Mind the Gap

Pro-Con Slavery Exercise

No, leaving the pro side of this blank is NOT the right thing to do. That is NOT the exercise.

FIRST, turn off the emotion.

Second, turn off the Anachronistic thinking. That is, you putting your knowledge (or supposed knowledge – most students do NOT have a good knowledge of history, FFS, I’ve had one student tell me she didn’t know when Independence Day was!!!) of history on the subject. You are applying your morals to the subject. That is something that I do my damnedest to teach my students to not do when performing historical research.  It is BAD history when you do that.

Was Thomas Jefferson evil for owning slaves?  How about George Washington? Ben Franklin, John Hancock, Patrick Henry, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, etc. etc. etc.  By all accounts, until later in life, Washington, a man who regularly is ranted #1 in presidential rankings, often called the most respected figure in U.S. history was a BASTARD towards his slaves.  But Jefferson, who regularly catches shit for being a slave owner while GW is ignored, was actually, FOR HIS TIME, considered a fair slave owner. IN SPITE of the fact that he freed exactly TWO slaves of over 1,000 in his lifetime and fathered numerous bastards by his slaves.

Why? Because people apply the modern morality that they were taught by primary school teachers, that slavery is always bad. But they’re not taught the complexity of that history. Slavery is always BAD, but bad, and even evil does not mean there are not advantages to be explored.

I can do this with any topic. You SHOULD learn to do so too. Gods, if VOTERS could do so, then we wouldn’t be in the shit show we’re in now.

Let’s not forget that in 1862, ABRAHAM LINCOLN said the following:

“If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”


WHY did he say that? Because when he said it, he believed that there would be some benefit (saving the Union) from leaving slavery in place.

Lincoln had also, earlier, forced Major General John C. Fremont to rescind an order freeing slaves in Missouri, WHY? Because there was a benefit to it. I.E. Delaware and Maryland not seceding to the Union and leaving Washington, D.C. surrounded by the Confederacy – look at a map.  This also prevented Kentucky and Missouri itself from leaving the Union.  Thus LINCOLN saw a political and military benefit to allowing slavery to continue.

LATER after further ANALYSIS, Lincoln changed his mind and issued the Emancipation Proclamation (which had as much, if not more to do with politics and preventing European countries from interfering in the Civil War and military tactics as it did with emancipation – and that is historical fact, like it or not. If it didn’t, why did Lincoln wait for the Union victory at Antietam to formally announce it when he’d told his cabinet he would do so a month before? Why didn’t he issue the proclamation immediately? Because the value of the proclamation was lessened while the Union was losing – McClellan was an idiot – from a pure military analysis, Lee should have beat him every single time they met, even with ¼ the men – and that’s only considering McClellan as the deciding factor – Grant was 1,000x the general McClellan was – but that’s another discussion) But Lincoln did realize that he could NOT save the Union and leave slavery intact.  How did he come to that conclusion?  By making an informed, unemotional, cost-benefit (pro-con – call it what you want) analysis of the situation.

This is ANALYSIS. You do NOT start the analysis from the point of “Slavery is bad, prove it.”  When you do that, you’ve already contaminate the analysis. You’ve already stated your position and shut your brain down (as many of you ARE demonstrating here).

You start the analysis from; “There is slavery, analyze its pros and cons.”  Yes the wording on this assignment in the article is unfortunate. But, why attribute malice when incompetence will do?  Also, how about we hear from the teacher before you lynch her/him/it.

You can do this from MANY viewpoints (and me? I’d leave it up to the student, at least in the first round.  Social, economic, political, moral, etc.).

There are ANY NUMBER of reasons a teacher would do this.

First: To figure out what their students know now.  Where has their education to this point been on point, and where has it fallen off the proper track.

Second: TO MAKE THEIR STUDENTS THINK.  Even at college level, making students think… well, fuck… you can see that it physically hurts many of them. Seriously, I’m not even kidding here.  When I ask a complex question, over just about any topic – Even a simple question; When did WWII start – I love that one – because the answer is NOT what they are taught in school – They stare at me. This is also why I give both open book (really internet) quizzes – just to expose them to history, and I require them do a college level research paper, it makes them think.

Third: It gives that teacher a starting point.

If a student puts in that pro-column that “Slavery is the proper status of the negro.” Then you KNOW that student, and whoever taught him has a CONFEDERATE mindset (That quote is paraphrased from the Cornerstone Speech given by the Confederate VP Alexander Stephens).  You can then teach to that student. And probably piss off his parents who taught him that – I don’t care, I’m a 350lb Ex MP biker… be pissed off.

And if that student does what this student did and leave the PRO side blank, then you can assume that student either didn’t understand the assignment, or they are reacting emotionally and do not know HOW to perform historical research from a neutral position. And you can teach to the student.

The purpose of a cost/benefit analysis, aka a Pro/Con Analysis is to foster CRITICAL thinking.  It’s not the only way, but it is, for the most part, the simplest (I like using four square or SWOT – Strength, Weakness, Opportunities, Threats –  analysis for projects, it works less well for this situation).

Slave owners provided housing for slaves.  Analyze this.

I can hear you screaming. STOP.

Except in very unusual circumstances, having housing is a PRO. PERIOD.  The vast majority of people on the face of the planet, throughout known history, wanted to live INSIDE.

Does ANYONE disagree that housing is a PRO?

If so, make your argument.  BUT, your argument must be about HOUSING, and the desire to be housed generally, and not tied slavery.

