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Thu Aug 13, 2015, 08:29 PM

Slavery Is Theft

Abolitionists gave us the vital idea that some things should not be for sale. by james oakes 8-13-15

The debate over slavery was always, at bottom, a debate about property rights. Abolitionists were revolutionaries for their time, but not socialists: they did not demand the abolition of property as such. But they denied that any person had a legitimate right to hold property in another person.

When abolitionists denounced slavery as “theft,” they had two different kinds of robbery in mind. One was the day-by-day, year-by-year, theft of the fruits of the slave’s labor. But they were also thinking of a different, more fundamental kind of theft. Human beings own themselves, as a natural right, a right of property, abolitionists argued. So when masters claimed slaves as their own they were effectively robbing the slaves of their property in themselves.

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In and of itself the defense of property does not explain what kind of property is at stake in any particular conflict. The debate over slavery makes this clear. What needs to be explained, if we are to explain the Civil War, is why one particular form of property — slave property — became so disreputable as to warrant destruction.

Every historian knows that abolitionism, somehow, cleared the path for the triumph of wage labor. The struggle over slavery forced its opponents to specify the difference between the illegitimate sale of an entire human being and the “legitimate” sale of one’s labor power. When Frederick Douglass denounced his Baltimore master for robbing him of his weekly wages and when he said that his new life as a free man began the day he received his first honest wage working on the docks of New Bedford, he was dramatizing the difference between slavery and free labor ...

Much more here: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/08/slavery-abolition-lincoln-oakes-property/

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