Here is another promised essay from Grandpa. I do not expect you to fully understand everything. Ask questions. But this is how one learns. You learn to read by reading. You learn to dance by dancing. You learn to think by thinking. But first you need facts to think about. I try to avoid or explain words that are new to you, but some you may want to look up in a dictionary or ask your mother. That is how you increase your vocabulary and you need vocabulary to think. What I’ve written below is not easy, just as what I wrote about the Nazis was not easy. That’s why I hope you’ll read both essays again in a year or two. This is college level stuff but if you get even part of it you will know more than other kids and it is fun to know stuff. It will also help you learn to think, for you are learning that history is not a matter of simple yes and no decisions and there are many reasons for everything that’s happened: some good, some bad, some just practical, some just accidental. For example, I hope you’ll now understand American Negro slavery in the context of world history. Unfortunately, in school we tend to learn about American history as though it stands alone without considering the rest of the world at the same time and earlier. Slavery did not just pop up in America any more than Nazi racism did in Germany. If they had they probably would not have succeeded; for if people are not naturally good, they are not naturally bad either. Bad takes getting used to. There is a long background that explains American slavery though it does not justify it.
You will not fully understand everything at first but I hope it will give you a lot of information that you will apply when thinking about other things. There are lessons in history. Both in the Nazi essay and this one I mention Senator Joe McCarthy as a warning. It is of limited use to know about anything in history just for itself but invaluable if it helps you to think what we as Americans and Christians should be doing today.
I’ve often said that history is about change. I hope you’ll see that in this essay. You’ll also see that change is not always just for the better. The ancient world had slavery and thought it natural. In the Middle Ages in Europe slavery was being replaced by a somewhat better form called serfdom. But then we started using machines. That was generally good; people could buy many things at a price the average family could afford instead of making everything themselves. But it also meant the loss of hand working jobs usually done at home (spinning, weaving) and the increased use of slaves to provide cotton for the new clothing machines. So Africans were stolen from their tribal lives of hunting and put to much harder work against their will. “Christians” had brought back the slavery of the ancient world. It was bad for whites too. Work in factories in the North and in England and in Ireland was dirty and grim (Dickens’ stories). When the potato crop failed in Ireland, their lords no longer thought of peasant farmers as an extended family that they had to support. Was life getting better for the average white man? Yes, but not in a straight line upward and not without some losses. Think for a moment: Would you prefer to live in a medieval village with friends working together like at Plymouth Plantation, or in a dirty factory town like in Dickens’ Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol? Yet if humanity had not passed through those bad times we would still be stuck in the middle ages with disease, short brutal lives, few books, and no television. Much of Asia and Africa is passing through that stage now and it is very painful for them.


