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  • Jeffrey D. Grynaviski (a1) and Michael C. Munger (a2)

Our theoretical claim is that racism was consciously (though perhaps not intentionally) devised, and later evolved, to serve two conflicting purposes. First, racism served a legal-economic purpose, legitimating ownership and savage treatment of slaves by southern whites, preserving the value of property rights in labor. Second, racism allowed slave owners to justify, to themselves and to outsiders, how a morally "good" person could own slaves. Racism portrayed African slaves as being less than human (and therefore requiring care, as a positive duty of the slave owner, as a man cares for his children, who cannot care for themselves), or else as being other than human (and therefore being spiritually no different from cattle or horses, and therefore requiring only the same considerations for maintenance and husbandry). The interest of the historical narrative presented here is the emergence of racial chattel slavery as a coherent and fiercely defended ideal, rather than the "necessary evil" that had been the perspective of the Founders. The reason that this is important is that the ideology of racism persisted far beyond the destruction of the institution of slavery, through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and in some ways persisting even today. This work is an example of the problems of assuming that there is a "feedback" mechanism by which moral intuitions are updated and perfected; to the contrary, as suggested by Douglass North, even socially inferior ideologies can prove extremely persistent.

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1 Texas State Library and Archives Commission,

2 “A doctrine or feeling of racial difference or antagonism, especially with reference to racial superiority, inferiority, or purity” (Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, 1984). We use the quote marks because “other-ness” rests on social constructions more than on genetic features.

3 Carmichael, Stokely and Hamilton, Charles, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America (New York: Vintage, 1967).

4 For a review of the meanings and uses of “ideology” see Douglass North, Institutions, Institutional Change, and Economic Performance (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990); and Hinich, Melvin and Munger, Michael, Ideology and the Theory of Political Choice (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994).

5 On the value of this certainty in property rights to slaves, see Grynaviski, Jeffrey and Munger, Michael, “Did Southerners Favor Slavery? Inferences from an Analysis of Prices in New Orleans, 1805-1860,” Public Choice 159 (2014): 341–61.

6 For a range of estimates on value see Robert Evans, “The Economics of American Negro Slavery,” In Aspects of Labor Economics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1962), 185–256.

7 Perhaps the most important example was a series of articles in the Charleston Mercury in 1835, laying out an extreme (and therefore unchallengeable) position that Christianity actually required race-based slavery. For background, see Albert J. Harrill, “The Use of the New Testament in the American Slave Controversy: A Case History in the Hermeneutical Tension Between Biblical Criticism and Christian Moral Debate,” Religion and American Culture 10 (2000): 1–4. A more extended version of this argument is Noll, Mark A., The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

8 Aristotle, Politics, 1259b–1260b.

9 Edmund Morgan “Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox” The Journal of American History 59 (1972): 5–29 argues that the Founders needed to look no farther than the early history of the Virginia colony to justify their fears of civil unrest. During Bacon’s Rebellion, former indentured servants, unable or unwilling to settle along the dangerous frontier, rebelled against their economic and social condition, and plundered their former masters’ estates. In fact, Morgan argues that the explosive growth in slavery during this period can be traced, in part, to the planters’ desire to gain greater social control over their workers, in order to prevent a similar sort of backlash in the future.

10 William Sumner Jenkins, Pro-Slavery Thought in the Old South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1935); Larry E. Tise, Proslavery: A history of the defense of slavery in America: 1701–1840, (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1987).

11 Quoted in Tise, , Proslavery, 101.

12 Quoted in Tise, Proslavery, 98.

13 Cooper, William, Liberty and Slavery: Southern Politics to 1860 (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1983), 31.

14 George Washington, “Letter: George Washington to George William Fairfax, November 10, 1785,” The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress.

15 Sounding an ominous portent of the future in which another crop that is highly labor-intensive would gain, and then lose, ascendancy in cultivation: cotton. For an extensive discussion, see Winthrop D. Jordan, White over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968).

16 John Chester Miller,. The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery (New York: The Free Press, 1977).

17 Thomas Jefferson, The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. and compiled by Adrienne Koch and William Peden, reprint (New York: The Modern Library, 1993).

18 William H. Freehling, “The Founding Fathers and Slavery,” The American Historical Review 77 (1972): 81–93. Perhaps the most illustrative example of the durability and extent of heterodox views was the stir created by Thomas J. Randolph’s 1831 plan to send all slaves born in Virginia after 1840 “back” to Africa. His proposal, sparked by fears of slave unrest in the aftermath of Nat Turner’s rebellion, drew broad support from the state’s newspapers, its legislature, and its slave-owning governor. Ultimately, Randolph’s proposal failed after an extended legislative debate. Still, the House of Delegates passed a measure financing the deportation of slaves whose masters wished to free them. That the voluntary deportation plan was also rejected by the state Senate demonstrates the preponderance of orthodox opinion. On the other hand, that this debate even occurred is an indication of the extent of antislavery opinion in the South. For a discussion of the Virginia debates, see Stanley M. Elkins, Slavery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976); William H. Freehling. “The Founding Fathers and Slavery”; Kenneth Stampp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South (New York: Knopf, 1956).

