We know the horror stories about slavery. The details of “close packing” are horrible (note that the very term close packing is very misleading in how it conceals the brutality of what was done). But I want to make another point: even looking at a case of a relatively benign master genuinely concerned about the well-being of his slaves demonstrates what is wrong with slavery.
“Benevolent” Slave Masters?
Robert McCormick and his son Cyrus McCormick receive credit for the mechanical reaper machine named for them. However, Cyrus McCormick’s grandson, Cyrus McCormick II, wrote a family history in which he said that much of the credit for co-invention actually must belong to a black slave of the family named Jo Anderson.
There is evidence that the McCormicks genuinely cared about Jo Anderson’s well-being: “According to some accounts, Anderson and McCormick were more like brothers than slave and master. … Family records show that McCormick purchased a log cabin on a small plot for Anderson in his later years and that McCormick and his son supported Anderson until his death sometime after 1888.”
If Your Master Was Never Violent Toward You, Your Position As Slave Would Still Be Wrong
Let’s pretend, for argument’s sake, that we could wave a magic want that would not have abolished slavery back then but would have suddenly made all slave masters genuinely caring about their slaves, and the more on the benign side, such as the McCormicks. Would that make slavery okay? No, it would not. Let’s imagine that you are a slave, and you have one of the more benign masters. For the most part, you can do what you want without him punishing you. Would that make your situation okay? No, it would not. Never mind that even when a slave had one of the more benign masters, it was still the case that if he wandered too far beyond the plantation, he could come across vigilantes who could get away with murdering him without legal recrimination.
It would still be the case that every time you take a bite of food, it is considered a handout from the master. If the master lets you start your own business and keep what you earn from it, it is still the case that you are only doing this at his permission — whim, really — and that, if one day on some whim he decided to revoke all these “privileges” from you, the law would be on his side. That’s why it was not sufficient merely to ask masters to be more benign. If you were a slave and all the masters chose to be more benign, it would be the case that you remain completely at their mercy and it is only by their mercy that you are not starved, beaten to death, or destroyed. Even if you have the world’s nicest master, nothing would justify anyone having that much authority over you and your peaceful actions in the first place.
This Also Applies to the Rights of Women As Independent Entities
The same principle applies to how women are treated by the law. Let’s imagine you are a woman and married to a very rich man who is also the world’s nicest man. He could legally get away with beating you up, but he doesn’t because he’s so nice. Would that mean your situation is fine? No, it would not be, because you should not have to count on anyone being nice — you should not be at anyone’s mercy — when it comes to you taking your own peaceful choices and looking peaceably out for your own well-being. Regardless of how nice or mean anyone is, the law should recognize that you own your life and it is yours by right — not merely at others’ charity or mercy.