Although this essay is about slavery I’d like to first explain that the American concept of equality was unknown until fairly recent times. People might be equal before God, but nowhere else….and in the ancient world, not even there. From what we know about religion before Christianity, only major leaders were thought to have more than a shadowy afterlife. A pharaoh might join the gods after death and a Roman emperor might find himself a star in the heavens but the ordinary man or woman did not have any afterlife worth considering, except perhaps for a leader’s wives and servants who he would want to have with him..
There was no more equality in this life.
Equality as we know it only begins with the United States. Though we usually think of the USA as a young nation in this it is the oldest country in the world. Even in the USA it took a while for real equality to develop.
There was a great divide between the aristocracy and farmers everywhere in Europe but it was never quite so in America. Attempts by the Dutch and English to introduce European class distinctions in the early American colonies largely failed. You may have learned in school how gentlemen had come with their servants as settlers in Jamestown, Virginia. But John Smith, the leader of the English settlement made the gentlemen work as hard as everyone else because otherwise they’d all have starved.
Tradesmen and craftsmen were in a middle ground between farmers and lords both in Europe and early America because their skills made them needed by everyone. Generally, such craftsmen and merchants were the leaders of the American revolution in the northern colonies. Such businessmen as John Adams (a lawyer) and Benjamin Franklin (a printer) did not like being ruled by the lords in the English parliament.
In Europe, the French revolution was the result of aristocrats feeling superior as a class to other people. The term “blue bloods” refers to the fairer skin of aristocrats (who show their blue veins well) over that of farmers tanned by working under the sun. But even in America there was some separation. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were Virginia landowners who risked everything including their land and wealth and lives for American independence. That is one of the great things about these men for they themselves had little to gain from independence and a lot to lose if the revolution failed. Still, at Valley Forge Washington did not share the hardships of his soldiers though he did whatever he could for them. And the soldiers did not expect him to. Gentlemen were not expected to be uncomfortable. Later, in the nineteenth century gentlemen thought nothing wrong with poor children working while they didn’t, and if a workman offended a gentleman the law would not prevent the gentleman from having his servants horse whip the man.
Even today in Europe there is a divide between the management class and the working class that it is difficult to cross. Those who attended Oxford or Cambridge University in England run things. Those who didn’t, don’t. Think of My fair lady. A workman tips his cap to a man of importance, wealth, or education. He will get a cab for him. He will call him “gov(er)nor. He will step into the street so that a gentleman doesn’t have to. In My Fair Lady Elisa does not expect the aristocrat, Freddy, to work. This is the way it was even in the nineteenth century. In our south when Grandpa was young Negroes still behaved much the same way towards whites even though they were no longer slaves.
This is not all bad. Of course many European aristocrats wasted their lives and it was their kind that brought on the French revolution which destroyed the monarchy in that country. But others were and still are raised with a sense of duty toward their whole country. I have before me two excellent books from the nineteenth century: the first is a biography of the Byzantine general, Flavius Belisarius, the other is one of eight volumes on the barbarian invasions of Italy. Both of these were the work of English gentlemen scholars who did not have to work a job for a living but did contribute to human knowledge instead of wasting their lives with comforts. Our own Washington and Jefferson were in that tradition as were many of the military and naval leaders in both Europe and America. (General Macarthur was from a rich military family, but not General Eisenhower who was from a poor Iowa farm family. It is easier to cross the divide in this country.) There are families that you only occasionally hear of, whose service goes back generations, often as senators or US ambassadors, or working for the United Nations. The Kennedy brothers were raised to service by their father who himself started out as an ordinary person but became the US ambassador to England. The Adams family gave us two presidents and several other important members. The Massachusetts families of Lodges and Cabots have been quietly involved in important service to our country for centuries. So there is something to be said for having a leisure class that need not be reactive to fleeting public opinion and can look beyond the necessity of earning a living. Such men are raised to govern for the public good and often do so. That was also the situation in ancient Greece and Rome before the empire.


Just as I tried to explain how common racism is when I wrote to you about the Nazis, my intent in this essay is to explain why there was slavery, not to justify it and especially not to excuse it in America. Slavery in America was probably no harder or easier than in the ancient world. There were good masters and bad, field workers and house servants. But it was a retrogression for Christians. Little by little European Christians had come to think of slavery as a thing to get rid of; now in the new world it was coming back. Even worse, American slavery was based entirely on race and if one believes that all men are equal before God, feeling that you can enslave someone simply because he is of another race is sinful.

The term slavery is used in English to cover many different things. Even the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution adopted after our Civil War only prohibits slavery “except as a punishment for crime.” In the south convicts were rented to private companies after the civil war to do some of the work which slaves had done before it. Occasionally in the southern states prison inmates are still employed outside the prison on chain gangs to maintain roads.
In Europe until fairly recent times, and certainly in the ancient world, a freeman and his family could be enslaved for not paying his debts.
I have the feeling that most of the really awful work done by slaves in the ancient world was done as punishment though. For example, men who were sentenced to be executed might instead be worked to death in mines.
The Romans and others took slaves as captives in war and used them to farm big estates. Most Roman slaves were captives from war or their children. In fact many Roman wars were little more than slave raids. Most of these people captured were not sent to the mines or other terrible work but rather were used as farm workers or household workers, just as Roman soldiers were used as farm labor when captured by barbarians.
But there were also simple slave raids from ancient times till the nineteenth century just to capture people without any excuse, and make them slaves.
So there have been criminal slaves, captured slaves, enslaved enemy soldiers, and slavery for debt. There has also been – and still is – slavery under other names – what we sometimes call wage slaves.

