Conservatism and Slavery

June 11, 2009

Coates on slavery and conservatism:

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why I’m not a conservative, mostly because I’ve been thinking so much about slavery and Reconstruction. It seems, to my mind, to be an authentic conservative in the 1850s is to perhaps recognize slavery as evil, but oppose doing anything about it that might upset the planters. It seems, to my mind, to be an authentic conservative in the 1960s would be to recognize that segregation was also evil, but resolve to nothing about it which might upset its supporters.

If you are the slave, that essentially conservative approach will always privilege your master over you. Conservatism, with its belief in institutions, traditions, and the past, will seemingly always privilege (perhaps inadvertently) the powerful over the powerless. Institutions, traditions and the past belong to those with power. Privileging them, privileges their agents.

Will de la League responds:

I think it’s quite possible to argue that there were no good conservative answers to slavery or Jim Crow. But I don’t think this invalidates every conservative insight into the nature of our politics and culture. If anything, it’s a simple acknowledgment that some problems really do transcend rote ideological responses, and that no interpretive framework can provide a universal set of predictive guidelines for dealing with every possible eventuality.

Seconded;  if we take seriously the notion that no-one has a monopoly on truth, then it follows necessarily that everyone will be wrong at some point, and in the case of slavery, radicals clearly had the upper hand, morally speaking.

That said, I want to take issue with Coates’s claim that conservatism had nothing to offer the African-Americans trapped under slavery’s thumb.  If we follow the line of reasoning offered by Burke and like-minded souls, authentic conservatism is founded on much more than simple demand that things happen slowly, though in many cases that would be the ultimate conclusion. Rather, their views were based on the assumption that those institutions undermined by revolution are actually indispensable for the human good and for stability; in lieu of the ties established by family, church, culture, and class, political organization is impossible and human welfare declines precipitously.* So conservatism is not just an insistence that we should wait, but also an insistence that certain forms of the human good be allowed to flourish without the interference of the abstract reason represented by radicalism.

As an institution, slavery is unique in that it existed for so long, on such a huge scale, and became such an integral part of the world economic order, that conservatives who failed to think on a world-historical scale would have mistaken it for an established order.  Yet that doesn’t change just how radical a system it was, and how deeply it damaged those systems conservatives were supposedly sworn to protect. It destroyed homes, families, traditions, nations, and entire religious traditions, in the place of those things erecting a system based on the constant erasure of whatever African-Americans might build outside the boundaries of a white dominated power structure.  And, sure to form, during the enlightenment, slavery was justified by pseudo-scientific ideologies which persisted for centuries and left thousands of lives ruined.

Now, on the flipside of all this stood the plantation aristocracy, who doubtless saw slavery as vital to their culture and would have cited conservatism in their defence. But as I suggested above, the measure of a society’s conservatism is not how little it changes; it is how well it fosters stability and persistence at the most basic levels of culture.  Because the conservatism of slave-holders was founded on the multi-generational exportation of radical violence to Africa, and the denial of slaves’ capacity to build those stable organizations, their conservatism meant more or less the exact reverse of what it normally means.

So I think it can be argued (as I tried to do above) that conservatism doesn’t necessarily mean that the master comes out ahead.  It means that established institutions are valued, and insofar as all institutions require some measure of power and privilege then yes, conservatism favors the powerful. But it is not a rote endorsement for despotism; indeed, it should oppose despotism precisely because it disrupts the social fabric on which we all, white and black alike, rely.

*(Though the parties get pretty good.)


3 Responses to “Conservatism and Slavery”

  1. HC, the only issue I take with your essay is this – conservatives are as conservatives do. The fight against Jim Crow was led by liberals, and the fight to maintain Jim Crow was led by conservatives. One could argue that fight continues today, given the paleness of the Republicans, the avowed conservative party.

    Your deep rooted conservatism is not strong enough to withstand greed and ego and all the other selfish impulses of powerful men. The very systems for which you advocate breed exactly the leaders who will destroy your vision.


  2. […] the recent discussion over conservatism and slavery (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and so on) has put me to questioning what a conservatism would look like whose view of tradition […]

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