Historical Parochialism: American Slavery is Not Ancient Slavery

Americans do not know much about history and when know a little we tend to Americanize it.

Like American cheese product, this American history product is sort-of-like history, but also not very good: either for you or for consumption.  Examples of American history product abound: World War I was waiting until America came to get it ended. The League of Nations failed because America did not join it.

The American left often thinks America caused more problems than we have and the American right that we fixed more than we did. American Christian school textbooks from American Christian publishers often serve up American history product. Oddly, there is an example found on both the American right and American left of American history product.

Is there any change to Christian practice, any at all, that some American has not justified by comparing opposition to that change with opposition to slavery? 

Slavery is the United States was its own peculiar institution: its own horrid evil, but often Americans write as if slavery in the ancient world is equivalent to the American slave disaster that ended in a Civil War. This obscures important differences between the two that has the effect of making America’s original sin seem better than it was.

Christendom has agreed on many things and traditional Christians can unite on those issues (as Catholic, Orthodox, and traditional Protestants do), but American race slavery was never one of them not even in the United States. 

American slavery has as many dissimilarities to ancient slavery as similarities. Nobody in the modern world should be slave and wherever Christianity has gone slavery has died out,  but American slavery was a uniquely toxic and unacceptable form of slavery.

The reason is simple. For a Christian to justify or even make money off slavery, then ancient slavery had to evolve or it would naturally die. Ancient slavery was economic or military and the more rights a slave gained, since everyone knew a slave was human, the tougher things were for the master. Any person if they became poor enough or if their nation lost a war might become a slave. As a result, a slave owner realized that his or her slave might be superior in every possible way to the master.

Ancient slaves were human beings and some ancient cultures gave them rights.* A man or woman who was a slave was not “inferior” by nature, but unfortunate. Given how little wealth existed in the ancient world compared to the modern, the lifestyle and liberty of urban slaves could be superior to that of a “free” barbarian. Slaves were often better educated. More than one Greek slave taught future Roman senators Greek culture.

Slavery was a morally bad solution to economic problems, but in some cases it was arguably better than the plausible or immediate alternatives. Philosophers worried about slavery and though Aristotle would defend slavery as needed to care for certain humans that had a “slave mentality” this actually undercut the morality of keeping most human beings as slaves.

Judaism and Christianity reinforced the widespread idea that the economic slave was human. If a slave was a Christian, he or she must be treated as a brother or sister. This made the economic value of slavery very questionable in a Christian household. Other economic relationships supplanted slavery all over the ancient world as philosophy and Christianity spread. Some of those were imperfect, but still an improvement, such as being a serf.

Christian nations gradually learned better, more humane ways to handle economic loss or conquest of a people than slavery. If slavery was a barely permissible accommodation to barbarism and poverty, it was soon dropped. As Paul put it: slaves should take their freedom if they could get it, but he no place urged anybody to become a slave if they could!

Against all this tradition, in the radical Enlightenment spirit of those who defy the Faith, Americans did an evil thing: helped create a new even less justifiable form of slavery. It was parochial and really incomprehensible to outside observers.

American slavery in order to survive in Christendom depended on racism. American slavery was race based. Racism is not condemned in the Bible, because a strong differentiation between “races” was not common in the ancient world. “People groups” could contain (and sometimes did) more than one race. But now Americans and certain other Europeans outdid the ancients in evil: Certain races could be morally enslaved, because as a group they were “natural slaves.” European races were natural rulers based on racial differences.

Of course, one of the first Christian nations was Ethiopia so this racial theory was contradicted by the existence of  global Christianity. Race based slavery denied that African-Americans were fully human, despite the obvious humanity of this group of people. We were not acting like the ancients, but acting worse than the ancients by reviving slavery, but this time a slavery totally based on “who a person was” and not on economic status.

Against the historic and global experience of interracial marriage, the United States of America (and some other European groups) would ban “race mixing,” because it would dilute the power and purity of the “white race.”  A freed slave in the ancient world was simply a freeman, but a free African-American in parts of the American South became a practical impossibility.

The full humanity of the African American was denied, Aristotle’s dangerous idea of “natural slaves” found a home.

This horrible history culminating in our bloody, but redemptive Civil War is important. Every American should learn the lessons it teaches: defying history, common sense, and the rest of the world to remake morality was wicked. We denied marriage to those who always could marry in Christendom, even if geographical distribution had made such marriages less common in Northern Europe.