I am going to sketch for you the history of slavery. You must keep in mind however that American slavery was fundamentally different and worse than the slavery of the ancient world. It was based upon the belief that the white race was biologically superior to the Negro race and, for that matter, all non-white races (Asians, Native Americans).
First lets look at slavery generally and in the ancient world in particular. To understand the reason for slavery you must consider that there were very few machines available, not even windmills or water mills. If you go back more than a few hundred years before Jesus there weren’t even metal shovels, axes, and hoes, etc. Therefore many workers were needed. It was the opposite of life in the twenty-first century. Now there are more people than jobs but this is the first time in history that is so..
Most ancient people lived by farming or by attacking other people to get what they wanted. This is true everywhere – in Asia, Africa, Europe, among the Native Americans and with the Vikings, the Arabs, the Romans etc.


Before people settled down to farming they roamed about following herds of animals. These are called hunter-gatherer societies. Hunting societies like the Plains Indians only used slaves on a small scale because they traveled a lot instead of farming and had no need for many workers.… In fact their slaves were treated more like family than servants. (Always remembering that the hard work was done by women, slave or free.) In such societies (like also the Huns and other nomadic tribes of the middle ages) the difference between a slave and a free man was minimal. Anyway, a slave in such a situation might easily walk away from his master.
Slavery became more important with agriculture. Early farming was the work of women but as agriculture became bigger and more important slaves were needed to work the great farms… Heaven forbid that the warriors, braves, (or whatever one calls the men), should do hard labor.
For this reason slavery among the Native American tribes was more common on the east and west coasts where the tribes tended to settle down and raise crops instead of following buffalo herds. These east and west coast tribes did raid each other, torture and kill the men, and enslave the women and children for farm work. Having said this, slavery by Native Americans was never as common in North America as it was among the more sophisticated Indians of South and Central America, or among the ancient Europeans and in Muslim lands.
Although there can be no direct evidence of slavery in prehistoric times (for which by definition there is no written or preserved oral history but only archeology), there certainly was warfare. It is assumed that such warfare produced slaves. In fact, if we look at the Native North and South Americans Indians, Africans, and the Pacific Islanders, it flourished before the Europeans came. There was widespread slavery in Africa, South and Central America, and the Pacific islands, in fact everywhere that there was field work to be done there was war. The fact is that slavery is an economic system and wars were regularly fought to obtain slaves, just as wars may be fought today for oil to run our machines, which are our mechanical slaves.
In ancient Europe, without more than the most basic tools, agriculture was very labor intensive. Generally, as in Greece and Rome, there was a small ruling class, a larger class of free men (usually small farmers or craftsmen), and a large slave population to do the heavy work. The wars of Rome were often little more than slave raids. How often do we hear of slavery in the Old Testament and there is no indication that even Jesus saw it as anything other than the normal lot of men.


In the ancient world there was little way even for a nobleman to get cash money. He might be rich in land but he had little to sell to people in cities whose luxury products he wanted to buy. What he could do was capture women to spin yarn and make clothing, rugs, ropes etc from cotton or wool. These could be sold for cash. Men were also useful when there was heavy work to do, especially in the case of Rome where estates were huge and required many people to work the fields. I’ve always had the feeling though, that the really bad jobs like working in mines were given to criminals who would otherwise have been executed. Such movie images as slaves rowing galleys or building roads are wrong; In the Roman empire that sort of thing was done by soldiers. Building roads gave soldiers work when there was no fighting to be done. (By the way: In China the army still does a lot of work to develop the countryside. Soldiers build roads, schools, dams, and other things that the local people would not be able to afford for their communities.)
In the ancient world slavery was considered normal and natural, even the will of the gods. Although I suppose one people have always thought themselves a bit superior to other people, ancient slavery was not basically racial. It was as common (or more common) to be a slave as it was to be free and was thought of as just your fate. None the less, slaves were not respected; when they died they might not be given a respectful burial as a free citizen would. But as in all things, it varied from place to place and century to century.
As you can see from the selections below there was no major element of race in ancient slavery. The Roman word for slave was “servus” which in Latin means to save. The theory was that if a soldier didn’t kill another soldier in battle he had saved him and the man became his property. The Romans also made a big thing of family (the “gens”); so a captive’s children would be slaves also. (In some cases the “Pater Familia” who was the oldest male on the male line (father, grandfather, great grandfather) could even kill his children if he felt that they had disgraced the family name.)
In the Metropolitan Museum of Art there is an inscription asking the person’s ancestors and family gods to look after his dead slave-wife, so obviously slavery wasn’t always such a terrible thing. I’ve always wondered if the man fell in love with and married his slave, or bought her from a neighbor because they had fallen in love. Commonly the Romans employed Greek scholars to educate their children and give an intellectual air to the household for they knew themselves to be culturally inferior to Greeks. (Although they certainly thought themselves superior in other ways.) Household slaves were akin to household slaves in America before the civil war and to American servants (free or slave) generally. (“Uncle” Tom a [fictional] slave before the civil war – “Aunt” Jemima, a free [fictional] cook and maid afterwards.) It was not unusual to treat such slaves almost as family so long as the slave remembered that he was a slave. Many a master, both in the ancient world and in America, freed such slaves when he died.
Here are some notes I took from the Internet about Roman slavery. American slavery was not much better except that an American slave-owner could not cause the death of a slave and had to allow him certain things like going to church services and receiving medical care.

