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Posts from March 2006

Libertarians Against Property Rights: “You Will Be Assimilated” Edition

Over at Positive Liberty, Timothy Sandefur and Jason Kuznicki seem intent on retreading an argument over immigration that I last saw in the clash of the fascists between Sam Huntington and David Brooks almost exactly two years ago. Here’s Sandefur, who apparently believes that he’s explaining a problem:

The illegal immigration problem is so severe in Southern California that it is difficult for people elsewhere in the country, including even Northern Californians, to really understand what's going on. Whole areas of Southern California are now virtually Mexico. The population of illegal immigrants is enormous, and climbing steadily, at the rates of at least hundreds per day.

— Timothy Sandefur, Positive Liberty (2006-03-30): Illegal Alienation

I’m still waiting to find out what the problem is, but Sandefur apparently believes he’s intimated at least part of it just by telling us that parts of Southern California are now, in some unspecified sense, like Mexico. (Well, so?)

Here’s what Sandefur takes to be the most serious objection to Mexicans moving in without permission slips from the federal government:

The most serious, to me, is philosophical. You cannot have a free society among people who do not understand the cultural and philosophical framework of freedom. Allowing people into a nation who do not identify themselves as part of that nation–who do not speak the language, who do not observe the holidays, who do not know or care about the history and ideals and cultural icons–is simply suicidal.

— Timothy Sandefur, Positive Liberty (2006-03-30): Illegal Alienation

Of course, it is almost certainly true that freedom requires a certain cultural and philosophical framework, and it would be good if everybody adhered to it. But I’m baffled by the suggestion that speaking the prevalent language, observing the prevalent holidays, or knowing or caring about the history and ideals and cultural icons of whatever country you intend to move to are essential parts of that cultural and philosophical framework. There’s no special affinity between liberty and monolinguism, between freedom and observing any particular theo-nationalist liturgical calendar, or between autonomy and being interested or well-versed in any particular part of the history of the foreign land that you are moving to. (I’d suggest, if anything, that having to negotiate many different languages, many different cultures, many different understandings of history and pop culture, can be just as conducive to freedom, if not more conducive to freedom, as any sort of constructed nationalism.)

But this is ultimately beside the point anyway. Even if failing to learn English was a dreadful threat to the prospects of liberty; even if not celebrating Veterans’ Day or Flag Day or Arbor Day were an ominous step towards totalitarianism, it would provide absolutely no justification whatever for using force to stop people from traveling to property where they are welcomed by the owner (either out of hospitality, or because they pay rent, or because they are prepared to buy it for themselves). Certain kinds of bad thoughts may very well be corrosive to liberty, but there’s no libertarian justification in restraining, beating, shooting, detaining, jailing, or exiling somebody just for having bad thoughts. Neither you nor the government has any right to force people off of property onto which they have been invited, even if you think that their presence is a looming danger to the future of liberty in America, unless they have actually done or threatened real violence to somebody else. Vices are not crimes, and only crimes can justly be resisted by force.

That argument seems simple, and obvious. So why don’t more advocates of immigration just stick to their guns and make it? Perhaps it’s understandable that non-libertarians don’t make it, but what about libertarians? Why does Kuznicki take this to be the most natural line of response to Sandefur?

In the immortal words of Locutus of Borg, ...

Freedom is irrelevant. Assimilation is inevitable.

Subsequent evidence runs against Jefferson's prediction. The United States has absorbed substantial waves of Irish, East European, and East Asian immigrants, none of whom came from countries or cultures that habituated them to freedom. Many spoke little or no English and were almost wholly ignorant of the American system. Yet after a generation or two — and often much sooner — they turned out pretty much like any other group of Americans.

What we are experiencing now is entirely within the bounds of the demographic precedents set by these other groups: As a proportion of the general population, the number of immigrants today is roughly on par with levels that we have experienced in the past, as this (intentionally?) misleading graph actually demonstrates quite well (hint: look at the percentages).

Given the demographic similarities and historical precedents, I have little reason to fear that Latinos will somehow be different — unless, that is, we give them incentives not to assimilate.

