Darwin, Lincoln and the survival of the slave-masters

By Humphrey McQueen
12 February 2009

February 12 is the bicentenary of the births of Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln. Their personal convictions towards slavery were pretty much the same. The name of the former is entangled with Social Darwinism as a doctrine about survival of the fittest. This distortion of ‘fitness’ sustains a pseudo-scientific basis to justify the naturalness for the division of human society into masters and slaves, whether chattel-slaves of the plantation South or wage-slaves of the capitalist factories. By contrast, the conventional ignorance about Lincoln is of the Great Emancipator.

Darwin’s hostility to chattel slavery shines through the concluding pages of the Voyage of the ‘Beagle’. After a page cataloguing atrocities, he dissected some of the arguments proposed in defence of slavery:

It is argued that self-interest will prevent excessive cruelty; as if self-interest protected our domestic animals, which are far less likely than degraded slaves, to stir up the rage of their savage masters. … It is often attempted to palliate slavery by comparing the state of slaves with our poorer countrymen; if the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin; but how this bears on slavery, I cannot see; as well might the use of the thumb-screw be defended in one land, by showing that men in another land suffered from some dreadful disease … It makes one’s blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty …

Darwin then consoled himself with the reflection ‘that we at least have made a greater sacrifice, than ever made by any nation, to expiate our sin’.

True, only the British government had taxed its people to compensate slave-owners for the loss of their property in human beings after the freeing of slaves throughout the Empire from August 1834. The expiation did not extend the compensating the slaves from whom masses of surplus value had been expropriated to underpin the triumph of wage-slavery. The expansion of capital went on being buttressed by indenture as an alternative system of slavery and by peonage as debt slavery. The Britain that freed its chattel slaves in 1834 supported the slave-owning South to defend Lancashire cotton millers who were busy exploiting their wage-slaves.

That Darwin did not confront these facts is no more surprising than that his biographers do not ask where the money came from the support his lifetime of research and writing. He never had a paying job. On the Beagle, he was a ‘volunteer’ gentleman, not the official botanist. He had abandoned his studies in medicine where he might have earned a competence hastening patients to their graves. Had he been ordained as a clergyman, he would have joined Parson Malthus as a ‘gluttonous drone’, to quote Marx. Darwin earned next to nothing from his writings. In marrying his cousin, he consolidated their portion of the Wedgwood fortune, accumulated by the exploitation of wage slaves in the pottery works. In a class society, every act of civilisation is paid for by acts of barbarism.

Abraham Lincoln’s reputation as a liberator distorts the historical record. He looked forward to gradual and total abolition, with compensation, but did not go to war to free the slaves. He entered the Civil War in April 1861 to maintain the United States as a single nation-market-state, as he wrote in August 1862:

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union … If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that … I have here stated my purpose according to my views of official duty and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.

As head of the executive committee of the bourgeoisie, one of Lincoln’s official objectives was to hold onto the Mississippi Valley as a trade route for the mid-western States; a parallel aim was for the mill-owners of New England to retain dominance over their suppliers in the cotton-growing South. On New Year’s Day 1863, Lincoln accepted military necessity by signing a Proclamation to emancipate the slaves in order to defeat the Confederacy’s war for independence.

Obama has adopted the Lincoln logo to attach himself to the descendants of slaves. He mimicked Lincoln’s whistle-stop train from Illinois for his inauguration. He points to Lincoln’s example when giving cabinet posts to war criminals among both the Republicans and the Democrats. The parallels are even stronger between Lincoln’s ‘official duty’ to save the Union and Obama’s rescue of Wall Street.

2 responses to “Darwin, Lincoln and the survival of the slave-masters

  1. Society’s Natural Disasters.

    The coincidence of the global economic meltdown and natural disasters and the affects on our domestic economy, and then to witness the range of responses to the personal tragedies of the bushfires in Victoria and the prolonged floods in the North of the country provoke a number of questions. Natural disasters like the bushfires and floods generally produce responses that encourage a sense of unity through a common sense of grief and dispossession that requires a generalised government and community response if the worst of their initial effects are to be overcome.

    Governmental and community responses to natural disasters stand to contrast the responses to the economic crisis which is the product of solely human causes. Without detracting at all from the genuine loss and hardship caused by the bushfires, one should be permitted to ask the question, why not similar support for those that are losing their livelihoods as a consequence of a crisis of capitalism? The devastating loss of loved ones and homes in fire or flood is partly so profound because of its relative immediacy and speed – here one minute and gone the next!

    However the slow burn of socially and economically determined devastation to families and lives does not appear to attract the same level of concern necessary for a unified community and government response. Natural disasters initially disguise the class concerns that are always present and that is good for all politicians keen on building kudos and overcoming bad publicity. How politicians and governments respond to people’s dilemmas arising from natural disasters can make and break their electoral prospects. Will it be the same when it comes to their management of the global and domestic economic crisis?

    With little exception the answer appears to be demonstrably no. Will governments do “what ever it takes” to ensure that no worker that loses their job will lose their home too? Will governments ensure that the police will be used to prevent the bank’s bailiffs from gaining entry to loot? Will the community do all it can to ensure that the welfare and homes of those who lose their jobs will be looked after?

    An important distinction between natural causes of disaster and a socially produced economic one is that the former has no other cause than nature itself – there is nothing to blame other than nature itself. To be deprived of shelter and livelihoods as a consequence of nature’s fury is one thing, but to aim our fury at a ruling class with scant regard for the collective economic wellbeing of our families and communities is quite another.

    Peter Curtis


    • Stephen Darley

      Sorry, but this is NOT simply a natural disaster, and few natural disasters are simply that.

      They all have underlying factors either of indirect causation (such as climate change and the bushfires) or in how they are dealt with (e.g. Hurricane Katrina and the differential response/discrimination on class and racial lines), and often both. Even the most ‘natural’ of natural disasters (such as earthquakes and volcanic
      eruptions) lead to a socialisation of human and monetary costs and a privatisation of benefits (e.g. theft/diversion of aid).

      So how natural are they?

      I think the distinction you are making is too absolute.
      Stephen Darley


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