Cicero had a (Greek) slave named Tiro. Tiro was Cicero’s secretary, confidant, right-hand man, editor, and after Cicero’s death, the publisher of a number of Cicero’s speeches He also wrote a biography of Cicero, a book on grammar and a book on philosophical questions. He also invented a type of shorthand. Cicero, his brother and his children were very close to Tiro. When Tiro was ill, Cicero worried and fretted over him like a nervous hen. Cicero’s son, Marcus, wrote to Tiro whenever he was in hot water with the old man, suggesting a relationship we would find more between an indulgent uncle and nephew, rather than that between a young lord and family slave. In 53 BCE, Cicero freed Tiro. On the occasion, his brother Quintus wrote Cicero a letter of congratulations: “I am truly grateful for what you have done about Tiro, in judging his former condition to be below his deserts and preferring us to have him as a friend rather than a slave.

A nastier example comes from the Roman Digest, a compilation of laws, legal problems and legal reasoning created for the Emperor Justinian. The Digest includes the analysis of Ulpian, one of the greatest legal scholars in Roman history, who lived three centuries after Tiro. Ulpian was considering a legal problem posed by the Roman law that required the seller of slaves to warrant that the slave was free from any disease or defect. Could a seller give such a warrant for a slave whose tongue had been cut out? Or was the slave inherently defective? One scholar said no. After all, horses whose tongues had been cut out could not be warranted, he argued. If a horse couldn’t, then a slave couldn’t. Ulpian doesn’t explicitly contradict this scholar, but his analysis seems to suggest that if the slave could be useful, than the warrant could be granted. He does say that slaves who stammer, lisp, ramble or rave can be warranted. Ulpian never stops to consider the implications of the analogy between the tongueless slave and horse. What is more, his matter of fact treatment of the question indicates that Romans were this sadistic and brutal to slaves often enough that the questions was one a good legal scholar should consider, and not think odd. Slaves were property. Owners exercised dominum over slaves, the absolute right to dispose of and control the use of a piece of property.
Legally, slavery was conceived of as a kind of death. Romans deemed citizens who did not return from battle as ‘dead’ because a captured citizen who survived battle would most certainly become an enemy slave. Thus, his will was read and his marriage formally ended, because the citizen was ‘socially’ dead to the Roman world. Similarly, the Romans legally conceived of the slaves they owned as cut off from all the rights and rituals of human society. Slaves could have no family. In practice, slaves formed relationships and had children. But they had no legal authority to protect these relationships. If you were a slave who had borne a child, the child was not yours. Similarly, while owners frequently gave slaves a peculium (an allowance), the slave had no right to it and had to surrender it on demand. The peculium was simply a device which permitted an owner to use his property more efficiently. (Note that the legal theory here sounds very rigid and that social practice was actually much more flexible.)
A slave by definition had no honor or dignity. The essence of being a slave is the inability to protect one’s body. While every citizen had the right to trial and appeal before they suffered physical punishment, a slave was defined by the absence of such a right and expectation. An owner could beat and abuse slaves
The mere experience of not being able to protect his own body from abuse was inherently and permanently degrading. Thus, even if your owner treated you quite well, Romans believed that you were degraded simply by being subject to another man’s ability to treat you poorly if he chose. A child born of a slave woman was a slave and the property of the slave woman’s owner.
Except that an American slave-owner could not cut out his slave’s tongue, these descriptions of slavery in Roman law could also describe American slavery.

