"The Negro Question"

by 

John Stuart Mill

1850

Fraser's Magazine for Town and Country

[p.465]

TO THE EDITOR OF FRASER'S MAGAZINE. 

SIR,— Your last month's number contains a speech against the "rights of Negroes," the doctrines and spirit of which ought not to pass without remonstrance. The author issues his opinions, or rather ordinances, under imposing auspices no less than those of the "immortal gods." "The Powers," "the Destinies," announce, through him, not only what will be, but what shall be done; what they "have decided upon, passed their eternal act of parliament for." This is speaking "as one having authority;" but authority from whom l If by the quality of the message we may judge of those who sent it, not from any powers to whom just or good men acknowledge allegiance. This so-called "eternal act of parliament" is no new law, but the old law of the strongest — a law against which the great teachers of mankind have in all ages protested — it is the law of force and cunning; the law that whoever is more powerful than an other, is "born lord" of that other, the other being born his "servant," who must be "compelled to work" for him by "beneficent whip," if "other methods avail not." I see nothing divine in this injunction. If  "the gods" will this, it is the first duty of human beings to resist such gods. Omnipotent these "gods" are not, for powers which demand human tyranny and injustice cannot accomplish their purpose unless human beings coφperate. The history of human improvement is the record of a struggle by which inch after inch of ground has been wrung from these maleficent powers, and more and more of human life rescued from the iniquitous dominion of the law of might. Much, very much of this work still remains to do; but the progress made in it is the best and greatest achievement yet performed by mankind, and it was hardly to be expected at this period of the world that we should be enjoined, by way of a great reform in human affair, to begin undoing it. 

The age, it appears, is ill with a most pernicious disease, which infects all its proceedings, and of which the conduct of this country in regard to the negroes is a prominent symptom—the disease of philanthropy. "Sunk in deep froth-oceans of benevolence, fraternity, emancipation-principle, Christian philanthropy, and other most amiable-looking, but most baseless, and, in the end, baleful and all-bewildering jargon," the product of  "hearts left destitute of any earnest guidance, and disbelieving that there ever was any, Christian or heathen," the "human species" is "reduced to believe in rose-pink sentimentalism alone." On this alleged condition of the human species I shall have something to say presently. But I must first set my anti-philanthropic opponent right on a matter of fact. He entirely misunderstands the great national revolt of the conscience of this country against slavery and the slave-trade if he supposes it to have been an affair of sentiment. It depended no more on humane feelings than any cause which so irresistibly appealed to them must necessarily do: Its first victories were gained while the lash yet ruled uncontested in the barrack-yard, and the rod in schools, and while men were still hanged by dozens for stealing to the value of forty shillings. It triumphed because it was the cause of justice; and, in the estimation of the great majority of its supporters, of religion. Its originators and leaders were persons of a stern sense of moral obligation, who, in the spirit of the religion of their time, seldom spoke much of benevolence and philanthropy, but often of duty, crime, and sin. For nearly two centuries had negroes, many thousands annually, been seized by force or treachery and carried off to the West Indies to be worked to death, literally to death; for it was the received maxim, the acknowledged dictate of good economy, to wear them out quickly and import more. In this fact every other possible cruelty, tyranny, and wanton oppression was by implication included. And the motive on the part of the slave-owners was the love of gold; or, to speak more truly, of vulgar and puerile ostentation. I have yet to learn that anything more detestable than this has been done by human beings towards human beings in any part of the earth. It is a mockery to talk of comparing it with Ireland. And this went on, not, like Irish beggary, because England had not the skill to prevent it — not merely by the sufferance, but by the laws of the English nation. At last, however, there were found men, in growing number, who determined not to rest until the iniquity was extirpated; who made the destruction of it as much the business and end of their lives, as ordinary men make their private interests ; who would not be content with softening its hideous features, and making it less intolerable to the sight, but would stop at nothing short of its utter and irrevocable extinction. I am so far from seeing anything contemptible in this resolution, that, in my sober opinion, the persons who formed and executed it deserve to be numbered among those, not numerous in any age, who have led noble lives according to their lights, and laid on mankind a debt of permanent gratitude. 

