Chattel and Wage Slavery

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By A. T. Heist.

EVEN the habitual liar sometimes finds it advantageous to tell the truth, and the blindest fanatic sometimes sees the truth which antagonizes his financial interests. Where ancient prejudices and delusive hopes induce self-deception, man will emotionally discredit even the most logical of statements, if they come from those by whom he has been seduced into mistrusting.

It follows that to the average person even a most logical statement carries more convincing power when it comes from those who have some apparent motive for concealing the fact or for being blind to its existence.

For these reasons I think it worth while to republish here a statement affirming the practical identity of our past African slavery and our present wage-slavery.

In the beginning of our late anti-slavery agitation it was proposed by the slave-holders to exclude from the mails all Abolitionist literature, as we now exclude "obscene" literature. The United States Senate appointed a special committee to investigate the subject and especially to inquire if Congress had the power to exclude incendiary ideas from the post office. This committee, with the Hon. John C. Calhoun at its head, reported that in its opinion no such power existed. The report incidentally informs the country that chattel slavery is not so bad and, in fact, not essentially different from the prevailing wage slavery.

It is this statement, coming from some of the most conservative members of that most conservative body, the United States Senate, that I will now reproduce from a report there made on February 4, 1836.

The report in part reads as follows:

"The sober and considerate portions of citizens of nonslave-holding States, who have a deep stake in the existing institutions of the country, would have little forecast not to see that the assaults, which are now directed against the institutions [slavery] of the Southern States, may be easily directed against those which uphold their own property and security. A very slight modification of the arguments used against the institutions which sustain the property [slaves] and security of the South [against slaves] would make them equally effectual against the institutions of the North, including Banking, in which so vast an amount of its property and capital is invested.

"It would be well for those interested to reflect whether there now exists, or ever has existed, a wealthy civilized community in which one portion did not live on the labor of another, and whether the form in which slavery exists in the South is not but one modification of this universal condition; and, finally, whether any other, under all the circumstances of the case, is more defensible or stands on stronger ground of necessity. It is time to look these questions in the face.

"Let those who are interested remember that labor is the only source of wealth, and how small a portion of it, in all old and civilized countries, even the best governed, is left to those by whose labor wealth is created.

"Let them [the interested, the rich, who live on the labor of other men] also reflect how little volition or agency the operatives [the laboring men] in any country have in the question of the distribution of wealth; as little, with a few exceptions, as the African, of the slave-holding States has in the distribution of the proceeds of his labor.

"Nor is it less oppressive," adds the Committee, "that, in the one case, it [the 'keeping back of the hire of the laborers'] is effected by the stern and powerful will of the government; and, in the other, by the more feeble and flexible will of the master. If one be an evil, so is the other. The only difference is the amount and mode of the exaction and the distribution, and the agency by which they are effective."

If this shall get into the hands of any conservative workingman, I again beg him to remember that this is the statement, not of a trade union walking delegate, not of an agitator, nor a demagogue. It is not even the statement of a senatorial "radical," nor even of a Socialist, nor an Anarchist. It is the deliberate opinion of a committee of United States Senators.

You laborers, think it over and see if it isn't true that you are just as truly a set of plundered slaves as were the negroes of our Southern States. Then ask yourselves what you are going to do to emancipate yourself from the legalized robbery of our present political and economic systems. May be even Anarchism wouldn't be quite so bad for you. Think it over. . . .

  • A. T. Heist, “Chattel and Wage Slavery,” Mother Earth 2, no. 4 (June 1907): 192-194.