How Government Created Racial Slavery


Slavery had been around since the beginning of time, but by the Middle Ages, it had nearly been eradicated in Europe. When it was revived, it became based largely on notions of racial superiority. But racism is hardly a sufficient explanation as to how slavery came into being. Although it would be disingenuous to claim that there were no non-governmental interests in racial slavery, it is interesting to note the significant role that the government played in the establishment and maintenance of the nineteenth century’s “peculiar institution.”

Government Created Class Division

The roots of racial slavery in the United States exist in government policies in the form of English Poor Laws. To relieve the poor, the benevolent English government mandated that employers must contract labor in yearly terms. In this agricultural economy, demand for labor was seasonal, so there was a tendency to hire workers for periods in which the need for labor was greatest and let them go when the workload subsided. The new law put the employer in the position of deciding whether or not a worker was profitable enough to hire for an entire year, which led to the natural economic consequence – not unlike the modern minimum wage – of fewer workers being hired.

Thus came the Dickensian notion of the “surplus poor.”

The solution to the surplus poor was to get them to contribute to the national wealth by putting beggars to work in “houses of correction” (later called “Workhouses”). This took place in the sixteenth century, around the same time that prisons were established as means of putting criminals, the insane, and the poor to work for the State, rather than simply holding people temporarily as they awaited trial. Working in reverse of Marx’s later theory of Communism, the State was operating to create class distinctions.

As historian Edmund Morgan writes, “poverty was not genetically hereditary, but workhouses and their schools were designed to make it culturally hereditary. The poor were not born of another color than the rest of the population, but legislation could offer a substitute for color.” By the end of the seventeenth century, English law would go so far as to require its poor “to wear a prominent red or blue ‘P’ on the right-hand shoulder.” [1] This manner of dividing people is a necessary tool for the government to maintain popular support of its oppression.

Government Helped to Establish Slavery

By the seventeenth century, the problem of “surplus population” – an idea that would persist for centuries, as evinced in the economic writings of Thomas Malthus and even Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol – was offered as one of the justifications for colonizing the Americas. Enforced by government fiat, labor contracts were transformed into little more than contracts for “temporary slavery” for terms of up to seven years, with extensions for violations of the law. Indentured contracts helped to establish the distinctions between the Tenant, Bond Servant, and Apprentice, in order of their respective degrees of increasing severity in the terms contracted.

The government even went so far as to subsidize the importation of these types of servants through the “headright system” in which any person funding the passage of a servant was granted the rights to 50 or 100 acres of Virginia land in addition to legally holding the servant in bondage. When the first African slaves were imported into Virginia, their unique status as “chattel slaves” was not a distinction based on race, but simply one based on honoring the terms upon which the slaves were bought from the African Chief overseeing the original sale. To the English buyer, they were simply paying for the passage of yet a fourth type of contracted servitude, not unlike those produce by the English Poor Laws, and racism appears to have been hardly a factor at the time.

Bacon’s Rebellion – Black Slaves and White Servants Rebelled Together

In fact, the early years of African slavery in Virginia show evidence that racism was an unnatural manner of interacting with other human beings. Slaves and Bond Servants were not only largely treated the same in the first part of the seventeenth century, but they also happily associated with each other as equals. Intermarriage was common and well-accepted (this precedent isn’t surprising considering the celebrated marriage of Pocahontas and Englishman John Rolfe). “It was common,” Edmund writes again, “for servants and slaves to run away together, steal hogs together, get drunk together . . . in Bacon’s Rebellion one of the last groups to surrender was a mixed band of eighty Negroes and twenty English servants.” [2] After Bacon’s Rebellion, the worry of servant/slave uprisings was heightened, and “the answer to the problem,” Morgan posits, “was racism, to separate dangerous free whites from dangerous slave blacks by a screen of racial contempt.” [3]

By the 1670s, the Virginia Assembly was passing a slew of statutes classifying servants according to racial categories. No longer, for instance, could white servants and African slaves marry. The classification of poverty between the white servants and African slaves was exacerbated by laws barring masters from the tradition of “gifting” their slaves certain types of property and, in another statute, of freeing them without paying a hefty fine. Other statutes allowed for harsher punishments for African slaves, no longer permitted freedom following Christian baptism, and even passed legislation that incentivized African concubines by legally relieving white fathers of financial responsibility for offspring produced from interracial relations. Meanwhile, headright subsidies for the importation of African slaves continued through the end of the century, by which time there was a robust African population and several years of government-enforced division between white servants and black slaves.