— Jason Kuznicki, Positive Liberty (2006-03-30): How I’d Reform Immigration

What legitimate reason has the United States government to care whether or not Latin@s assimilate or don’t assimilate? What legitimate reason have we got to make the decision whether or not to use force to stop immigrants (or to exile them from their current homes) on the basis of whether or not they are willing to assimilate to the surrounding culture? Maybe they will and maybe they won’t; but whatever the virtues or vices of declining to assimilate, it’s not a hanging crime, and neither you nor anybody else has the person to destroy a person’s livelihood, clap them into irons, and force them back out of the country over it. Neither you, nor anybody else, has the right to harass, shove, restrain, beat, or shoot people to stop them from entering the country over it. The only issue here is the freedom of movement of the immigrant, and the property rights of whoever owns the property where the immigrant is staying. (If the immigrant is trespassing, of course, there are already laws against that; it has nothing in particular to do with immigration.) Sandefur, for his part, thinks he has a reply to this. Here it is:

First, it must be kept very clear that no person has a natural right to enter another country against the will of those citizens. A person has a natural right to leave his [sic] own country, no doubt. But a political society is an agreement among people for purposes of the common defense, and the people therefore have the right to decide whether or not to allow others in. So long as they do not make that decision on an arbitrary basis, they have the right to refuse to extend citizenship or entry to others if they wish. So no person has the right to force his [sic] way into the another nation and demand to be accepted.

— Timothy Sandefur, Positive Liberty (2006-03-30): Illegal Alienation

If Sandefur were right about this, it would provide a basis for taking things like assimilation into account when you’re setting immigration policy. If it were a matter of resisting people trying to force her way in against the will of people who have a right to keep them out, then you might very well think that any number of factors might be good reasons for stopping them rather than letting them in.

But he’s not right; that’s not what this is about. The appeal is nothing more than overt, garden-variety political collectivism, which tricks itself out in a few of the rhetorical cadences of property rights while actually assaulting those property rights in the name of collective coercion of innocent individual people. Sandefur would have The People decide whether or not to allow others in, but in a way that systematically denies individual people the right to decide whether or not to allow others in to their own property. Of course, there is no natural right to enter another person’s land against the will of that person (that’s just trespassing). But I take it we’re not talking about trespassing law here. We’re talking about an immigrant who’s made arrangements for a place to stay with a willing landlord — through the hospitality of people she knows, or by paying rent for the space, or by buying it for herself from the previous owner. Who is, therefore, welcomed by the owners of the property. The only people deciding not to allow her in are, ex hypothesi, people other than the owners, third parties — nativist voters, opportunistic legislators, La Migra, or whoever else — who think that force of numbers or the writ of The Law gives them some kind of right to impose their decisions on other people’s property.

There are political theories that would approve of this kind of bullying and coercion — as long as it had the right majoritarian or authoritarian backing. But libertarianism is not one of them. If I invite a Mexican worker into my home, she or he has got a right to stay there as long as I (and my landlord) permit it. If a local factory gives her a job, she’s got a right to work there as long as she and the employer want her to continue. If she’s happy to keep speaking Spanish and I’m happy to let her stay without speaking English, then she still has a right to stay. If she’ll work on Dead Prez Day and the factory is happy for her to work on it, then she still has a right to stay. There is no way for La Migra to butt in, whether she is willing to assimilate or not, without mounting an assault on both her and on my rights to do as I please with my own home, or the factory’s rights to hire whom they please. Whether or not Mexican workers are interested in assimilating to any particular local culture is interesting only as an empirical question, a matter of idle sociological curiosity. It has absolutely no bearing on the question of right, because your ideas about culture don’t trump my right to my own land, and they don’t trump her life, liberty, or livelihood. Period.

When the topic is immigration policy, please just shut up about cultural assimilation. Whether it is happening or not, and whether it ought to happen or not, it is completely irrelevant to the course of (in)action that the government ought to pursue.