After fifty years of toil and sacrifice, the object was accomplished, and the negroes, freed from the despotism of their fellow-beings, were left to themselves, and to the chances which the arrangements of existing society provide for these who [p.466] have no resource but their labor. These chances proved favorable to them, and, for the last ten years, they afford the unusual spectacle of a laboring class whose labor bears so high a price that they can exist in comfort on the wages of a comparatively small quantity of work. This, to the ex-slave-owners, is an inconvenience; but I have not yet heard that any of them has been reduced to beg his bread, or even to dig for it, as the negro, however scandalously he enjoys himself, still must: a carriage or some other luxury the less, is in most cases, I believe, the limit of their privations — no very bad measure of retributive justice; those who have had tyrannical power taken away from them, may think themselves fortunate if they come so well off; at all events, it is an embarrassment out of which the nation is not called on to help them; if they cannot continue to realize their large incomes without more laborers, let them find them, and bring them from where they can best be procured, only not by force. Not so thinks your anti-philanthropic contributor. That negroes should exist, and en- joy existence, on so little work, is a scandal, in his eyes, worse than their former slavery. It must be put a stop to at any price. He does not " wish to see" them slaves again "if it can be avoided ;" but " decidedly" they "will have to be servants,'' " servants to the whites," '' compelled to labor," and "not to go idle another minute." "Black Quashee," "up to the ears in pumpkins," and "working about half an hour a day," is to him the abomination of abominations. I have so serious a quarrel with him about principles, that I have no time to spare for his facts; but let me remark, how easily he takes for granted those which fit his case. Because he reads in some blue-book of a strike for wages in Demerara, such as he may read of any day in Manchester, he draws a picture of negro inactivity, copied from the wildest prophecies of the slavery party before emancipation. If the negroes worked no more than "half an hour a day," would the sugar crops, in all except notoriously bad seasons, be so considerable, so little diminished from what they were in the time of slavery, as is proved by the custom-house returns?  But it is not the facts of the question, so much as the moralities of it, that I care to dispute with your contributor. 

A black man working no more than your contributor affirms that they work, is, he says, "an eye-sorrow," a "blister on the skin of the state," and many other things equally disagreeable; to work being the grand duty of man. "To do competent work, to labor honestly according to the ability given them; for that, and for no other purpose, was each one of us sent into this world." Whoever prevents him from this his "sacred appointment to labor while he lives on earth" is "his deadliest enemy." If it be "his own indolence" that prevents him, "the first right he has" is that all wiser and more industrious persons shall, "by some wise means, compel him to do the work he is fit for." Why not at once say that, by "some wise means," everything should be made right in the world?  While we are about it, wisdom may as well be suggested as the remedy for all evils, as for one only. Your contributor incessantly prays Heaven that all persons, black and white, may be put in possession of this "di- vine right of being compelled, if permitted will not serve, to do what work they are appointed for." But as this cannot be conveniently managed just yet, he will begin with the blacks, and will make them work for certain whites, those whites not working at all; that so "the eternal purpose and supreme will" may be fulfilled, and "injustice," which is "forever accursed," may cease. 

This pet theory of your contributor about work, we all know well enough, though some persons might not be prepared for so bold an application of it. Let me say a few words on this "gospel of work" — which, to my mind, as justly deserves the name of a cant as any of those which he has opposed, while the truth it contains is immeasurably further from being the whole truth than that contained in the words Benevolence, Fraternity, or any other of his catalogue of contemptibilities. To give it a rational meaning, it must first be known what he means by work. Does work mean everything which people do? No; or he would not reproach people with doing no work. Does it mean laborious exertion? No; for many a day spent in killing game, includes more muscular fatigue than a day's ploughing. Does it mean useful exertion? But your contributor always scoffs at the idea of utility. Does he mean that all persons ought to earn their living? But some earn their living by doing nothing, and some by doing mischief; and the neg roes, whom he despises, still do earn by labor the " pumpkins" they consume and the finery they wear. 

