Did the South Even Have Slaves?



…maybe not – at least, not if we use certain modern definitions.

The Washington Post came out with a recent story mapping the areas of the world in which “slavery” is still alive and well.  They cite a “comprehensive new study” done by the Australian based “Walk Free” foundation, who, presumably, are behind the 2014 Global Slavery Index.

As my readers will know, I’ve been interested in slavery, especially as it (supposedly?) existed in old Dixie – so I was naturally interested in this story.  I wanted to see how the Global Slavery Index (GSI) defined “slavery”.  They’ve updated their 2014 survey with a new “conceptual framework“.  I had to dig into the bowels of their site to find it, but find it I did;  here’s their operational definition:

Modern slavery is the possession and control of a person in such a way as to significantly deprive that person of his or her individual liberty, with the intent of exploiting that person through their use, management, profit, transfer or disposal.

Let’s stop for a moment and consider how ambiguous this is.

As I’ve tried to make everyone aware, the first and *major* premise in the Southern pro-slavery argument, is that we’ll always have a slave-class of some sort.  It can’t be gotten rid of.  There will always be a “worker class”.  How we interact with this class – what dignities we afford it, and what opportunities it’s provided, are what the real debate is about.

Nevertheless, moderns are naive enough to suppose there is no functioning slave class in America.  But, according to the above definition, we can see at least three different major groups of people (probably more) are slaves:

1.  The above definition applies to American military personnel, who are under contract.

The military “possesses” the recruit (via contract) and “controls” him in such a way that significantly deprives him of his individual liberty.  In bootcamp, we weren’t even allowed to use the bathroom when we wanted (slaves in the South didn’t have it that bad!)  We couldn’t eat, sleep, or even talk without permission.  And while we gain some small amount of personal freedom after bootcamp, the understanding is that we can be controlled again the same way in any situation our commanding officers deem worthy.

The military intends to “exploit” (if we take “exploit” here to mean: use for some gain or other), through use, management, profit (they certainly profit from the efforts of recruits), transfer (this happens frequently), and disposal (disposal here could even mean death, as in: send them into battle).


2.  The above definition clearly applies to those unlucky folk in the American prison system.

The prisoners are “possessed” (literally) by the sate and controlled in such a way that they’re deprived of their individual liberty.  They are “exploited” (often they’re made to labor – but even if they don’t labor, they’re made to do the bidding of the state.  In this case, the state is “exploiting” them by deriving some gain from their imprisonment, be it “safety” for the public, or “rehabilitation” to ease the sympathies of liberals).  In the same way, the state ‘profits’ from them.  The prisoners are kept in lock-down, and in return, the state receives (as payment) their absence from peaceful society – while this isn’t a conventional form of payment, it is a benefit the state derives from the lockup.  And prisoners can be disposed of (moved around and manipulated) at the whim of the warden.


3.  While it’s a little more difficult of a stretch than the first two, the above definition is ambiguous enough to apply to that class of people we might call “wage slaves”.

The wage slave may not be formally “possessed” by the corporation he works for, unless he’s under contract, in which case, we might argue that he *is* possessed by the corporation (just like the state owns the soldier); nevertheless, he’s tied to it with invisible economic bonds that cannot be easily severed, and for all practical purposes, may as well be “owned”.  He cannot, for example, simply quit his job – while he legally has the right to quit, he is forced to stay because his life depends on the pay check he will receive at the end of the week.  In some cases, his immediate health or the health of his family may depend on the medical benefits received from the corporation.

In the same way, his individual liberty is restricted; there are a range of activities he cannot do, whether it be because the corporation out-right doesn’t allow them (ie: smoking marijuana), or because his time is taken up so fully with his job, he’s unable to devote it to other pursuits.


Walk Free recognizes their “working definition” is ambiguous, and so they provide a series of examples to more clearly express what they’re looking for.  I wont list them all here; two will suffice:

The first example:

A child is taken into a household to work for nothing except “room and board”, and they are unable to leave because they have been told they must stay.

Sound familiar?  This might apply to every American child who, when told to do something unappealing, will rant that his parents are treating him like a “slave”!  The above verbiage could easily apply to an adoption as well…a child is taken home from the orphanage, and told he must stay in his new adopted parents’ household…and must do all the chores he’s assigned with no pay in return other than room and board.  (The horror!)

The second example:

A boy goes to work on a fishing boat having been told he will be paid, but instead he is forced to work long hours, for months at sea, for no pay.  He sees others being thrown overboard so he knows he cannot complain.

There is an obvious moral wrong being done to the boy in this scenario, but I’m not sure it’s “slavery”.  He voluntarily signed up to go out to sea for long hours, and months at a time.  His employer here hasn’t enslaved him; instead, he’s robbing him!


So, we’ve seen that Walk Free’s “working definition” is so ambiguous that it applies to many situations Americans do not wish to call “slavery”; thus – to avoid ambiguity, they’ve provided a list of practices and situations which further clarify what they’re looking for.

But, upon analysis – these situations don’t seem to apply to the situation in Old Dixie.

In the second example, the young boy goes onto the boat, expecting to work for months at a time, but instead of being paid, his wages are withheld.

The slave owners in old Dixie had no such contractual obligation with their slaves, and thus, cannot be said to be in violation of it.  They were responsible (by law, and by burden of social responsibility and a keeping of their good name) to provide their slaves with adequate food, shelter, medical attention, and down-time.  Further – it was in their best interest to keep a high morale among the slaves.  So their situation is not the same as the boy in the above example.

If the situation has to conform with these Walk-Free standards to be called “Slavery”, then it’s not clear that Old Dixie had slaves at all!


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3 Responses to Did the South Even Have Slaves?

  1. Hans Gygax says:

    Your 3rd example/definition has more credibility than you gave yourself credit for. Those of us who work for corporations are absolutely slaves. We are slaves to the system anyway. In addition to what you said, even if we were to get another job, it would be the same exact situation.

    All the corporations are basically owned by the same general system. Maybe if you worked self-employed or for some small family business you are free, but even those businesses must comply with slavery type laws to even exist. Not only do they pay excessive taxes in multiple layers, but they cannot choose who they can and cannot do business with without the government penalizing them, being sued in court, or being put out of business because of the societal bullying.

    Most of us are either renting or have mortgages which is basically slavery. And even if we owned our property outright, property taxes make it so we don’t actually own the property.

    I’m sure a lot of people could and have put it better than I just did, but that is my off the cuff, weak attempt at it.

  2. True Blue says:

    This article left out one very important and clearly visible form of outright slavery that is alive and even thriving today:
    Tax Slavery.
    According to Turbo-Tax, (who have an excellent chart on their site) a New Yorker (for example) will spend 49% of their entire working lifetime as a slave to their State and Federal Masters without compensation.
    By comparison, Serfs were only expected to tithe their Lord (government) a paltry 10%.
    Food for thought.


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