Compartmentalizing Morality: 'Christian' Slave Owners and 'Green' Polluters

My wife teaches English. I would love to teach history, but my areas of specialization are American history and black history, and there’s very little demand for either subject (at least in Idaho). But every once in a while, my wife picks some piece of literature that just begs me to come in and give a little historical background -- and there’s my chance!

My wife assigned Frederick Douglass’ autobiography, and so I lectured about the history of slavery in Maryland. It is an interesting and necessarily depressing subject. Try as hard as you might, the only positive spin you could put on it is that American slaves had a generally better situation than their peers in places like eighteenth century Jamaica -- where adult slaves were so cheap to purchase that slave babies were thrown into ditches to die. (The cost of feeding them until they could work failed cost/benefit analysis.)

I was explaining to the class about the breakup of families, as spouses, parents, children, or siblings were sold, often far away. I also explained that while this was widespread, there were masters who tried very hard to avoid breaking up families. Some did it for very pragmatic reasons, as slaves would sometimes run in order to find find sold-away family members or become less willing to work because of anger. (If your children were taken away to a place where you would likely never see them again, how would you react?)

I also explained that there were masters who tried to keep families together because Christianity was a significant influence in antebellum America. Many masters believed in family values. While severe economic problems or bankruptcy might take the matter out of their hands -- and put slaves on the auction block -- there was an attempt to avoid this.

One student was becoming increasingly upset and asked, “How could Christians hold slaves?”

One answer is that some thought that within the system of slavery they were doing the best that they could. Another answer is the compartmentalization of morals.

While Frederick Douglass rails about the hypocrisy of Christian masters, Solomon Northup, a free black New Yorker who was kidnapped into slavery in Louisiana recognized the positive influence that Christianity had -- even on a slave owner such as William Ford:

I was sometime his slave, and had an opportunity of learning well his character and disposition, and it is but simple justice to him when I say, in my opinion, there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford. [Ford never questioned the morality of slavery,] nevertheless, he was a model master, walking uprightly, according to the light of his understanding, and fortunate was the slave who came to his possession. Were all men such as he, Slavery would be deprived of more than half its bitterness.

Most of Northup’s other masters made no pretense of being Christians, nor were they at risk of being so mistaken. Ford was a moral master in an immoral system.

Compartmentalization of morality is that curious phenomenon by which people do things that they know are wrong, but persuade themselves that this isn’t really a problem.