Happy as a Cow in Clover, Right?

Published:April 10, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

Earlier today we posted some reader feedback on Encyclopedia Virginia‘s treatment, in general, of the Civil War, states’ rights, slavery, and the Lost Cause, and that note contained this particularly vile comparison:

Slaves endured no greater hardship than the oxen which farmers kept fed and healthy for their own livelihood. Planters didn’t capreciously whip $50K (in today’s dollars) assets for the fun of it. Not a great life, but better than dying at the tip of a spear in Africa.

This reminded me that Aristotle made exactly the same argument in ancient Greece. The soul, he writes in Politics, should rule over the body as man over beast and master over slave. In fact, the slave is, in this line of argument, no different from a domesticated animal:

Tame animals are naturally better than wild animals, yet for all tame animals there is an advantage in being under human control, as this secures their survival … By analogy, the same must necessarily apply to mankind as a whole. Therefore all men who differ from one another by as much as the soul differs from the body or man from a wild beast (and that is the state of those who work by using their bodies, and for whom that is the best they can do)—these people are slaves by nature, and it is better for them to be subject to this kind of control, as it is better for the other creatures I’ve mentioned … [A]ssistance regarding the necessities of life is provided by both groups, by slaves and by domesticated animals. Nature must therefore have intended to make the bodies of free men and slaves different also; slaves’ bodies strong for the services they have to do, those of free men upright and not much use for that kind of work, but instead useful for community life.*

There are certain people, in other words, who are slaves by nature, and we can only help them as we might help a cow in the field—by feeding it and otherwise treating it well. But we certainly aren’t expected to stop treating it like a cow!

It’s not my intention to make argument with our reader. If you think that Africans were better off separated from their families and cultures and sent to Virginia to be other men’s slaves, what can I say? But there is a long and tortured history to this kind of thinking—it has lasted longer, indeed, than African slavery itself.

* Quoted in David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of  Slavery in the New World (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 34–35. You can see the quotation in its full context, if in a slightly different translation, here.

IMAGE: This romanticized scene of a Fulani village in West Africa features women and their children, including one pair; in Michel Etienne Descourtiz, Voyage d’un naturaliste (Paris, 1809), vol.1, facing title page (The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas)


1 Comment on “Happy as a Cow in Clover, Right?”

  1. Misti Furr

    Never mind that there is no one “Africa.” By reducing a vast continent, with diverse societies, cultures, politics, and environments, to the one word, “Africa,” generations have justified their treatment in a way that is insidiously racist.

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