Because slavery was the norm in the ancient world (and in the Muslim world until modern times), the condition of the slaves varied widely. It should be remembered that slavery is a very inefficient form of labor. People do as little as possible when there is no reward for working hard. (Probably why Romans often paid their slaves a little peculium and why we still pay prisoners a little for work they do in prison.). Good treatment is usually better than the whip. It is common to show nineteenth century photographs of badly whipped slaves with some comment that the guy was punished for attempting to escape. That is certainly true in some cases, particularly where treatment was bad but in most cases such severe beating was probably for crimes like theft from other slaves, or for drunkenness, etc. Nor was whipping reserved for slaves. It was a common punishment for anyone until the mid nineteenth century. In many cases – in the navy for example – it was necessary to get punishment over with quickly so that the culprit could rejoin the crew, something not possible if he were kept locked up. Imprisonment would also have been demoralizing for the rest of the crew on a ship, or the rest of the slaves on a plantation.


As Europe passed from the ancient to the medieval world, slavery changed too. There were still slaves in Europe but fewer. Generally the condition of freeman became worse as they had to attach themselves to some nobleman for protection when Rome no longer could keep the barbarians out of the empire. At the other extreme the condition of the slaves became better as Christian rather than pagan Roman values came to dominate. It is hard to see a man as just property if you go to church with him and believe that he may get a higher place in heaven than you. What developed is called serfdom. The freemen lost some of their freedom and the slaves gained some rights until there was no real difference between them. A serf was somewhat free. He worked land that belonged to his lord and had to work a certain number of days for the lord each year; but he also grew crops just for his family and might be able to sell a little. He could not move away but the church provided him with many feast days when he didn’t have to work. The lord had obligations too. He had to protect his serfs from highwaymen and barbarian raiders, and be the law on his estate. He had to provide a miller to grind their wheat, a priest, a blacksmith to make them tools, and occasional entertainment for the whole village as well as for himself, etc.
That is the way life was from about the fifth century after Christ when Rome lost authority in the west until fairly modern times. It began to end with the growth of trade and cities (about the time of Columbus.) Of course it didn’t go away suddenly. In France the system was finally ended by the French Revolution a few years after the American revolution but it continued in Russia up till your great grandmother’s time. (The Russian revolution during World War I ended serfdom there.) Serfdom had never been very important in Italy (after Rome) possibly because it’s economy was more city and trade based than the agricultural economies of most of Europe. In England serfdom evolved so that in time almost everyone was technically free. I say technically because you must not think that free men even in the time of George Washington were free in the sense of Americans today, though in England and the English colonies there was always more freedom than in the rest of Europe. (The American colonists originally sought their “rights as Englishmen,” not independence; rights that people in many other parts of Europe did not have.)
Of course, slavery was always popular in Muslim lands and there, as elsewhere, the condition of the slave varied widely. Muslim pirates raided ships to get slaves for farms until stopped by the USS Constitution and ships of other countries in the nineteenth century. But in a sense most Muslim people were the slaves of their rulers. A slave could just as well be a respected doctor or poet as a worker.
In 1842 the English Consul in Morocco, as part of his government’s attempt to curtail the slave trade, asked the sultan what measures he had taken to accomplish this desirable goal. In amazement the sultan wrote back: “The traffic in slaves is a matter on which all sects and nations have agreed from the time of the sons of Adam … up to this day.” Then he continued that he was “not aware of its being prohibited by the laws of any sect, and no one need ask this question, the same being manifest to both high and low and requires no more demonstration than the light of day.”

If there had been little slavery in medieval Europe itself, the new European countries readily enslaved people in the Americas. And as the medieval world changed into the early modern with the coming of the industrial revolution, men lost the security of serfdom. Now as factory workers they had no rights at all and were often worse off than slaves. If a factory worker in Europe or America was injured on the job he was simply fired from his job and there was no government help. He had to rely on begging and other family members with, perhaps, some charity from the churches. The factories in Lowell, Massachusetts were famous for treating the eight thousand free girls who worked there quite well, because that was unusual. Still, they worked 14 hours a day. In south Africa, although the British who ruled there had outlawed slavery and were punishing slavers that they caught at sea, they realized that they needed slaves to work the gold mines. They therefore required that each family pay a “hut tax” in English money which the natives could only earn by working at extremely low wages in the mines. This was just slavery by another name.

