Our Slavery, Today and Yesterday

Back when I was teaching college, I would spend an entire class period reading selected excerpts from Abraham Lincoln’s oratory to the class. Lincoln had utilized political rhetoric to transform a military war about the political question of states’ rights into a moral war about the economic question of slavery. Among other stirring texts, we would always end the exercise by reading Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, a text I consider the most piercing, disarmingly honest words ever spoken by a politician.

As the class period was drawing to a close, I would say, “Raise your hand if you think slavery is wrong.” All hands were raised without hesitation. “Now tell me,” I continued, “why slavery is wrong.” Long pause and quizzical looks. Eventually, someone would offer, “Because it’s wrong to own another human.” And I would press the issue with a series of ornery why questions that got progressively harder to answer. After a couple of minutes, I would conclude the discussion with this: “150 years after the Civil War, it is obvious to us all that slavery is wrong. So obvious, in fact, that we have a hard time articulating why it is wrong. But I want you to know that 150 years ago, a lot of Americans were blind to the fact that slavery is wrong, even though they were surrounded by its horrific degradation of human life. As we leave class today, I want you to consider this: 150 years from now, in the 22nd century, a bunch of college students will be sitting around talking about our generation and asking how we could have been so blind about… X. What will they be talking about? What is our slavery today? Class dismissed.”

I still wrestle with that question myself. I think there are a number of nefarious candidates that could make a short list. Rather than launching into diatribes against those particular areas of injustice at this point, I have decided to do a short series of posts on the topic of slavery. I think that by understanding more deeply the mechanisms whereby slavery existed and what made it so deplorable, that we can attune our faculties to detect the same tendencies in our own time.

About Ben Ponder, Editor-at-Large

Ben Ponder, PhD, is Editor-at-Large at Media Rostra. Ben has received decorative pieces of paper conferring upon him an unnamed set of “rights and privileges accorded thereto” from the University of Arkansas, Regent College, and Northwestern University (where he was a Presidential Fellow). He studied (in alphabetical order) architecture, classics, communication, history, political science, rhetoric, and theology. He is the author of American Independence: From Common Sense to the Declaration (“Sizzling.” – TMZ) and the co-editor of Making the Case: Advocacy and Judgment in Public Argument (“Six-pack abs-olutely great!” – US Weekly). Ben is currently an executive in the educational software industry. He and his organic wife, Amy, live with their four free-range kids in a farmhouse Ben designed and built. His personal site on the Interweb is benponder.com, and he can be reached on Twitter @ponderben.


  1. Very good and thought-provoking article, Ben.

    A few questions.  To your final question/point, given the premise that slavery is wrong (of which there is no dispute),does slavery still exist today in America? If so, in what way? There is a thought that exists in some circles that while slavery as was defined in the 1700s and 1800s no longer exists, there may be a “political slavery” of sorts that started in the early 20th century through today. That is to say, those who run on a platform of fighting for the “right” to a house, free education, free medical care, etc, in exchange for votes and remaining loyal to that party or group (or as Col Allen West put it, “keeping people on the political plantation”). Put another way, the idea that “we” promise to “take care of you” in exchange for your vote, your loyalty, and keeping us in power. I pose these questions not to excoriate an entire party since not all people in a party, right, left, or somewhere in between, think exactly the same (i.e. I wouldn’t put Nancy Pelosi in the same group as Mike Beebe on many issues). I do, however, question the principles that some currently in power adhere to, not the least of which is the idea that rights are given by the government (i.e. right to a house, health insurance, etc), and that those people who campaign on “fighting” for these “rights” should be the ones in power.

    (full disclosure: While I subscribe to many of the principles of
    conservatism, I consider myself quite open-minded, provided that a
    thought or idea is well-articulated and clear. I guess that’s why I like
    mediarostra 🙂 )

  2. benponderNo Gravatar says:

     Michael, thanks for your feedback. You’re right: slavery is so obviously wrong that it is unproductive piling on (and a straw man fallacy) to simply rail against it.  (Big caveat: Though chattel slavery as a historical institution no longer exists in the US, human trafficking DOES persist in the US and worldwide, and that may be our neologism for “slavery.”)  What I’m trying to do here, and what I will focus on in detail in my essay tomorrow (Part 3), is interrogating the incremental ethical compromises necessary to sanction such gross inhumanity. Hopefully, some of the points I make tomorrow will address the concept of political slavery that your suggest.

  3.  I look forward to it, Ben. I enjoy reading your posts (as well as others) and am doing my best to tell others about it as well. 

  4. Most people justified slavery in early American history because how else would the agricultural economy thrive? It was a means to a lifestyle.  We justify a lot because of the benefits to us. It would be much harder and more costly to make different choices. Environmental issues, food issues, medical issues, social issues, etc are all too susceptible to our desire for ease and  immediate gratification and wealth – at the cost of someone else often. 

    I recently felt a little sick after reading the “Hunger Games” of how the author described the Capitol dwellers’ menu items. They eat rich foods everyday (just Iike me). 

    I don’t see the need, therefore, I am blind.  Long ago people didn’t see slavery being wrong because they didn’t feel the oppression themselves.  They grew up in it so were locked into a certain way of thinking.  

    It is a very good question to pose for us to search our heart to see where the blind areas are. Do we sit in abundance where others are in need? Do we feel frustrated with welfare recipients and crime, but do nothing to offer jobs, or mentor programs or life skills to those who grew up fatherless in tough neighborhoods? Do we eat at the table of abundance when others right next to us… only 15 min drive away go hungry or feel unsafe everyday? Do we criticize others choices who didn’t even know there were other options available to them because they lacked the education, love, & stability that we were given? All forms of slavery.  Jesus is radical here. He was supreme head of everything and made himself the most vulnerable and died the death of a criminal in our place. How many of us would give up our own kid’s spot in a prestigious private school, send our kid to the worst school system in the nation (one infested with gangs, drugs, crime) and pay for one of those kids to attend private school in our kid’s place? That is what Jesus did for us only on a much larger scale. And he did it to free the oppressed! If we are not making some of these sacrifices, sharing our blessing in radical ways, chances are we are slaveowners who eat well while others suffer. “Woe to us who are rich now…” Luke 6:24

    Our slaves probably live in other countries these days where they are more removed. They work for a non-living wage 20 hrs a day so that we can have cheap jeans, etc. We are so happy for the good deal that we don’t think about what the deal cost to somebody. Our willingness to buy enables slavery. The world hasn’t changed that much. So then what can we do?

  5. benponderNo Gravatar says:

     That’s powerful, Jennifer. It is exactly that level of introspection and response that we are missing. We cannot assume that all human atrocities happen on somebody else’s watch, or else our own generation risks being judged by history as negligent, ignorant, or even willfully complicit.

  6. Appreciate you guys posting your thoughts and your desire to seek thoughtful discourse which may lead to new actions. New thoughts, new actions. This very subject has come up in my world three times in the last week. On showing favoritism, on not showing mercy or living in humility, and now on identifying slavery issues. They all relate in my mind. Hard to look carefully and see how all the things I hate in others I share guilt in when I look closely.  But I am thankful for the opportunity to look – there is a freedom and a lightness that comes with the conviction  – a freedom not to play the judge.