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Slavery Is Theft

Abolitionists gave us the vital idea that some things should not be for sale.

Kara Walker's "A Subtlety or The Marvelous Sugar Baby" at the Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Photo by Gillian Louise Bostock

The debate over slavery was always, at bottom, a debate about property rights. Abolitionists were revolutionaries for their time, but not socialists: they did not demand the abolition of property as such. But they denied that any person had a legitimate right to hold property in another person.

When abolitionists denounced slavery as “theft,” they had two different kinds of robbery in mind. One was the day-by-day, year-by-year, theft of the fruits of the slave’s labor. But they were also thinking of a different, more fundamental kind of theft. Human beings own themselves, as a natural right, a right of property, abolitionists argued. So when masters claimed slaves as their own they were effectively robbing the slaves of their property in themselves.

It is easy to be misled by the slaveholder’s claim of property rights into thinking that they were defending the same thing Northerners were defending. Don’t capitalists always defend the rights of property? Of course they do. But so did feudal lords. So did tribal elders. And so did Southern slaveholders.

In and of itself the defense of property does not explain what kind of property is at stake in any particular conflict. The debate over slavery makes this clear. What needs to be explained, if we are to explain the Civil War, is why one particular form of property — slave property — became so disreputable as to warrant destruction.

Every historian knows that abolitionism, somehow, cleared the path for the triumph of wage labor. The struggle over slavery forced its opponents to specify the difference between the illegitimate sale of an entire human being and the “legitimate” sale of one’s labor power. When Frederick Douglass denounced his Baltimore master for robbing him of his weekly wages and when he said that his new life as a free man began the day he received his first honest wage working on the docks of New Bedford, he was dramatizing the difference between slavery and free labor.

Yet the paradox of the antislavery movement was that it legitimized capitalism and anti-capitalism at the same time. No doubt the contrast with slavery made wage labor more acceptable. But by framing their argument as a denunciation of “property in man,” abolitionists also made restraints on the rights of property, a venerable feature of the American political tradition. If it was wrong to treat humans as commodities, some reformers asked, was it also wrong to treat labor power as a commodity? Or land? Or liquor?

Surely one of the enduring legacies of the antislavery movement is the familiar proposition that some things should not be for sale. Should health care be treated as a commodity? Should college education be available only to those who can afford it? The first principle abolitionists established, as early as 1780, was that slave property did not endure more than one generation. Can we make the same claim about the estates of the super rich?

Writing of a different struggle — of English peasants over rights to the commons — the great English historian E. P. Thompson noted that “[w]hat was often at issue was not property, supported by law, against no-property; it was alternative definitions of property rights.” The ability of plebeians to adapt bourgeois precepts to radical purposes was so well established, Thompson added, that when working class radicals launched their most aggressive campaign for reform in the 1790s, they could do so under the banners of John Locke and William Blackstone.


It’s hardly surprising that Frederick Douglass would put forward an impassioned defense of wage labor in 1855, just as the crisis over slavery was approaching its climax in the United States. If capitalism and slavery had been joined at the hip for centuries, so were capitalism and antislavery.

It’s worth remembering that some of the earliest systematic attacks on slavery were penned by radical English Puritans in the 1640s. They were the revolutionaries who established the principle of “self-ownership,” the idea that property rights originate in the property all of us have in our own selves.

John Locke reasoned further that the natural right of self-ownership implied a corresponding right to the fruits of one’s own labor, even if that meant you were entitled to wages in return for selling your labor power to an employer. Capitalism was justified by the same principle of self-ownership that defined slavery as unjustified.

The American Civil War pitted in opposition two societies with profoundly different and ultimately irreconcilable forms of social organization — one in which it was acceptable for one person to own another as personal property, and one in which individuals owned themselves. A generation ago influential historians turned this sectional division into a romanticized image of paternalistic slaveholders who supposedly rejected “market values” in favor of a slave system that “made fewer fortunes than it made men.”