The Spanish conquistadors took it for granted that European civilization was superior to American and that Christianizing the natives and teaching them to work on farms was good for them whether they wanted it or not. In practice that meant enslaving them though usually that word was not used. Pagan Indians were not respected but looked down upon as ignorant and primitive. In some ways this was true. They didn’t have iron swords, hatchets, or pots, much less guns; and Christianity is certainly superior to native religions which approved torturing and killing captives as sacrifices or just for fun. It is popular these days to see the religion of the American natives as wholesome. It was not. In fact only Buddhism, Christianity, and Judaism of the world’s major religions require kind behavior to others who are not of your group (except for visitors). Despite what you might hear from Muslims in the USA, even Islam only requires good treatment as a charity towards Christians and Jews who are people of the book (The Bible). Black Africans who have not been converted to Islam are considered natural slaves. In parts of the African desert like the Sudan there is still slavery although it is officially illegal. Without wanting to whitewash the Americans in the evil slave trade, the slave traders in Africa were generally Arab Muslims who bought the slaves from Black African tribes who raided each other for this human cattle. (Judging by the brutality of tribal wars still being fought in Africa, they would still enslave each other if they could get a little cash for prisoners. They can’t, so now they dishonor women and kill them and their children.)
In the early modern world Africans and Central American “Indians” were seen as more able to endure heat than free white labor and were made to work against their will in the British and Spanish colonies in the Americas. Governments saw nothing wrong in enslaving “Indians” any more than they were bothered by sending their own petty criminals to work in America and Australia, or grabbing free seamen in their own port cities and forcing them into their navies. Ordinary people had few rights against the upper classes in Europe so certainly they had none on other continents.

It was only with the birth of the USA that ordinary people began to be considered a gentleman’s equal, and that took time. The U.S. Constitution eliminated titles of nobility but also raised all citizens to the level of a country squire in England ( Mr. Toad in Wind in the Willows.) Yet in our southern states, even when Grandpa was young, while a white man was Mister Jones in a court of law, a black man was just called Jim or Tom.


In the American colonies there was the western frontier which in Washington’s day was only around western New York state. If a farmer didn’t like it in the east he could just move west with his ax and start a new farm. But still there was no equality as we know it even for whites. In the early United States a person could not vote unless he had land or money. He would tip his hat to a gentleman and do whatever he asked. It wasn’t until the presidency of Andrew Jackson that ordinary people began to feel that they were truly the equal of the fairly wealthy.
But still, he was neither a serf nor a slave. Our early leaders were not lords but rich farm owners like Washington and Jefferson, or tradesmen and merchants like John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. They did not think every farmer was their equal but neither did they think someone important just because he had inherited a title of nobility and a castle as in Europe. America got rid of lords and ladies but at the same time it raised everyone to the titles of mister and missus and miss which in England had been reserved for men and women less important than nobles but more important than just being a farmer or minor craftsman.

Except for our Negroes.

All this I point out not to make slavery seem less bad – It could be terrible especially in the deep south – but so that you understand that during the industrial revolution life was awful for everyone except the rich.
Sometimes what is called slavery differs very little from other forms of oppression. Both England and Spain eliminated slavery by that name. They were thereby able to assume a superior attitude toward other nations but they could do it only because there was little need for slavery in those countries. However when they realized that slaves were necessary in their colonies they instituted what amounted to slavery under other names.
In America life for “free” Irish immigrant families before our Civil war could be worse than for slaves. Pay was very bad. Working conditions were unsafe and unhealthy. Businesses felt no obligation to their workers; if a man was hurt on the job he was just fired. There was no government assistance. His only hope was in help from private charities or to beg. Most immigrants were not paid enough to buy food and pay rent for their housing so their children had to work long hours in dirty dangerous jobs instead of going to school. If workers tried to form unions private “detectives” would beat and sometimes kill them.
In many parts of the underdeveloped world this is still the situation. In India boys go blind working to cover ornaments with brass. In other parts of Asia children as well as grown ups work at other dangerous and low paying jobs. Their governments don’t like it but they plead that these workers would otherwise starve. By comparison, an American slave-owner had legal obligations toward his slaves. He had to feed, cloth, and care for their health. That is the origin of the “Uncle” Remus stories – the old slave who can no longer work but is cared for while he watches over the children.

