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 article which appeared in The Southern Presbyterian Review (April 1879), entitled “Capital and Labor.” The article can be found among the “Secular Topics” section of volume 5 in his Discussions, p. 388. Dabney discusses the necessity of treating laborers as men made in the image of God rather than as machines who can be subject purely to the laws of supply and demand, resulting in their oppression. To resolve the problem of laborer oppression, a Northerner proposes government regulation of the capitalists and laborers in his state.
He next distributes laborers under the two classes of those who have work, and those who too ignorant, lazy, or unlucky to get work. The former class is to be so regulated by law that they shall be compelled to apply their adequate wages to the three legal ends. They are not to be permitted to misuse them, and thus disable themselves from the attainment of comfort, present and prospective, and trouble, pauper or socialistic, for “society.” As for the unemployed class, “the strong arm of the law . . . must see that they have some employment, and that they work. They are wards of society. It comes to this at last, when such persons reach the prison and almshouse, and the earlier the wardship recognized the better.”
Is it objected that all this indicates very extensive intrusions into individual liberty? His answer is: “We have listened to this cry long enough. Whatever is essential to the preservation of society can never be against individual rights, but must be for them.” We cannot forbear Dominie Sampson’s exclamation: “Prodigious!” Is Saul verily among the prophets? Time is a potent teacher indeed! President Chadbourne, after so long a time, finds himself confidently asserting the very (and conclusion even) by which we have been refuting the Abolitionists for forty years! Well, he has been a slow pupil; but “better late than never.” “We have listened to this cry long enough,” viz., that the right to personal liberty is inalienable, being natural no supposed right of individuals is valid against any measure which is essential to the preservation of society. Just so; and the personal restraint of the Africans being a measure essential to the preservation of our “society,” that measure was “not against their individual rights.” But, on the contrary, the Africans being a part of our society to be thus essentially preserved, that measure “must have been for them.” That is to say, Africans among us had a right to the protection of bondage. Excellent; only our writer, unfortunately for the South, “listened to the cry” some forty years too long; until he and his people had time to destroy Southern “society” in the pursuit of what he now finds out was a “cry” i.e., a sophism, a mischievous heresy. He adds: “We must not, from our fine ideas about freedom” (consoling irony for us, ruthlessly destroyed by precisely those “ideas”) “wait for them (laborers) to come to the prison or almshouse before we care for them by controlling them. . . . In a word, let society, through organized forms of law, become his guardian before he is sentenced as a criminal.” How quickly is the North unlearning its “fifteenth amendment,” so lately boasted as the axiom of political justice: that in this free land no person shall be subjected to personal servitude except for crime. Here the proposal is, to subject a whole class, not for crimes but for lack of employment, which may be no fault of theirs; nay, for a mere prospective liability to give trouble at a future day. Verily, the Massachusetts Rehoboam maketh his little finger thicker than the Southern ruler’s loins.
Let us see what is unavoidably involved in this plan of organizing labor. It unavoidably implies, first, that “society,” that is the civil government, shall dictate to employers, of all classes, the rates of wages paid by them for labor, and also the rates at which they shall sell the commodities produced. The former will be both impossible and wrong without the last; for if capitalists are allowed to compete against each other in low prices, they cannot pay the high wages. Second, the government must dictate to the laborers how they shall spend their money after they earn it, how much for current subsistence, how much for education, how much for the savings bank. To do this with any effect, government must, of course, go deep; it must be virtual treasurer and housekeeper for the laboring families. Then, to the unemployed class, government is to be “guardian,” and is so to control it as to cause it effectively to work, and to use the wages of its work wisely. This must obviously imply, first, the government’s power to choose an employment for the individual laborer. The government says to him, “Work.” The poor fellow has no answer but the question, “Work at what?” The government must give the practical reply, i.e., choose his work. Then, second, the government must, of course, be armed with a coercive power to ensure obedience; for the unemployed man is presumably so, according to our author, because he does not wish to work. Shall the coercion be imprisonment? No; for if he is locked up he cannot work. Shall it be the rod? Third, the plan must, of course, include the government’s control over his person and locomotion. For when the law says to this laborer in western Massachusetts, unemployed because lazy, “Work,” he will almost surely take himself off to Boston, or some whither. But tramping is not working. So, “society” must treat him in a way amazingly like “slave-catching!” Fourth, if the “unfortunate” cannot be trusted with himself, a fortiori, he cannot be trusted with his family, for thus he would inevitably disappoint this precautionary system, by multiplying himself into a whole household of “society’s wards.” Hence government must govern his family for him. Let the reader now gather up these features of the “guardianship,” and ask himself what it looks like; what it used to be called in South Carolina! But this is the present Northern politic philosophy for white men! . . .
Yes; all such organizations of labor are but forms of political slavery, having every bad feature ever erroneously imputed to domestic slavery, without a single one of its redeeming features. It would fix on rich and poor every outrage and oppression of despotism and communism at once.
Previous Dabney on Sundays: