A writing project many years ago required a fairly thorough review of the arguments for and against slavery in the U.S. South during the 30 years that led up to the Civil War.
The case put forth by the abolitionists was fairly predictable, reflecting the increasing momentum of discomfort with the very idea of slavery.
Concern for human dignity and the injustice of the presumption that one group of people could be “owned” by another group as property was finding traction in the collective consciousness during that period.
More intriguing to me at the time were the arguments in defense of slavery. Exhaustive treatises, drawing on philosophy, the Bible, anthropology and economics set forth a strong case for the philosophical rationale, the theological justification and the economic necessity of this institution, deeply rooted for two centuries in the plantation culture of the South.
The title of one such treatise by M.T. Wheat reflects the passion and perspective of the defense: “The Progress and Intelligence of Americans; Collateral Proof of Slavery from the First to the Eleventh Chapter of Genesis, as Founded on Organic Law; and from the Fact of Christ Being a Caucasian, Owing to His Peculiar Parentage.”
The foundation of the defensive, pro-slavery argument was the claim that the entire economic structure of the South was dependent on the slavery system. To yield to the abolitionist cause would be to destroy a way of life that had been in place for generations.
Another title, “Cotton Is King, and Pro-Slavery Arguments,” edited by E.N. Elliott, is a collection of writings by a number of slavery’s defenders on economic grounds.
Soon the abolitionist cause would prevail, by governmental decree and a deadly war, and the economic system that had dehumanized both slaves and slave owners would be replaced in time with a more humane one.
This debate, now long over, has come to mind recently in the discussions of adjustments to the minimum wage on one end of the economic spectrum and of the tax structure for those on the other end.
People working two or more minimum wage jobs to provide for their families and still finding themselves unable to break the chains of poverty are part of the picture.
People enjoying increasing comfort and security from profits derived from a system built on the backs of minimum-wage labor and services are the other part.
Corrective suggestions in the form of raising the minimum wage and adjusting the tax formulas to help with support for the working class and with a safety net for those caught in the crippling web of poverty are met with accusations of attack on the “job creators” and ultimately the destructive consequences of an economic system that supports them generously.
Of course, it is easy to overdraw the similarity suggested here. There is little similarity between the actual conditions of the slavery in our history and the economic challenges of our present situation.
Still, there is an interesting parallel between the perspective of those who went to great lengths to defend the institution of slavery and those who argue against proposed remedies to the chains of poverty that enslave many in our time.
The captains of the slave system were the “job creators” of their day. They provided jobs, shelter and sustenance for “their” slaves, with more and less actual compassion for those who made their lives pleasurable.
Some, no doubt, were kind and relatively generous to those who served them, while others reportedly were blatantly cruel.
Beyond that, the system itself perpetuated a distorted form of community that reflected the dark side of the human spirit.
The conditions of a slave-based economic system nearly 200 years ago were vastly different from the economic challenges faced by those caught in the conditions of today, but the arguments defending and challenging the two systems seem to be essentially the same.
Historical conditions clearly change with time, but human perspectives seem to be able to reclothe themselves in the uniforms of any period.
Will decisions before our leaders be more oriented toward the preservation of privilege or toward the liberation of those in bondage to a crippling economic system?
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).