Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER II.: OF SLAVERY. - The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 1 (Principles of Morals and Legislation, Fragment on Government, Civil Code, Penal Law)
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CHAPTER II.: OF SLAVERY. - Jeremy Bentham, The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 1 (Principles of Morals and Legislation, Fragment on Government, Civil Code, Penal Law) 
The Works of Jeremy Bentham, published under the Superintendence of his Executor, John Bowring (Edinburgh: William Tait, 1838-1843). 11 vols. Vol. 1.
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When the habit of serving forms a condition, and the obligation of continuing in this condition with respect to a certain individual, or to others who derive their titles from him, embraces the whole life of the servant, this condition is called slavery.
Slavery is susceptible of many modifications and alleviations, according to the greater or less certainty of the services which it is permitted to exact, and according to the means of coercion which it is permitted to employ. There was a great difference between the condition of a slave at Athens and Lacedemon; there is still more between that of a Russian serf and a negro in the southern states of America. But whatever may be the limits as to the modes of exercising authority, if the obligation of service be unlimited in point of duration, I always call it slavery. In drawing the line of separation between slavery and freedom, it is necessary to stop at some point, and this appears the most prominent and the most easily proved.
This characteristic mark drawn from its perpetuity, is so much the more essential, in as much as, wherever it is found, it weakens, it enervates, it renders more or less precarious the most prudent precautions for the initigation of authority. Unlimited power, in this sense, can with difficulty be limited in any other. If we consider, on the one hand, the facility which the master possesses of aggravating his yoke by degrees; of rigorously exacting the services which are due to him; of extending his pretensions under divers pretexts; of seeking out opportunities for tormenting an insolent subject, who has dared to refuse that which he did not owe: if we consider, on the other hand, how difficult it is for slaves to claim and obtain legal protection; how much more distressing their domestic condition becomes after a public struggle against their master; how much rather they are led to seek his favour by unlimited submission, than to irritate him by refusal;—we shall easily perceive that the project of mitigating slavery by law, is more easily formed than executed; that the fixation of services is a very feeble instrument in the mitigation of the lot of slavery; that under the empire of the best laws in this respect, their most flagrant infractions only will be punished, whilst the ordinary course of domestic rigour will mock all tribunals. I do not, therefore, say that slaves ought to be abandoned to the absolute power of the master; that they ought not to receive any protection from the laws, because this protection is insufficient. But it was necessary clearly to point out this circumstance, to show the evil inherent in the nature of slavery, namely, the impossibility of subjecting the authority of a master over his slaves to legal restraint, and of preventing the abuse of his power, if he be disposed to abuse it.
That slavery is agreeable to the masters, is not doubtful—since they could, in an instant, cause it to cease if they wished so to do; that it is disagreeable to the slaves, is a fact no less certain—since they are only retained in this condition by restraint. No one who is free is willing to become a slave; no one is a slave but he wishes to become free.
It is absurd to reason as to the happiness of men, otherwise than with a reference to their own desires and feelings. It is absurd to seek to prove by calculation, that a man ought to be happy when he finds himself miserable, and that a condition into which no one is willing to enter, and which every one desires to leave, is in itself a pleasant condition, and suited to human nature. I can easily believe that the difference between liberty and slavery is not so great as it appears to be to some ardent and prepossessed minds. Being accustomed to the evil, and much more, never having experienced the better condition, the interval which separates these two conditions, which at first sight appear so opposed, is greatly diminished. But all reasonings upon probabilities are superfluous, since we have proofs of the fact, that this condition is never embraced from choice, but, on the contrary, that it is always an object of aversion.
Slavery has been compared to the condition of a scholar prolonged during life; and how numerous are the persons, who have said that the time passed at school was the happiest period of their life?
The parallel is correct only in one respect. The circumstance common to the two conditions is subjection; but it is any thing rather than this circumstance which produces the happiness of the scholar. That which renders him happy, is the freshness of spirit, which gives to all his impressions the charm of novelty; it is the comparison of the noisy and active pleasures in which he engages with companions of his own age, with the solitude and the quiet of his father’s house. And after all, how many are the scholars who have sighed for the moment when this condition should cease? Who among them would resolve to remain a scholar always?
If it could be arranged in such a manner that slavery should be so established that there should be only one slave to one master, there might be ground for hesitation in pronouncing before-hand which would have the advantage, and which the disadvantage; and it might be possible, that, all things considered, the sum of good in this arrangement would be nearly equal to that of evil.
