Michael Horton is a well-known author and professor at Westminster Seminary California. Horton is one of the liberal figures in “conservative” Presbyterianism pushing denominations like the PCA and OPC into becoming PCUSA 2.0 through his R2K and New Calvinism theology. About three weeks ago, he leveled an attack in passing at Thornwell and Dabney in discussing slavery, segregation, and the church.
Radical Two-Kingdoms versus Theonomy
R2K is short for radical two-kingdoms theology, which holds that the church is only supposed to care about and be involved in spiritual, church-related issues and not get bogged down with “secular” things like the culture at large or civil government. The result is that individual Christians are discouraged or even forbidden from applying Christians principles in “secular” contexts. Pastor Bret described R2k thus:
Radical two-kingdom theology divides God’s work of Creation from God’s work of Redemption so that isolated, dualistic spheres come into existence. These divorced spheres (church realm vs. civil realm) create a hyphenated existence for the Christian, where he is ruled in one realm by God’s revealed word and ruled in the other realm by natural law. This, in turn, leads to public square antinomianism, as the Church is silent in speaking to public-square issues, thus communicating that in the public square each man can do what is right in his own eyes, as long as he can justify his behavior vis-à-vis natural law.
To the contrary, standard Christian theology, while always recognizing a distinction between these two kingdoms, always taught that grace affirms and restores nature, thus bringing the grace realm in contact with the civil realm. Because this is so, standard Reformed theology has always believed that God has a word for all of life. If standard Reformed theology appealed to natural law, it appealed to a natural law that presupposed a Christian worldview. In this theology, the Church understands that God has ordained distinct jurisdictions while insisting that each jurisdiction is under God’s revealed authority.
The opposing view, and the one we hold to here at F&H, outlined in Pastor Bret’s second paragraph, is theonomy, or the rule of God’s law. Unlike R2K, which diminishes God by compartmentalizing Him into certain areas of life, we hold that He is Lord, reigning by His revealed Word, over every aspect of life. In Scripture, while the roles of the high priest and king remained distinct and separate, they were both required to follow God’s law in their respective realms and had a responsibility to correct the other should he stray. Notice that theonomy is different from an ecclesiocracy, where the high priest assumes the role of the king, which is unbiblical. Theonomy is the biblical view and the historical view of the Reformed tradition. For instance, see John Calvin’s chapter on the civil government from his 1536 foundational Calvinist work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion:
But as we lately taught that that kind of government [civil government] is distinct from the spiritual and internal kingdom of Christ, so we ought to know that they are not adverse to each other. The former, in some measure, begins the heavenly kingdom in us, even now upon earth, and in this mortal and evanescent life commences immortal and incorruptible blessedness, while to the latter it is assigned, so long as we live among men, to foster and maintain the external worship of God, to defend sound doctrine and the condition of the Church, to adapt our conduct to human society, to form our manners to civil justice, to conciliate us to each other, to cherish common peace and tranquillity. All these I confess to be superfluous, if the kingdom of God, as it now exists within us, extinguishes the present life. But if it is the will of God that while we aspire to true piety we are pilgrims upon the earth, and if such pilgrimage stands in need of such aids, those who take them away from man rob him of his humanity. As to their allegation that there ought to be such perfection in the Church of God that her guidance should suffice for law, they stupidly imagine her to be such as she never can be found in the community of men. For while the insolence of the wicked is so great, and their iniquity so stillborn, that it can scarcely be curbed by any severity of laws, what do we expect would be done by those whom force can scarcely repress from doing ill, were they to see perfect impunity for their wickedness?
See also the 1578 Second Book of Discipline, written by John Knox as the confession for the Church of Scotland:
Of the Office of a
Christian Magistrate in the Kirk [Church]
1. Although all the members of the kirk are held, everyone in his vocation, and, according thereto, to advance the kingdom of Jesus Christ so far as lies in their power; yet, chiefly, Christian princes, and other magistrates, are held to do the same. For they are called in the scriptures nourishers of the kirk, for so much as by them it is, or at least ought to be, maintained, fostered, upheld, and defended against all that would procure the hurt thereof.
