I’m currently revising this paper, which deals with the Memphis Riot of 1866. At the urging of Luigi Marco Bassani, who was my commentator on this paper at the Istituto Bruno Leoni’s Mises Seminar in October, I’m reviewing a number of sources on slavery apologetics in the early nineteenth century.
One of the lessons I’m learning in this research is that even a superficially plausible case for government monopoly provision of certain goods and services is undermined when it requires institutions that allow people to exercise racist preferences (and inflict damage on others) at minimal cost to themselves. In reviewing some of my notes, I came across the following instructive passage from page 26 of Jeffrey Rogers Hummel’s excellent Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men:
Advocating abolition became a felony in Virginia in 1836. The Georgia legislature offered a reward of $5,000 for anyone who would kidnap [abolitionist William Lloyd] Garrison and bring him south for trial and punishment. Louisiana established a penalty ranging from twenty-one years hard labor to death for speeches and writings ‘having a TENDENCY to promote discontent among free colored people, or insubordination among slaves.’ All slave-state legislatures except Kentucky’s passed similar laws censoring free speech. The surveillance and violence of private vigilance committees made the region unsafe for even the most restrained critic of the peculiar institution. A theology student from the Lane Seminary in Cincinnati who carried abolitionist literature into Tennessee in 1835 was lucky to escape with the public whipping of twenty lashes, while one Virginia newspaper editor was gunned down in a duel in 1846 because of his alleged antislavery sympathies.
When northern abolitionists employed new and cheaper printing technologies to flood the South with antislavery tracts, mobs seized and burned much of this mail. Southerners even appealed to northern officials to cooperate in the suppression of abolitionist agitation. In this case, President Jackson shared the concern of his fellow slaveholders. He asked Congress in 1835 for a law barring abolitionist propaganda from the mail. Although the House of Representatives failed to heed Jackson’s request by a narrow margin, his postmaster general acquiesced in the illegal refusal of local postmasters to deliver antislavery literature.
In his biography of William Lloyd Garrison, Henry Mayer reports that Virginia Governor John Floyd’s suppression of abolitionism was aided by postmasters throughout the state:
Floyd received letters from all over the South describing suspicious events and the malign influence of Quakers, itinerants, and ‘fanatical’ Yankee editors. ‘Much mischief is hatching here,’ said one informant from Philadelphia; articles from The Liberator were being read aloud at conclaves in black churches. One Virginia postmaster after another confiscated copies of The Liberator and mailed them to the governor as evidence.
This is broadly consistent with Mark Thornton’s thesis that slavery was propped up by state intervention. I think it speaks to a larger issue that, as far as I can tell, is seriously under-explored: state monopolies over the flow of information, business licensing, law enforcement, and other aspects of civil society allow racists to impose their worldview on others at very low costs to themselves. In these cases, voices in the debate over slavery were silenced by state officials who could, at low cost to themselves, prevent the free flow of information, impose very large costs on the slaves, and perpetuate a monstrous and unambiguous evil. Something similar emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as state governments moved to restrict the free functioning of the labor market.