It is still common to hire immigrants as servants and there is nothing wrong with having servants if you can afford to do so. You’ll note that in My Fair Lady Henry Higgins has many servants. That was normal everywhere in Europe and America until the twentieth century when hired labor became too expensive for most middle class people, and labor saving machinery like vacuum cleaners and washing machines made such help at home less necessary. Unfortunately, even today some immigrants to America are taken advantage of and are treated just like slaves. They may be told that they can leave their employer only when they pay him a certain amount of money but are never able to earn that much money on the little bit that is given to them. They have little food and many people live together in one room. Sometimes they are beaten. Especially when they have been brought to this country illegally, they are afraid to go to the police. This is not new. In the nineteenth century many Irish immigrants to America faced the same situation. They worked in dirty dangerous factories and mines but had to buy everything they needed at a store that was owned by the factory. They never earned enough money to pay off their bill so they could not “go west” or leave for a better job somewhere else.


Eleven million Black Africans were kidnapped and sold into slavery in the New World, especially in the southern colonies (later states), and in the Spanish West Indies. Tens (perhaps hundreds) of thousands died on the slave ships that brought them.

There were always reformers called abolitionists who opposed slavery. It was unchristian to begin with, and the humanist philosophy of the seventeenth century also turned thinking people against it. (Humanism means respect for man in himself, not only as a creature of God.) It is these two factors that are spelled out in the Declaration of Independence. “All men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This is a philosophy which cannot be meshed with slavery through it took almost another century and a civil war to implement this sentence. Furthermore it was not the normal way of life in the North or in Europe as it had been in the ancient world and could no longer be considered natural. Men like Washington and Jefferson owned slaves but were well aware of this humanist philosophy. They agreed with it but they could not suddenly change the economy of their plantations and the nation – nor fight a revolution against Britain at the same time because too many other people did not agree… There had always been slavery, they’d be told. Slavery was thought of as a necessary evil. Even the Bible assumed it.
But most thinking people hoped that under the influence of Christian morality and humanist philosophy slavery was slowly dying out. Then Eli Whitney invented the cotton jin which suddenly made it possible to process much more cotton then before. The plantations grew and expanded further west and south. More, not fewer, slaves were needed to work the fields because while machines could process cotton, they could not pick it. Slavery is about money.
Under the attacks of abolitionists, southerners began to justify Negro slavery as natural. For the first time people starting to say that Negroes were racially inferior as well as better suited than whites to work long hours under the sun. This is what separates American from ancient slavery and makes it worse. In Nazi Germany we saw what can happen when a person is considered inferior because of his race.
In the United States, even in the North a Negro had to prove that he wasn’t a slave. That is a violation of our most fundamental principles in America and a slippery slope. How would we like to have to prove that we aren’t Jewish, or Chinese, or Bulgarian, or for that matter, Christian, or Republicans, or anything else the government didn’t want us to be? (You’ll recall what I wrote about Joe McCarthy destroying people’s reputations just by calling them communists without any proof that they’d committed a crime.)

After WWII a Lutheran pastor in Germany wrote:
“First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out.”

Now I’m not trying to make American slavery look good. Even when a slave’s life was decent he was still a slave. He could not look for a better life. As with the examples from Roman law above, he had no control over his body. How would you like that? He could not leave. It was illegal to teach a slave to read. He could be whipped or sold “down river” to work in the horrible plantations of the Gulf coast. Slave families were separated and children never saw their mothers again. But what made American slavery different from that in other times and places is that it was racial. The Roman slaveholder did not feel that he was superior to his slaves, just lucky not to have been born a slave. But just as European countries were coming to think that slavery was immoral (Christianity and Humanism) and less necessary as machinery began to replace hand labor, America found itself for economic reasons needing more slaves. America which had led the world in freedoms at the time of our revolution, was now behind Europe only a few years later. Nor should we forget that although northerners generally thought slavery to be a bad thing, there were some house slaves in the north and the slave-ships were owned by northerners and run by captains and crews from New England. It took the Civil War to end slavery and the Civil Rights movement a hundred years later to bring about something like true equality.