19 Eugene D. Genovese, The World the Slaveholders Made: Two Essays in Interpretation [1969], reprint (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1988); Tise, Proslavery.

20 One might mark the Virginia General Assembly’s failure to abolish slavery as the defining moment in the conversion of Southern attitudes from a reluctant pragmatism to a warm embrace of the institution. In less than five years following the Virginia debates, advocates of the heterodoxy had largely vanished from the Southern political scene. In its stead came a rearticulation of proslavery thought trumpeted to the masses. Jenkins writes:

No longer need one search for casual expressions of pro-slavery theory made in legislative halls or in an occasional pamphlet. The entire literature of the period is fairly permeated with it. . . Indeed, a survey of the literature of the period produces the impression that the entire produce of the collective mind of the South was colored by one absorbing interest.

See William Sumner Jenkins, Pro-Slavery Thought in the Old South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1935), 90.

21 Thomas Dew, “Review of the Debate in the Virginia Legislature” [1832], reprinted in Eric L. McKitrick, Slavery Defended: the Views of the Old South (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963).

22 Thomas Dew, “Review of the Debate in the Virginia Legislature,” 30.

23 George Fitzhugh, “Sociology for the South” [1850], reprinted in Eric L. McKitrick, Slavery Defended: the Views of the Old South (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963).

24 Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (New York: Charles Kerr and Company, 1919). For background, see Michael Phillips, “George Fitzhugh, 1806–1881,” Historical Encyclopedia of World Slavery, ed. Junius Rodriguez, ABC-CLIO, 269–70.

25 See Tise, Proslavery.

26 Thomas Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia,” (1832), reprinted in A. Koch and W. Peden, The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, (1944), 257.

27 From Madison’s Notes on Debates of the Federal Convention, June 19, 1787. On-line document, ed. Gordon Lloyd. The “still more” is understandable in the context, but it is striking that Madison was at this point so equivocal.

28 Freehling, “The Founding Fathers and Slavery.”

29 From Jefferson’s “Letter to Dr. Richard Price,” August 7, 1785. National Archives, Washington, DC. “Founders Online,”

30 Auguste Levasseur , Lafayette in America, in 1824 and 1825: Or, Journal of Travels, in the United States (New York: White, Gallaher, and White, 1829), 222.

31 Thomas Jefferson, 1784; Notes on the State of Virginia, Queries 137–143.

32 For the history of slave “revolts” in the United States, and attempts at suppression by force and secrecy, see Herbert Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts (NY: International Publishers, 1970).

33 Thornton Stringfellow, “A Brief Examination of Scripture Testimony on the Institution of Slavery [1841], in an Essay, First Published in the Religious Herald, and Republished by Request: with Remarks on a Letter of Elder Galusha, of New York, to Dr. R. Fuller, of South Carolina.”

34 Quoted in Drew Gilpin Faust, The Ideology of Slavery (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1981), 177.

35 This statement is variously attributed, and may simply have obscure folk origins. But the statement is often attributed to Lawrence Summers, then President of Harvard University, in 2002.

36 See, for diverse examples, Elkins op cit.; Freeling op cit.; Stamp, op cit.; and Michael Wayne, “An Old South Morality Play: Reconsidering the Social Underpinnings of the Proslavery Ideology,” The Journal of American History 77 (1990): 838–63.

38 Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Vintage Books, 1976), 77.

39 William Harper, “Memoir on slavery: read before the Society for the Advancement of Learning, of South Carolina, at its annual meeting at Columbia, 1837” (Pamphlet). (Charleston, SC: James S. Burges, 1838).

40 From “The Beard,” Episode 16, Season 6. Jerry is trying to beat a lie detector test, and George thinks he knows how to beat it: just believe the lie.

41 Faust, op. cit, p. 10.

42 Freeling, op. cit. See also “An Abolitionist Caught,” Nashville Republican, Aug. 11, 1835.

43 Jenny Bourne Wahl, The Bondsman’s Burden: An Economic Analysis of the Common Law of Southern Slavery (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998). See also Andrew Fede, “Legitimized Violent Slave Abuse in the American South, 1619–1865: A Case Study of Law and Social Change in Six Southern States,” The American Journal of Legal History 29 (1985): 93–150.

44 Robert Fogel, and Stanley Engerman, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1974).

45 Rawls, John, The Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971).

46 John Tomasi, Free Market Fairness (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011) quotes Hayek: “We should regard as the most desired order of society the one we would choose if we knew that our initial position in it would be determined purely by chance (such as the fact of our being born into a particular family)” (159).

47 Charles de Secondat Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws [1750] trans. Anne M. Cohler, Basia Carolyn Miller, and Harold Samuel Stone (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), Book XV, Chapter 9, p. 253.

48 North, Douglass, “Economic Performance Through Time,” American Economic Review 84 (1994): 360–61.

* The authors acknowledge helpful comments by John Aldrich, Ben Baack, Gerald Gaus, Tim Groseclose, Robert Keohane, A. Raoul Rutten, Gordon Tullock, and an anonymous reviewer, as well as the research assistance of David Margolis. The project was funded in part by the National Science Foundation, SBER #9819061.

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