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Abolition: From Slavery to Wage Slavery


The Earliest white colonists of the US, after Columbus were looking for freedom, among other things, and to a great extent they found it. But this was not to last, for Religion soon followed them intent on trapping them into a culture of repression and Work Worship rooted in the asceticism of the early church. Religious bigots fled religious persecution in Britain only to impose it on the USA.

Around the time of the American Revolution one of the Founding Fathers, product of a puritanical background, was disgusted by the “Immorality and Indulgence” he saw in New York: though others would call it individual freedom, especially sexual freedom. His motivation for independence of England was not Freedom in the normal sense, but the realisation that under a king the common people had more personal liberty than his creed would allow. He felt that without a king the people would have to rule themselves and to do this they would have to forgo the freedoms and luxuries they enjoyed when the monarch handled the business of government.

From then on there was a war between those who wanted individual freedoms and those moralists and guardians of what they considered good order who wanted to restrict freedom. The first battle they won was “freeing” the slaves to enjoy the repressed lifestyle of the white majority.

Freeing the slaves from the plantation into the factory

The first requirement was to liberate black slaves to work harder than on the plantation. Mixed with high sounding words about the evils of slavery, was the recognition that slaves, who had become valuable commodities with the prohibition of the slave trade into the USA, enjoyed a lifestyle that entailed much less work than the white population had to endure. This tallies with the observation that in Britain the working class, while short of money, and enduring terrible conditions often had more freedom and fun than the middle class, if only because outside work they were scrutinised less by the work worshipping elite.

Slavery, in almost all times and places has resulted in terrible abuse: the contemporary abuse of domestic contract workers in certain middle eastern countries and the exploitation of third world workers imported into the UK by Big Business shows that one person granted total power over another will abuse it, especially if the weaker is isolated and not considered fully human, as in the Holocaust.

Before before abolition however Black slaves, as a result of the abolition of the slave trade, but not slavery, had more power relative to their masters than is generally recognised, just as in Britain in the Middle Ages serfs had more bargaining power that is normally realised. In addition as slaves and not really considered human, slaves were not subject to many of the laws that governed white people, just as a pet dog is not subject to human laws. It is also a recognition that the motives of abolitionists were mixed, including a desire to “raise” Negroes to the state of the hardworking prisoners of puritanism.

In practice freed slaves ended up in the lowest paid work, until the next bunch of immigrants arrived, often in a factory

Slavery versus Freedom

Black Slaves were valuable commodities and investments. A typical price might be $700, which was a large sum in those days. And unlike Gold or Rubber they could fight back, in ways their owners could not combat. You do not want angry slaves looking after your children, and angry slaves do not work well. Angry slaves may run away to the nearby forest or swamp and it will cost a lot to track them down and bring them back. Angry slaves mean you need to watch your back all the time. You don't rape slave women because you might have an unfortunate accident, and if you sleep with one consensually you may lose your job, if an overseer, or your place in society if a master. You think hard before flogging a slave, because they will not work as well afterwards.

Of course there were cases where a slave woman bore a white man's child. But generally the owner did not want this advertised, and lower ranks knew they would lose their post and find it hard to get another, for having sex with a negro was regarded as akin to bestiality. And slaves did get flogged. But “Free” white men got flogged much more often. Slaves families were broken up but more “Free” families were split by military conscription and the need to find work wherever it might be, even if it meant leaving the family behind. Slaves might work hard: until the supervisor's back was turned, but white people worked harder.

What did slaves say about their time on plantations? It was more positive than one might expect.

In 1937 ex slaves were interviewed about their time on the plantation and a surprisingly large percentage considered they were better off as slaves. Nearly 60% of them were questioned by Black interviewers, which makes it less likely that they were telling the White Man what they wanted to hear. One ex slave commented that their slave days were the good old days because he had never had so much since and that after the Civil War he had had to work harder than as a slave. He said he worked hard at times but never too hard. They also had free food, lodging and health care and if hired out to another master might keep some or all of the wages the other master paid. Another ex slave commented that she ate better under slavery than when free and yet another said they guessed slavery was wrong but knew that a lot of slaves were worse off after the war. Yet another said that if they were given the $715 for which they had been sold, they would go back.

When the Liberators of the slaves came South they told the slaves that they would have to work harder when free than they had ever done as slaves, and at least one slave asked what, in that case was the point of freedom, they told the slaves that they could now only have one sexual partner, to which the slaves replied that was a violation of their rights as free people, and they told the slaves they could no longer dance and, as in Islamic countries, men and women could not associate with each other unless married. And they insisted black couples get married. As would be expected from a religion whose founder said “let the children come unto me” the children of unmarried black couples were reclassified as illegitimate, stigmatised, often taken from their parents, more often than in slave days, and suffered for the newly acquired sins of the parents.

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And not long after Liberation the USA built the first prisons.

The motives of Abolitionists

Opponents of slavery were divided. Was it a political or moral issue? Were Blacks Naturally Inferior? Should it be abolished instantly or gradually? However there was wide agreement that slavery reduced the incentive to work. For people who worshipped work this was unacceptable. It was widely accepted that slaves worked less hard and less efficiently than “Free” employees. Adam Smith made a similar point in The Wealth of Nations where he noted an employee would never be as attentive to the needs of a business as the owner would be, a point quietly ignored by employers to this very day.

It seems therefore that one of the motives for liberation was to push slaves into the culture of work worship embraced by Northerners: the Republican party members who pushed the North into the war believed the laziness of Southern slaves and masters threatened the hard working culture of the “free” states of the north and resulted in poverty idleness and vice rather than industry, thrift and virtue. The fact that freed slaves could be used to undercut white workers was a welcome bonus to employers.

Another concern was the sexual freedom the slaves enjoyed. And the fact they had too much fun gambling, dancing and drinking. It was argued that Blacks behaved in this way not because of biology, but because slaves were excluded from the white culture. One abolitionist complained, in 1826 that Southern law took no account of Fornication, polygamy, incest and Adultery among slaves, and other abolitionists made similar arguments, and one called for the abolition of both slavery and onanism, reserving most of his effort for attacking solitary self satisfaction.

Further Reading

A Renegade History of the United States: Thaddeus Russell,Simon and Schuster 2010 (I have of course added my own slant to this).

The Economics of Slavery

Wage Slavery

The wrap

Although presented as a high minded moral crusade the motives of opponents of slavery were much less noble, being based on a worship of work and fear and hatred of (Black) sexuality. A classic example of the right action done for the wrong reason. Abolition in the USA could have resulted in a society with greater personal freedom. Instead it was handled in such a way as to drive Blacks from slavery (and I repeat I am not speaking in favour of slavery here) into wage slavery and replace their sexual freedom with the western ideal of monogamous marriage. Slavery is an evil but in this case it seems abolishing it resulted in greater evils- which is an argument for abolishing the greater evils not reintroducing slavery.

If the Devil exists he surely laughed all the way to the infernal bank.


Karen Russell on March 30, 2015:


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