I have largely limited this essay to European and American slavery; but slavery has existed in almost all societies and to a large extent still does under other names. In the Asian countries, for example, there was always slavery even of their own people. In Asia it has been common to sell children that a poor family can not feed.
When the Muslims invaded India in the Middle Ages they enslaved hundreds of thousands of Indians and shipped them to other Muslim countries. This was done first by Arab Muslims then by Turkish Muslims. Later, with the arrival of Europeans, the slave trade around Asia was continued by westerners, especially by the Dutch. Then the English occupied India and in the nineteenth century tried to end slavery. The result was only that slavery changed in name. To rent someplace to live the former slaves were forced to take loans that they could never repay. They had to work as what are called indentured servants until they did. Effectively they were still owned.
There is another kind of inequality unique to India which I mention because it resembles American Negro slavery in that it denigrates a person’s worth as a human being. The Hindu religion of most of its people (but not the Muslims who ruled there for many centuries before the English) considers people as belonging to categories called “castes.” You cannot change the caste that you are born into. At the top are priestly families called Brahmans, then below them are other castes like merchants and craftsmen. At the very bottom are people known as sweepers or untouchables who must work at filthy jobs that no one else would take. They labor for really tiny wages and a Brahman would feel ritually (spiritually) unclean if he touched one (though the sweeper can clean his toilet and remove the waste.) At one time, sweepers had to display extreme deference to high-status people, physically keeping their distance–lest their touch or even their shadow pollute others–wearing neither shoes nor any upper body covering in the presence of the upper castes. The lowest-ranking had to jingle a little bell in warning of their polluting approach. In much of India, untouchables were prohibited from entering temples, using wells from which the “clean” castes drew their water, or even attending schools. In past centuries, dire punishments were prescribed for untouchables who read or even heard sacred texts. In fairness, the modern Indian government in pursuit of the ideal of Mahatma Gandhi has had some success at raising the level of the untouchables. (Though born into a respectable trade caste himself, Gandhi always referred to the sweepers as God’s children.) But the caste system is ingrained in the Hindu religion and it may never really change.

“I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
Martin Luther King – on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.
on August 28, 1963
Because this essay was written for a ten year old girl I omitted all references to sexual servitude, including that the wearing of upper body garments was forbidden to untouchable women as well as men in India in former times.
Sexual slavery where it existed and still exists is entirely about money. The trade in Thai women who are kidnapped for brothels today is business, and women are still kidnapped to work as maids as well as prostitutes. The historical enslavement of women for sex should be seen as much the same thing and a sidebar to the enslavement of people for work. The buying of both boys and girls to be raised in brothels was business and was seen by their own peoples and governments as a better alternative to starvation.
The truth is that female servitude has always been basically for work, the same as with males. There are exceptions: Musa, the Arab conqueror of Spain, allegedly sent thirty thousand virgins back to Arabia. These virgins were most likely children whose families he’d killed. Since Arab women commonly married at age twelve and European girls usually not much older, these children would have been intended for harems where they would certainly be sex objects but also servants. Even today, non-Muslim girls travel at risk of being raped in Muslim lands, and the police do nothing.
Since the subject of “dancing” girls is titillating even to historians who may have a personal viewpoint to promote, their numbers and specifics must be taken with a lot of salt. I have tried to indicate throughout this essay that women were generally enslaved as workers, not just for sex. Take the American experience for example. Certainly masters regularly raped their female slaves but the reason for buying them was generally for work. Where it openly known to be otherwise, the Christian community would have been forced to be scandalized despite it having no problem with enslavement for labor.
Since I’ve mentioned Thomas Jefferson I must briefly address the condition of Sally Hemings, his slave but also his mistress. Much has been made lately of his relationship with her and their child. A child of a master and a slave was a slave. TJ was rather liberal for his day but the boy was born out of wedlock and not entitled to inherit any more than he would have been had the woman been a prostitute. TJ did indirectly emancipate both mother and child at his death and the boy went on to own a carpentry business of his own. That was all, and more, than might be expected for a boy born on the “wrong side of the bed.” (The child was born after the death of TJ’s wife though the affair between them probably started when TJ was ambassador to France, and Sally his daughter’s nurse and lady’s maid. Sally would have been free there under French law but not when she returned to Virginia.) Anyway, the Hemings family were more like servants than slaves and only did light work like sewing and running errands at Monticello. Sally’s ancestry was more white than Negro and the Hemings family one-by-one passed out of servitude to the Jefferson, were successful in business, and because of their light skin passed for white in Virginia. As I’ve indicated in the main essay, it would have been impossible for Jefferson to change the system, but he did leave a sleeper clause in the Declaration of Independence for future generations to deal with.

If you’ve read this far, you may be interested in in other essays
Essay on Nazis

Essay on Japan and Western Relations

Essay on Slavery

Essay on Obedience

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