2. So it pertains to the office of a Christian magistrate to assist and fortify the godly proceedings of the kirk in all behalfs; and, namely, to see that the public estate and ministry thereof be maintained and sustained as it appertains, according to God’s word;
3. To see that the kirk be not invaded, nor hurt by false teachers and hirelings, nor the rooms thereof be occupied by dumb dogs or idle bellies;
4. To assist and maintain the discipline of the kirk, and punish them civilly that will not obey the censure of the same; always without confounding the one jurisdiction with the other;
5. To see that sufficient provision is made for the ministry, the schools, and the poor; and, if they have not sufficient to await upon their charges, to supply their indigence with their own rents if need require; to hold hand as well to the saving of their persons from injury and open violence, as to their rents and possessions, that they be not defrauded, robbed, nor spoiled thereof;
6. Not to suffer the patrimony of the kirk to be applied to profane and unlawful uses, or to be devoured by idle bellies, and such as have no lawful function in the kirk, to the hurt of the ministry, schools, poor, and other godly uses whereupon the same ought to be bestowed;
7. To make the laws and constitutions agreeable to God’s word, for advancement of the kirk, and policy thereof; without usurping anything that pertains not to the civil sword, but belongs to the offices that are merely ecclesiastical, as are the ministry of the word and sacraments, using of ecclesiastical discipline and the spiritual execution thereof, or any part of the power of the spiritual keys, which our Master gave the apostles and their true successors. And, although kings and princes that are godly, sometimes by their own authority, when the kirk is corrupt, and all things out of order, place ministers and restore the true service of the Lord, after the example of some godly kings of Judah, and diverse godly emperors and kings also in the light of the New Testament; yet where the ministry of the kirk is once lawfully constituted, and they that are placed do their office faithfully, all godly princes and magistrates ought to hear and obey their voice, and reverence the Majesty of the Son of God speaking by them.
And yet again in chapter 23 of the 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith, which was used as the foundation for Presbyterianism:
III. Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; yet he has authority, and it is his duty, to take order that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administrated, and observed. For the better effecting whereof, he has power to call synods, to be present at them and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God.
To see how R2K plays out in Horton’s views, here he is supporting legal recognition of homosexuality:
Although a contractual relationship denies God’s will for human dignity, I could affirm domestic partnerships as a way of protecting people’s legal and economic security.
The challenge there is that two Christians who hold the same beliefs about marriage as Christians may appeal to neighbor-love to support or to oppose legalization of same-sex marriage.
And here is an OPC pastor, R2K advocate, and graduate from the seminary where Horton teaches supporting the decriminalization of bestiality:
Not being a theonomist or theocrat, I do not believe it is the state’s role to enforce religion or Christian morality. So allowing something legally is not the same as endorsing it morally. I don’t want the state punishing people for practicing homosexuality. Other Christians disagree. Fine. That’s allowed. That is the distinction. Another example – beastiality [sic] is a grotesque sin and obviously if a professing member engages in it he is subject to church discipline. But as one who leans libertarian in my politics, I would see problems with the state trying to enforce it; not wanting the state involved at all in such personal practices; I’m content to let the Lord judge it when he returns. A fellow church member might advocate for beastiality [sic] laws. Neither would be in sin whatever the side of the debate. Now if the lines are blurry in these disctinctions [sic], that is always true in pastoral ministry dealing with real people in real cases in this fallen world.
As theonomists, we reject their Enlightenment distinction between “public” and “private” morality – in this case between God’s moral governance over the state and over the church – and seek the implementation of a Christian social order in all spheres of life.
