The Devastating Consequences of a Bad Assumption: The South’s Moral Justification of Slavery

I am a big fan of the historical novels of James Michener.  A Michener novel takes a location such as Hawaii, South Africa, or Israel and tells the story of this location from pre-history to modern times tracing the lineage of a few families and telling snapshot stories through the different time periods.  Frequently Michener will intermix real

john c calhoun

John C. Calhoun

historical characters with his fictional characters.  These novels tell wonderful stories while educating the reader on how the location evolved into what it is today.

I am currently reading Chesapeake, which focuses on Maryland by the  Chesapeake Bay.  I just finished reading a fictional debate between John C. Calhoun and a fictional Quaker abolitionist family.  John C. Calhoun was a former vice-president and a long-time senator from South Carolina.  Along with Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and Henry Clay of Kentucky, Calhoun was one of a triumvirate of senators who dominated the first half of the nineteenth century.  He is typically ranked as one of the most influential American legislators of all-time.  He is best known as the primary spokesman in support of slavery.

I have long understood why pre-Civil-War southerners believed that slavery was vital to the functioning of their economy.  I also knew that many southerners also believed that their support of slavery was morally righteous, that slavery was good.  I never understood how they could possibly think that, until I read Michener.  While this debate is fictional, I have researched enough to believe that it fairly represents the attitudes of the time and can therefore be enlightening.

In this fictional debate, John C. Calhoun begins with the following statement, “I think we can start best by agreeing that the Negro is an inferior human being, destined to serve the white man in a secondary capacity.”  Calhoun starts his argument with the key assumption that blacks are inferior and are not capable of reasoning.  All of his arguments morally justifying slavery are based upon this assumption.   He thought that  black slaves in the south were much happier than free blacks in the north who worked in factories in horrible conditions.

Calhoun’s entire outlook on the world was built on this assumption.  If evidence pointed to his  assumption as being false, he refused to believe it.  When he was asked how if Negroes were inferior that Frederick Douglas could write so brilliantly, he said that white men must have really written the book.

This horrendous assumption that blacks were subhuman resulted in centuries of enslavement.  The Nazi’s assumption that Jews were subhuman resulted in the holocaust.  Other bad assumptions are less overtly evil, but may be no less devastating.  The alluring appeal of communism where everybody works for the public good instead of for the selfish reasons encouraged by capitalism resulted in Stalin murdering over 20 million people (New York Times), Mao murdering over 45 million people (Washington Post), and countless other people living in poverty and oppression.  Despite all of this, many people today, who may in every other aspect be wonderful people, still believe in the inherent goodness of communism.

In earlier posts I highlighted the top ten bad assumptions:

Top Ten Bad Assumptions: 1 – If we disagree, you are either mean or stupid.

Top Ten Bad Assumptions: 2 – The intended effect is the only effect.

Top Ten Bad Assumptions: 3 – America should not favor Americans.

Top Ten Bad Assumptions: 4 – Government helps people. Business exploits people.

Top Ten Bad Assumptions: 5 – The way to peace is to be so nice that nobody will want to attack us.

Top Ten Bad Assumptions: 6 – Every problem has a good solution.

Top Ten Bad Assumptions: 7 – Judge a policy based on its benefits.

Top Ten Bad Assumptions: 8 –The enemy of your enemy is your friend.

Top Ten Bad Assumptions: 9 – People making more cause other people to make less.

Top Ten Bad Assumptions: 10 – Welfare is charity.

These bad assumptions are prevalent in current politics and these also cause otherwise good people to promote policies with devastating consequences.  Alternatively, these people would say that my bad assumptions are the problem.  Either way, we must fight to resist our comfort zones and to constantly re-examine the assumptions that form the basis of our beliefs.  We should each endeavor to not be the twenty first century version of John C. Calhoun.

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