Slavery and Anti-Slavery in the 19th Century and Today

by Anne Sherrod

In 1990 in British Columbia, the environmental movement played a large role in defeating the Socred government and electing a party that promised environmental reforms. This was achieved by a general uprising of the public that was led by virtually every environmental group in the province.

Environmental groups thus hold a large amount of power. They are trans­mitters in an electrical circuit that can sometimes greatly affect the reactions of the public. Because of that, they bear a grave responsibility in what they do with their en­dorsements. This is the crux of a moral crisis within the environmental movement today.

The world has reached a place where the consequenc­es of environmental damage are more dire than ever (for instance, the extinction of a species, or high cancer rates around the tarsands development.) Nowhere is this more so than in the issue of climate change, in which all life on Earth is threatened.

Nowhere is humanity’s slavery to exploitative eco­nomic forces more apparent than in its inability to under­take any substantial action to re­verse climate change. Instead we have seen corporations combine withgovernments to use tanks, guns and bombs to consolidate their power over Mideast oil reserves, huge quantities of which have been used to wage the wars.

In this spreading darkness, the feeling of enslave­ment has caused some people to seek answers in the black people’s epic struggle for freedom and equality. How did slavery end? More importantly, how could it have co-existed for 75 years with the principles that had led to the famous Declaration of Independence? In a nation such as that, why did it take one of the world’s most bloody wars to end slavery?

Those who have studied this history have found re­markable corollaries to our situation today. For instance, Professor Marc Davidson of the University of Amsterdam used the US Congressional record to show that legislators were making the exact same excuses for failing to cut car­bon emissions that their predecessors once made for refus­ing to abolish slavery. (Climate Change, 27 April 2007). He equated slave labour to fossil fuels, which reflected why slaveholders wanted slaves: as an energy source for doing work.

Our modern slavery is directly descended from the enslavement of black people and can be traced throughout history. As laws clamped down on physical slavery, the old model of controlling people through brutality came to be replaced by one of deception and manipulation. The new Slave Power discovered that it was better to maintain a shell of democracy and allow people to vote, while con­trolling politics behind the scenes. Paying people wages (however poor and uncertain), and making them feel good (however superficially), enabled a far more long-lasting and lucrative form of exploitation than abusing people with chains and whips.

The slave system included laws against teaching slaves to read. If slaves could read, they might begin to get the idea that there wasn’t much difference between them­selves and white people. They might learn that freedom could be gained by travelling north.

Slaveholders of the 21st century cannot keep people from reading, but they have other ways of keeping them ignorant. They can deny, lie, cover up evidence, and cast doubt on what information does leak out, by hiring scientists to dispute the evidence.

Thus the tobacco industry covered up the links between cigarettes and cancer; the pesticide manufacturers did the same; the global warming deniers deliberately blocked the evidence from reaching the public; and governments rewrote the reports of their climate scientists. When one considers that the purpose of this was to deprive the public of the means of defending itself from serious illness and death, and how many deaths must have been or might yet result because of the delays in getting information to the public, one recognizes that exploitation without conscience is endemic in our society today.

This being said, there is a pivot at which one rec­ognizes that democracy is still well enough that we have the freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and the vote. The big factor then becomes how we use those things to free ourselves. But just as scientists tell us that there is a tipping point of global warming, past which it cannot be reversed, so history shows that there is a tipping point to tyranny, past which it cannot be depowered except by pay­ing tragic costs.

The US Civil War stands alongside the story of the rise of Hitler in demonstrating this tipping point. As envi­ronmentalists, we are almost all lovers of peace, if not out­right pacifists. The ideals of cooperation between species and between people can tug at our heart strings. In fact, the whole human race loves the ideal of peace through compromise. We automatically equate compromise with fairness and morality, but we forget that even criminals compromise as they work together to harm others.

At the writing of the US Constitution some states­men were adamantly against slavery, but the slaveholders refused to join the Union without it. The two sides com­promised. Slavery was enshrined in the Constitution and given superior representation in Congress. The concerns about slavery were pacified with some limitations that turned out to be ineffectual. Seventy-three years later the new nation had four million slaves; one in every seven people in the US was a slave.

Slave labour meant a huge concentration of wealth and political power for slaveholders. What was then known as the Slave Power controlled the Presidency, the Senate, the courts, and was heavily repre­sented in the bureaucracies and military. The more territory and legal rights it gained, the more it wanted, and the more it was able to get what it wanted.

Over the ensuing decades, every demand for expan­sion was opposed in the free states, with the conflicts resolved by political bargains that slowed down the expan­sion but did not stop it. Throughout that time, most Ameri­cans were perfectly comfortable telling themselves they lived in “The Land of the Free.”

