A Review of Sowell’s Black Rednecks and White Liberals – Part III

Part I – Black Rednecks and White Liberals
Part II – Are Jews Generic?
Part III – The Real History of Slavery
Part IV – Germans and History
Part V – Black Education: Achievements, Myths, and Tragedies
Part VI – History versus Visions

“The Real History of Slavery”

In this essay, Sowell aims to provide an overview of slavery, both in the U.S. and in the world at large. He laments the fact that slavery is often presented as if it’s unique to the United States “or, at most, Africans enslaved by Europeans in the Western Hemisphere” (p. 111). He asks “Why this provincial view of a worldwide evil? Often it is those who are most critical of a ‘Eurocentric’ view of the world who are most Eurocentric when it comes to the evils and failings of the human race.”

Of course, one possible response is that –as 21st century Americans– we’re most concerned with American history, so that our limited view of slavery is no more inexplicable or problematic than our “provincial” view of sports (where are the discussions of the glories of cricket?) or our “provincial” view of literature (why so few high school classes on great Farsi poets?).

Yet Sowell sees a deeper problem. He speculates that this narrow focus is motivated by “the present-day uses of that historic evil [of American slavery.”] The ability to score ideological points against American society or Western civilization, or to induce guilt and thereby extract benefits from the white population today, are greatly enhanced by making enslavement appear to be a peculiarly American, or a peculiarly white, crime” (p. 111).

This claim is certainly provocative, but it does have some legitimacy. For example, imagine that scholars routinely discussed the ravages of cancer as if it were a uniquely American phenomenon and then suggested that we need to abandon Western medicine if we were ever to truly root out this disease. In this case, a narrow perspective would give us an unrealistic view of cancer and the relative merits of different approaches to medicine. Conversely, recognizing the ubiquity of cancer across time and cultures helps us appreciate the extent to which Western medicine has been able to treat it.

In the same way that war, famine, and disease were and are worldwide phenomena, slavery was and is a worldwide phenomenon that has existed throughout history (p. 111-113). In particular, every race of people has been enslaved by virtually every other race of people: “During the Middle Ages, Slavs were so widely used as slaves in both Europe and the Islamic world that the very word ‘slave’ derived from the word for Slav–not only in English, but also in other European languages, as well as Arabic… Slavery was also an established institution in the Western Hemisphere before Columbus’ ships ever appeared on the horizon” (p. 111). It was not slavery per se that was a novelty in the New World, but the creation of race: “Only relatively late in history did enslavement across racial lines occur on such a scale as to promote an ideology of racism that outlasted the institution of slavery itself” (p. 113). As Sowell writes later: “Racism was a result, not a cause, of slavery” (p. 128).

While race-based slavery was an innovation of the Western world, the Western world was also the source of the first widespread abolition movement: “only one civilization developed a moral revulsion against [slavery], very late in its history–Western civilization. Today it seems so obvious that, as Abraham Lincoln said, ‘If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.’ But the hard fact is that, for thousands of years, slavery was simply not an issue, even among great religious thinkers are moral philosophers of civilizations around the world… ‘There is no evidence,’ according to a scholarly study, ‘that slavery came under serious attack in any part of the world before the eighteenth century.’ That is when it first came under attack in Europe” (p. 116).

Though Sowell seems on fairly firm ground when he discusses the history of slavery around the world, he falters when he turns to the moral problem of slavery. He chides people who are “selectively indignant about the immorality of slavery in American society [but] pass over in silence the larger-scale slavery in other parts of the world” (p. 135). However, he also attempts to argue that the abolition of slavery came with pragmatic concerns that constrained the actions of slaveowners in the United States: “Moral principles may be timeliness but moral choices can be made only among the options actually available at particular times and places” (p. 139). He lists several of these constraints: “Many Americans of that era who saw slavery as evil saw a race war as a greater evil” (p. 139-140) and “Slavery was a poor preparation for freedom for blacks, economically, socially or otherwise” (p. 141-142) such that many opponents of slavery nonetheless feared that freed slaves would be unable to provide for themselves and could create “serious danger to society as a whole.” Finally, some slaveowners faced the same problem as John Randolph who “could not simply free his own slaves legally, since he had inherited a mortgaged estate and the slaves were part of the estate” (p. 148).

In all this discussion, Sowell insists that he is not trying to justify slavery, which he repeatedly denounces as evil. Rather, he is trying to show that we should be loathe to sit in judgment on historical figures without being sympathetic to their historical context.

It’s certainly true that we should show some humility, since we will likely face the same scrutiny and condemnation from future generations for our current actions. Yet Sowell’s arguments here are still unconvincing. For example, Sowell insists that many slaveowners genuinely feared a race war, which kept them from freeing their slaves. At the same time, he highlights the fact that many of the Founding Fathers freed their slaves in their wills (p. 146). But if they genuinely feared a race war, why would they blithely free their slaves as soon as they died? Similarly, Sowell correctly notes that freed slaves would face real economic and legal difficulties. But if their slaves’ welfare were truly the determining factor, it would have been easy enough for the slaveowners to free them de facto and treat them as servants while still preparing them for de jure manumission. Again, the fact that Sowell mentions how slaveowners toyed with or implemented such ideas shows that they were not outside the realm of possibility, even in the 19th century.

In the end, it seems implausible to argue that slaveowners’ hands were tied by circumstances beyond their control. While we should be hesitant to score cheap virtue points by condemning sins that we’ve never been tempted with, we should also recognize that all people will indeed be judged by the same objective and universality standards of morality. The lesson we should take away from slaveowners’ compromise with injustice is not “Thank God I am not like them!” but “Oh God, show me ways in which I’m making similar compromises!”

In this essay, as in his first essay, Sowell’s mistake is making extraneous and unnecessary arguments that weaken his overall case. His point that a narrow, selective view of history leaves us open to ideological manipulation is a good one. The fact that our country’s history, like every country’s history, is checkered and stained is no reason to think that its foundations need to be torn up. But neither is the 21st-century danger of radicalism a good reason to soften or downplay the moral compromise of 18th-century slaveowners.

Previous: “Are Jews Generic?”

Next: “Germans and History”

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