Further reading:

How not to argue against worker co-ops

Here’s a dumb argument that people sometimes make against workers’ co-ops. The incarnation I’ve picked comes from Econo-Creep Central, where Posner was lamenting the fact that Larry Summers, the overbearing jackass at the top of the educational red-tape hierarchy at Harvard, was hounded out of his position, largely by rowdy arts and sciences faculty with whom he was extremely unpopular. Here’s Posner, quoting some remarks from a year ago that he thinks are confirmed by the sorry end of Summers’ sorry tenure as University President:

To appreciate the sheer strangeness of the situation, imagine the reaction of the CEO of a business firm, and his board of directors, if after the CEO criticized one of the firm’s executives for absenteeism, ascribed the underrepresentation of women in the firm’s executive ranks to preferences rather than discrimination, dealt in peremptory fashion with the firm’s employees, and refused to share decision-making powers with them, was threatened with a vote of no confidence by the employees. He and his board would tell them to go jump in the lake. But of course there would be no danger that the employees would stage a vote of no confidence, because every employee would take for granted that a CEO can be brusque, can chew out underperforming employees, can delegate as much or as little authority to his subordinates as he deems good for the firm, and can deny accusations of discrimination.

If, however, for employees we substitute shareholders, the situation changes drastically. The shareholders are the owners, the principals; the CEO is their agent. He is deferential to them. Evidently the members of the Harvard faculty consider themselves the owners of the institution.

They should not be the owners. The economic literature on worker cooperatives identifies decisive objections to that form of organization that are fully applicable to university governance. The workers have a shorter horizon than the institution. Their interest is in getting as much from the institution as they can before they retire; what happens afterwards has no direct effect on them unless their pensions are dependent on the institution’s continued prosperity. That consideration aside (it has no application to most professors’ pensions), their incentive is to play a short-run game, to the disadvantage of the institution–and for the further reason that while the faculty as a group might be able to destroy the institution and if so hurt themselves, an individual professor who slacks off or otherwise acts against the best interests of the institution is unlikely to have much effect on the institution.

— Posner (2006-02-26): Summers’ Resignation and Organization Theory

Of course it’s true that in most workplaces, top executives are very often insufferable know-it-alls who treat workers rudely and don’t bother themselves with what the folks doing the work have to say about the workplace or the company. But being common is hardly the same as being right, so if you want to give some kind of argument against employee self-management, at a University or elsewhere, you’re going to need to provide some substantive argument. Posner tries to offer his substantive argument a couple paragraphs down, in his discussion of the incentives faced by workers in institutions; the problem is the argument, such as it is, relies on a jaw-droppingly crude economic fallacy.

Posner’s right that when it comes to operations like Harvard, workers generally have a shorter horizon of interest than the institution that they work for. There’s nothing wrong with pointing out the temptations that this creates. There is something wrong with passing this off as a problem that’s unique to workers (industrial, professional, or otherwise), or claiming that this kind of organizational problem is somehow solved by ditching co-operative models in favor of an organizational hierarchy.

When institutions are hundreds of years old and designed to last into the indefinite future, everyone has horizons shorter than those of hte institution. This is not just true of workers; it’s true of shareholders, trustees, clients, executives, and all other mortal human beings. Posner, like many theorists trying to stick up for modern corporate org charts, blithely assumes that a hierarchial model somehow removes the ordinary limitations of fallen humanity and creates some kind of mystical union whereby the CEO acts as The Institution itself. But since the institution makes no decisions and takes no actions independently of the decisions and actions of mortal human beings, organized in some concrete way or another, you can’t just lazily compare the horizons and incentives of the workers to the horizons and incentives of the institution and claim that this proves that workers shouldn’t be owners. You need to compare the horizons and incentives of shareholding workers with the horizons and incentives of shareholders not working for the institution (let’s call them absentee shareholders from here on out). Absentee shareholders are limited, self-interested, mortal human beings no less than workers are, and if Posner seriously wants to make the case for treating faculty as underlings and not as part of the governance of the University, he needs to make honest comparisons between the two, not a phoney comparison between workers and the disembodied Institution.