The Real Issue
As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, Michael Horton’s attacks on Dabney and Thornwell arise due to a discussion of slavery, segregation, and the church, in particular with regards to the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS). The PCUS was the conservative Southern branch of Presbyterianism and thus maintained a pro-slavery and later a pro-segregation stance. But with the rising wave of Marxism sweeping across America in the 1950s through the 1970s, the PCUS split into three factions over the issue. The conservative faction, led by such men as Guy T. Gillespie, took the biblical and theonomic stand that the church should actively support segregation and Christian social order; the liberal faction took the view that the church should be actively involved as well, but used Marxism instead of Scripture as their guide and pushed to actively support integration and “social justice”; and the third and largest faction took the cop-out position of embracing R2K, declaring that the church shouldn’t be involved in the matter and thus allowing themselves to enjoy the benefits of segregation while seeking to avoid being called racist. Anthony Bradley, the PCA’s favorite liberal black tribalist, posted on another blog to surmise whether R2K was responsible for the PCUS’s, and its child the PCA’s, racism and lack of support for integration. Michael Horton responded with an article entitled “Two Kingdoms and Slavery,” in which he contends that the theonomy (not R2K) of many Southern Presbyterians underlay their support for slavery and segregation, arguing further that R2K could have combated slavery and segregation. I tend to agree with Horton that the old Southern Presbyterians were theonomic, but I disagree with him when he says that R2K would actually be able to effectively with deal with any social issue. Yet although R2K is a grievous error and has been dealt with at length elsewhere, the real issue lies in the fact that both Bradley and Horton are condemning, and discussing the best method to attack, a position they have yet to show is truly wrong or sinful. This is tantamount to a jury being asked to decide upon the method of execution before they’ve heard the facts of the case or decided upon the guilt of the defendant. Horton states:
Their views on the matter were argued on the basis of racist doctrines and tortured appeals to slavery in biblical times, as if it were anything like modern slavery that depended on kidnapping, murder, theft, and numerous other sins identified in Scripture as capital offenses.
There is no Christian liberty to disobey God’s commands and he has commanded clearly that he hates kidnapping, theft, and murder—sins on which the modern slave trade and slave-holding thrived. Even Christian families were separated from each other for the economic gain of white Christians.
We at Faith and Heritage have carefully and thoroughly gone to great lengths to show that Southern slavery was in fact biblical, unlike Horton’s drive-by accusations. I’m glad that Horton didn’t refer to the “sin of slavery” as many people do, because there is no such sin, yet he still threw accusations at Southern slave owners which have already been answered tenfold by Dabney in his book A Defense of Virginia. First of all, we must separate slaveholding from the slave trade, because they must be treated differently, as I cover below. Second, the white Southerners went out of their way to pass laws to bring their institution in line with the scriptural protections given to slaves. For isntance, in regards to the specific example Horton gives in separating slave families, there were laws in every Southern state forbidding the selling of slave children away from their parents before adolescence. The ages varied by state (usually ten to fourteen), but all fell within the same range when many white working- and middle-class children left their families to begin apprenticeships during the time period. Moreover, see how Dabney describes Southern slavery:
He who persists in viewing and treating it [Southern slavery] as virtually the same with the system which bore the equivalent name in pagan Greece and Rome, cannot possibly understand what the Southern system really was. It may be true that “Aristotle” (Politics) “can be quoted, defining . . . a slave as . . . an animated utensil”; or that modern assailants may declare the African in the South was made by law “a mere thing,” “a chattel.” But every fair observer knows that in the South, essential changes from that unjust and harsh system were made by law, which, while for convenience sake, leaving the name of slave, made the relation to the master essentially a different one. So far did the laws of the South go from treating the African in bondage as a mere thing, owned by the master absolutely; those laws treated the bondsman as a responsible moral agent, personally amenable to statute laws, and encouraged and warned by its sanctions: they protected his life, limbs, Sabbath and chastity, against violence even from his own master: and that by the same statutes, and the same penalties which protected these rights of white persons: they gave to the bondman a legal title, as against his own master’s estate, and even against his master’s personal earnings or professional salary, to a laboring man’s subsistence for life: they enabled him, if not legally held in constraint, to sue his own master at the law, for his liberty. What then remained to the master, of the prerogatives of a master? This only: Property in the involuntary labor of the African, for life, subject to the bondsman’s right of subsistence, and such control of his person and services only as was necessary to possess that title. . . .
