Slavery as Benevolent Evil

Doug Wilson has an explanation for his past statements on American slavery that were sympathetic to the institution as having aspects of benevolence and affection between slaves and masters. I think there are two significant problems with his argument.

First, this quote,

I would content myself with saying that there were “many” horrific abuses, and that there were “many” situations that were characterized by benevolent masters, and leave it at that.

A modern point of comparison would be America’s complicity in the abortion carnage. On account of the millions of lives lost, we are most worthy of the judgment of God. God could rain down fire on all of us, and it would be richly deserved. It would be appropriate for subsequent historians to examine how many Americans opposed abortion, and who loved and cared for their own children. But it would not be appropriate for them to do so in a way as to make it seem that the judgment itself was unjust (emphasis original).

The problem is that abortion as an institution is evil. There is not a good or neutral version of abortion that is sometimes beset by evil. The practice is evil. The analogy just doesn’t work if Wilson is trying to maintain that American slavery as an institution was not wrong, only inflicted with sinful abuse.

Which brings us to the second problem. Yes, certain slave owners were better than others, but that does not mean that they were good. It can be granted that slavery in 1750s New England was less brutal than 1850s Alabama without justifying either version of the practice. Even the ex-slave quotations cited by Wilson as more sympathetic to the old system demonstrate the evil of the institution: “Whippings was few and nobody get the whip ‘less he need it bad,” “Old Master was good to all of his slaves but his overseers had orders to make ’em work,” “The only pusson I ever seen whipped at dat whipping post was a white man,” “Old Master was a fine Christian but he like his juleps anyways. He let us n*s have preachings and prayers, and would give us a parole to go 10 or 15 miles to a camp meeting and stay two or three days.” The power dynamic in all of these quotations make it clear that even in the best of circumstances, the slaves were seen as property, not people in the image of their creator just as their owners. The owners could always become more cruel (or strict, tough, or whatever adjective you want to choose) without problem. If people are property, how is it wrong to regularly whip them with ferocity? Compassion or leniency in these examples are that because the masters had the legal right to be much worse, and that legal right derives from the nature of the institution. An abortion practitioner that uses a less brutal method of murder on the unborn than his colleagues is still killing. A slave owner that refrains (sometimes) from beating his slaves is still exercising a wicked authority.

The institution of American slavery was premised upon sinful kidnapping, denying the workers the worth of their labors, and demeaning, either by practice or threat, people created in the image of God into property. Wilson wonders why the slaves continued to work on the plantations during the Civil War while the young Confederates were off in combat; perhaps the psychological brutality of convincing people that those with the power to torture them would do so, while simultaneously claiming to be looking out for their best interests, had something to do with it.