So, if you’re concerned with the long-term flourishing of the institution — actually, how important that is is open to some serious questions, but that’s for another day — you need to ask a different set of questions, questions which Posner’s fallacy simply closes off without consideration. For example, (1) whether absentee shareholders have longer horizons than shareholding workers, or vice versa; (2) whether absentee shareholders are less likely than shareholding workers to milk the institution for personal gain within the horizon of their own relationship to the institution at the expense of the long-term flourishing of the institution, or vice versa; (3) whether absentee shareholders are more willing or better able than shareholding workers to discover the best means of serving the interests of the institution within their short-term horizons, or vice versa; and (4) whether absentee shareholders are more willing and/or better able than shareholding workers to discover the best means of serving the interests of the institution beyond the short-term horizons of their personal relationship to the University.

These questions are all important, and I think not obviously to be answered in favor of control by absentee shareholders, at least not in every imaginable case. (Since the structure and goals of the University make it an atypical case compared to factories, restaurant chains, shipping companies, and other for-profit enterprises, it seems like special caution is needed in the particular case at hand. For more on the role that bossless worker co-operatives actually played in the birth of the European University, see Roderick Long’s A University Built by the Invisible Hand.)

But all of these questions remain unasked as long as we pretend that the mystical body of The Institution will somehow be making decisions once mortal workers are no longer playing a substantive role in decision-making. Posner needs a much stronger case before he can justify such a radical set of policy proposals as the accountable to none save the Board platform for University CEOs that he outlines in his post. And folks who want to defend corporate-capitalist modes of production against worker-driven alternatives need to give a much more serious and detailed argument in defense of their position.

In a similar vein

The Conservative Mind (Sin Fronteras edition)

There’s no real way to reply seriously to the kind of deliberate political sadism suggested by nativist creeps like those commenting on Wizbang’s latest on the Evil Alien Invasion. So, instead, I’ll limit myself to a couple questions and a remark. Here’s Linoge, suggesting massive new layers of government regulation in order to make undocumented immigrants suffer as much as it’s feasible to make them:

The word illegal sums it up entirely… I would not go so far as to say they should be arrested on sight (though I am close), but their presence illegally in another nation should be heavily discouraged. That means, no health care, no driver’s licenses, no jobs, no nothing. At all. Ever. —Linoge

Well, at least you’re not going so far as to say they should be arrested on sight. That’s mighty white of you.

Now, here’s the question for the day. How would immigration cops looking to make an arrest determine somebody’s immigration status on sight in the first place?

Meanwhile, here’s a small-government conservative who’s a fan of the East Berlin immigration policy:

At any rate, I don’t see why the States don’t take matters into their own hands. Why do we have to wait for the feds to take action? Is there some reason that Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California can’t start building walls and fences along their borders with Mexico? What prevents the States from using their state police forces to find, arrest and detain for later deportation illegal aliens? I’m not suggesting roadblocks, house-to-house searches, or Ihre Papiere, bitte, but I don’t see why a state trooper who stops a Hispanic driver can’t do a quick computer check to see if the person is in the country legally.

— docjim505

Here’s the second question for the day: what is the difference, if any, between (1) a cop stopping you and — solely on the basis of your race, by the way — demanding your ID for a check of your immigration status, and (2) a uniformed goon demanding Ihre Papiere, bitte? Because he, what … demands your papers in English rather than in German?

SJBill, for his part, didn’t feel threatened by undocumented Mexican immigrants until they scared him by … exercised freedom of speech and assembly:

Before these protests, I was pretty ambivalent on the issue — meaning I wasn’t directly threatened by illegal Mexicans. I see them all the time at local Home Depots, etc., but they are looking for work and trying to grind out a living. So, with the protests, the lights in the kitchen came on and we see millions of Mexicans (presuming most have other than legal status) marching in our cities and streets — all of a sudden I’m not quite so comfy. It’s pretty scary.

… I see a credible threat to our nation’s security, and we should do what we can to send these folks back home if they cannot abide the law of our land. That’s not being a xenophobe.

— SJBill

Maybe not. But suggesting that people be threatened, beaten, restrained, arrested, detained, imprisoned, exiled, etc. simply on the basis of their nationality, for having done nothing more than tried to work for a living for a willing employer, is.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

This happened 95 years ago today, on 25 March 1911.