Even in years in which notions of racial or national superiority were the norm, the free interactions of people from different races were surprisingly non-racial. Government, by contrast, has incentive to coercively enforce cultures of division between people. In the North American colonies, racial distinctions provided a convenient basis for dividing the servant class, from whom the government feared uprisings. In England, they divided the Workinghouse poor from the more “respectable” classes with the letter “P” sewn on their clothing. In modern examples, the Nazis divided people on specific racial attributes, going so far as to employ tools to verify that a proper citizen had sufficiently blue eyes. During the Rwandan genocide, the Hutu-controlled government distinguished the Tutsis by their “lanky and long-faced, not so dark-skinned, narrow-nosed, thin-lipped, and narrow chinned” features, according to Philip Gourevitch before noting that the Rwandan Vice-President of the National Assembly confessed to him that even Rwandans couldn’t really tell one class apart from the other. [4]

The point of these observations is that where such bigotry exists, it is largely the government who benefits, and therefore the government who has incentive to create such distinctions. And though these bigotries manifest culturally, they usually originate politically.

But free people, even with such prejudices, have incentive to interact peacefully through trade, and this gradually leads to the end of such bigotry, rather than reinforcing it as the government policies do.

Government Maintained Racism

Once racially-based oppression was prominent, the government continued to enforce laws that maintained racist systems. By the end of the seventeenth century, the cultural distinctions between whites and blacks were well-entrenched and existed independent of the law. But the government protected economic interests in racial slavery by socializing the costs of keeping slaves through the controversial Fugitive Slave Laws. The government also maintained distinctions between poor whites workers and slave workers through laws barring slave-owners from educating their slaves. State laws even made it cost-prohibitive for wealthy slave-owners from becoming emancipators given a change in morality (George Washington’s views on slavery changed during the course of the Revolutionary War, but he only freed his slaves in his will as a loophole in anold Virginia state law that imposed a heavy personal cost for every slave manumitted). Had the government repealed all racial laws during this time, racism would have still existed, but it was maintained by barring the free interactions of people through such legislation.

Even after the emancipation of slaves in the 1860s, which was primarily a strategy for Union victory in the Civil War by incentivizing slaves to runaway from their Confederate owners, the government continued legislation to maintain racial division. In 1865, with blacks now free to contract their own employment, plantation owners attempted to form cartels agreeing to force blacks to agree to terrible contracts. They would either “consent or starve,” wrote a contributor to the Southern Cultivator. But within four years, the DeBow’s Review was lamenting the improving conditions of blacks (at the expense of the plantation owners no longer protected by race laws), writing that “there is no concert of action on the part of the planters to oppose these ever increasing exactions” of the free blacks. [5] This free interaction was market equilibration manifesting in the improved equality between the races. Private collusion was failing because, in a free labor market, it was simply not profitable, regardless of racist sentiment.

So the government had to step in and prevent this free interaction.

Share-cropping Laws were the Reconstruction Era revision of the old English Poor Law labor contracts. Essentially a form of anti-vagrancy laws, the government forced unemployed blacks to sign contracts with plantation owners to work for pay that hardly distinguished them from slaves of the previous era.

The Free Market Combats Racism

The Jim Crow laws established in the 1880s are the most well-known of the laws mandating the segregation of the races, thus maintaining the distinction between the groups. Probably the most infamous of these was the one that required whites and blacks to attend different schools.

At this point, it is perhaps worth questioning any logic in putting faith in the government – the very entity that created these racial divisions, maintained the benefits for centuries, and most heavily benefited from them – to solve racial problems. Coercion to create class distinction had negative consequences in the form of culturally embedded prejudice, but present-day egalitarians advocate using the same coercive body to eliminate the bigotry it engendered. As if legislative fiat is somehow made from some inexplicable magic.

Another theory is that the mere repeal of these laws – thus, the replacement of coercion with voluntary behaviors – will allow people to gradually evolve from their own bigotry. Yes, it would be preferable if there were an instant cure for racism, but reality persists despite the wailing of the compassionate leftist who would lovingly force people, with State violence, to interact with people who they would prefer not to interact with.

Fortunately, history offers us examples of the repeal of such laws. Ten years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Supreme Court disallowed racial segregation in public schools in the ruling for Brown v. Board of Education. This was not the institution of a new law, but merely the repeal of an old one. Parents could still choose to send their children to segregated private schools or not, but educational decisions were (to some degree, given a coercive public education system) put back in the hands of actors making choices based on their own preferences.

Jackie Robinson

In fact, before this, desegregation was beginning to take place naturally. Jackie Brown broke the color barrier in baseball in 1947 (because even a racist employer would rather make more money by hiring a more profitable employee than lose money by catering to his prejudices). Hollywood was embracing black entertainers at the same time, and a majority of college students favored desegregation as early as 1944. By 1950, the Red Cross ended the racial discrimination of blood donors without government telling them to.

