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…”

You’ll what?

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.


  1. The crimes of Galahad pale in the presence of such systemic evil.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  2. Ivar Ivarson says:

    Some slave owners indisputably did free their slaves en masse. This happened often enough (e.g. Martha Washington) that there had to be loopholes in that system of evil. The main point that “it’s not that simple” is no less relevant just maybe slavery is an example less suited to proving it.

    • Dr. Boli says:

      Yes, that is true, and it is important to remember that there were people who overcame the evils through heroic effort. We should remember a few things, though.

      First, the South was very different in Martha Washington’s time from what it became half a century later. Many Virginians (like Thomas Jefferson) assumed that slavery was headed for gradual extinction. “Gradual abolition” was a real possibility, enacted into law in Pennsylvania. Probably in the same spirit, a Virginia law of 1782 made it fairly simple for a slaveowner to free slaves (before that it had been simply illegal to do so), and many took advantage of it.

      By the time of the Civil War, however, the most intransigent elements had taken over the legislation of the South, enacting laws designed to make the institution of slavery perpetual, and to make it impossible for free Africans to exist within their borders. Manumission of slaves was virtually prohibited throughout the South. Virginia’s liberal manumission law of 1782 was supplemented by one in 1806 that required freed slaves to leave the state; in other words, freed slaves literally could not exist legally in Virginia.

      Even under the liberal manumission law of 1782, what happened when Martha Washington freed those slaves? She freed her late husband’s slaves, but not her own. Families were broken up. Children lost their mothers and fathers. That is probably a typical result of manumission. Was it better for slaves to be free or better for them to be with their families? The mere fact that this question arises shows how hard it was to break the strands of the web of evil.

      Most arguments about slavery on line are mostly wrong on both sides, because they treat the whole history of the antebellum South as one undivided lump. And Dr. Boli will admit to having done exactly the same thing in this article, which you were correct to point out and object to. It would take a book to sort out all the changes in the institution of slavery and the laws associated with it, but here is the broad pattern: it was difficult or impossible to free slaves in colonial times, relatively easy (but not simple) for a brief period after the Revolution, and again difficult or nearly impossible in the period leading up to the Civil War.

      • Chris Travers says:

        I am reminded of the fact that what we call history is an abstraction, that history is argument about the present, using the past as a backdrop.

        All history is mostly wrong, because it builds castles in the sky based on false abstractions.

        And yet there is no subject more important to human flourishing than this.

      • Well he could have settled them as free farmers on his land giving them each a plot. After all it was the labour of his slaves that won the land from the wilderness, and under Locke’s justification of private property – that land with which a person mixes their labour belongs to them, then the land was rightfully theirs not Lee’s.

        • Dr. Boli says:

          That is true, and it would have been a moderately good thing. It would have been technically illegal, since freed slaves were not allowed to stay in Virginia, so to stay within the law Lee would have had to keep legal possession of his slaves, and to avoid doing anything monstrously illegal like teaching them to read and write. But he could have treated them as free farmers. They would then have been serfs rather than slaves—bound to the plantation, because they could not legally exist anywhere else. That is why Dr. Boli says it would have been a moderately good thing: because it would still not have given Lee’s slaves anything like real freedom. This is why complete and immediate abolition was the only reasonable course. The evil was too deep-rooted to admit of any really successful accommodation.

  3. Joseph Moore says:

    A pernicious moral argument seems pervasive now, and perhaps it has always been, I don’t know:

    Good people are those who do not do bad things.

    My friends and I do or support X

    Therefore X cannot be a bad thing.

    Any number of horrors are dismissed by this rule. The flip side is, of course, that anyone doing a bad thing is not a good person, so that Mark Twain’s father, in your example, was simply a bad man.

    Thus, the Nazi (had to go there) rank and file are not seen as people a lot like you and me, but as monsters, so that we don’t have to think about how easy it would be to lead us, your average Americans, down very similar paths to equally horrifying outcomes.

    But I am not over 200 years old, so perhaps my perspective could stand some improving.

    • Dr. Boli says:

      You seem to have exactly the right idea (meaning, of course, that you seem to have the same idea Dr. Boli has): that standing up on our lofty tower of contemporary righteousness and pointing down at the people of the past to say that they are ever so much more evil than we are is a dangerously delusive position. The Nazi rank and file were not, on average, people more evil than we are. The Southern slaveowners were not, on average, people more evil than we are. We are capable of that depth of evil, and we need to recognize that. And then we need to ask ourselves every day, Have we fallen into that depth of evil yet?

  4. markm says:

    Freeing slaves was also expensive. IIRC, the Lee family had a history of freeing their slaves in their wills. This was one reason Robert E. Lee inherited a nearly bankrupt plantation; if he hadn’t married a wealthy woman, he would have had to subsist on Army pay, which wasn’t much.

  5. Mike Bizzaro says:

    If you’re at all interested in knowing . . . the Catholic Dogma . . . that we *must believe* to get to Heaven . . . I list it on my website > > > http://www.Gods-Catholic-Dogma.com

    C A U T I O N : The Catholic Church has had no physical properties for 50 years (8 Dec 1965) . . . because of the Sources of Dogma on automatic excommunication for heresy.