This dubious interpretation has at last been resoundingly overthrown by a new generation of scholars who have detailed the brutally rationalized system of plantation labor as well as the “circuits of capital and credit” that tied New York bankers to Southern plantations and Northern consumers to Southern slaves.

But this welcome corrective has come at too high a price, for in emphasizing the connecting links between capitalism and slavery these same scholars have needlessly collapsed the distinction between the two systems, thereby rendering the Civil War itself inexplicable. As Stephanie McCurry has recently pointed out, the fact that the two systems were connected does not mean they were the same.

The sectional distinction was already apparent by the late eighteenth century when abolition created a bloc of “free states” different from and often hostile to the slave states further South. At that point slave plantations were still the wealthiest and most dynamic sector of the American economy.

As long as global demand for the products of slave labor — especially cotton — remained strong, Southern slavery would continue expanding and the slaveholders would keep growing rich. But after 1815 Northern economic development began to outpace Southern economic expansion. The balance of sectional power began to shift, slowly at first, away from the South.

As the North’s appetite for free wage laborers exploded, states and localities actively advertised in Europe for immigrant workers. By the 1840s the “pull” of America met the “push” of the potato blight as millions upon millions of Irish and German immigrants poured into the Northern states where they took jobs digging canals, building railroads, working the docks, mining coal, or toiling in shoe factories, textile mills and iron foundries.

Cities began to dominate their surrounding hinterlands as farmers reoriented production to feed the growing army of wage earners in the metropolis, and those same farmers began to purchase the manufactured goods sent back into the countryside along a rapidly expanding network of turnpikes, canals, and railroads.

Between 1845 and 1860 the signs were unmistakable: An industrial revolution was underway in the North. Although it would take time for most people to realize it, wage labor had become a permanent way of life for the majority of Northern workers.

Nothing like this was happening in the South. In 1860 the proportion of Southerners engaged in agriculture was exactly the same as it had been half a century earlier. The slave economy had expanded dramatically, but it had not developed, except in the Border States that benefited from their economic ties to the more dynamic Northern economy.

One symptom of this was the paucity of immigrant workers in the South. Slavery provided the southern plantations with a captive labor market sufficiently large and moveable that Southern states and localities made no serious effort to entice immigrant workers. The market in slaves was undoubtedly “efficient” in neoclassical economic terms, but it functioned in ways that were fundamentally different from the wage labor market of the North.

Those differences went well beyond the obvious fact that Northern workers sold only their labor power and sold it themselves, whereas the entire slave was treated as property to be bought and sold by the master. Because slaveholders held their workers as personal property they could be set to work at tasks free workers refused to perform, often in places free workers chose not to live.

But the master’s property right raised explosive problems whenever free farmers and slaveholders chose to settle in the same places because slave labor gave owners a substantial competitive edge in the settlement of Western territories.

Compared to non-slaveholding yeomen, slaveholding settlers arrived in the West with the both the capital to purchase the best lands and the workers who could clear the land quickly. A yeoman family had to toil for years, scraping by at subsistence level, before enough land was cleared to begin producing a surplus without jeopardizing its economic security.

It’s hardly a surprise that small farmers resented having to compete with slaveholders for the most productive farmland with the readiest access to markets. Northern settlers had good reason to fear the westward expansion of slave plantations.

The fact that those plantations were substantially self-sufficient only made matters worse. Planters purchased relatively few manufactures, and unlike Northern cities the plantations offered nearby farmers relatively meager opportunities to sell their own surplus food products. There were few stores in the Deep South, not many market towns, and the cities that did flourish continued to serve their traditional function as entry points through which goods passed from the countryside into the Atlantic markets beyond the South itself.

By comparison, the rapidly beating heart of the Northern economy was the domestic market for consumer goods, including the goods produced by slaves in the South. The tables had turned. At the time Americans declared their independence, the slave plantations were the most dynamic element of the national economy. By 1860 the fortunes of the slave economy rose and fell with the fluctuations of consumer demand, primarily in England and the North.