Work, I imagine, is not a good in itself. There is nothing laudable in work for work's sake. To work voluntarily for a worthy object is laudable; but what constitutes a worthy object? On this matter, the oracle of which your contributor is the prophet has never yet been prevailed on to declare itself. He revolves in an eternal circle round the idea of work, as if turning up the earth, or driving a shuttle or a quill, were ends in themselves, and the ends of human existence. Yet, even in the case of the most sublime service to humanity, it is not because it is work that it is worthy; the worth lies in the service itself, and in the will to render it — the noble feelings of which it is the fruit; and if the nobleness of will is proved by other evidence than work, as for instance by danger or sacrifice, there is the same worthiness. While we talk only of work, and not of its object, we are far from the root of the matter; or, if it may be called the root, it is a root without flower or fruit. 

In the present case, it seems, a noble object means "spices." — "The gods wish, besides pumpkins, that spices and valuable products be grown in their West Indies" — the "noble elements of [p.467] cinnamon, sugar, coffee, pepper black and gray," "things far nobler than pumpkins." Why so? Is what supports life inferior in dignity to what merely gratifies the sense of taste? Is it the verdict of the "immortal gods" that pepper is noble, freedom (even freedom from the lash) contemptible? But spices lead "towards commerces, arts, polities, and social developments." Perhaps so; but of what sort? When they must be produced by slaves, the "polities and social developments" they lead to are such as the world, I hope, will not choose to be cursed with much longer. 

The worth of work does not surely consist in its leading to other work, and so on to work upon work without end. On the contrary, the multiplication of work, for purposes not worth caring about, is one of the evils of our present condition. When justice and reason shall be the rule of human affairs, one of the first things to which we may expect them to be applied is the question, How many of the so-called luxuries, conveniences, refinements, and ornaments of life, are worth the labor which must be undergone as the condition of producing them? The beautifying of existence is as worthy and useful an object as the sustaining of it; but only a vitiated taste can see any such result in those fopperies of so-called civilization, which myriads of hands are now occupied and lives wasted in providing. In opposition to the "gospel of work," I would assert the gospel of leisure, and maintain that human beings cannot rise to the finer attributes of their nature compatibly with a life filled with labor. I do not include under the name labor such work, if work it be called, as is done by writers and afforders of  "guidance," an occupation which, let alone the vanity of the thing, cannot be called by the same name with the real labor, the exhausting, stiffening, stupefying toil of many kinds of agricultural and manufacturing laborers. To reduce very greatly the quantity of work required to carry on existence is as needful as to distribute it more equally; and the progress of science, and the increasing ascendency [sic] of justice and good sense, tend to this result. 

There is a portion of work rendered necessary by the fact of each person's existence: no one could exist unless work, to a certain amount, were done either by or for him. Of this each person is bound, in justice, to perform his share; and society has an incontestable right to declare to every one, that if he work not, at this work of necessity, neither shall he eat. Society has not enforced this right, having in so far postponed the rule of justice to other considerations. But there is an ever-growing demand that it be enforced, so soon as any endurable plan can be devised for the purpose. If this experiment is to be tried in the West Indies, let it be tried impartially; and let the whole produce belong to those who do the work which produces it. We would not have black laborers compelled to grow spices which they do not want, and white proprietors who do not work at all exchanging the spices for houses in Belgrave Square. We would not withhold from the whites, any more than from the blacks, the "divine right" of being compelled to labor. Let them have exactly the same share in the produce that they have in the work. If they do not like this, let them remain as they are, so long as they are permitted, and make the best of supply and demand. 