I have heard Americans say to shame us: “The Tsar of Russia freed the serfs long before the Republic freed the slaves.” Actually Peter the Great ended slavery in Russia long before the American Civil War: serfs were not slaves. America should be ashamed of slavery, but slavery and Russian serfhood were two very different conditions and institutions. Russian serfdom outlived its time and it was never good, but it was arguably better than race slavery.*

Serfs were human, serfs were Russians, serfs were subjects of the Tsar. An American slave was no man.

Tradition opposed “race based” slavery. Only American “traditions,” a blink of the eye in the history of the Church, supported the monstrous evil of race based slavery. I have seen Americans look at ancient monuments in Europe and when slavery is discussed import American categories and experience!

Americans will often say: “But the Church, at least some of it, opposed abolition or interracial marriage . . . so my particular reform, just like it, is good.” But this is highly parochial since the racism of some Americans (secular and Christian) was an aberration globally. In fact, so peculiar was American slavery, that interracial marriage was never illegal in huge parts of the United States. These regions were full of Church goers and actually were more traditionally Christian. 

Slavery is, of course, a complex topic. I have simplified both ancient and American forms of slavery, but the even grosser simplification of conflating the two phenomena, because they have the name “slavery” in common is worse.

Let’s all agree to avoid historically parochial examples.

*To argue that x was better than y is not to argue that x is good. I think the segregated South was better than certain regimes, say the Nazi one, but I have not sympathy for segregation.

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About John Mark N. Reynolds

John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education. He is also a philosopher, administrator, and joyous curmudgeon. He is a follower of Jesus and a student of Socrates. He is also an owner of the Green Bay Packers.

  • Dorfl

    Ancient slaves were human beings and some ancient cultures gave them rights.* A man or woman who was a slave was not “inferior” by nature, but unfortunate.

    By coincidence, I just finished reading David Livingstone Smith’s book Less than Human, which argues the complete opposite. A large part of his thesis is that dehumanising slaves and foreigners is something that we have done for much longer than most people realise – that we’re even to some extent wired to do that.

    According to him, it was generally agreed that slaves lacked some essential quality that makes a person fully human. That while they might have seemed human on the outside, on the inside they lacked the capacity for emotion and reason that a real human has, making it more proper to view them as cattle or as tools with hands.

    While Aristotle and other philosophers may have expressed this in more specific terms, the general idea that the inner nature of slaves differed from others seems to have been held by most people who were not themselves slaves.

    Philosophers worried about slavery and though Aristotle would defend slavery as needed to care for certain humans that had a “slave mentality” this actually undercut the morality of keeping most human beings as slaves.

    But most humans clearly have the slave mentality! Real humans are autochtonic, created from the soil of Greece herself, which the barbaroi clearly are not. This is demonstrated by their inability to speak a real language, such as greek.

    • John Mark N. Reynolds

      “Less than Human” is an important book and a comment thread is no place to respond in full, but ancient slavery (while it sometimes justified itself by arguing other people groups were inherently inferior or sub-human) was primarily economic.

      Obviously a problem with any form of slavery is that it leads (inevitably?) to dehumanization of the worker.

      As for ethnocentrism (which did not have to be racial), it did exist in places like Greece . . . but it is different from slavery qua slavery. A Greek could be slave after all . . . and a barbarian could (by many Greeks) be accepted as “Greek.” The Macedonians . . . are they Greek?

      Speakers are “real language” could be slaves! White slavery in the South had to disappear to justify race based slavery.

      In any case, I doubt we disagree on the fundamental point: anybody could find themselves a slave in the ancient world, aristocrats and wise people, while in the American South only African Americans could be enslaved (once slavery was institutionalized there). No African-American could ever be free.

      A child of a freed Roman slave could achieve any status his or her luck or pluck could get him or her. You cannot say that for any African American in the South before the Civil War.

      In any case, the idea that ancient slavery was “economic” and not (mostly) based on social inferiority is a mainstream (the mainstream?) view.

      • Dorfl

        I think we broadly agree about the facts, but that we have very different ways of looking at them.

        In both ancient slavery and American slavery, there seems to have been an idea that some people were by their intrinsic nature meant to be slaves. This could imply that they were entirely non-human, or just slightly less than fully human, but either way they were not seen as being on the same level as free citizens.

        In the case of ancient slavery, people seem to have been more open to the possibility that people could be ‘misfiled’, so to speak. That by ill fortune someone could end up being a slave without having the nature of a slave. In that case I’d assume that if a former slave or their children worked their way up, that could be seen as retroactive proof that they’d lacked the slave nature all along*.

        They also seem to have been open to the possibility that different parts of someone’s nature could fight and defeat the other, leaving a person with the same appearance but a different essence inside. Thus, a person who had previously been a natural slave could potentially become a full human being.