Near closing time on Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top floors of the Asch Building in the Triangle Waist Company. Within minutes, the quiet spring afternoon erupted into madness, a terrifying moment in time, disrupting forever the lives of young workers. By the time the fire was over, 146 of the 500 employees had died. The survivors were left to live and relive those agonizing moments. …

— UNITE! and Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations : The Story of the Trangle Factory Fire, Part 3

At 4:40 o’clock, nearly five hours after the employes in the rest of the building had gone home, the fire broke out. The one little fire escape in the interior was resorted to by any of the doomed victims. Some of them escaped by running down the stairs, but in a moment or two this avenue was cut off by flame. The girls rushed to the windows and looked down at Greene Street, 100 feet below them. Then one poor, little creature jumped. There was a plate glass protection over part of the sidewalk, but she crashed through it, wrecking it and breaking her body into a thousand pieces.

Then they all began to drop. The crowd yelled Don’t jump! but it was jump or be burned the proof of which is found in the fact that fifty burned bodies were taken from the ninth floor alone.

… Messrs. Harris and Blanck were in the building, but the escaped. They carried with the Mr. Blanck’s children and a governess, and they fled over the roofs. Their employes did not know the way, because they had been in the habit of using the two freight elevators, and one of these elevators was not in service when the fire broke out.

— New York Times (26 March 1911): 141 Men and Girls Die in Waist Factory Fire; Trapped High Up in Washington Place Building; Street Strewn with Bodies; Piles of Dead Inside

Survivors recounted the horrors they had to endure, and passers-by and reporters also told stories of pain and terror they had witnessed. The images of death were seared deeply in their mind’s eyes.

Many of the Triangle factory workers were women, some as young as 15 years old. They were, for the most part, recent Italian and European Jewish immigrants who had come to the United States with their families to seek a better life. Instead, they faced lives of grinding poverty and horrifying working conditions. As recent immigrants struggling with a new language and culture, the working poor were ready victims for the factory owners. For these workers, speaking out could end with the loss of desperately needed jobs, a prospect that forced them to endure personal indignities and severe exploitation. Some turned to labor unions to speak for them; many more struggled alone. The Triangle Factory was a non-union shop, although some of its workers had joined the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.

New York City, with its tenements and loft factories, had witnessed a growing concern for issues of health and safety in the early years of the 20th century. Groups such as the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) and the Womens’ Trade Union League (WTUL) fought for better working conditions and protective legislation. The Triangle Fire tragically illustrated that fire inspections and precautions were woefully inadequate at the time. Workers recounted their helpless efforts to open the ninth floor doors to the Washington Place stairs. They and many others afterwards believed they were deliberately locked– owners had frequently locked the exit doors in the past, claiming that workers stole materials. For all practical purposes, the ninth floor fire escape in the Asch Building led nowhere, certainly not to safety, and it bent under the weight of the factory workers trying to escape the inferno. Others waited at the windows for the rescue workers only to discover that the firefighters’ ladders were several stories too short and the water from the hoses could not reach the top floors. Many chose to jump to their deaths rather than to burn alive.

— UNITE! and Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations: The Story of the Trangle Factory Fire, Part 3

A contemporary editorial cartoon showed a woman weeping beside a grave, with a single rose laid on it, asking ”How Soon Will They All Be Forgotten?“

But the truth is that they had already been forgotten, all of them, until that terrible day 95 years ago. They were treated as the living dead: their lives, their dignity, and their precious humanity all forgotten by bosses who lived off their work while imprisoning them and leaving them to burn. By a predatory State that defended the bosses’ Law and the bosses’ Order by mercilessly attacking every attempt to challenge and resist. By the self-proclaimed progressives, by the comfortable and philanthropic, the good citizens who reacted with a shrug of killing indifference until it was far, far too late.

Our duty is to remember, or more precisely, not to forget them anymore. Never to forget them. Never again. Neither them, nor any of our other fellow workers.

Detail, History of the Needlecraft Industry

Mural by Ernest Fiene (1938) for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union

I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting. …This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job it matters little if 146 of us are burned to death.

We have tried you citizens; we are trying you now, and you have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers, brothers and sisters by way of a charity gift. But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us.

