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Blackstone on slavery (refuted)

The notable English jurist Blackstone said that there were no legal foundations for slavery. He claimed to have refuted the three justifications given by the ancients, by the Roman jurists; namely:

1. That men captured in war may be enslaved;

2. That the children of slaves must remain slaves;

3. That a man may sell himself into slavery.

In the first instance, Blackstone points out that in war we fight to preserve our lives—once a man is captured he no longer threatens our lives, so that it is illegitimate to enslave him or to torture him;

the second point is irrelevant, the question at hand, for my purposes, being whether the institution of slavery can be established as such, not merely continued through the production of children;

in the third place, Blackstone claims there is a contradiction because if you sell yourself as a slave you become another man’s property—and hence the money so acquired belongs to the master.

I refute Blackstone thus: in the first instance, Blackstone has a limited conception as regards “self-preservation”—for example, if I defeat another tribe in war and leave them alive, then the ill-will occasioned by the defeat may cause them to revenge themselves upon me; and this has happened many times in history—so that to kill them all, or to kill the active part, as Caesar did to the Gauls, perhaps up to 1 million, could be an act of self-preservation.

Further, in English history there is precedent in this regard. After Agincourt, Henry V slaughtered the captured French soldiers and aristocrats—the reason being that the English had captured so many that they were outnumbered by their own prisoners; and these men were killed even though they were disarmed, since simply to disarm a man does not render him harmless.

Hence, mutatis mutandis, the same applies to a whole nation—which, like the French prisoners, may outnumber you and so threaten you; and so may be enslaved—“self-preservation” being taken in its widest sense.

As far as Blackstone’s idea that to sell yourself into slavery is a contradiction, this is based on an obvious fallacy. In the first place, the money gained when you sell yourself may be given to an unenslaved family member (wife, child, brother).

But, secondly, Blackstone just commits a logical fallacy—slaves may own property to a limited extent; to be owned by another does not imply that you cannot own some property, even if you cannot own as much property as a free man or own it in the same way. Hence it is possible to sell yourself into slavery and for the money so gained to remain your property.

Hence I must disagree with m’learned friend, Sir William Blackstone, and say that it is in line with the laws of reason, nature, and the history of England for men to enslave other men—and hence the peculiar institution of property known as “slavery” should be legal.


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