        In the case of American slavery, it was explicitly assumed that the inner nature of people was also externally visible by their skin colour, and as unchangeable as that.

        If I understand you right, you see those as making up qualitative differences that mean we should see them as two distinct institutions that happen to share a name. I see American slavery as being just the most extreme expression of the same underlying ideas. I think that if you were born a slave in either society, you were most likely going to die a slave as well, after a lifetime of being treated at best like a pet, at worst like cattle. While a slave in the ancient world had a hope of becoming free, that usually just remained a hope. This makes me see them as basically similar, but I realise that’s a personal judgement about which things are most relevant.

        * This kind of reasoning is very common. I think most members of any despised group X will at some point find themselves reassured by well-meaning people that they are one of the good Xs, unlike the vast majority.

        • ThisIsTheEnd

          Spartans certainly thought of slaves as being sub-human. I think they use to cull the slave population every couple of years.

          I’m under the impression that the slave laws and jubilee in the OT only applied to Jewish slaves. If I’m right then foreign slaves may have been regarded as lesser beings.

        • TS

          There was racial slavery in Greece and Rome which is evident by citizenship restrictions in Athens and Rome. However, race/slavery relationship was very different in Greece than it was in US South. In addition, some blacks did earn freedom in the South (though rare) – it was not quite a black/white picture. Both systems have their own complexity. Nonetheless, I do agree that there are clearly similar underlying ideas between the two slave systems.

  • Dorfl

    Americans will often say: “But the Church, at least some of it, opposed abolition or interracial marriage . . . so my particular reform, just like it, is good.”

    Wait. I’m slow in the mornings. This post isn’t actually about history or slavery at all, is it? It’s about gay marriage.

    • John Mark N. Reynolds

      No. It is not about gay marriage. It is true that advocates of gay marriage have called those opposed to their point of view “just like those who opposed abolition,” but so have (a sad number of other groups). One example: opposition to women’s ordination has been compared to opposition to abolition of slavery.

      • Dorfl

        Fair enough. Sorry I jumped to conclusions – I got involved in a lengthy discussion on this blog about comparisons between slavery and opposition to gay marriage some time ago.

  • Philmonomer

    Slavery is, of course, a complex topic. I have simplified both ancient
    and American forms of slavery, but the even grosser simplification of
    conflating the two phenomena, because they have the name “slavery” in
    common is worse.

    I always thought the major problem with slavery and the Bible wasn’t that the Bible allows for the American form of slavery. Rather, it was that the Bible allows for some form of slavery. Specifically, the kind of slavery that existed in the ancient near east (ANE).

    If you want to argue that the ancient near east’s slavery is fundamentally different than American slavery, I don’t really have a problem with that. (I am not sure how true it is, but I think the argument is probably a waste of time.) What I have a problem with is that there is no principled (Biblical) argument against a person who advocates for allowing individuals to sell themselves into slavery to pay their debts, or people who advocate enslaving non-christians defeated in a war, or however you want to characterize the nature of ANE slavery. (indeed, since the financial collapse of 2008, or 9/11, slavery may have been an appealing option for some). The fact of the matter is that the Bible clearly allows for some forms of slavery.

    That is what makes the Bible wrong about this. Indeed, if you think all forms of slavery are morally wrong (as most every person in America does), that actually is NOT a biblical view–and, I’d argue, you are basing your morality on something other than the Bible. The author of this piece says “Slavery was a morally bad solution to economic problems,” Where in the Bible does it say that?

    Finally, the author points out that “Is there any change to Christian practice, any at all, that some American has not justified by comparing opposition to that change with opposition to slavery?”

    This is actually a valid comparison. Not on the basis of American Slavery versus ANE slavery, but on the basis of our modern American attitudes that finds immoral Any Form of Slavery versus Biblically Permitted ANE Slavery.

  • Daniel Webb

    No need for us to compare how slaves were treated in ancient times to American slavery. There just needs to be one question asked: is it morally acceptable to own another human being? If so, by all means find someone who is down on their luck and tell them that in exchange for their work and ownership of their life–you’ll offer free room and board, and treat them well. If not, then you’ve probably realized you can’t fundamentally treat someone as an equal if you own them as property and can pass them down to your future generations.

  • TS

    Slave systems can be compared, but we must be aware of the social, cultural, economic, and political differences when making comparisons. In addition, we have to be careful that we are not anachronistically evaluating slavery in antiquity. I find it annoying when Classicists try to act uphold a romanticized view of Greece and Rome – it’s silly to say one slave system was better than another. In all instances, slaves were socially alienated and denied ‘true’ humanity.