That is a how you do a pro-con analysis.

THEN you explore the conditions.
CON: Housing is provided as a condition of forced servitude.
FORCED SERVITUDE is a NEGATIVE (and it’s a negative in every modern society on the planet).
CON: Housing is substandard. It’s TRUE, but the student doesn’t know that, they’ve just been told that. They don’t KNOW it. I’d have student’s prove that, because sub-standard housing means…What exactly? Slave housing was certainly substandard for modern times, but what was substandard in the 19th century or earlier?

What if a student says that slaves aren’t fed?

We know that’s patently untrue and that student needs to be taught otherwise. A starving slave is not a working slave.

What did slaves eat?  Well, it depends of course on the owner, but in general, slaves were given ADEQUATE food. One common staple was hominy, dried corn (i.e. grits) and the lesser cuts of pork. In some parts of the country, sweet potatoes might be available and a ration of corn meal. Mush and Chitlins.  They also could grow their own and some owners even allowed slaves to hunt for game. Opossum, deer, rabbits, and raccoon, according to James E. McWilliams was on the menu in S. Carolina. Some particularly generous owners even let their slaves keep livestock, but that appears to be an exception. Meanwhile, other slave owners were NOT generous, and one slave overseer stated that the slaves only got meat at Christmas (though, really, while that particular example is extreme, the eating of meat by the average person was NOT all that common before the development of the refrigerated railroad car in 1851 – Italian immigrants in the late 19th Cent. wrote home about eating meat every day, something they may have done once or twice a month in Italy).

I found this on a site discussing slave food: “Janet Schaw, a visitor to Carolina, noted that “Negroes are the only people that seem to pay any attention to the various uses that the wild vegetables may be put to.”  I find that interesting, both as a historian and as a culinarian and it’s going into my future research file.

Was it a FEAST? No. There were few, if any fat slaves. Possible exceptions may be Jefferson’s French Trained Chef who he later freed. Does it favorably compare to what the master was eating. Absolutely not, and in the pro-con analysis, that should be noted.

COULD IT ALL BE TAKEN AWAY??? YES.  And we need to get the students to the point where they can perform THIS analysis, or we teach them NOTHING.

How about economically?

Did it make economic sense to OWN your workers? Or pay them wages?

One of the BIG complaints of the free states was that the Southern slave owners had an advantage over what was called “Free Labor.” That is, labor by free men who were paid.

There are SCADS of scholarly books and research papers on this topic.

Do you think any high school student is every exposed to those?  I seriously doubt it. In fact, even my textbooks (yes, I have them, I just don’t use them) give it …3 sentences… yay.

Same analysis.

Pro: slave capital brought returns as high as 13% prior to the 1808 ban on the African Slave Trade. By comparison, Railroads in the heyday brought 6-8% and created men like Andrew Carnegie.

But let’s take that analysis further – CONS: slavery, by design, hindered the economic development of the South and restricted the expansion of the Industrial Revolution. In fact, during the Civil War, the vast majority of the South’s industrial capacity was in Virginia and Tennessee.  This inability to produce war goods, coupled with Lee’s serious errors in tactics after Antietam resulted in the loss of the Civil War.  In this analysis, slavery was a stake driven through the heart of the Confederacy.

Additionally, Douglass North, a Nobel-Prize-winning economist, argued that the expansion of Southern plantation slavery was at the center of midwestern economic development in the nineteenth century. The North also profited from slavery and increased its own industrialization to accommodate the needs of King Cotton.  This is yet ANOTHER example of how slavery, while on the surface, was economically profitable, was in fact weakening the South. For the South, that is CON.

Only the South couldn’t see it because they could not UNEMOTIONALLY make a cost-benefit analysis. CON.

And that’s what I’m seeing here.

YES, Slavery is evil.  I’ve been studying it now since 2007. I was exposed to it in Thailand when a mother (hmm, I’ve always assumed it was a mother, but maybe not – Some woman) tried to sell me and some shipmates her prepubescent daughter for $80. The 18 year-old me had NEVER even heard of such a thing. I, like so many of my current students, hadn’t been taught to critically analyze anything in school (was a C student even, didn’t plan on being anything other than a sailor), and I had assumed that when my teachers told me that slavery had been ended by the Civil War, I assumed they meant ALL slavery – Very Americentric of me, but I was back then, like MOST of my classmates. My shipmates and I literally ran away from this woman (a chief later said that was a common practice). Today, I’d do something different. And the reason I’d do it is because I’ve educated myself on the topic and have some inkling as to what to do.

THAT is what this sort of assignment does.


I’ve told my students, all of them, that my goal is not to tell them what to think. But to show them HOW.

The one exception to this is the topic of the cause of the Civil War being anything other than the evil that is slavery (Seriously, if you haven’t watched the video I’ve posted, watch it – if you want two simple arguments to shoot down any state’s rights apologist, let me know, I have them).

Assuming that this teacher follows up with a second assignment, discussing these students’ answers to this question, this is ONE WAY a teacher can do that.

There is, in education, NO SUCH THING as a bad question.  Especially if it informs the instructor on the hurdles that they must overcome to help a student become a critical thinker.

I WISH they’d start this from day one. It would make MY JOB, so much easier.



The RIGHT thing to do is to get to the end of the assignment. If the teacher has done their job, HONESTLY, and demanded the students do their job, HONESTLY, then there is only ONE conclusion a student can come to.

%d bloggers like this: