Saturday I visited Monticello, and was struck by hearing this story:
Thomas Jefferson (TJ) brought slaves Sally & James Hemings with him to Paris. After 5 yrs, at ages 16 & 24, they could have stayed free in Paris, but they instead agreed to return to US as slaves. TJ agreed to free Sally’s future kids, and that James would be free in US after training replacements. The rest of their family had remained in US, she was pregnant w/ TJ child, James knew French & had a trade, and the French revolution had started.
Overall my opinion of Jefferson declined, and I tweeted:
Visiting Monticello, I’m not inclined to see Jefferson as more sincere then the typical politician. Articulate, charismatic, well connected, but not especially sincere.
As the Hemmings were famous slaves, they seem an interesting example of people who apparently voluntary chose to become slaves. I’ve long thought this was an interesting category, which includes the historically more common category of debt bondage. Even if one disapproves of enticing someone into voluntarily agreeing to slavery, that still seems less blameworthy than enslaving people via direct physical force. So I tweeted:
There should be a word for slaves who agreed to be salves, w/o extortion or other illegitimate pressures. E.g. Sally Hemings & brother made deals w/ Jefferson. Different word could highlight its lower moral culpability.
I soon added a link to a summary of this history, and the clarification:
Note: I’m not claiming that it is obvious that these two people were not subject to illegitimate pressures, only that it seems plausible that they were not. Allowing them to serve as an example of the concept I ask about.
Let me also now clarify, if it isn’t obvious, that a lower moral culpability can still be a very high level of culpability.
I have so far been subject to a storm of disapproving, and often quite rude, responses (1K comments so far). Most do not make any argument or intellectual point, but there are exceptions. One big set disapproves of making moral distinctions between different cases of slavery; many have said so quite explicitly. Apparently saying that some cases of slavery are worse than others is seen as excusing the less worse cases. They similarly see the claim that not all Nazis were equally bad as a pro-Nazi stance. They apparently see this as a signaling game wherein speaking this truth is taboo, and where violations have bad motives.
In response to a comment (explained below), I said:
Slave owners did many bad things, but each owner didn’t do every single one.
This received a similar storm of disapproval, as did this question:
Do you think all Nazis were equally bad?
Again, hard to see my statement or question as incorrect, but many see pointing to moral variations among slave owners or Nazis as praising them.
To see how many agreed with my claim on moral culpability differences, I did two Twitter polls. By a 2 to 1 margin out of 660 votes, they said that there exist plausible history, options, & preferences to make a scenario where someone got someone else to agree to be a slave less morally culpable than if they had enslaved them via direct physical force. By a 5 to 2 margin out of 486 votes, they said that Jefferson specifically would have been more culpable if he had instead physically forced the Hemmings to return to the US. So they clearly agree with me that we can distinguish different degrees of culpability here.
Another big set of responses to my original tweet that mentioned the Hemmings claimed that their deals did in fact involve “extortion or other illegitimate pressures”. I did a poll here and found folks agreeing with this claim, 2 to 1 out of 409 votes. A followup poll finds that out of four options I gave, most see the illegitimate pressures as due to their having been slaves before, and having family remaining in the US.
I teach law & economics, and so am familiar with the usual legal reasons given for not enforcing contracts, because the deals are not seen as legitimate. For example, when a contract itself has bad effects, as with contracts for assassinations or for price collusion. Or when the context of a contract suggests that it is a mistake, such as with ignorance, mental defects, or fraud. Or when one party induces a contract by threatening to cause harms in illegal ways, such as with a gun. Or when one party has an unusual degree of market power, inducing outcomes far from supply & demand, such as may happen when rescuing someone in the desert.
These are the sort of things I had in mind re “extortion or other illegitimate pressures”. It is fine to dislike the Hemmings’ deal because you just dislike slavery, full stop. But that’s saying the contract itself is bad, not that it was induced in a bad way. To show that it was induced badly, you need to show something like that threats of force were made, or that excess market power was used.
The fact that they were both slaves before shows that they understood what they were agreeing to, and so makes it less likely that this contract was due to a mistake or fraud. And our world is full of people who live far from their family, and full of others who might help them see their family. Surely we don’t want to reject deals just because one party is motivated by wanting to see their family.
Should we reject an airline ticket purchase because the traveler is going to see family? Should we reject a rental agreement because the tenant wants to live near neighbors they like? Should we say that most people are enslaved by their nation because they are reluctant to leave due to wanting to live near family? Should we forbid a church from offering a deal to avoid excommunication, as that act could cut one off from family? I doubt most people in history would agree to be a slave just to live near family, especially when they are young adults already apart for five years, so I’m skeptical this was the main reason the Hemmings agreed to this deal. In this poll of 10K, 90+% say they & most people in history wouldn’t do that.
A number of people argued that we should presume that Jefferson had threatened, if the Hemmings didn’t agree to his terms, to kill their family in the US, and to pay people to hunt them down and kill them. Because some slave owners had in fact threatened such things at times. (That’s the context in which I tweeted “Slave owners did …”) But until we find more specific evidence to suggest that, that seems a crazy extreme assumption to me to make about Jefferson in Paris, where the local law would treat such acts as murder. And I expect the rate at which owners killed the families of escaped slaves in retaliation to be quite low.
Added 1May: Many have argued that slaves are conditioned to obey and avoid risk, and this invalidates the Hemmings’ agreement. That would make more sense if they had just returned to the US without complaint. But (according to our best evidence) they actually explicitly threatened to stay, and negotiated directly with Jefferson on terms; they acted willing to disobey. And if they thought slavery was as terrible as people say, returning to slavery seems the larger risk. I get that harsh circumstances can change you, but I don’t yet see that as a reason to question the choices of such people.
Also, many have said they can’t see any point to making moral distinctions between behaviors if there aren’t people in front of us today that we might punish differently. But I’m an intellectual who specializes in conceptual theory, and who explores radical alternatives to existing institutions. The military draft, prison as a punishment for crime, and debt bondage are all conceptually related to slavery, as are many similar institutions that we might consider.