Such was the capitalist world’s voracious appetite for the products of slave labor that even after decades of industrial development in the North, per capita incomes in both regions were nearly equal in 1860. But it was a spurious equality. It masked the fact Southern wealth was overwhelmingly concentrated in the slaveholding class, and that most of the slaveholders’ wealth was in slaves, not land.

Thomas Piketty’s recent book, Capital in the Twentieth Century, includes a chart indicating that wealth in the Old South was as inequitably distributed as it was in England or France, but far more inequitably than it was in the North. In 1860 non-slaveholding farms in the South were worth roughly half that of free farms in the North. The four million slaves owned almost nothing of measurable value.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that although slavery made plenty of slaveholders rich, it made the South poor — with devastating consequences that survived long after slavery itself was destroyed.

Disproportionate wealth gave the slaveholders disproportionate political influence in the presidency, on the Supreme Court, and in Congress. This was the Slave Power of which so many Northerners complained, a power the slaveholders exercised with increasing arrogance and, perhaps, desperation.

As the wealth and power of the North began to outpace the South, the slaveholders grew frantic in their determination to maintain parity by increasing the number of slave states. It’s hardly surprising that the struggle over the territories became the flashpoint for so much of the conflict between North and South.

As early as 1820 the protracted clash over slavery in Missouri established the terms of debate that would recur in the escalating series of “crises” — the seesawing dialectic between pro and antislavery forces — that would reach its climax in the Civil War. The Missouri Crisis alone was so disruptive that mainstream politicians reacted by making concerted efforts to suppress the slavery issue. But abolitionists struggled with equal diligence to frustrate the conspiracy of silence.

In the 1830s they launched a massive petition campaign to abolish slavery in Washington, DC, but the proslavery forces in Congress responded with a notorious “gag rule” automatically tabling all antislavery petitions.

In the 1840s Northern congressmen finally overturned the gag rule and soon thereafter provoked a renewed struggle over slavery in the West, this time in the territories acquired by the United States in the War with Mexico. In the 1850s conflict exploded over the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850s and, once again, over slavery in the territories.

As each new issue arose abolitionists and antislavery radicals sharpened their arguments and honed their program. Nearly everyone agreed that under the Constitution the federal government could not abolish slavery in any state where it was legal. Instead, abolitionists proposed a series of federal policies designed to surround the South with what they called a “cordon of freedom,” thwarting slavery’s expansion and gradually forcing the slave states to abolish the institution on their own.

Beyond the borders of the slave states, the federal government would tilt toward freedom — in the North the federal government would inhibit the capture of fugitive slaves; in the territories slavery would be banned; on the high seas it would be suppressed; in Washington, DC it would be abolished. In the words of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, the federal government would make freedom national and slavery merely regional.

As they developed their agenda, abolitionists clarified their philosophical and constitutional arguments against slavery, but they always emphasized the fundamental bourgeois principle of self-ownership. The catalyst for this clarification process was the debate over abolition in Washington, DC during the 1830s. In Congress Representative William Slade defied the gag rule and proclaimed slavery a scandalous violation of the right of property that all human beings have in themselves.

Perhaps influenced by Slade, the great abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld pronounced slavery a form of theft, for it robbed the slaves of the most basic of all human rights, the right of property in one’s self. Shortly thereafter another abolitionist, Henry Stanton, spelled out the same principle in his widely publicized testimony before the Massachusetts state legislature.

By then slavery had become the gold standard of oppression. All sorts of reformers and activists were tempted to describe various forms of subordination as “slavery.” Feminists likened the condition of women in Northern households to slaves on Southern plantations. Temperance reformers said that alcoholics were slaves to the bottle. Labor radicals called free labor “wage slavery,” some even argued that Southern slaves were better off than free workers in the North.

