Our Peculiar Institution: The New Slavery

On a wintry day in Boston stood a man “devoid of genius, and with only an ordinary education,” eulogizing an insurrectionist hanged hundreds of miles away. He had too much integrity and too little imagination to compromise the single great principle of his life.

“What is it,” he cried to the crowds gathered to hear others exhorted to sacrifice, “what is it that God requires of the South to remove every root of bitterness, to allay every fear, to fill her borders with prosperity? But one simple act of justice, without violence and convulsion, without danger and hazard.” Without hazard to the speaker and his audience—but let him continue. “It is this: ‘Undo the heavy burdens, break every yoke, and let the oppressed go free!’ Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and the Lord shall answer. Thou shalt cry, and he shall say: ‘Here I am.’”

The hanged man was John Brown, and the sanguine speaker was the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. It was December 2, 1859, little more than a year before the evil of slavery began to exact its full and terrible price in blood. “How simple and how glorious!” he exclaimed, in his pride and his uncharity not stopping to consider that little in the life of man is simple or glorious. He was right about the nation’s duty. Narrow and unsympathetic people can be right, as broad and affable people can be wrong. But he did not care to see how deeply the institution of slavery had gripped its roots into the soil of Southern culture, for all who lived there, rich and poor, men and women and children, slave owners and overseers, and poor sharecroppers and slaves. To end slavery was to end a way of life.

It is six years later, after 700,000 men have died, with thousands more, including women and children, sent to early graves by hunger and disease and grief. A better man whose judgment had been wrong stands before the Georgia legislature to recommend healing and patience. He summons no metaphors about new mornings, but speaks frankly of “these evils upon us—the absence of law; the want of protection and security of person and property, without which civilization cannot advance.” He insists that such evils cannot be removed unless the men of the South accept their loss in war and acknowledge that its judgment against slavery is decisive.

As for the blacks, how many of the ensuing evils of American life would have been averted had men possessed his charity! “Ample and full protection should be secured to them, so that they may stand equal before the law, in the possession and enjoyment of all rights of person, liberty, and property.” This was no abstract political formula, for he recalled all the particulars of a way of life swept aside. “Many considerations,” said he of the duty to assist the blacks, “claim this at your hands. Among these may be stated their fidelity in time past. They cultivated your fields, ministered to your personal wants and comforts, nursed and reared your children; and even in the hour of danger and peril they were, in the main, true to you and yours. To them we owe a debt of gratitude, as well as kindness.”

The speaker was Alexander Hamilton Stephens, a man so admirably honest that the people of the South elected him—though he had opposed secession and had worked to avert the war—vice president of the Confederacy. Stephens was wrong about slavery and Garrison was right, but Stephens knew by experience what Garrison could not or would not know. Since evil mimics good, or mistakes a lesser good for a greater good, an evil institution does offer—though in degraded form and only for a time—things that man considers good. Even slavery did so.

I am not merely talking about wealth. What about love of freedom? Southerners compared themselves to the ancient Greeks: It was not accidental, they argued, that they who saw slaves every day should cherish their freedom all the more. Was the parallel just? Was the myth of the chivalric, aristocratic South only trumpery to dress up a whore?

I raise these questions because we have long been living with an institution as defining as, and more pervasive than, slavery was in the Old South. It is free sex, the gift of the sexual revolution. It has gripped its roots into our soil—into its soil, because that is what our land now is. Its fruit has been crushed and eaten and strewn broadside. How (and when, and with whom, and whether) we fall in love, marry, and raise children; work and play; make and break laws, study and teach, honor and scorn the dead; dress and undress—what has the sexual revolution not changed?

It was the owning of slaves by the elites that first made the South a culture of slavery, but that culture of slavery soon became far more than the owning of slaves by the elites. When Christians first yielded to contraception—to the tawdry technology of barrier and poison—they made the West a culture of death, but that culture of death soon implied far more than contraception. Free sex has defined our way of life. And as did slavery in the Old South, free sex has conferred some things people consider good. Not only pornographers and abortionists but ordinary people profit every day from the anarchy. We all profit.