    The Catholic God knows . . . what we think and believe . . .

    Catholic Faith (pre-fulfillment) writing of Deuteronomy 31 : 21 >
    “For I know their thoughts, and what they are about to do this day.”

    Catholic Faith (pre-fulfillment) writing of Job 21 : 27 >
    “Surely I know your thoughts, and your unjust judgments against Me.”

    Catholic writing of Romans 1 : 21 >
    “They … became vain in their thoughts, and their foolish heart was darkened.”

    If you only scan the Index … you won’t see the infallible Dogma from the Pope in union with the Bishops of the world … which * alone * keeps people from eternal damnation.

  6. Aaron Cowan says:

    I appreciate your wit and good writing, and you make some good points about the complexity of evil, historical perspective, practicing empathy, and avoiding lazy moralizing. However, your statement that there was “practically no” place for free blacks in antebellum Virginia is simply ahistorical – there were about 58,000 free blacks in the state in 1860 http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Free_Blacks_During_the_Civil_War#start_entry

    Furthermore, manumission happened all the time int eh antebellum Virginia (http://www-personal.umich.edu/~baileymj/Bodenhorn.pdf)
    and freeing slaves and sending them north would hardly have “condemned them to starvation” – most escaped slaves managed just fine for themselves in the booming market economy of the North, even with the rampant discrimination present there. Runaway slaves and those who purchased their freedom certainly seemed willing to take their chances…

    So, Lee DID have some choices had his moral conviction got the better of him, but obviously they would have been materially costly to him and his family.

    • Dr. Boli says:

      You are right to point out that Dr. Boli himself has been guilty of some rhetorical oversimplification. The two links you provided, however, serve very well to point out just how complex the question was.

      The Encyclopedia Virginia article you link to mentions some other difficulties besides material cost. After 1806, it was illegal for freed slaves to remain in Virginia. As the article mentions, many stayed anyway. But if we’re appealing to Lee’s conscience, what should we say? Advise your slaves to stay and defy the law? Or say “You’re free—but you have no home”? From a strictly humanitarian point of view, neither is an obviously good choice. In hindsight, most of us would tell them to choose freedom and go north. But would we have been able to see that in 1860? Remember that the law had done all it could to make the slaves fit for nothing but slavery, including making it illegal to teach them to read.

      Your second link, though it tells us that many slaves were freed in the late 1700s and early 1800s, points out “a social norm increasingly opposed to liberal manumission as fears over the increased size and radicalization of the free black community grew with increases in abolitionist fervor”—a norm backed up by laws like the one in Virginia that prohibited freed slaves from staying in the commonwealth.

      Dr. Boli repeats what he said in a previous comment: it is a mistake to treat the history of the South before the war as one undivided lump. The institution of slavery went through profound, and surprisingly rapid, changes.

      None of this is to say that Lee could not have freed his slaves. He could have. People did. But a reasonable slaveowner, looking at the question from all angles, taking into account the state of the law, simply would not have been able to come to a definite conclusion about which choice was likely to cause the least suffering to his slaves. They can stay in their homes, or they can be free; they can stay in touch with their families, or they can be free; they can be bound to the plantation, or they can be practically stateless non-citizens with nowhere to go. Thousands of heroic former slaves did make lives for themselves. Understanding how hard that was makes us appreciate their heroism all the more.

      Once again, the evil is just unfathomably deep. Your dog or cat has far better legal protection than a slave had before the Civil War: we have laws against cruelty to animals, but a master could not be held responsible for killing a slave. A freed slave had more legal protection in theory, but almost no legal protection against the one thing most to be dreaded, which was being enslaved again.

      It seems to Dr. Boli that, until we understand the depth of the evil and the intricacy of the web, we cannot really understand why there were fanatical abolitionists. We cannot understand why the Dred Scott decision was a legal atom bomb in the North. We cannot understand how an entire political party could rise and sweep away the old order on the strength of this one issue. We cannot even understand why the South, where only two generations before many of the best minds had expected and hoped for the gradual extinction of slavery, became so intransigent on the subject. The fact is that the burden of the evil had finally got too heavy for the human conscience to bear. In the South, the conscience defended itself by constructing a bizarre fantasy world in which slavery was a Christian virtue rather than a moral evil that crushed the slaves and warped the masters; in the North, the human conscience responded by electing Abraham Lincoln.

  7. ReformedBeliever says:

    Your blog is quote interesting, but I take issue with something that you may consider as trivial.

    Your remark regarding Calvinist doctrine suggests that you don’t understand Reformed theology.

  1. […] we were talking about the evils of slavery, it seems to Dr. Boli that no amount of argument can demonstrate the pervasiveness of the evil as […]

  2. […] The question comes of up because of a comment left on our recent article about historical fallacies having to do with slavery: […]

  3. […] there was the article about slavery. After thousands of words in the article and comments, Dr. Boli has only succeeded in obscuring his […]

  4. […] The esteemed and much missed Dr. Boli lays out a classic example of how complicated and inextricably intertwined the relationship between the individual’s desire to do good and the social situations within which that desire must operate here. […]

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