The great Southern Presbyterian theologian Robert Lewis Dabney has been mentioned a number of times on this site. It is a very telling indication of our times that such a visionary man is so little known, and usually slandered when mentioned at all. You can find the entire collection of his written works at the Dabney Archive, all of which are well worth reading. However, such a massive undertaking can be a bit overwhelming, and so on Sundays I will post bite-sized excerpts from Dabney’s works, with perhaps a little bit of my own commentary. This will be done in hopes of promoting wider readership for this great man. You can find links to all the previous “Dabney on Sunday” posts at the bottom of this post.
The following excerpt is taken from Dabney’s famous book on the morality of Confederate slavery, A Defense of Virginia and the South, specifically under the section “Slavery and the African Slave Trade,” beginning on pp. 288ff.
It is a plausible ground of opposition to slavery, to charge it with the guilt of the slave trade. It is argued that unless we are willing to justify the capture of free and innocent men, on their own soil, and their reduction from freedom to slavery, with all the enormous injustice and cruelty of the African slave trade, we must acknowledge that the title of the Southern master to his slave at this day is unrighteous; that a system which had its origin in wrong cannot become right by the lapse of time; that, if the title of the piratical slave catcher on the coast of Africa was unrighteous, he cannot sell to the purchaser any better title than he has; and that an unsound title cannot become sound by the passage of time. It need hardly be said that we abhor the injustice, cruelty, and guilt of the African slave trade. . . . But few can be ignorant of the principle, that a title, originally bad, may be replaced by a good one, by transmission from hand to hand, and by lapse of time. When the property has been acquired, by the latest holder, fairly and honestly; when, in the later transfers, a fair equivalent was paid for it, and the last possessor is innocent of fraud in intention and in the actual mode of his acquisition of it, more wrong would be effected by destroying his title, than by leaving the original wrong unredressed. Common sense says, that whatever may have been the original title, a new and valid one has arisen out of the circumstances of the case. If this principle be denied, half the property of the civilized world will be divorced from its present owners. All now agree that the pretext which gave ground for the conquest of William of Normandy was wicked; and however just it might have been, by the laws of nations, the conquest of the government of a country ought not to disturb the rights of individuals in private property. The Norman Conquest resulted in a complete transfer of almost all the land in England to the hands of new proprietors; and nearly all the land titles of England, at the present day, are the legal progeny of that iniquitous robbery, which transferred the territory of the kingdom from the Saxon to the Norman barons. If lapse of time, and change of hands, cannot make a bad title good, then few of the present landlords of England have any right to their estates. Upon the same principles, the tenants leasing from them have no right to their leases, and consequently they have no right to the productions of the farms they hold. If they have no right to those productions, then they cannot communicate any right to those who purchase from them; so that no man eating a loaf of English bread, or wearing a coat of English wool, could be certain that he was not consuming what was not his own. Thus extravagant and absurd are the results of such a principle. . . .
But we carry this just argumentum ad hominem nearer home. If the Virginian slaveholder derived from the New England or British slave-trader, no valid title to the African, then the trader had no valid title to the planter’s money. What can be clearer than this? And if continued possession, with lapse of time, and transmission from hand to hand, cannot convert an unsound title into a sound one, all the wealth acquired by the African slave trade, together with all its increase, is wrongfully held by the heirs of those slave dealers: it belongs to the heirs of the planters from whom it was unjustly taken. Now it is well known that the New England States, and especially the little State of Dr. Wayland, Rhode Island, drew immense sums from the slave trade; and it was said of the merchants of Liverpool and Bristol, that the very bricks of their houses were cemented with the blood of the slave. Who can tell how much of the wealth which now freights the ships, and drives the looms of these anti-slavery marts, is the fruit of slave profits? Let the pretended owners disgorge their spoils, and restore them to the Virginian planters, to indemnify them for the worthless and fictitious title to the slaves whom they have been called upon to emancipate; in order that means may be provided to make their new liberty a real blessing to them. Thus we should have a scheme for emancipation, or colonization, which would be just in both its aspects. But will abolitionism assent to this? About as soon as death will surrender its prey. Let them cease, then, for shame’s sake, to urge this sophism.
If this principle of a right originated by possession can be sound anywhere, it is sound in its application to our slaves. The title by which the original slave catchers held them may have been iniquitous. But these slave catchers were not citizens of the Southern colonies; these slaves were not brought to our shores by our ships. They were presented by the inhuman captors, dragged in chains from the filthy holds of the slave ships; and the alternative before the planter was, either to purchase them from him who possibly had no right to sell them, or re-consign them to fetters, disease, and death. The slaves themselves hailed the conclusion of a sale with joy, and begged the planters to become their masters, as a means of rescue from their floating prison. The planters, so far as they were concerned, paid a fair commercial equivalent for the labour of the slaves; and the right so acquired passed legally through generations from father to son, or seller to purchaser. The relation, so iniquitously begun in those cases where the persons imported were not slaves already in Africa, has been fairly and justly transferred to subsequent owners, and has resulted in blessings to the slaves. Its dissolution is more mischievous to them than to the masters.
Moral objections to Confederate slavery generally advance in one of two forms. One seeks to criticize the ethical legitimacy of the master-slave relation considered in itself. This type of objection sees slavery, no matter how the relation originates, as necessarily wrong, and it normally subsists as some variant of the cavil, “You can’t own another human being!” Dabney decisively crushes this objection by clarifying what it is to which the Southern slavemaster is truly entitled: property in the involuntary labor of the African. But a second form of abolitionist objection argues that, even if some instances of slavery are morally permissible (though few objectors are ever willing to admit such), kidnapping is not a morally permissible means of entering into the master-slave relation. In the same way that a father cannot just arbitrarily order a random child to obey him—but must have entered into the father-child relationship through ordinary biological generation—so also a master who gains his slave via kidnapping is but a master falsely so-called.
Since I hold this objection to be a much more formidable one than the first (which is roundly refuted by Scripture and natural reason), I was pleased to see Dabney entertain it in his Defense of Virginia. He forces the abolitionist argument to proceed to the much more suspect supposition: that any historically prior claim to property, no matter how distant, can and must be restored in the present day, no matter what the other circumstances may be. This supposition is exceedingly more difficult to demonstrate than the premise that kidnapping is sinful, and it shows the wicked folly of the reckless abolitionists, who incited grievous war and bloodshed rather than carefully considering what would concretely benefit society.
No doubt, this principle of title-transferal would be a treacherous one to comprehensively codify. It would be extremely difficult to articulate all the exact codifications specifying when stolen property should be returned to its original owner. We would not say, for instance, that as long as an item gets sold by the thief to an ignorant and sincere buyer, then that item is always and absolutely irretrievable by the original owner. But we can at least understand that the claim to property can truly shift in this general way, starting from an unjust acquisition, and later in the historical process involving a just acquisition and true title. And if this simple premise can be granted, then we can analyze our particular case, that of the African slave trade, and vindicate the Southron forefathers likewise.
Previous Dabney on Sundays: