Do not just read the title of this post and dismiss it. You may think you do not support slavery, but are you sure? Are you really sure? How much time have you spent thinking about slavery? Have you spent any time thinking about what you mean by the word? If you haven’t, you might not want to ignore this post. After I spent some serious time thinking about what slavery actually means, I was surprised to realize that — at one time in my life or another — I have supported slavery. But, had you asked me at those times, I would have sworn that I was absolutely opposed slavery in any and all of its forms. I would have also been wrong. So, for you, the question you have to answer is this: Do you actually support slavery without realizing it?
This is how the dictionary defines SLAVERY:
2: submission to a dominating influence
3a : the state of a person who is a chattel of another
b : the practice of slaveholding
But this is not the full meaning of the word. We must remember, a word is just a label we use to stand in the place of an object or idea. It does not actually define that object or idea; it is the form and function of an object or idea that defines it. So what does the form and function of slavery look like?
Well, the first thing we have to do is decide whether or not slavery requires that one person make a claim of ownership against another. In other words, is it necessary for me to claim you are my property before you can claim to be a slave? The answer to this question should be no, but I suspect there will be a few people out there who may not be convinced this is true. For those people who believe slavery demands that one person must actually claim another as property, let me ask you a question. Suppose the South had freed all slaves, but then passed laws making it legal for their former masters to use the threat of death to force them to remain on the plantations and continue working the fields under the exact same conditions as before. Under this scenario, the former slaves would now be free in the eyes of the law, but it would also be legal for their former masters to kill them if they tried to exercise their freedom. Now, are they free or are they still slaves? The answer is simple: they are still slaves. But why?
This brings us to the next question we have to answer to fully understand the form and function of slavery. An indentured servant is not considered to be a slave, but why not? So long as a person is indentured, they are required to do whatever the person they are bound to tells them to do. On the surface, this would seem to meet the dictionary definition of slavery. However, there are several inherent characteristics of indentured servitude that set it apart from slavery. In other words, the form and function of indentured servitude is different from slavery. If we can determine how it is different, those differences might help us better understand the form and function of slavery. So what is different about indentured servitude?
First, and most important, an indentured servant enters into their position willingly. There service is part of a contract between them and the person for whom they have agreed to work. Since they are entering into a contract of their own free will, this gives the indentured servant certain legal rights. There will be limits to how harshly the master can treat the servant because the servant is not property under this agreement. What the master has actually bought is a right to the servants labor for a set period of time. After that period of time is finished, the servant is no longer indentured. They are set free. In return for their service, they also receive whatever it was they contracted to receive. This could be passage to the New Country, training in a skill that will then give the freed servant a life-long career or, in the case of some ancient cultures, it could have just been a way of paying off debts. Whatever the case, the indentured servant is not property, retains certain rights and will gain something of tangible value from their service.
None of those things applies to slavery. This must mean force is a key characteristic of slavery. But what type of force? The indentured servant can be forced to do what they are told, yet that is not slavery. Why? Because the indentured servant entered into a contract of their own free will, and in doing so, they agreed to give their master a right to their labor for the period of that contract. If they change their mind at some later point of time, the contract still gives the master certain legal and just claims to their labor. So this is not an unjust use of force. The same cannot be said about slavery. However, we have found two more key characteristics that define slavery: free will and justification. Now we have to determine how these two things are connected and how they apply to slavery.
Without going in to another entire post, I will just point you to a series of posts I have already written in which I show that the individual has a right to their own will, and that justice is determined in terms of how we treat the free will of other people. You can find the series starting here. The point we need to take away from free will and justice — as far as it relates to slavery, anyway — is that the key characteristic of slavery is being forced to do something against your will. But we need to expand on this because this use of ‘force’ against us is also connected to the notion of ‘injustice.’ If the indentured servant is forced — by the legal system — to fulfill their part of the contract, that is not ‘unjust.’ They agreed to the terms, therefore, the servant has a duty to fulfill them. So, slavery is not defined by any use of force, but an unjust use of force against our free will. Here is where we have to consider what we mean by ‘just’ and ‘unjust.’
Once again, I develop this argument in greater detail in the series I previously mentioned. You can find the post about morality here. In a nutshell, justice is connected to the notion of morality. If we were simply dealing with a case of ‘might-makes-right,’ then we could never oppose slavery. Whoever was strong enough to control another and force them to do their bidding would be ‘in the right.’ But we instinctively feel wronged when we are forced to act against our will. This sense of injustice when our free will is violated is universal. Unless you are a sociopath or mentally disabled, we all feel it. This is also why slavery cannot apply to animals. To claim that your rights have been violated, you must be aware that it has happened. Animals are not conscious on this level. That means they are not moral agents and, therefore, slavery does not and cannot apply to animals. So far as this planet is concerned, humans are the only known moral agents in existence. This means that slavery must be defined in terms of the unjust or immoral use of force against the free will of another person.
But is that the end of our definition? Is it just the immoral use of force against the free will of another? Well, let’s look at a few examples to see if they may help us further refine our definition. Is a violent act against another, such as rape or murder, the same things as slavery? I should hope the answer to this is no. Therefore, we must be dealing with something more than just forcing someone to do something against their will, but what is it? Well, there are two things found in the practice of slavery that may help us answer this question. First, slavery is generally connected to the material gain of the person who is using force. Second, the practice seems to extend over a sustained period of time. Taken together, these two characteristics would exclude acts such as rape and muggings or robbery without excluding any of the actions that most of us recognize as slavery. Thus, we have the following definition of slavery:
The sustained practice of forcing another person to work — against their will — for the material gain of another.
This leaves us with just one other potential characteristic of slavery we need to address. In out culture, many have come to connect slavery to racism, but is racism a required characteristic of slavery? We can answer this question rather quickly. First, if slavery must include racism, then the South could not be called a slave system. First, the institution of slavery began in the Colonies when a black man sued for ownership of another black man and won, thus making the second black man the legal property of the first. Second, there were many black slave owners in the Confederate South.* Finally, many of the blacks who were sold into slavery were sold by other blacks. So there cannot be any connection between slavery and racism — unless, of course, we are prepared to say there was no slavery in the Confederacy.
CONCLUSION: slavery is the sustained practice of forcing another person to work — against their will — for the material gain of another.
In my next post, I will explain just how far-reaching this definition actually is. It is in my next post on this subject that you may be surprised to learn you have been supporting slavery in many, many different forms.
*NOTE: You will find many articles claiming that the stories about black slave owners in the South are ‘myths.’ The fact is, history simply does not agree with these claims. There are historic documents that clearly show free blacks owned other blacks as slaves. This could only happen in slave States, which were all in the South (i.e. Confederacy). Historic documents are irrefutable, especially when placed against contemporary editorials. Sadly, this means the articles you will find claiming to have ‘debunked’ the ‘myths’ of black slave owners amount to little more than Left-wing propaganda. But please, don’t take my word for it, research it for yourself. Just take care to find and consult actual documents and records from the period in question: read the real thing, not what some ‘history professor’ tells you they say.