Truth v. Myth: Slavery in our democracy

Myth: Americans didn’t care about slavery, turning an indifferent eye to the sufferings of enslaved people.

Supporting myth:  We enslaved people.

“Proof” of myth: How could slavery go on for so long if people didn’t accept it?


How in the world did slavery exist in our representative democracy?


The minority of whites in America who enslaved people had a long tradition of looking out for their Lockeian possessions of property and labor. Virginia’s elected colonial legislature, the House of Burgesses, fought the colony’s royal governors constantly, rejecting taxes and other encroachments by the crown on Virginia’s independence—and wealth.


So these slaveholders really cared about liberty. No wonder Virginia spawned so many revolutionaries. But how could these men care so much about liberty and still hold slaves? The answer, as Edmund Morgan makes clear in his invaluable book American Slavery, American Freedom, is in a letter from Englishman Sir Augustus John Foster, who visited antebellum Virginia and said, “The Virginians can profess an unbounded love of liberty and of democracy in consequence of the mass of the people, who in other countries might become mobs, being there nearly altogether composed of their own Negro slaves…” (p. 380)


Why is this quote the answer to the riddle? Because it mentions mobs.


The men and women who ascribed to Locke’s ideas about natural rights applied those rights only to themselves and “their kind”: the wealthy and well-educated. Just as most people do today, Enlightenment thinkers believed that poor people were so crass and animalistic, so driven by the survival instinct, that they were completely unable to appreciate ideals. There was no educating a really poor person. The poor were really barely human.


Now when you have this dangerous, large group of uneducated, uneducatable poor people, who outnumber the educated 100,000 to 1, you have to make sure those dangerous poor uneducated people don’t rise up and ruin the status quo. Think about it: if the poor are unable to understand ideas and concepts, then the poor will never understand democracy or natural rights. They can never self-govern like they’re supposed to in a democracy. A democracy requires all of its citizens to be active, informed, self-disciplining (that is, willing to obey the law), and educated (you have to be able to read and write). Since there was “no way” to bring the poor to that level, the poor were nothing but dangerous to democracy. They will instead remain violent, anarchic, and destructive. And they will continue to constitute 98% of the population. 



So you can’t include those people in democracy; all you can do is contain them. Neutralize their threat. What better way than to enslave them? And indeed, plans for enslaving poor whites were proposed in England in the 1700s.


In America, that slavery was not hypothetical. Black Americans were actually enslaved. Slaveholders saw this as a break for democracy. If enslaved, black Americans could not threaten the new republic with their ignorance, violence, and blackness. They were contained.


So we go back to Foster’s statement and it makes sense: “The Virginians can profess an unbounded love of liberty and of democracy in consequence of the mass of the people, who in other countries might become mobs, being there nearly altogether composed of their own Negro slaves…” That is, because the masses, which are Negro in this case, are enslaved, they cannot become mobs destroying society and government. The free whites of Virginia are free to embrace democracy and liberty for themselves and their nation because those dangerous poor people are safely contained.


Thus we get some Founders who did not see that enslaving black Americans was inconsistent with liberty and justice for all. In fact, in their minds it was crucial to it. Picture a vast machine toiling underground, and a small wagon moving above ground. All that underground toil was required to move the wagon.


This is the horrible idea that people were at last starting to doubt in the revolutionary period. The British, after all, had said Americans were a rabble, not really citizens, and clearly unable to govern themselves. The British had been wrong. Now Americans were saying black people were a rabble, not really citizens, unable to govern themselves. Might not the Americans be wrong?


Those who felt the Americans were wrong ended their enslavement of black Americans. Those who felt the Americans were not wrong pointed out that they, white Americans, were charged with a beyond-precious responsibility: introducing democracy to the human race. They should be very cautious about offering citizenship in that democracy to people who were “incapable of defending it and might become a means of destroying it. If the poor were already enslaved, would it not be wise to keep them so?” (p. 385) What was worse: enslaving 200,000 people in Virginia, or setting them loose on the nation, to beg in the streets and join mobs and become henchmen for or dupes of unscrupulous politicians who would use their mob power to seize control of the government and revert it to dictatorship?


Think about it, said the pro-slavery skeptics. Most black Americans are uneducated, desperate, and friendless. The first white person who gives them a buck and a drink will win their undying loyalty. And if that white person asks them to loot a store or raze the postmaster’s office or kill the governor, what black person wouldn’t want to wreak some revenge on the whites who enslaved him? Black people have a chip on their shoulder, said the skeptics. Set them loose with no skills and hearts full of anger, and you’re not going to like what you see.


We’d love to end slavery, they said. We see that it’s not consistent with democracy’s principles. But it’s just too late to undo slavery’s ill effects, so you have to choose: the problems slavery causes (a sometimes guilty conscience), or the problems ending slavery will cause (rioting, rape, murder, fire, dictatorship). Which will you choose?


These were repellent yet powerful arguments during the revolutionary and founding period. Like democracy itself, ending slavery was for many whites a radical experiment whose outcome no one knew for sure.


So how could slavery exist in our democracy? With difficulty. Even as many Americans (increasingly located in the southern states) argued that it was crucial to democracy, more and more Americans were coming to realize, often uncomfortably, that slavery was a slap in the face to democracy. The argument would not end, the nation would not rest easy about slavery—ever. It would not be long—the span of one long life—before the compromises with slavery in the 1787 constitution tore the union’s political system apart, and culminated in civil war.



Myth: Americans didn’t care about slavery, turning an indifferent eye to the sufferings of enslaved people.

Truth:  There was never a time in the life of the United States when slavery was not a tough issue.

Damage done when we believe in a myth: Believing this myth makes us think we will never end racism and prejudice, because America has always callously embraced both; that Americans just don’t care about equality, and it’s impossible to get justice in America. But if we believe this, we’re just giving ourselves permission to be prejudiced and racist. It’s permission to be inactively angry, to say that criticizing the U.S. as hopelessly hypocritical is actually an action. But it’s not. Cynicism is lazy, and if you see racism and prejudice, you have to fight it, not say “Oh, that’s just how America is.” Because it isn’t now, and it wasn’t then. That’s not the American way.

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