Your contributor's notions of justice and proprietary right are of another kind than these. According to him, the whole West Indies belong to the whites : the negroes have no claim there, to either land or food, but by their sufferance. "It was not Black Quashee, or those he represents, that made those West India islands what they are." I submit, that those who furnished the thews and sinews really had something to do with the matter. "Under the soil of Jamaica the bones of many thousand British men" — "brave Colonel Fortescue, brave Colonel Sedgwick, brave Colonel Brayne," and divers others, "had to be laid." How many hundred thousand African men laid their bones there, after having had their lives pressed out by slow or fierce torture? They could have better done without Colonel Fortescue, than Colonel Fortescue could have done without them. But he was the stronger, and could "compel;" what they did and suffered therefore goes for nothing. Not only they did not, but it seems they could not, have cultivated those islands. "Never by art of his" (the negro) "could one pumpkin have grown there to solace any human throat." They grow pumpkins, however, and more than pumpkins, in a very similar country, their native Africa. We are told to look at Haiti: what does your contributor know of Haiti? "Little or no sugar growing, black Peter exterminating black Paul, and where a garden of the Hesperides might be, nothing but a tropical dog-kennel and pestiferous jungle." Are we to listen to arguments grounded on hear-says like these? In what is black Haiti worse than white Mexico? If the truth were known, how much worse is it than white Spain? 

But the great ethical doctrine of the discourse, than which a doctrine more damnable, I should think, never was propounded by a professed moral reformer, is, that one kind of human beings are born servants to another kind. "You will have to be servants," he tells the negroes, "to those that are born wiser than you, that are born lords of you — servants to the whites, if they are (as what mortal can doubt that they are?) born wiser than you." I do not hold him to the absurd letter of his dictum; it belongs to the mannerism in which he is enthralled like a child in swaddling clothes. By "born wiser," I will suppose him to mean, born more capable of wisdom: a proposition which, he says, no mortal can doubt, but which, I will make bold to say, that a full moiety of all thinking persons, who have attended to the subject, either doubt or positively deny. Among the things for which your contributor professes entire disrespect, is the analytical examination of [p.468] human nature. It is by analytical examination that we have learned whatever we know of the laws of external nature; and if he had not disdained to apply the same mode of investigation to the laws of the formation of character, he would have escaped the vulgar error of imputing every difference which he finds among human beings to an original difference of nature. As well might it be said, that of two trees, sprung from the same stock one cannot be taller than another but from greater vigor in the original seedling. Is nothing to be attributed to soil, nothing to climate, nothing to difference of exposure — has no storm swept over the one and not the other, no lightning scathed it, no beast browsed on it, no insects preyed on it, no passing stranger stript [sic] off its leaves or its bark? If the trees grew near together, may not the one which, by whatever accident, grew up first, have retarded the other's development by its shade? Human beings are subject to an infinitely greater variety of accidents and external influences than trees, and have infinitely more operation in impairing the growth of one another; since those who begin by being strongest, have almost always hitherto used their strength to keep the others weak. What the original differences are among human beings, I know no more than your contributor, and no less; it is one of the questions not yet satisfactorily answered in the natural history of the species. This, however, is well known — that spontaneous improvement, beyond a very low grade — improvement by internal development, without aid from other individuals or peoples — is one of the rarest phenomena in history; and whenever known to have occurred, was the result of an extraordinary combination of advantages; in addition doubtless to many accidents of which all trace is now lost. No argument against the capacity of negroes for improvement, could be drawn from their not being one of these rare exceptions. It is curious, withal, that the earliest known civilization was, we have the strongest reason to believe, a negro civilization. The original Egyptians are inferred, from the evidence of their sculptures, to have been a negro race: it was from negroes, therefore, that the Greeks learnt their first lessons in civilization; and to the records and traditions of these negroes did the Greek philosophers to the very end of their career resort (I do not say with much fruit) as a treasury of mysterious wisdom. But I again renounce all advantage from facts: were the whites born ever so superior in intelligence to the blacks, and competent by nature to instruct and advise them, it would not be the less monstrous to assert that they had therefore a right either to subdue them by force, or circumvent them by superior skill; to throw upon them the toils and hardships of life, reserving for themselves, under the misapplied name of work, its agreeable excitements.