Forced to respond, abolitionists insisted on the difference between the commodification of human beings and the commodification of labor power. That was the point Douglass was making when he contrasted the Baltimore master who took his earnings to the New Bedford employer who paid him. Theodore Dwight Weld opened his famous pamphlet, “American Slavery As It Is,” with a surgical specification of the similarities between different forms of oppression, but only to highlight the thing that made slavery different: the property right the master held in the slave.

William Slade opened a provocative congressional speech with a similar preamble that asked the question “What is Slavery?” Like Weld, he acknowledged the many different forms in inequality and oppression but in the end insisted that slavery was different because only slaves were chattels. In the process of distinguishing slavery from wage labor antislavery radicals demanded severe restraints on property rights even as they defended capitalism.

The slaveholders agreed with the abolitionist definition of slavery, but it led them to a very different conclusion. Slaves were property, and the right of property could not be tampered with. This was the sine qua non of proslavery ideology, and as the decades passed, as the antislavery North grew stronger and more menacing, the slaveholders defended their property rights in increasingly extreme terms.

They claimed that the federal government was obliged to protect property in the very places abolitionists claimed the federal government could abolish it. Congress could not free the slaves in Washington, DC because that would violate the slaveholders’ inalienable rights of property.

When slaves rebelled on the high seas, the federal government was obligated to demand the return of the property to American citizens. Northern civilians were likewise obliged by the Constitution to participate in the capture and return of Southern slave property. If the territorial legislatures refused to protect the property rights of slaveholding settlers, Congress should step in with a territorial slave code.

Proslavery ideology reached its logical conclusion in Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s infamous Dred Scott decision. Property was property, Taney declared. A chair, a horse, a house, or a slave — it made no difference, because all of it was protected as a sacred constitutional right.

By then even someone as temperamentally moderate as Abraham Lincoln had had enough. To be sure, Lincoln was not yet prepared to defend wage labor as a permanent condition. Heirs of a republican tradition that placed a high value on economic independence, white men in the North still preferred to think of wage labor as a stepping stone to self-employment. But independence was if anything even less compatible with slavery than was wage labor, and Lincoln seems to have understood this from the time he was a young man.

As far back as 1837 he denounced slavery as “injustice” and supported abolition in Washington, DC. As a congressman in the 1840s he voted repeatedly to ban slavery from the territories the United States had recently snatched from Mexico.

In the 1850s Lincoln called on Congress to revise the Fugitive Slave Act in ways that would recognize the due process rights of accused citizens — a proposal bound to inflame the South if only because it assumed that blacks were citizens. He said over and over that blacks and whites were equally entitled to the same fundamental rights promised by the Declaration of Independence, above all the right to the fruits of their labor.

In 1860 Lincoln traveled to New York to speak at Cooper Union, where he delivered a militant response to Roger Taney. The Chief Justice had claimed that the right to property in slaves was “expressly” protected by the Constitution, but Lincoln no less emphatically denied it. He was in New York hoping to drum up support for the Republican presidential nomination and he succeeded by declaring that there was no such thing as a constitutional right of property in man. No wonder the slave states began seceding from the Union as soon as Lincoln was elected president later that year.

The victory of the antislavery agenda in the 1860 elections may be read as the crowning achievement of bourgeois radicalism. Like E. P. Thompson’s insurgent peasants, the abolitionists had developed “alternative definitions of property rights” that made slave property — “property in man” — illegitimate, even immoral.

Slavery was the theft of property and emancipation was the restoration of the property right every human being has in his or her self. “When brought to my final reckoning,” Lincoln once said, “may I have to answer for robbing no man of his goods; yet more tolerable even than this, than for robbing one of himself, and all that was his.”

Lincoln was no socialist. But like the revolutionaries who inspired the antislavery movement, he believed that some forms of property were not compatible with a just society. That abolitionist legacy is worth remembering.