The Positive Good School

The Old Plantation (attr. John Rose)

Listen to Scott Bradford reading this essay.

America’s original sin was chattel slavery. It was a reprehensible, inexcusable, indefensible institution that stained most of our first century as a nation and continued to have repercussions for much of a second century after that.

In the 1770s and 1780s, as we were moving from colonial subjugation into our new constitutional republic, the people that built our nation—the founders—wrote beautiful, timeless words about human rights and freedom. These are words that I live by today. And yet there was an inescapable contradiction: Some of the most illustrious of those founders—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Patrick Henry, and Benjamin Franklin—owned slaves.

They spoke and wrote eloquently about freedom while claiming to own other human beings.

These men, and others like them, cannot be wholly condemned. Like everyone else, they were products of their time who often failed to live up to their own principles. In the grand Christian tradition, I acknowledge that everybody is a sinner. Everybody is a failure. Everybody falls short of the ideal. My own shortcomings seem significantly smaller than those of the people who thought they owned other people, but they aren’t. I am, in my own ways, as reprehensible as they are. This is the reality of our flawed, broken existence.

I am not saying this to excuse the slave-owning founders. They get some leeway for living in a world where that kind of thing was generally accepted, but no amount of leeway would be enough to excuse treating human beings as property. That was never acceptable. That was never moral. And, you may be surprised to learn, they knew it.

Washington wrote, “I wish from my soul that the legislature of this State could see a policy of a gradual Abolition of Slavery.” Jefferson wrote, “Nobody wishes more ardently [than I] to see an abolition not only of the trade but of the condition of slavery.” Henry wrote of slavery that, “I will not, I cannot justify it.” These slaveowners knew, and admitted when pressed, that it was wrong to own slaves. And they believed slavery was a “necessary evil” that would eventually end.

The founders did not have the courage to free their slaves, and for that they are rightly condemned. But they knew that slavery was wrong, and they knew that the institution was destined for abolition, and for that they are rightly praised.

The United States survived in an uneasy balance between slavery and freedom for the first eighty-five years of its existence. In 1858, the newly formed Republican Party’s nominee for U.S. Senate from Illinois said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.” That candidate—Abraham Lincoln—lost his Senate race. But two years later he was elected President of the United States, and soon after the nation plunged into a bloody, inevitable civil war.

The American Civil War was about more than just slavery. Southern apologists are right when they say that it was about states’ rights. But northern apologists are right, too, when they point out that the main “right” the rebels were defending was the “right” to treat human beings as property, which was no right at all. The moral authority that the Confederate States of America might have had on matters of federalism was negated by the issue upon which it chose to go to war, for which there was no defense.

There are a million words that I could write about slavery and the war between the states, but today I want to focus on one facet of the topic: How did supporters of slavery defend the indefensible?

If the mainstream position on slavery among slave owners had been in line with the views of the founders—that it was a necessary evil—nobody would have gone to war over it. Washington, for example, if forced into a choice of preserving slavery or preserving the United States, would have chosen to free his slaves. Jefferson and the other slave-owning founders would have done the same. Something had changed between the 1790s and the 1860s. Many defenders of slavery no longer saw it as a regrettable necessity, but as an institution that was worth fighting and dying for.

The founders’ view of slavery was not morally sound. Slavery was wrong, and it was wrong regardless of its apparent necessity. But they did acknowledge that slavery was wrong. That was better than nothing. This view of slavery would have tended toward its abolition. But in the following decades, a more strident, intransigent view of slavery had come to the fore. We now call this the “positive good school.”

Robert Walsh, a publicist and diplomat, was its originator. Senator John C. Calhoun (D-SC), the infamous pro-slavery firebrand, was its loudest and most consistent advocate. In 1837, Calhoun said that slavery was “instead of an evil, a good—a positive good” because “the African slave, kindly treated by his master and mistress and looked after in his old age, is better off than the free laborers of Europe.”

Advocates of this line of thinking were saying that black slaves were in a better position as slaves than they would have been if they had been free. This allowed people who supported slavery to pretend that they were the good guys and bolster public support. Pro-slavery politicians and the pro-slavery political party—the Democrats—embraced this cold, utilitarian argument because they knew that they could not win on the basis of law, morality, or principle.

