At the start of the month, Megan McArdle — who is, I think, pro-choice — wrote:
But in this case, I think the analogy to slavery is important, for two reasons. First of all, it was the last time we had an extended, society-wide debate about personhood. […]
Listening to the debates about abortion, it seems to me that really broad swathes of the pro-choice movement seem to genuinely not understand that this is a debate about personhood, which is why you get moronic statements like “If you think abortions are wrong, don’t have one!” If you think a fetus is a person, it is not useful to be told that you, personally, are not required to commit murder, as long as you leave the neighbors alone while they do it.
Conversely, if Africans are not people, then slavery is not wrong.
Although Megan is (I think) pro-choice, I’ve certainly heard this argument made by pro-lifers any number of times. But “lack of personhood” was not, in fact, a major pro-slavery argument. I’d recommend listening to (or reading the transcript of) this lecture by Yale historian David Blight, in which he outlines the pre-civil-war pro-slavery arguments.
The entire lecture is worth your time, but here — heavily edited for space — is Blight’s outline of the important pro-slavery arguments.
Now, there are many ways to look at pro-slavery. Deep, deep in the pro-slavery argument–I’m going to give you categories here to hang your hats on–deep in the pro-slavery argument is a biblical argument. Almost all pro-slavery writers at one point or another will dip into the Old Testament, or dip into the New Testament–they especially would dip to the Old–to show how slavery is an ancient and venerable institution. […] You can therefore assume it was divinely sanctioned. […]
A second kind of set of arguments, I’ve already referred to, are the historical ones. Here it is not just the venerability of slavery, how old it is, but it’s the idea that it has been crucial to the development of all great civilizations. That slavery may have its bad aspects but it has been the engine of good, it has been the engine of empires, the engine of wealth, the engine of greatness. How would you have had Cicero? How would you have had the great Roman philosophers and thinkers? […]
Pro-slavery ideology is also part of–at the same time it’s resistant to–the greatest product arguably of the Enlightenment, and that is the idea of natural rights; natural law, natural rights, rights by birth, rights from God, being born with certain capacities. Now pro-slavery writers were inspired by this to some extent, but many of them will simply convert it. They will convert it–they’ll take portions of John Locke that they like, and not the others–and they’ll say the real rule of the world is not natural equality, but it is natural inequality. Humans are not all born the same, with the same capacities, abilities.
Now, then there’s a whole array of economic arguments, and the cynic, the economic determinist, simply goes to the economic conclusions of pro-slavery and nowhere else. […] “You will say that man cannot hold property in man. The answer is that he can, and actually does, hold property in his fellow, all over the world, in a variety of forms, and has always done so.” […]
Some would get worried and they would discuss slavery as a necessary evil–this system entailed upon them. […] “But the question is, in my present circumstances, with evil on my hands, entailed from my father, would the general interest of the slaves and community at large, with reference to the slaves, be promoted best by emancipation? Could I do more for the ultimate good of the slave population by holding or emancipating what I own?” […] he develops a highly intricate theory of how he’s going to use slavery to save black people. He’s going to ameliorate their conditions, he’s going to make their slavery on his plantations so effective, so good, such a even joyous form of labor, that he will be doing God’s work by improving slavery.[…]
There are many pro-slavery writers who developed, like James Henry Hammond, what I would call the cynical or amoral form of pro-slavery argument; and this is a potent form of argument when you think about it. […] “The only problem with slavery in America,” said James Henry Hammond, is that too damn many northerners didn’t understand it is the way of the world as it is, and they ought to stop talking about the world as it ought to be.” […] “Is it not palpably nearer the truth to say that no man was ever born free and that no two men were ever born equal? Man is born in a state of the most helpless dependence on other people.”
And then there’s the whole vast category of racial defense and justification of slavery. […] Probably the most prominent pro-slavery writer to make the racial case–and they all did–but probably the most prominent was George Fitzhugh. […] “The Negro,” he said, “is but a grownup child and must be governed as a child. The master occupies toward him the place of parent or guardian. Like a wild horse he must be caught, tamed and domesticated.” […]
And lastly, there was a kind of utopian pro-slavery. […] In Hughes’s vision and Hughes’s worldview slavery was not only a positive good–it was the possibility of man finding a perfected society, with the perfect landowners fulfilling their obligations, supported by a government that taxed the hell out of them to do it, and perfect workers, would make the South into the agricultural utopian civilization of history.
It’s politically useful for pro-lifers to pretend that abortion and slavery were similar debates, and that the major argument for slavery was the claim that Africans were not people. But that’s simply not true.
(Note that in the lecture I’m quoting, Blight’s intent wasn’t making a case about abortion in either direction — Blight isn’t shading his arguments towards a pro-choice or pro-life outcome, he’s simply explaining the history of pro-slavery arguments. Can pro-lifers cite similarly non-biased sources to support their argument?)
See also: Ta-Nehisi.
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P.S. I can’t resist pointing out that the first few arguments Blight lists — the institution goes back forever, it’s in the Bible, and it’s the foundation of civilization — are also the major arguments used in the present day to argue for banning same-sex couples from marriage.