So if Horton wants to prove that Southern slaveholding was built on capital offenses like theft and murder, he has his work cut out for him. More than likely, however, his condemnations would seek to connect Southern slavery with the slave trade, to which we now turn.
The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade
The typical anti-Southern contention regarding the slave trade, of course, involves manstealing, which is indeed a biblical sin and capital offense (Exodus 21:16, 1 Timothy 1:10). But the trans-Atlantic slave trade actually gives rise to complicated ethical issues – notwithstanding the frequent presentation of this kidnapping argument as a silver bullet.
A few basic facts of the slave trade should first be established. For one, the South owned no slave ships; the slave trade was run entirely by Northern and European slave ships. Southerners were not involved in the actual acquisition of slaves in Africa, and so it is not true, though it is presented as if it obviously is, that the Southerners were guilty of abducting free Africans from their homeland. (Our opponents would argue that they are guilty in a derivative sense, but that is a separate argument.) Second, these Yankee and European slavers weren’t personally involved in slave-catching themselves. Initially, the Portuguese attempted to directly catch their own African slaves in the 1490s, but the Africans started fighting back, forcing the Portuguese to end the practice as such raids had become suicide missions. From that point on, African slaves were obtained by buying them from African kings who already had them enslaved, often through wars with other tribes. Conquest can be a legitimate way of gaining slaves in Scripture (Deut. 20:10-15), yet it is admittedly probable that these pagan African kings acquired them through unjust wars, which would indeed be manstealing. Thus, while it can perhaps be asked whether the Yankee and European buyers were doing a favor for the already-enslaved Africans – since they as slaves were often treated like animals, abused as sex slaves, slain for religious sacrifices, or thrust into the cooking pot – on the whole we can affirm that these Northern buyers acquired an unjust title to the slaves. Even worse, conditions on board Yankee and European slave ships were often horrible, and many crews of these slave ships were guilty of murder by putting African slaves into conditions where loss of life was inevitable and needless.
But this provides us with hesitancy when we see the dilemmas foisted upon potential Southern slave purchasers. Given how brutal conditions were on many of the slave ships (not to mention the brutality they experienced as slaves in Africa), were the Southern owners doing good by buying the Africans away from such murderers into better conditions? If they did not purchase the Africans, they would have been returned to their vessels and taken elsewhere, to be enslaved in even harsher conditions. It is not obvious that the original purchasers were completely innocent, for an argument could be made that their purchase included an unjust title as well, but neither is it obvious that they were guilty of heinous sins, if their purchases were motivated in large part by compassion. Therefore, throwing this charge of manstealing at Southern slave owners is far more difficult and complicated than many people believe. Usually the charge is leveled and guilt is assumed without any discussion or proof, as is the case with Horton’s article in question. I’m not saying for certain that Horton or someone else couldn’t biblically make the case that Southern slave owners were guilty of some form or degree of manstealing via the chain of sale, yet I do want to show that this is not nearly as transparent as the modernists would have us believe.
Another interesting aspect of this is that, should someone in modern America argue that Southerners are guilty of manstealing via the chain of sale, he likely condemns himself, as not an insignificant number of products sold in American mega-stores involve the use of unbiblical slave labor in places like China and Africa. Since there is no moral difference between benefiting directly from owning slaves who, down the line, were victims of manstealing, and indirectly benefiting from manstealing via the importation of goods produced by such labor, this puts modern accusers of Southern slaveholders in a bit of a moral dilemma if they contend that the person at the end of the chain of sale is guilty of any sin committed anywhere along the chain.