Compromise with slaveholders was packaged as dem­ocratic principle, no matter that slaves were being whipped to death, tortured, and maimed; in many years there were instances of slaves being burned at the stake. But what white Americans were willing to ignore eventually gained the power to spread its dark shadow over their own rights.

For decades before the Civil War, the southern states were on the brink of achieving a majority in the House of Representatives as well as the Senate. Had that happened, the South could have simply legislated slavery into power over the whole country.

The antislavery movement was never large enough to defeat slavery. But people such as Frederick Douglas (an escaped slave), William Lloyd Garrison, and Charles Sumner undertook what I believe is the most fundamental and important act of rebellion against any immoral, cas­trating, spirit-imprisoning force: to tell the truth for all to hear. And not just any truth, but one that is frank about the moral significance of the facts.

They denounced the Slave Power, the Government, the Constitution, and the Union itself, as well as arguing fiercely with each other on the moral issues of their meth­ods of activism. They said that the nation, in its selective use of high principle, was a hypocrite, a fraud that had sold out its principles, and was better off being disbanded than being eaten by the rot it contained within itself.

For this they were beaten, murdered, besieged by mobs, vilified and targetted by oppressive legislation. If they were black, they faced certain torture or death if caught by slaveholders. But their words sparked a great moral uprising amongst hundreds of thousands of people, placing a wall of fire between the Slave Power and the to­tal control it craved.

Many people today believe that the Civil War started when President Abraham Lincoln sent US troops to free the slaves. In reality, Lincoln only pledged to stop the expansion of slavery into new states. When he won the election, the southern states immediately began withdraw­ing from the Union before he even took office. They then com­menced to seizing federal treas­uries and military equipment, including numerous federal war ships, and finally bombarded a federal fort protecting the US coastline, forcing its evacu­ation.

I have set down corroborating details of this story, with references to many authoritative history books, in an essay called “Courage, Cowardice and Compromise: The abolition of slavery in the 19th century and its relevance to the environmental movement.” It can be found at

The lessons of the Civil War were repeated exactly in the rise of Hitler and World War II: compromise with predatory interests is a dangerous diversion when potential victims should be seeking protection under the law. This same thing stands out in the takeover of our governments by corporate power.

Nearly 20 years ago the BC environmental move­ment, in its peak of unity and power, finally achieved a pro-environment government. We received what most of us wanted: open, transparent, public planning processes to reform forestry and double the park system. What ensued was compromise after compromise, during which the legal rights of the public, as well as environmental protection laws, were relentlessly eroded.

Many in the movement came to accept bargains with industry instead of demanding firm limits to cor­porate power. A formidable and devastating weapon was turned against the movement: the capacity for some activists to settle for less than others, thereby shattering our unity.

Meanwhile hundreds of restrictions on industry were being weakened or removed under de-regulation. Water rights – we never had any. The TILMA agreement between BC and Alberta allows business interests to sue or even fine governments that make laws which interfere with their prof­its. Legislation has tied the hands of communities to resist independent power plants. With ice shelves collapsing in the Arctic, countries of the world are still debating whether to cut carbon emissions by 50% in 30 years or 30% in 50 years.

This is not the way the black people won their freedom, which was only secured after the Civil Rights movement when laws of sufficient strength were put in place. Black people endured terrible things, but they won great victories.

I was putting the final touches on my writing about slavery, when I received news that the United States had elected its first black president. To black people, this was something like the summit of the Himalayas of their strug­gle. TV cameras showed that hundreds of thousands of Americans, probably well more than half of them white, had poured into the streets. Many of the people were near tears or had tears streaming down their cheeks. Those interviewed were filled with wonder and joy that they had personally made it happen by working for the campaign or casting their ballots.

Obama’s acceptance speech will be preserved forever alongside the Emancipation Proclamation and Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. But how much longer will ‘forever’ last in human history?

Global warming has handed humanity a dictum: there must be truly radical action. But the actions we have taken so far have been shaped by those who care more about the political climate than the planetary climate. Like the ice shelves at the poles, the conditions for life on the planet are collapsing under the destructive weight of the creed of endless economic growth. Now is the opportunity to demand real, not token changes. If we don’t, the Earth as a place where the spirit may come to live out these epic mor­al conflicts and find a larger, wider, purer unity with each other and the world, may come to an end – and sooner rather than later than we thought.


Anne Sherrod is a director of the Valhalla Wilderness Watch.

[From WS June/July 2009]

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