Let us be forthright. Some good things can be had by means that are not evil: The South might have been richer had it not relied on cotton and slaves. In such cases it may be possible to retain the good while changing the means. Yet it may not be practicable. Those whom slavery had made wealthy were not necessarily those who were going to be wealthy without slavery. Many stood to lose their wealth, and some lost all they had. Other things are only speciously good. Such may have been the chivalric overlay on the slaveholding terror—so glittering in its gentility that as late as Gone with the Wind millions of Americans were still unwilling to see beyond it. Our own culture of death glitters, too, shining with personal autonomy and all the breathtaking and soul-flattening “freedom” it asserts. Boys and girls can backpack around the world together—sweeter than any julep, that. And then some good things sometimes cannot be had without resort to evil means. If so, they must be given up. If slaveholding meant that the Southerner grew up with a keen sense of freedom, and if that rare gift must be lost with the fall of slavery, then lost it must be. If in the culture of death a youth grows up with the exhilarating prospect of unlimited possibilities, and if that prospect must be narrowed with the fall of the culture of death, then narrowed it must be. Let the Garrisons among us seal envelopes. We must face the truth.

And we must face our enemies. If they are monsters, we are their cousins. It was comforting for abolitionists to shudder at the fetter and the lash, and to sip tea while Catholic churches in Philadelphia burned. It was comforting for the owners of northern sweatshops to shudder at the forced labor of cotton-gathering in the malarial fields of Georgia. I do not equate anti-Catholicism or poverty wages with slavery. I say that then as now there was plenty of blindness and corruption to go around, blindness and corruption that shared a family resemblance.

Not every slaveholder enjoyed holding slaves. Many did not; they held them with bad consciences and often, as they lay dying, freed them. So did Washington, so did Jefferson. Such men would never say they were pro-slavery. They opposed emancipation, at least in their own lifetimes, sensing (or wishing to sense) that the slaves might be worse off afterward, and understanding that the high culture of the plantation, resting on leisure wrung from the sweat of other men’s brows, could not then endure. John Calhoun and Jefferson Davis did not, I think, like slavery. They liked the culture that slavery produced.

And it is wrong to say, as the gloating Henry Ward Beecher said while the Union flag was hoisted over Fort Sumter, that “slavery itself was cared for only as an instrument of power or of excitement.” If only Satan showed his spiky tail whenever he tempted us! But as slavery mingled with and exacerbated the worst propensities of man—hard-heartedness, cruelty, lust for power—so its evil was mitigated and partly concealed by the human relations that grew up between white and black, by affection and kindness, by common celebration and common mourning.

So with us now. Most feminists do not like abortion. In an abortion clinic even Hillary Clinton might avert her eyes. They sense (or wish to sense) that the lives of such children would be miserable, and they understand that in any case there is a plantation to run. Only brutes enjoy blood and death. But delicacy is often a vice, and many a primrose path leads to the everlasting bonfire. Let us take our enemies’ word: They do not like abortion. They might not like adultery, might be nervous still about fornication and sodomy. But they like the culture that abortion undergirds. They like the culture of the sexual revolution. They are “pro-choice” the phrase is more than a dodge. They extol personal autonomy as the summum bonum. In that enterprise we have all lent a hand.

It is dangerous not to see this. Men may champion abortion “rights” to enjoy with greater impunity the male fantasy of careless sex—a fornicatory Big Rock Candy Mountain. But the evil is also mitigated and partly hidden by male gallantry, the laudable desire to protect women. And men and women both see abortion as a fail-safe, lest an unwanted pregnancy topple that false god, personal autonomy, at whose altar the whole nation worships. No argument here: Day-care centers are full, and not with orphans and the poor.

What if the Southerners freed their slaves? What must they change? Rather, what could remain unchanged? What if we Christian rebels could overthrow the sexual revolution? What must we change? Rather, what could remain unchanged? Show me which minute of a typical day for a man, a woman, or a child would be left untouched by the rebellion.

Here we could talk about almost anything. We suffer the evils brought by (and we enjoy the worldly benefits of) fornication, adultery, contraception, sodomy, abortion, and divorce. It would take a hefty book to begin to treat any of these adequately. Let me rather follow one thread of one issue for a while to suggest to the reader how far we have gone wrong and how many things, especially the simple details of daily life, we must correct.

Suppose that we sexual slaves have been freed. Sup-pose the technology and bureaucracy of our enslavement have been dismantled: no Pill, no abortion, no government machine to supplant the father and undermine the family. All at once, if only to survive or to protect our property, we must take the Sixth Commandment seriously. I don’t suppose all people would always follow it, but those who broke it would know they were doing evil.