But things are not thus arranged. As soon as slavery is established, it becomes the lot of the greatest number. A master counts his slaves as his flocks, by hundreds, by thousands, by tens of thousands. The advantage is only on the side of a single person; the disadvantages are on the side of the multitude. If the evil of slavery were not great, its extent alone would suffice to make it considerable. Generally speaking, and every other consideration apart, there can, therefore, be no ground for hesitation between the loss which would result to the masters from enfranchisement, and the gain which would result from it to the slaves.
Another strong argument against slavery may be drawn from its influence upon the wealth and power of nations. A free man produces more than a slave. Set at liberty all the slaves which a master possesses, this master would, without doubt, lose a part of his property; but the slaves, taken together, would produce not only what he lost, but still more. But happiness cannot but be augmented with abundance, whilst public power increases in the same proportion.
Two circumstances concur in diminishing the produce of slaves: the absence of the stimulus of reward, and the insecurity of their condition.
It is easily perceived, that the fear of punishment is little likely to draw from a labourer all the industry of which he is capable, all the work that he can furnish. Fear leads him to hide his powers, rather than to show them; to remain below, rather than to surpass himself.
By a work of supererogation, he would prepare punishment for himself: he would only raise the measure of his ordinary duties by displaying superior capacity. His ambition is the reverse of that of a free man; and he seeks to descend in the scale of industry, rather than to ascend. Not only does he produce less; he consumes more, not in enjoyment, but lavishly, wastefully, and by bad economy. Of what importance to him are interests which are not his own? Every thing which saves his labour is a gain for him; every thing which he allows to be lost, is only the loss of his master. Why should he invent new methods of doing more or doing better? In making improvements, he must think; and thinking is a labour to which no one gives himself without a motive. Degraded to a beast of burden, a slave never raises himself above a blind routine, and one generation succeeds another without any progress in improvement.
It is true that a master, who understands his own interests, will not dispute with his slaves the little profits which their industry may furnish to them: he will not be ignorant that their prosperity is his own, and that to animate them to labour, he must offer them the allurement of an immediate reward. But this precarious favour, dependent on the character of the individual, is not sufficient to inspire in them that confidence which directs the views to the future, which shows in the savings of to-day the foundation of future wealth, and which leads to extended projects respecting the fortune of their children. They well understand, that the richer they are the more they are exposed to extortion, if not from their master, at least from his agents, and all their subordinates in authority, more greedy and more formidable than their master. There is, therefore, no to-morrow for the greater number of slaves. The enjoyments which are realized at the instant are those alone which can tempt them. They, therefore, become gluttons, idle, dissolute, without reckoning the other vices which result from their situation. If they have a longer foresight, they hide their little treasures. All the faults destructive of industry, and all the habits most mischievous to society, are nourished in them by the sad feeling of insecurity, without compensation and without remedy. This result is not the deduction of a vain theory, it is a result drawn from facts, in all times and all places.
But it is said, the free labourer in Europe is very nearly upon the same footing, with regard to labour, as the slave. He who is paid by the piece has reward for his motive, and each effort has its payment. He who is paid by the day has no other motive than punishment; whether he does little or much, he receives only his day’s wages, therefore he has no reward. If he does less than usual, he may be discharged, as the slave in the same case may be beaten; the one and the other are excited only by fear, and have no interest in the produce of their labour.
Three things may be replied:—1. It is not true that the day-labourer has not the motive of reward. The most skilful and the most active are better paid than others; those who distinguish themselves are more constantly employed, and are always preferred for the most lucrative employments: here, then, is a real reward which accompanies all their efforts.
2. If he were actuated by no other than penal motives, there would be still more hold upon the day-labourer than upon the slave. The free labourer has his point of honour as well as others. In a free country, shame attaches to the character of an idle or unskilful workman; and in this respect the eyes of his companions are so many helpers to those of the master: this punishment of the popular sanction is inflicted upon a multitude of occasions, by judges who have no interest in sparing it. Hence they exercise reciprocal inspection, and are sustained in their efforts by emulation. This motive has much less force upon slaves: the treatment to which they are subject renders them but little sensible of so delicate a punishment as that of shame; and as the injustice of labouring for the advantage of another, without indemnification, has not escaped their observation, slaves have no shame in acknowledging one to another a dislike to labour, which is common to them all.
3. Whatever appears to the day-labourer as a gain, is a certain gain; every thing which he acquires is his own, and no one else has a right to touch it: but we have seen that there is no real security for the slave. Exceptions in this respect may be cited. Some Russian nobleman, for example, may possess industrious slaves who possess many thousands of roubles, and who enjoy them as their master enjoys his property; but these are particular cases, which do not alter the ordinary rule. When a judgment is to be formed respecting a general arrangement, it is not necessary to stop at these singular and transient cases.