Note that thus far we have been discussing the question of the intrinsic moral permissibility of the slave trade, but that even if something is permitted this does not mean that it should be done. Even if the first two steps of the transaction were proven to be morally permissible, which I don’t think they can be, I would still oppose the trans-Atlantic slave trade on the grounds that it was fundamentally unwise. It was foolish to import hundreds of thousands of people from a race incompatible with Western Civilization, setting up a demographic and societal time-bomb for future generations and sowing the seeds of racial discord. I, like Dabney, would have opposed the first two steps of the slave trade – the African kings’ acquisition and the Northerners’ and Europeans’ transportation – on moral grounds, also opposing the last step of the trade – the Southern planters’ purchase – on grounds of wisdom, should I have lived in that time period.
Dabney’s argumentation on this subject expands upon what was said above. He does not hesitate to call the trans-Atlantic slave trade “iniquitous,” “nefarious,” and “evil.” As I am more than willing to take his word on it, I wholeheartedly agree with him. But the question that our opponents should thus ask is: If Dabney agreed on the immorality of the slave trade, why would he also argue for the legitimacy of Southerners’ claims to African slaves? Clearly he did not regard the argument to be as open-and-shut as modernists would pretend it is, and the very fact that he agrees with this fundamental premise should give pause to all our opponents.
Indeed, Dabney provides excellent reasons to vindicate his people’s reputations. In A Defense of Virginia, Dabney points out that Virginia was actually the first Anglo government to outlaw the slave trade, with the Burgess of Virginia doing so in 1778 (p. 27f.). He goes on to make some of the same points I have, explaining the intricate dilemmas presented to Southerners by the Yankee and European traders:
It may be said, that if the government of Virginia was opposed to the African slave trade, her people purchased more of its victims than those of any other colony; and the aphorism may be quoted against them, that the receiver is as guilty as the thief. This is rarely true in the case of individuals, and when applied to communities, it is notoriously false. All States contain a large number of irresponsible persons. The character of a free people as a whole should be estimated by that of its corporate acts, in which the common will is expressed. The individuals who purchased slaves of the traders were doubtless actuated by various motives. Many persuaded themselves that, as they were already enslaved, and without their agency, and as their refusal to purchase them would have no effect whatever to procure their restoration to their own country and to liberty, they might become their owners, without partaking in the wrong of which they were the victims. Many were prompted by genuine compassion, because they saw that to buy the miserable creatures was the only practicable way in their reach to rescue them from their pitiable condition; for tradition testifies that often when the captives were exposed in long ranks upon the shore, near their floating prisons, for the inspection of purchasers, they besought the planters and their wives to buy them, and testified an extravagant joy and gratitude at the event. All purchasers were, perhaps, influenced partly by the convenience and advantage of possessing their labour. Had every individual in Virginia been as intelligent and virtuous as the patriots who, in the Burgesses, denounced the inhuman traffick, the colony might perhaps have remained without a slave, notwithstanding the two centuries of temptation during which its ports were plied with cargoes seeking sale. But a commonwealth without a single weak, or selfish, or bad man, is a Utopia. The proper rulers were forbidden by the mother country [Great Britain] to employ that prohibitory legislation which is, in all States, the necessary guardian of the publick virtue; and it is therefore that we place the guilt of the sale where that of the importation justly belongs. Doubtless many an honourable citizen, after sincerely sustaining the endeavour of his Burgess to arrest the whole trade, himself purchased Africans, because he saw that their general introduction into the country was inevitable, without legislative interference; and his self-denial would only have subjected him to the severe inconveniences of being without slaves in a community of slaveholders, whilst it did not arrest the evil (p. 29f.).
Dabney concedes both that the trans-Atlantic slave trade was wicked and that, if operating according to true virtue and moral principle, the South would have kept itself free from any purchases. But there were motives of genuine compassion, mixed with reasonable motives of economic self-interest (not cruel selfishness), that were sufficient to move some weaker men to purchase slaves, whose purchases subsequently encouraged others to do the same. Dabney would thus agree that these men ought not to have purchased the slaves – but it does not follow that these men were notoriously wicked, or that they were derivatively guilty of manstealing and murder. Their motives of compassion, to the contrary, all presupposed the wickedness of such sins and sought to rescue the Africans from their deplorable condition. Even though the Southern slave purchasers were not operating strictly according to moral principle, their sins cannot be inflated to the level of murder and manstealing, and it is utterly slanderous for Horton and Bradley to continue such foolishness. It should also be noted that less than 4% of African slaves from the trans-Atlantic trade ended up in North America, so even if not a single Southerner had purchased a slave, it would not have ended the slave trade or even measurably slowed it down.
