Walter Williams’ recent column on comparative slavery is intellectually dishonest in general, but his misquotation of abolitionist Frederick Douglass is either an especially egregious example of that, or he’s never bothered to even glance at it in context.
Williams accurately quotes from this sentence in a speech by Douglass examining whether the original U.S. Constitution was pro- or anti-slavery:
[The three-fifths compromise] is a downright disability laid upon the slaveholding States; one which deprives those States of two-fifths of their natural basis of representation.
But as Douglass continues, it becomes clear he in no way endorses such accounting and would have preferred enslaved people not be counted at all:
A black man in a free State is worth just two-fifths more than a black man in a slave State, as a basis of political power under the Constitution. Therefore, instead of encouraging slavery, the Constitution encourages freedom by giving an increase of “two-fifths” of political power to free over slave States. So much for the three-fifths clause; taking it at is worst, it still leans to freedom, not slavery; for, be it remembered that the Constitution nowhere forbids a coloured man to vote.
If democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on dinner, the Southern slavocracy was two wolves and an entire flock of sheep voting on dinner, with the wolves getting to pretend most of the sheep were voting with them.
Using enslaved people to give their slavers more political power against them is not a defensible position for anyone who cares about liberty, and clearly, it wasn’t what Douglass was saying.
But mostly, Williams spends his column inventing some fanciful straw men by pretending sinister liberal professors out there are teaching the kids that Southerners invented slavery and it never existed anywhere else in history, as opposed to being the same liberals who effort to raise awareness for human trafficking, i.e. contemporary slavery, that ensnares millions of people globally.
But, ‘the most unique aspect’ about the South’s version of slavery, and why they were the ones to call it ‘their peculiar institution’ in the first place, was its totality once after-the-fact racial justifications of enslaving people from Western Africa mixed with the one-drop rule.
This is what sets it apart from the Egyptians, Hebrews, Romans, and aboriginal peoples and most slavery throughout history in general.
Many founders ‘deplored’ how enslaving people would affect their future nation, sure. But Thomas Jefferson had no qualms about enslaving his own children— with the teenage half-sister of his dead wife— because those offspring were 1/8th black. He had no problem pushing a measure in the Virginia assembly to make it so that formerly enslaved persons had to leave the state within a year or be robbed of their liberty once again. It’s equivalent of a constant, simmering pogrom but enshrined into law. This is how slavers treated their own children.
It was not a society where someone lost their rights for a period of seven years before manumission or were abducted and forced to integrate into a different tribe; it was one that allowed slavers to multiply their wealth in human chattel by rape so long as the victim had some ancestor previously identified as intrinsically subhuman.
Brazilian sugar plantations were also brutal, King Leopold’s Congo was hell on earth, but Southern society was entirely organized around the idea that some people were better than others, and no matter how poor or stupid or worthless a drunk you might be as a white man, you—and your children—would always have someone you could point to that you were better than, someone who could never be better than you. And neither could any of their descendants. Ever.
That’s why ‘prudence forbid’ the abolition of slavery. Because if reg’lar folk in the South who weren’t plantation owners had to work shoulder-to-shoulder with people who once were slaves, they might start getting ideas wond’rin ’bout why it was rich fellers had so much and ever’body else so little. There’s a reason Jim Crow got so much worse in the early 20th century after the People’s Party had a close run at taking over the conservative government in the Solid South.
Or as Lyndon Johnson put it: ‘If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.’
But this is all too much time spent considering an idea from a guy who wrote ‘Did blacks benefit from slavery?’