Public officials have only words of warning to us–warning that we must be intensely peaceable, and they have the workhouse just back of all their warnings. The strong hand of the law beats us back, when we rise, into the conditions that make life unbearable.

I can’t talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.

— Rose Schneiderman, speaking at a memorial meeting held in the Metropolitan Opera House on April 2, 1911. Reprinted in The Survey, 8 April 1911.

Further reading:

Over My Shoulder #16: Michael Fellman (2002), The Making of Robert E. Lee

You know the rules. Here’s the quote. This is another passage from from Chapter 4 (Race and Slavery) of Michael Fellman's The Making of Robert E. Lee (2000) (see also GT 2006-02-24: Over My Shoulder #12). Here’s some more on the Lees, slavery, and the slaves at Arlington. It’s mostly about Robert E. Lee’s wife Mary, but be sure to note Robert’s sanctimonious attempts to dissuade her from even taking the modest step of ransoming a slave from an especially cruel slave-driver. (In this matter is everything to be yielded to the servant, & nothing allowed to the master? Well…) It would be interesting to know whether the two white strangers were connected at all with the Norrises’ attempted escape the following year or the anonymous letters to the New York Tribune about their capture (which were, like most 19th century letters to the editor, published anonymously). In any case:

Lee’s views on slavery were considerably influenced by the opinions and activities of his wife and his mother-in-law, both of whom were deeply involved in the American Colonization Society, an early form of ambiguous antislavery activism, which sought to free the slaves by sending them back [sic] to Africa. As a young married woman, this project was a commitment of Mary’s heart and nost just her head. She wished to nurture, educate, and catechize the family slaves right away, in preparationfor eventual manumission and export. She wrote her mother in 1831, I hope that we may be able to do something in time for the spiritual benefit of those neglected slaves and for their eventual freedom. Because on these terms liberty meant expulsion of the entire inferior black race with whom whites could never imagine cohabiting on an equal footing, such colonizationism was racist antislavery doctrine.

In her diary for the 1850s, Mary frequently discussed the project. She joined her mother, she wrote, in the hope that one day all their slaves would be able to emigrate to Africa, so that they could carry light & Christianity to that dark heathen country. Nevertheless, admitting to a presentiment that she would not live long enough to carry out this grand scheme, she proposed to try it gradually. She picked her slave William and his family to act as pioneers, a kind of pilot project. And then she stated the larger purpose of the heart that lay behind her social project: What is life worth unless you can accomplish in it something for the benefit of others, especially of those so entirely dependent upon one’s will and pleasure.

Mary’s body servant, Eliza, was another pet project. I have always promised Eliza her freedom to emigrate to Africa in a few years. … If she will go to Africa she can have her freedom, Mary Lee wrote in her diary in 1853. She feared, however, that Eliza might marry here and be unwilling to go, especially if she should marry a free man. In the event, Mary Lee noted in 1860 that Eliza had her freedom and that she now lived in Newport with her husband. Somehow, Eliza had secured her freedom while avoiding being shipped back [sic] to Afirca. Such was the outcome favored by the vast majority of manumitted slaves, whatever the desires of their former masters.

As an interim measure on her slaves’ path to freedom and repatriation, Mary Lee, with the help of her daughters, set up a school for slaves, almost certainly a Sunday school, on the Arlington plantation. This was an unusual move, because the overwhelming majority of slave owners feared rightly that literacy would give slaves acces to seditious abolitionist materials, which would lead them to demand or seize their freedom. In 1819, this concern had led the Virginia legislature to outlaw education for blacks, but several of Virginia’s clergymen continued to encourage Sunday schools, arguing that the gentry class would answer to God, not to the legislature. It is not clear how many slaveholders in addition to the Lees followed this path of circumspect lawbreaking.

At least occasionally, Agnes Lee taught in this school for slaves in the mid-1850s. In her journal, she expressed her attitude and that of her father toward her students. I must put down my pen … & go teach my little scholars. We have a considerable number of ebony mites as Papa calls them & as no one knows as much as another it makes their instruction very tedious. Off to school she went, only to find an empty room. Well! I have gone down, I insist upon teaching them in classes & yet only one of my class ever arrived [in] time so I have employed this odd moment in writing.