Of course, abolitionist objectors in our modern day, though none would have been so foolish to make this objection 150 years ago, would argue that if the Southern purchasers were truly moved by compassion, they would have bought the African slaves only to free them immediately afterward. Dabney well articulates the social chaos, misery, and ruin that would have ensued with such emancipation – not only for whites, but principally for the blacks themselves:
To deny the mischievous effects of emancipation upon the Africans themselves, requires an amount of impudence which even abolitionists seldom possess. The experience of Britain has demonstrated, to the satisfaction of all her practical statesmen, that freedom among the whites is ruinous to the blacks. They tell us of the vast decline in the productiveness of their finest colonies, of the lapsing of fruitful plantations into the bush, of the return of the slaves, lately an industrious and useful peasantry, to savage life, and of the imperative necessity for Asiatic labour, to rescue their lands from a return to the wilderness. A comparison between the slaves of the South, and the freed negroes of the North, gives the same results. While the former were cheerful, healthy, progressive, industrious, and multiplying rapidly in numbers, the latter are declared by their white neighbours to be a social nuisance, depressed by indolence and poverty, decimated by hereditary diseases, and tending rapidly to extinction.
We argue hereupon, that it cannot be a moral duty to bestow upon the slave that which is nothing but an injury. It cannot be a sin to do to him that which uniformly and generally is found essential to his well-being in his present condition. We certainly are not required by a benevolent God to ruin him in order to do him justice! No sober and practical mind can hold such an absurdity (p. 187f.).
Our egalitarian and Marxist opponents would cringe at this rationale, but it is the sober truth. Africans, especially these ones who were barely removed from the crushing darkness of African paganism and superstition, would have experienced horrible moral degradation if freed en masse. The same benevolence which moved some Southerners to purchase these slaves, therefore, would have itself forbidden this allegedly more benevolent pursuit.
The Passage of Time
Thus we see that, while the original Southern purchasers could be charged with some degree of sin for their lack of wisdom in participating in the tail end of the slave trade, they cannot be charged with the manstealing or murder attributable to the African kings and Northern traders earlier in the chain of sale; at most they can be charged with having an unprincipled benevolence. But the moral case against Southern slavery becomes even more difficult to make when we consider the claims of these purchasers’ descendants years down the line. At the time of the War Between the States, the slave trade had been outlawed in America for over fifty years. The slave trade was outlawed in America in 1808, while Thornwell was born in 1812 and Dabney was born in 1820. The sins inherent in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, therefore, certainly cannot be laid at the feet of Thornwell and Dabney’s generation. But Horton still attacks them on the basis that the institution they inherited was based on “kidnapping, theft, and murder.” As we have examined above, it’s not that simple; and Dabney takes it a step further in his discussion on the passage of time in regards to Southern slavery:
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 (pp. 184ff.).
The principle that time and labor bestows legitimate ownership rights is a well-established, centuries-old Western legal tradition; for example, see adverse possession and the homestead principle. Dabney’s argument, that generations of time and lifetimes of work on the part of the plantation owners makes even questionable property titles good, is well within the Western legal framework. And it well applies to the Old South: even granting there to be a defect in the title of the original Southern purchasers, the investments of money, time, and labor placed in the slaves over time, even the inclusion of these slaves into the masters’ very households, would transform the title to these Africans’ labor into a just one. It would be madness and socially ruinous to suppose that these later investments were completely irrelevant, yet that is precisely what the abolitionists craved.