Through the decades of the 40s and the 50s, the social and economic status of blacks improved dramatically. As Thomas Sowell points out in Economic Facts and Fallacies, “The number of blacks in white collar occupations, managerial and administrative occupations doubled” in this time period, among other improvements, and these “favorable trends continued after 1960 but did not originate in the 1960s.” [6]

Although there is more at play than merely economic concepts, the transition away from racial prejudices works concomitantly with market equilibration for a reason. People are motivated by profit, both monetary and psychological. In an unhampered market economy, a prejudiced employer will always have to choose between the psychological profit of discriminating against the disfavored class of people and the monetary profit of hiring the most qualified worker and selling to any paying customer. In the end, the only color most business owners care about is green, and this will compel them without state coercion to interact with blacks/Jews/gays/Muslims/etc. And these interactions – voluntary interactions – will always be the most effective means of eliminating such prejudices entirely.

The Counter-Productiveness of Anti-Racism Laws

It may be worth mentioning that not only are anti-bigotry laws unnecessary, they seem also to be counterproductive. This shouldn’t be incredibly difficult to believe. Forcing somebody against their will to do business with, hire, or otherwise interact with somebody they don’t want to – even if their reasons for opposing this interaction are wholly wrong – will serve only to further entrench somebody in their own prejudices.

Nearly twenty years after Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court upheld a law mandating that black students be bused to white schools. While the compassionate egalitarians cheered from their armchairs, black children were forced by the government to be transported – sometimes as far as two hours away – to schools their parents did not always want them to go to. Racial prejudices had been steadily improving for decades, but racism was by no means eliminated by this time and some black parents did not even feel that their children were safe in this situation. Nearly half of all black parents polled opposed the program of busing, which served to remove their children from schools near homes that in many cases black parents had made sacrifices to be able to live near. For many, it undermined the entire community of which they were a part.

In areas of the country in which racism was more present (because government fiat is not able to magically whisk away all elements of bigotry from people’s hearts), the consequences were especially serious. Heavily Irish schools in South Boston protested this forced integration so heavily that the schools there were effectively turned into prisons with “as many as 300 state police officers per day patrolling the school to maintain order.” [7]

Nothing so serious as this is taking place today, though bigotry is still present, particularly regarding Muslims, Hispanics, and homosexuals. There are lessons to be learned from history for the modern controversies. For non-libertarian bigots, it is unlikely that they will see the State as the guilty party in the coercion employed in anti-bigotry laws and will more likely see the hated class of people they are now forced to interact with as the guilty party.

When one gay couple sends the State with its guns to a prejudiced Christian baker and threatens their livelihood, it is the entire gay community who is guilty, in the eyes of the bigot. Furthermore, the role of culprit and victim become reversed. The unsavory act of peaceful bigotry by the baker is now overshadowed by the explicitly evil act of using threats of violence to manipulate behavior and appropriate property.

When Gary Johnson, in one of the Libertarian debates, defended the use of the government to force Christian bakers to bake wedding cakes for gay couples, it appalled libertarians everywhere. The primary reason for this is simply the clear violation of the Non-Aggression Principle; the initiation of force is immoral and unjustifiable, even if it is used against something as distasteful as bigotry. But even for those people who are not libertarians and do not care about (or even know of) the Non-Aggression Principle, it should be easy to see that employing State violence to accomplish egalitarian ends can only ever reinforce prejudices and yield non-egalitarian results.

The consequences of a policy should matter more than the intent behind it.

We should not lose sight of the undeniable fact of history that government often creates and exacerbates the culture of bigotry. It is entirely irrational to entrust this entity with the task of eliminating the very disease it helped create and maintain. Instead, it should be worth considering an alternative strategy, and any alternative to the coercion of the State is the voluntary interactions of free human beings.


[1] Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, norton paperback ed. (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2003), 326.

[2] Ibid, 327.

[3] Ibid, 328. It can be argued that this occurred prior to Bacon’s Rebellion, with one statute passed barring negroes from owning firearms in 1639, but while this may undermine Morgan’s timeline, it does not refute the principled observations supporting his thesis.

[4] Philip Gourevitch, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998), 50.

[5] Cited in Robert Higgs, Competition and Coercion: Blacks in the American Economy 1865-1914 (London: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 48.

[6] Thomas Sowell, Economic Facts and Fallacies, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2011), 179.

[7] Thomas E. Woods, The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Pub., 2004), 202.