In this short exposition of the inconveniences of slavery, no attempt has been made to excite emotion, nothing has been addressed to the imagination, no odious character has been thrown upon masters in general: by generalizing particular abuses of power, nothing has been said of the terrible methods of rigour and constraint employed in their domestic government, without law, without process, without appeal, without publicity, and almost without restraint: since responsibility, as we have seen, can only exist in extraordinary cases. Every thing which belongs to feeling may be easily accused of exaggeration, but the simple evidence of reason cannot be gainsayed, and it is so strong there can be no need to employ any suspicious colours. The proprietors of slaves, whom personal interest has not made insensible to feeling and humanity, must acknowledge the advantages of liberty, and desire the abolition of slavery, if this abolition could take place without overturning their own condition and their fortunes, and without attacking their personal security. The injustice and the calamity which have accompanied precipitate attempts, form the greatest objection against projects of emancipation.
This operation need not be suddenly carried into effect by a violent revolution, which, by displeasing every body, destroying all property, and placing all persons in situations for which they were not fitted, might produce evils a thousand times greater than all the benefits that can be expected from it.
Instead of rendering emancipation burthensome to the master, it ought, as much as possible, to be rendered advantageous to him: and the first means which naturally offers itself for this purpose, is to fix a price at which every slave shall have the right to purchase his freedom. Unhappily this means is exposed to one strong objection: when the interest of the master is opposed to that of the slaves, he would prevent their obtaining the sum fixed for their ransom. To leave them in ignorance, to keep them in poverty, to clip their wings in proportion as they grew—such would be his policy. But there is this danger only in fixing the price: the liberty of purchasing his freedom by mutual consent has no such inconvenience. The interest of the slave will lead him to work well for himself, that he may have a large price to offer. The interest of the master will lead him to allow his slave rapidly to enrich himself, that he may derive the greater ransom from him.
A second method consists in limiting the right of making a will, in such manner, that in those cases where there is no successor in the direct line, emancipation should be of right. The hope of inheritance is always very weak in distant successions, and this hope would no longer exist when the law became known. There would be no injustice, when no expectation was disappointed.
It would be possible even to go a step further: at each change of ownership, even in the nearest successions, a small sacrifice might be made of property in favour of liberty: for example, a tenth part of the slaves might be set at liberty. An inheritance which has just devolved does not present to the heir a determinate value. The diminution of a tenth would be scarcely sensible. At this period this would be less a loss than a privation of gain. Upon nephews, who have, from another side, received an inheritance from their fathers, the tax in favour of liberty might be still heavier.
This offering to liberty ought to be determined by lot. Choice, under the pretext of honouring the most worthy, would be a source of cabals: it would cause more discontent and jealousy than happiness. The lot is impartial; it gives all an equal chance of happiness; it spreads the charm of hope among those whom it does not favour; and the dread of being deprived of this chance, on account of any crime committed, would be another bond to the fidelity of the slaves.*
Emancipation ought to take place by families, rather than by individuals. A father a slave, and a son free; a son a slave, and a father free. The contrast is sad and shocking!—a source of domestic grief.
There are other means of accelerating this desirable object; but they can only be discovered by studying the particular circumstances of each country.
However, the bonds of slavery, which the legislator cannot break by a single blow, time destroys by little and little; and the march of liberty, though slow, is not the less certain. All the progress of the human mind, of civilization, of morality, of public wealth, of commerce, hasten forward, by degrees, the restoration of individual liberty. England and France were once what Russia, the Polish provinces, and part of Germany, are at present.
Landowners need not be alarmed at this change. Those who possess the soil have a natural power over those who live by their labour. The fear that the emancipated bondsmen, once free, would remove, would abandon their native soil, and leave the earth uncultivated, is absolutely chimerical, especially if emancipation were effected in a gradual manner. Because the slave escapes when he can, it is not to be concluded that the free man will remove. The opposite conclusion would be more correct. The motive for flight no longer exists, and all the motives for remaining are strengthened.
In Poland, some landowners, enlightened as to their own interests, or animated by a love of glory, have effected a total and simultaneous emancipation in their vast seignories. Did this generosity cause their ruin? Altogether the contrary. The farmer, interested in his labour, has been in a condition to pay more than the slave; and their lands, cultivated by free hands, have received every year a new and increased value.
[* ]This method might give the slaves a temptation to employ murder to accelerate their emancipation. This is a very weighty objection against this lottery. It must, however, be observed, that even its uncertainty would weaken its danger. Few would be led to commit a crime of which they were not sure to reap the profit. But this temptation would vanish, if emancipation were not allowed to take place when the master had been poisoned or assassinated, either by one of his slaves, or by a person unknown. This means of liberation would thus become a source of security to the master.