American Slavery, Northern Complicity, and “Natural” Law

Posted: October 1, 2010 by Rick Hogaboam in American History, Book Reviews, Christ & Culture, Slavery, Social Issues
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I continue my review of Andrew Napolitano’s, “Dred Scott’s Revenge: A Legal History of Race and Freedom in America” with this second installment on his 2nd chapter, “American Slavery”.

Napolitano shares what the typical life of the slave was like, involving being broken in, strict codes of discipline, teaching that livelihood was dependent on the good of the owner (thus creating sense of inferiority and dependency), and Bible Studies from selective Scripture to reinforce that slavery was their lot in life and needed to be accepted as from the hand of God.

A sad but revealing quote, “In general, even the most humane slaveholder, as paradoxical as the phrase is, could not afford to be too nice if he hoped to perpetuate his enterprise” (p. 16). This pretty much sums up the relationship of master and slave.

The Domestic slave trade was prompted by the outlawing of the African slave trade in 1808. The powers that be realized that a constant influx of slaves would perhaps lead to future revolt. Now that slaves weren’t being imported, the domestic slave trade got uglier. Masters were trying to breed more slaves to perpetuate their estate. Marriages were dissolved if there was infertility and it was plain ugly. The Northeners tried to abolish the slave trade, but they weren’t as lily white as some might think. Mills in the North processed Southern cotton, exported cotton overseas, and manufactured goods for the Southern market. Slavery was alive and well in the North prior to the Revolution and many slaves gained their freedom during the Revolution, only because it was offered in exchange for their fighting in the war. One can hardly call that emancipation based on conviction, but rather a leveraging of power over the slave to exploit their dependence on the State.

In spite of the heroic efforts of the Underground Railroad, which was based on conviction and noble intent, running away was simply not an option as the Federal Government enforced strict laws to bring fugitives back to their owners and money rewards were also offered to those who would capture slaves. Ahhhhh, how the smell of money always works its way into most every story and conflict in human history. I actually just picked up the book, “From Midnight to Dawn” based on the Underground Railroad that I hope to review sometime in the future.

The good old dollar also shows up for yet another reason why slavery was eradicated in the North (sorry to crash the party). White labor was considered more valuable than blacks, so many emancipation laws were designed to bolster the economic conditions of the whites. I guess it was, “Here’s your freedom…over there on the curb with gutter water and crumbs”. Makes slavery under a humane owner not look so bad. Reminds me of the Prodigal son who realized that servanthood in his father’s house sure did beat poverty in the distant land that allowed him to party with money, but kicked him to the curb when he was out of money. Not trying to justify slavery, nor say the Prodigal Son parable justifies slavery, but only noting that being a servant under a good master is better than being “free”, but poor and desperate to do anything for money to buy food and shelter.

Napolitano wraps up the chapter with a very interesting discussion of Natural Law, quoting from the likes of St. Thomas Aquinas, Justice Clarence Thomas, Thomas Jefferson, and Martin Luther King Jr. Aquinas argued that the government did not have the right to enact unjust laws. This raises the question of epistemology and how we can know anything, let alone whether something is right or wrong. How much can be known by “Natural Law”? Must one quote Scripture when self-evident “Natural Law” is no longer self-evident (yeah, I caught the logical fallacy as well). I am tempted to turn this post into a discussion of Theonomy, Natural Law, and more, but will refrain.

Aquinas echoed what many folks in the Reformed branch of Christianity would assert, that a government is only legitimate when it is enacted some assumed aspects of morality based on the Decalogue (10 Commandments). You can read Romans 13, where it is assumed that the Civil magistrate is punishing evil behavior…behavior called to be evil like murder, stealing, and the like. So far as the government is operating within this minimal guidelines, can they be considered as remotely legitimate. Now what about a government that is not just on a lot of things, while being just on many other things? Therein lies the dilemma that all people live under. Aquinas suggested that only “just” laws were to be obeyed. This presumes that the citizen is defining justice by some standard in which the government itself is subject to. What is that standard you might ask? Is it the Bible? Part of the Bible? Natural Revelation? This is tough. Laying that debate aside, Judge Clarence Thomas said the following about his notions of a higher, binding natural law:

Without such a notion of natural law, the entire American political tradition from Washington to Lincoln, from Jefferson to Martin Luther King, would be unintelligible.

Napolitan adds:

He (Clarence Thomas) said that he subscribes to this principle because it guarantees equality, even if the words of the Constitution do not.

Back to Thomas:

Natural rights and higher law arguments are the best defense of liberty and of limited government.

Thomas Jefferson also appealed to a higher law that he understood the magistrate to be bound by, almost as if it were a trust that needed to be guarded and protected. Jefferson was hardly an  Evangelical by modern definition, but he was a Deist and rooted inalienable rights as something, “endowed by our Creator”. I have heard that some scientists and atheists are most tempted to Theism because of the Moral argument for the existence of God. One becomes a tyrannical dictator when they enforce laws that they must admit originate in their own minds. Even utilitarianism subjects a dissenting minority to the rule of the majority and doesn’t resolve whether something is true, beautiful, and good. If the majority wish to cleanse their land of a race of people, whose to tell them that they’re wrong, irregardless if 99% think the same say for that matter?

Martin Luther King Jr., in his famous letter from the Birmingham jail, said:

…an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law

So my question to those reading this: Is there such a thing as “Natural law”? Can it be know for certain? What is it? Was Aquinas, Justice Clarence Thomas, Thomas Jefferson, and MLK Jr. right in appealing to “natural” law?  What exact “natural” law were they appealing to?

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Comments
  1. Scott Kistler says:

    I’m not well informed about natural law theory, unfortunately, but one thing in your post reminded me of something interesting. Southern slaveholders and Northern workers’ advocates sometimes found common cause in arguing that chattel slavery was better than “wage slavery” because the slave owner had to feed and clothe his slaves.

    • Interesting Scott. NATURAL Law theory is a headache of sorts. It is a necessary doctrine of sorts, articulated from Romans 1 as vindicating God in His judgment over those who have no law. Paul appeals to nature. While the doctrine is taught by Paul, it is very difficult to articulate what exactly is knowable. Clearly Paul says that certain attributes of God are known, but this imply that all know murder, stealing, and lying are wrong? It seems so. Anyhow, there is a bunch out there to read on this. Our founding fathers understood these truths to be “self-evident”, implying that there is a universal ethic and morality of sorts that needs to be defended against the imaginations of man.

  2. joelmartin says:

    I’m going to send you a paper by Leithart on Natural Law.

  3. Scott Kistler says:

    Thanks for filling me in, guys. I hope to read the Leithart paper sometime soon, although maybe not until Christmas break.

    Rick, that was a good way to express the necessity of natural law. It also seems like a concept that can be pretty malleable if not understood properly. I imagine that the Founders had some pretty different definitions of it even among themselves, given their varying levels of Christian orthodoxy and commitment to Enlightenment epistemology.

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