Were I to point out, even in the briefest terms, every vulnerable point in your contributor's discourse, I should produce a longer dissertation than his. One instance more must suffice. If labor is wanted, it is a very obvious idea to import laborers and if negroes are best suited to the climate, to import negroes. This is a mode of adjusting the balance between work and laborers, quite in accordance with received principles; it is neither before nor behind the existing moralities of the world; and since it would accomplish the object of making the negroes work more, your contributor, at least, it might have been supposed, would have approved of it. On the contrary, this prospect is to him the most dismal of all; for either "the new Africans, after laboring a little," will "take to pumpkins like the others," or if so many of them come that they will be obliged to work for their living, there will be "a black Ireland." The labor market admits of three possible conditions, and not, as this would imply, of only two. Either, first, the laborers can live almost without working, which is said to be the case in Demerara; or, secondly, which is the common case, they can live by working, but must work in order to live; or, thirdly, they cannot by working get a sufficient living, which is the case in Ireland. Your contributor sees only the extreme cases, but no possibility of the medium. If Africans are imported, he thinks there must either be so few of them, that they will not need to work, or so many, that although they work, they will not be able to live. 

Let me say a few words on the general quarrel of your contributor with the present age. Every age has its faults, and is indebted to those who point them out. Our own age needs this service as much as others; but it is not to be concluded that it has degenerated from former ages, because its faults are different. We must beware, too, of mistaking its virtues for faults, merely because, as is inevitable, its faults mingle with its virtues and color them. Your contributor thinks that the age has too much humanity, is too anxious to abolish pain. I affirm, on the contrary, that it has too little humanity — is most culpably indifferent to the subject; and I point to any day's police reports as the proof. I am not now accusing the brutal portion of the population, but the humane portion; if they were humane enough, they would have contrived long ago to prevent these daily atrocities. It is not by excess of a good quality that the age is in fault, but by deficiency — deficiency even of philanthropy, and still more of other qualities wherewith to balance and direct what philanthropy it has. An "Universal Abolition of Pain Association" may serve to point a sarcasm, but can any worthier object of endeavor be pointed out than that of diminishing pain? Is the labor which ends in growing spices noble, and not that which lessens the mass of suffering? We are told with a triumphant air, as if it were a thing to be glad of, that "the Destinies" proceed in a "terrible manner;" and this manner will not cease "for soft sawder or philanthropic stump-oratory;" but whatever the means may be, it has ceased in no inconsiderable degree, and is ceasing more and more: every year the "terrible manner," in some department or other, is made a little less terrible. Is our cholera [p.469] comparable to the old pestilence — our hospitals to the old lazar-houses — our workhouses to the hanging of vagrants — our prisons to those visited by Howard?  It is precisely because we have succeeded in abolishing so much pain, because pain and its infliction are no longer familiar as our daily bread, that we are so much more shocked by what remains of it than our ancestors were, or than in your contributor's opinion we ought to be. 

But (however it be with pain in general) the abolition of the infliction of pain by the mere will of a human being, the abolition, in short, of despotism, seems to be, in a peculiar degree, the occupation of this age; and it would be difficult to show that any age had undertaken a worthier. Though we cannot extirpate all pain, we can, if we are sufficiently determined upon it, abolish all tyranny; one of the greatest victories yet gained over that enemy is slave-emancipation, and all Europe is struggling, with various success, towards further conquests over it.  If, in the pursuit of this, we lose sight of any object equally important; if we forget that freedom is not the only thing necessary for human beings, let us be thankful to any one who points out what is wanting; but let us not consent to turn back. That this country should turn back, in the matter of negro slavery, I have not the smallest apprehension. 

There is, however, another place where that tyranny still flourishes, but now for the first time finds itself seriously in danger. At this crisis of American slavery, when the decisive conflict between right and iniquity seems about to commence, your contributor steps in, and flings this missile, loaded with the weight of his reputation, into the abolitionist camp. The words of English writers of celebrity are words of power on the other side of the ocean; and the owners of human flesh, who probably thought they had not an honest man on their side between the Atlantic and the Vistula, will welcome such an auxiliary. Circulated as his dissertation will probably be, by those whose interests profit by it, from one end of the American Union to the other, I hardly know of an act by which one person could have done so much mischief as this may possibly do; and I hold that by thus acting, he has made himself an instrument of what an able writer in the Inquirer justly calls "a true work of the devil."

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§ - [Note on electronic text: as reprinted in Littell's Living Age (ed. E. Littell, Boston), 1850, Vol. XXIV  p.465-69.  Available in GIF format online from the Cornell University's  "Making of America" Database.] 

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