The Republican abolitionists saw this argument for what it was: deeply and inescapably wrong. And the abolitionists eventually won. But the “positive good” argument was powerful and convincing in some circles at the time. It provided moral cover for deep and baseless prejudices, and a convenient excuse for those who had a base personal interest in the institution . . . like slaveowners who did not wish to think of themselves as evil.

Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of the “positive good” argument is that it was true. A free black person in Georgia in 1850 was not assured of having food, shelter, or employment, but an enslaved black person in that same place and time generally got three meals each day and a place to sleep. Most slaveowners took good care of their slaves . . . if only for the same reason they might take good care of a valuable horse, dog, or tool. Most did not commit atrocities against their “property,” except, of course, the atrocity of categorizing people as property in the first place.

If you tend to see the world through a utilitarian lens, and you believe that we should be motivated by what seems to offer the greatest good for the greatest number of people at a given time, then you might have been a “positive good” advocate if you had lived in 1860. You might have looked at the situation in America and seen the sad truth: A black man in Georgia would have a “better” life as a slave than he would as a freedman. This is why utilitarianism is a poor way of making moral judgments. What was apparently “better” for that individual black man in that moment was not really very good for him, his family, his people, or his nation. We must strive toward a higher set of values.

We fought the civil war, and the abolitionists won . . . at the cost of more than seven-hundred thousand lives. Chattel slavery came to an end. After too long a delay, civil rights for blacks and other racial minorities were recognized and protected under the law. We learned our lesson about utilitarianism. We should be able to rest easy knowing that the “positive good school” is a discredited relic of history.

Can we?

Theodor Reik, a German psychoanalyst and early student of Sigmund Freud, wrote, “It has been said that history repeats itself. This is perhaps not quite correct; it merely rhymes.”

Have you have noticed how today’s public discourse rhymes with the rhetoric of the late “positive good school.” Something that was once reluctantly accepted as a necessary evil developed into something that its defenders were willing to praise and defend to the death. And now we are approaching the inevitable reckoning. We will have to face, fight, and defeat the utilitarians’ new lie.

Back in 1790, the intelligentsia said that slavery was a necessary evil that should be phased out as soon as possible. Fifty years later, desperate defenders of slavery, knowing they were destined to lose, started saying that slavery was good for society and even for the slaves. They said that it was better for people to be enslaved than impoverished. This was the last stand by defenders of the indefensible.

And the parallel in modern times? Well, in 1970, the intelligentsia said that abortion was a necessary evil that should be legal in dire situations. Fifty years later, desperate defenders of abortion, knowing they are destined to lose, say that abortion is good for society, for women, and even for the unborn. They say that it is better for a child to die than to live in poverty. This, too, is the last stand by defenders of the indefensible.

Many fell for these arguments in the nineteenth century, and a many fall for them today. Facing the evil head-on is hard, and it introduces all kinds of other difficult problems. So we quiet our conscience by redefining the evil as good. We set aside the burning moral and logical questions—and their answers. Some who do this are cynical and evil. Most are good people who have been misled by a shrewd appeal to sympathy.

But these appeals do not withstand serious scrutiny. Freeing the slaves depressed the southern economy, condemned many blacks to a cycle of poverty, and caused all kinds of other problems that took a long time to sort out. This was a small price to pay for righting an inexcusable wrong. Outlawing abortion may place some women in serious hardship, condemn unwanted children to their own cycle of poverty, and introduce its own set of problems. This, too, would be a small price to pay for righting another inexcusable wrong.

When an evil becomes ingrained into a culture, there is a social pressure to “go with the flow” and accept it. This results in efforts to reframe the evil in more stridently positive terms. That’s what the “positive good school” is; it is a way to make something that people know is wrong seem right, or at least tolerable. But this is the lie’s last stand. It grows more strident because the truth presses harder upon it each day.

Like Reik said, history rhymes. We are nearing the end of a second great national tragedy. The institution of abortion, like the institution of slavery, tramples the human rights of many millions of innocent people. Excising it will be a painful, halting, and costly process. But it will end. It must. The abolitionists—and the truth—will win. It is only a matter of time.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.