To reiterate Dabney: should the modern critics of Southern slavery desire to overthrow centuries of Western legal tradition and hold that this is not the case – that the titles remained bad and should be reversed – then they must be consistent and hold that the entire transaction is bad and must be reversed. Do our opponents hold that the entire institution of Southern slavery was evil? That “social justice” demands we make the situation right today? That descendants of African slavery deserve reparations? Very well. If the Southerners had no title to the slaves they purchased and kept, then the Northerners had an equally bad title to the money exchanged for such slaves. All the wealth from the North derived from the massive fleets of Yankee slaving vessels must be taken away and given to Southerners. If the transaction was illegitimate, then the Yankee slave traders have no claim to the money used to purchase slaves from them, and the purchase price, along with any wealth generated by the use of those ill-gotten funds, must be refunded to Southerners. Thus in this scenario, the lion’s share of the wealth of New England, Boston, and New York City by right belongs to the white Southerners, as the entire foundation of Northern industry and finance was based off the wealth generated by Yankee slave ships. Dabney on the Yankee wealth generated by their wholehearted participation in the slave trade:
The present commercial and manufacturing wealth of New England is to be traced, even more than that of Old England, to the proceeds of the slave trade, and slave labour. The capital of the former was derived mainly from the profits of the Guinea trade. The shipping which first earned wealth for its owners in carrying the bodies of the slaves, was next employed in transporting the cotton, tobacco, and rice which they reared, and the imports purchased therewith. And when the unjust tariff policy of the United States allured the next generation of New Englanders to invest the swollen accumulations of their slave trading fathers in factories, it was still slave grown cotton which kept their spindles busy. The structure of New England wealth is cemented with the sweat and blood of Africans.
I could also note that we should be willing to repatriate all descendants of African slaves back to Africa, yet the very fact that they would be unwilling to return should show how much better off they had it when under Southern supervision. You will never hear modern critics be consistent and advocate for these – not only because repatriation is “racist” and thus defeats the purpose of such pompous displays of faux piety in denouncing the Christian South, but because many of these critics are descendants of the North, and such consistency would hurt their bank accounts. In contrast we see their insincerity, for they not only glory in the stripping of the 1865 Southerners’ property rights, for which they had paid fair prices in good faith to the grandfathers of those doing the stripping and robbing, but also advocate a second theft, seeking to rob white Southerners again for the purpose of paying slave reparations. Of course, any of their wealth based on their forefathers’ active participation in the Yankee slave trade remains unmentioned and untouched in their self-righteous denunciations of the South and Southerners.
Though this discussion was sparked by a disagreement between “social justice” Bradley and R2K Horton over how best to combat slavery, segregation, and racism, the real issue is whether or not these things are sinful in the first place. Thornwell’s and Dabney’s works defending Southern slavery as a moral institution stand unrefuted, especially by the modern moral and intellectual midgets of the liberal church. The trans-Atlantic slave trade is a complicated issue and, despite the sin that can be laid at the feet of African kings and Yankee and European slave traders, the case can be made for the vastly reduced guilt of the Southern planters purchasing the slaves and the guiltlessness of their descendants. Even should the original Southern purchasers be proven guilty, their grandchildren in Thornwell and Dabney’s generation held legitimate property titles. Should this too be disputed, then the critics must be consistent and take the necessary steps to invalidate the entire transaction by returning the Northern slave trade wealth – all of it – to the South. The complete failure of the critics of Southern slavery to take this position shows their insincerity and ulterior motives on the subject.
Horton says that it is the Southern Presbyterians, like myself, who base our views and arguments “on racist dogmas, Scripture twisting, and wicked cultural prejudices.” I’ll let the reader decide who has shown more fidelity and concern for historical fact, Scripture, and the confessions, and who is most influenced by the cultural prejudices of our time.
Liberal Christians in the 1960s: “Integration, race-mixing, and a borderless world aren’t communism – that’s just a right-wing conspiracy theory!”
Liberal Christians in the 2010s: “Integration, race-mixing, and a borderless world are communism – isn’t it wonderful?”
It’s nice that that mask is finally coming off.