Nobody seems to put in a good word for slavery these days. When the Confederate States of America was still a going concern, leaders on both the Union and Rebel sides acknowledged that preservation of slavery was the CSA’s raison d’etre; today, the South is full of nutbars (and I mean that in the nicest possible way) who apologize for every aspect of the CSA except for slavery, and who insist that freeing the slaves had nothing to do with the War of Northern Agression.
Furthermore, back in the early 19th century, when abolitionists declared slavery to be immoral, conservatives had a simple reply: the Bible says it’s OK. The “Old Testament” authorizes Jews to purchase slaves from other nations and keep them indefinitely (Leviticus 25:44–46); St. Paul told slaves to obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5); ergo, slavery is OK. This line of argument, too, seems out of favor these days.
It is possible, however, to take the Bible seriously as a moral touchstone, legalized slavery and all, and be grateful for the Emancipation Proclamation.
Consider the economic environment for most of recorded history, i.e., between the invention of agriculture and the Industrial Revolution. Without a modern banking system, the most effective way to accumulate (or liquidate) wealth was to buy (or sell) food-producing real estate. If you didn’t own any such land, and you or your spouse weren’t among the very few people who could support themselves year-round with non-agricultural work, you were screwed. In this kind of situation, slavery could be an impoverished person’s least bad option, especially because during a slack season, even when there was no work to be done, the master was still obliged to feed and house the slave.
Thus, last week’s parsha teaches that a Jewish slave can choose to stay bound to his master “forever” (Exodus 21:6) — but in the jubilee year, when every Jewish family gets back its share of Eretz Yisrael’s real estate, even this slave goes free (Leviticus 25:40–41). Non-Jewish slaves were not automatically released because they did not automatically have anywhere to go to.
So if slavery was such a good thing back then, why did it stop being a good thing a few hundred years ago, when America was still a primarily agricultural society?
The simple answer is that just because the Torah permits something, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. The Torah has a positive commandment for how a man should divorce his wife, but that doesn’t mean every man should do it.
An additional reason, however, deserves mention. As Evsey Domar and Brad DeLong point out, when land in a pre-industrial society is scarce, the wages of free workers, or the shares of sharecroppers, are so low that there’s no benefit to enslaving them. Thus, in the ancient Middle East, slaves were almost always debtors or prisoners of war; slavery was a by-product of other social institutions, not an engine of the economy. In medieval Europe, similarly, serfdom was legal, but actual serfs were rare.
By contrast, in antebellum America, white landowners faced an abundance of cheap land, and the potential for great profits by selling staple products. Free workers would bid up the price of their labor and cut into the landowners’ profits; slaves working on a cotton farm were easy to control. Therefore, the white aristocracy did not merely enslave people who happened to be on the losing side of a war; they (or their agents) made war on other ethnic groups for the sake of capturing and selling slaves, and convinced one another that the victims of these wars, and their descendants, deserved what they got.
The Jewish slave-owners of a few thousand years back were not only constantly reminded that their ancestors were slaves in Egypt; they knew that with a run of bad financial luck, or a Jewish military defeat, they could personally end up as slaves. White plantation owners in the South had no such fear.