake your head to clear your mind. Of course even the worst factory conditions are not the same as African slavery as it was practiced in the southern United States. That is incontrovertibly true.
Still, you remember thinking when you read that article that there was something monstrously evil in those factories. How can you condemn one monstrous evil by participating in another?
“That’s it,” you declare with sudden resolution. “From now on, no more Apple for me. Instead, I’ll…”
There is not a single other computer brand that does not depend on the same sort of exploited labor.
You’ll build your own computer? What a splendid idea! Where will the components come from?
“Fine,” you say with a desperate resolution. “I’ll turn Luddite. I’ll write everything in ink on paper.”
The first notebook you pick up says “Made in Indonesia.”
You can’t escape the web of evil.
In our complex modern world, we deal with all kinds of evil, but we have just run up against what we might call systemic evil, to borrow a term from the medical profession. (We shall fill the tank and take a spin through the car wash before we bring the term back, so everything’s all right.) Systemic evil is evil in which we participate merely by living in our complex modern world. There is no little check box to opt out. You broke the shrink wrap; you used the life that was given to you; therefore you agreed to the evil.
And exploited workers in Asian factories are just one tentacle of the evil that pervades modern life. How about automobile companies that deliberately evade pollution controls? You will boycott them and buy only from non-evil automobile manufacturers? Dr. Boli believes that you are in for a rude surprise when you start trying to find one of those. How about wars and terrorist attacks started by greedy and ambitious politicians who kill thousands as a way of augmenting their own power? You’ll move to Switzerland, which never gets into wars? Dr. Boli suggests you might do a little research on how such wars are financed.
No, the modern world is sufficiently complex that you simply cannot pull evil out by the roots without killing the rest of your crops. This is the meaning of the parable of the wheat and tares:—for the historical fallacy that Dr. Boli has chosen to address today is the idea that things were simpler in days gone by.
The subject came up because of an article in Slate that an alert reader pointed out to us: “Slavery Myths Debunked,” which begins with an introduction that shows a serious lack, but not a surprising lack, of historical imagination.
Dr. Boli was relieved to find that most of the article is just good sound history. No, Irish indentured servants were not slaves in the way African slaves were slaves; that is true, and it needs to be said. However badly the Irish were treated, they were white citizens with rights. No, factory workers in the North were not worse off than slaves in the South, for the good and sufficient reason that it was at least theoretically possible for a Northern factory worker to stop being a factory worker, or for his children to become embezzlers or prostitutes or something else better than either factory workers or slaves.
It is only in the introduction that we find the parade of fallacies, which of course is a little ironic in an article purporting to debunk historical myths. We shall look at only one of those fallacies, because it will stand in very well for all of them.
In a June column on the legacy of Robert E. Lee that was otherwise largely critical of the Confederate general, New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks wrote that, though Lee owned slaves, he didn’t like owning slaves—a biographical detail whose inclusion seemed to imply that Lee’s ambivalence somehow made his slaveholding less objectionable.
The implication seems to be that, because he held slaves, Robert E. Lee was simply evil; there is no mitigation for his disapproval of the institution of slavery.
Now, Robert E. Lee is not one of Dr. Boli’s favorite people. Dr. Boli was not impressed by Lee when Lee was alive, and he is not any more impressed by him now that he is dead. But to suggest that no good person could have owned slaves is to misunderstand the complexity of the antebellum era. It minimizes the evil of slavery by suggesting that it presented a simple choice: one could decide not to have slaves the way one decides not to kick a puppy, and then one’s conscience would be clear.
Consider the actual situation, however. Lee inherits a plantation full of slaves. Let us suppose that he hates the institution of slavery with a white-hot passion (which he did not, by the way, but let us suppose it). What should he do?
Well he should let the slaves go, of course.
Fine. And then what?
What place was there for a free black person in Virginia? With trivial exceptions, none whatsoever. By law, anyone who had visible African traits was presumed to be a slave; there were large rewards for returning a supposed runaway, and the supposed slave’s testimony would not be admitted in court. So a freed slave lived in constant danger of being enslaved again by some unscrupulous or simply mistaken white person. Aside from that, there was almost no reasonable way for a former slave to earn a living, since whatever jobs would be entrusted to a former slave were already filled by current slaves.
But they could go north.
And would they fare better there? At the minimum, Lee’s responsibility to his slaves would require him to find a way for them to live as well as they lived as slaves—that is, to have their minimal bodily needs taken care of. Simply saying “Go north, be free,” would be condemning them to starvation. How easily could a Southern slaveowner find homes and jobs for his freed slaves in the North? And, of course, the Fugitive Slave Laws could make it almost as hard to remain free in the North as it was in the South.
Then he could send them back to Africa. But by Lee’s time, almost all the slaves in the South were born in America. They had no more practical knowledge of Africa than Lee had. Africa was not “back,” and would they want to go there if they were free? Some free black Americans did, but many did not.
Well, then, he could pay them and make them employees instead of slaves. But there were no other positions for free black “employees,” so all the employees would have had to stay in Lee’s employ or starve to death. It seems obvious that the difference between a slave and an employee who can never leave his position to go anywhere else is a difference in name only.
He could sell his slaves to another master and wash his hands of the whole thing. It might allow Lee to feel very smug for a while, but plainly it would be a bad thing for the slaves, probably breaking up families and friendships of long duration among them.
Supposing Lee to be the most tender-hearted humanitarian imaginable, then, he will keep his slaves even if he detests the institution of slavery. He will do so because any alternative he can think of is much worse. If he loves the slaves as human beings, they will have to remain slaves.
That, in a few words, is how thoroughly evil the institution of slavery was. A white southerner born into a family with slaves was stuck with them unless he was willing to treat them with callous cruelty. This is how evil works. It enlists our most selfless motives in its service. You can almost hear the satisfied chuckle of the demons right now. It’s a fine piece of work, they say.
But if it was nearly impossible for an individual slaveowner to get around the problem of slavery, then we are faced with a choice. We can condemn all slaveowners as evil, on the unimpeachable grounds that slavery is objectively evil. But then we create a Calvinistic world in which millions are born damned, with no hope of redemption. A third of all white Southerners owned slaves before the Civil War, as the Slate article mentions; that’s quite a lot of objectively evil people. Our only alternative is charity: the understanding that There is none righteous, no, not one, and that slaveowners, Hitler Youth members, Volkswagen drivers, Apple users, and all the rest of us living in this complex modern world are caught in a vast web of evil not of our own making. When we insist that slaveowners chose to be evil and could have done otherwise, we are missing the magnitude of the evil. And when we trivialize the evil to a matter of individual choice, then we smugly absolve ourselves of responsibility. For if the evil is really that huge and all-encompassing, then it is not a few individuals who need to be changed, but everything; and that would mean we must accept the horrible possibility that we are called to change the world.