What then? You are sending your daughter far away to a secular college, to live in a coed dormitory. Not now, no sir! But you’ve raised your daughter well and trust her. My argument exactly. How much of your trust is negligence? How much do you rely unconsciously on the fail-safes of the Pill, abortion, and welfare? And if you are correct about your own daughter, what example do you set for others whose daughters are not so strong? Moral customs are curbs not for saints but for sinners. Doesn’t your action make it easier for other people’s daughters—or sons!—to be seduced? Isn’t the modern college constructed for fornication? And by what presumption do you trust that youth and beauty, not to mention loneliness, idle time, opportunity, and the natural yearning to be loved, will prove too weak for your religious maxims? David who danced before the Ark fell to temptation, but your daughter will not? Even if your daughter will not, others will, and by the millions.

Harsh reasoning, but I see no flaw. If we really believed that fornication was a deadly sin, or—more likely, alas—that it was a scandal to bear a child out of wedlock, then we would not put young men and women in situations that make fornication practically inevitable. We wouldn’t do it, as we wouldn’t allow children to play with canisters of nitroglycerine. We do it because we have persuaded ourselves that there’s no nitroglycerine in those canisters, or that nitro doesn’t really explode, or that somebody else will clean up the debris.

So sleeping arrangements at colleges would change—and men’s and women’s dorms would not be next door, and visitors would be monitored. I do not imply that everyone would then be virtuous. But with such an arrangement even an indifferent Christian might keep his virginity, whereas now it is nearly impossible for any but the most committed Christian to do so, nor is there any great reason to suppose that he will, either.

Is this all? Would you trust your children to architecture and regulations? What good are rules if people do not assume them as part of themselves? You will have to make people want to be chaste. Some you will persuade by the transcendent beauty of chastity; others, by the more immediate and effective power of fear. Some will be attracted not by chastity but by the perks conferred by the appearance of chastity; just as the shy youth nowadays wants to be a hypocrite in vice, wishing that others see the unchastity he has not yet managed to perform. And wouldn’t you have to work on each sex separately to stave off disaster? And you wouldn’t begin during orientation week for freshmen, would you?

Freeing the slaves is not so painless after all. Recall one of the virtues twisted by our culture of sexual freedom: male gallantry. It was a nasty trick of the Prince of this world to take a genuine virtue, rob it of substance, and make it serve the very vice against which it had once fought. In times past, a gallant man would not offer an indecent proposal to the woman he loved. Now, he gallantly defends her right not only to receive his indecent proposals but to make them herself! Both parties “gain”: He gains in sexual irresponsibility, and she gains in no longer needing to be protected by him. To put it more crassly, he gains sex and she gains the freedom of movement to win power, money, prestige—the usual. Such men and women have always existed, but they used to have names. Now they—we—are Legion.

If the Sixth Commandment was to be discarded, male gallantry had to be perverted; if it is to be restored, male gallantry must be straightened out. Nowadays men “protect” women by defending their shared right to whoredom. They must instead learn, even as boys, that their job is to protect women by, well, protecting them, first from bodily harm but also from the moral harm of scandal, slander, and disgrace. You have to make it part of a man’s virility to want that any woman he loves not be seduced; and to this end he will agree to customs that ensure that all the other women in the world stand a chance of not being seduced either.

How is this to be brought about? They are wrong who say that in the old days nobody talked about sex to children. They didn’t talk about sexual intercourse: about that you could learn, without permanent harm, by hanging around the barnyard or catching stray dogs in actu or listening to a shiftless cousin. No diagrams were necessary, much less a prissy schoolmarm with prostheses. The rest they were intelligent enough to learn when the time required it. But about sex—about being a man or a woman—they talked all the time, and we fools never talk about it at all. If, then, we want men to protect women and not seduce them (and don’t suggest they should treat women as if they were as sexless as rocks or stumps), we must raise boys who treat girls protectively; we must talk about manhood to boys. And if we want women who demand protection from men, and who are unwilling to be seduced by men, let alone to seduce the men themselves, we must raise girls who accept protection from boys; we must talk about womanhood to girls. It cannot happen by wishing. It surely will never happen by supposing that boys and girls are neuters.

Few abolitionists were up to the task of ensuring that the former slaves would enjoy the rights and exercise the responsibilities of full citizenship. In this sense, to say “We wish the slaves were all free” is like saying “We wish people would be chaste.” It is empty, unless you are willing to say what you will do, or give up, to make it a reality. To return to the boys and girls: We would have to reject many of our assumptions regarding child-rearing and education. In the old days, a boy was to “protect” a girl not because he was bigger; a faster-maturing girl may be, for a time, stronger than a boy of the same age; or a girl from a tall, broad- shouldered family may be stronger than a boy from a short, slight family. People knew that better than we, since their daily manual labor proved it. A boy was to protect a girl because he was a boy, destined to become a man, and that was that. The vagaries of individual difference did not matter, and many a girl graciously and justly accepted a boy’s offer to carry what she could more easily have carried herself.