Agnes’s pen dripped racial condescension even as she earnestly broke the law. Her view on her pupils’ tardiness reflected the Southern white contempt for slaves’ perceived lack of punctuality (although it must be noted that Northern factory managers had the same complaints about their workers, who also thus resisted discipline and set their own work schedules). The amused phrase ebony mites also demonstrated her father’s doubts about a project in which he disbelieved, although he did nothing to stop it, probably regarding it as harmless. While influenced by Mary’s colonizationist project, he was generally rather skeptical of its value, and sometimes he doubted whether Mary’s do-goodism was a very wise course. In one rather complex case in 1841, Robert attempted to dissuade Mary’s project of buying a slave off an unkind master in order to free him. In judging of results you must endeavour to lay aside your feelings & prejudices & examine the question as thus exposed. In this matter is everything to be yielded to the servant, & nothing allowed to the master? What will the effect of the precedent be on the rest [of the slaves and on] your father and his authority? Lee promised that he would comply with her wishes, but he urged her to consider well upon the matter & act for yourself.

After her father’s slaves became hers and Robert’s, Mary hardened her attitude toward them. On February 10, 1858, when Robert was trying to sort out the chaos on the other Custis plantations, Mary wrote an old friend about his efforts in trying to reduce these very complicated affairs into some order: It is very unsatisfactory work for the servants here have been so long accustomed to do little or nothing that they cannot be convinced of the necessity now of exerting themselves, in order to speed up the accomplishment of the promise of freedom in the will. Actually, Mary was being illogical, as the promise had been given unconditionally, albeit for five years down the line. Then Mary continued, unless there is a mighty change wrought in them I do not know what good they will do themselves, but at any rate we shall be relieved from the care of them which will be an immense burden taken from our shoulders. Actual experience in manumission was hardly proving to be the fulfillment of the colonizationist dreams of years past.

Over the next week, Mary continued to brood. On February 17, she wrote to W. G. Webster that two white men had been constantly lurking about with the servants & telling them that they had a right to their freedom immediately & that if they would unite & demand it they would obtain it. Only the merciful hand of a kind Providence … prevented an outbreak. Their freedom is a very questionable advantage to any but ourselves who will be relieved from a host of idle & their useless dependents. Of course, colonization had always promised masters relief from their slaves, but here Mary Lee dropped the charitable aspect of the project–the rationalization that it was intended for the good of blacks–and treated manumission as a racial safety valve for white masters.

Not colonization but her father’s will had freed these slaves, and Mary was retrospectively exasperated with him. My dear father in his usual entire ignorance of the state of his affairs has left provision in his will which it will be almost impossible to fulfill even in double 5 years. Just sending them out of the state, which Virginians freeing their slaves were required to do, would be prohibitively expensive, she believed. She then drew the sarcastic conclusion that we should be most deeply indebted to their kind friends the abolitionists if they would come forward [and purchase their] freedom at once.

It even gave Mary Lee a certain perverse satisfaction to note the virulent racism in Canada, that land of freedom to which thousands of slaves had fled, when she visited some hot springs there in 1860. There are a great number of runaways here, but I have not met with any acquaintances, Mary Lee wrote her daughter Annie. The white people say that before long they will be obliged to make laws to send them all out of Canada, so I see no place for them but Africa. I am told they suffer a great deal here in the long cold winters. After enticing them over here the white people will not let their children go to the same schools or treat them as equals in any way. Amalgamation–interracial marriage–is out of the question tho occasionally a very low white woman marries a black man. Either blacks had to be dominated by kind masters within slavery, or else they had to be returned to Africa. They could never live in equality with whites anywhere in North America, and freedom would bring them only into a condition worse than slavery. The Canadian racism she observed confirmed Mary’s beliefs in white supremacy and black degradation.

As the Civil War approached, given their experiences, both the Lees were disgusted with slavery. At the same time, they were prepared to defend it as the only viable safeguard of white control over blacks until that distant day when the South might be whitened through complete African repatriation [sic].

–Michael Fellman (2000), The Making of Robert E. Lee. New York: Random House, ISBN 0679456503. 67–72.

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