A simple question, then: How is the boy to learn to protect women if all his life he is placed with girls indiscriminately? If he may slide tackle a girl on a soccer field, how is it that a few years later he may not slide tackle her on another field? If the girl consents to tackling in the one case, why may she not consent in the other? Anybody who thinks that rough contact with a girl—bumping, tackling, wrestling, jostling, grappling—is not sexually interesting for a boy is an idiot. Parents used to deal equitably by allowing for tomboyism in some girls while they were young, provided it were restrained and temporary. This wisdom protected the hopes of the great majority of girls who had no desire to climb cliffs or chop trees or wrestle pigs, nor any desire to marry men who would expect it of them.

Another question: How is the boy to learn to protect women if all his life he is told that women need no protecting? There is a society in which women need no protection from and by men: Heaven. Short of that, women, smaller and slighter than men and vulnerable while they are pregnant or caring for infants, do need protection, nor is there anything undignified about it. But to parade before the boy an interminable roll call of women astronauts and police and soldiers and athletes, all to enlighten him about the muscularity of women, is to teach him that women are just as he is and that he need pay them no deference. He has a taste for combat; so must they. He will gladly take a punch, if only he lands a punch or two of his own; so must they. He loves to walk, really or figuratively, along a cliff’s edge, to tempt death; so must they. Any claim on his protection he would gallantly scorn as beneath the dignity of the claimant. Let him see such “strong” women while he is growing up, let them define for him what it is to be a woman—cast contempt on “mere” motherhood and then try to tell him, at age 16, that he may not take Mary to the cliff because Mary is a girl and deserves better from him. Why, he will answer that he is giving Mary the best he has.

I leave to the reader to continue the speculation. We are now a society structured by fornication, adultery, contraception, sodomy, abortion, and divorce. If we took seriously the indissolubility of marriage, for everybody and not just for the saintly and the heroic, would we build suburbs for anonymity? Would married men and women associate casually? Would we call it “progressive” if a man and woman, colleagues at work, each married, made a habit of going to lunch together? Would parents allow children to choose their spouses without their least approval? Would we treat a divorce as if it were an appendectomy? Would we neglect to assign to the divorced a just and salutary blame—salutary for those who might be tempted to the same evil? Would we encourage unmarried men and women to live alone? Would we permit the series of emotional and sexual train wrecks once called “dating” and now called, in the brute mechanical lingo of our day, “hooking up”? Would we foster among young girls and boys the lie that independence is a good thing? Or that it is even possible?

The abolitionists had advantages we lack: They did not own or trade in slaves, and their North was militarily and economically stronger than the South. We who wish to reinstate the Sixth Commandment are a small minority; we do not control the ordonnance, namely the schools, the newspapers, and the television. Worst of all, we have cut corners, have compromised and have—like Henry Clay—been celebrated for our compromises, have looked the other way, have enjoyed the parties on the veranda, though ourselves have seldom wielded the lash. We have bought no slaves (or only one or two, to tide us over a rough time), but we shop at the slaveholder’s commissary. The abolitionists were at least prepared for the Civil War. John Brown wanted to start it. Another civil war is brewing in our nation, to be fought between those who believe in the sanctity of sex and those who do not. It will shed far less blood than the first and will therefore be much longer and more bitter. It must decide our fate as a civilization.

But we are not ready. We like too much the perks of our culture. There is no North yet in this war. We half-rebels against God lack the heart to fight. For all we are concerned, the Mason-Dixon line might as well be the Arctic Circle. William Lloyd Garrison, tone-deaf to so much in human life, yet heard the cry of the black man in his suffering far away. We hear no cries of those gone before us to hotter climes and crueler lashes than the black man ever knew. No wonder. Lots of hubbub on our broad highway.

Author’s note: Garrison’s speech was “On the Death of John Brown,” delivered in Tremont Temple, Boston, December 2, 1859. Beecher’s was “Raising the Flag over Fort Sumter,” delivered at that site on April 14, 1865. Stephen’s was “The Future of the South,” delivered before the legislature of Georgia, February 22, 1866. 

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Anthony Esolen is the author or translator of 28 books, most recently In the Beginning Was the Word: An Annotated Reading of the Prologue of John (Angelico Press), No Apologies: How Civilization Depends upon the Strength of Men (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord, a book-length poem made up of 100 poems centered on the life of Christ. He has also begun a web magazine called Word and Song, on classic hymns, poetry, language, and film. He is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts.

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