The Positive Necessities and Good Evils

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Gentle Readers, should you excite my jealousy by going into the archives or bump shoulders with me at the Library of Google, you will find condemnations of slavery in abundance. You can read Thomas Jefferson’s indictment in Notes on the State of Virginia, which abolitionists took for a time as a foundational text. No Southerner could dismiss the Sage of Monticello as an ignorant foreigner., though plenty came to question his judgment. Over his life, Jefferson owned north of six hundred slaves. In his personal correspondence, which I found through Monticello’s helpful article on the subject, Jefferson proclaimed slavery a “moral and political depravity” and “hideous blot” upon the nation. He even rightly identified it as the greatest threat to the Union’s survival.

Leave the section with the founders’ papers and go a few decades to the side. There you’ll find antislavery Americans rehearsing the same themes. They too condemn slavery. They, like Jefferson, hold that it degrades the morals of the enslaver. It threatens the Union. It must go. To rid themselves of it, these Americans did not propose immediate emancipation. They advocated indirect measures to set slavery on the road to extinction, particularly in ending the Atlantic slave trade and banning it from the territories. When Congress could ban the import of slaves, Jefferson urged it to do so at the earliest opportunity, The idea of keeping it from territories goes back to his Northwest Ordinance, though the third president later changed his mind on the wisdom of that.

Neither Jefferson nor later generations of antislavery whites expected to see much progress in their lifetimes. Slavery would fade over ages, helped along by plans of gradual emancipation. From Maryland and Virginia all the way down to South Carolina, whites would free their slaves. Those slaves would go somewhere out of sight and mind, rather than remembering

ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.

LincolnOn the surface, Jefferson doesn’t sound very different from Abraham Lincoln. Neither proposed direct, hostile action against slavery where it already existed. Both saw emancipation as the project of a decades to come. The antislavery movement of the late Antebellum recognized the similarity and claimed Jefferson’s project as their own, understanding themselves as taking the next logical steps. As people who consider slavery an evil and naturally look in our past for praiseworthy opposition to it, we might very well agree. We might even argue that these men differ from the more radical abolitionists only on questions of tactics.

Closer consideration, however, shows something different: Thomas Jefferson pulled a fast one. His condemnation of slavery, however sincere, comes only in its defense. The Necessary Evil argument for slavery ran thus: We have this awful slavery. We dream of a day, long hence, when we shall be rid of it. We endorse the high principle of graduated emancipation, so gradual as to come up on the calendar quarter to never. In practical terms, with slavery that already exists rather than some hypothetical future slavery which someone else would have to deal with in the West, the necessary evil school stands for slavery in perpetuity. The argument might grant some points to advocates of genuine antislavery, but it does so in the course of forestalling the practical advance of the latter: Yes, we agree with you that slavery is bad. But what can we do about it? Along the way, of course, they planned to keep reaping the profit from reaping the bodies of enslaved people. As problems go, we must all agree that having great fortunes thrown your way ranks near the top. Slavery, to necessary evil advocates, did not amount to an unqualified good. It did, however, beat all the alternatives they understood as available to them. By preserving them from race war and endowing the enslavers with considerable wealth, the necessary evil had a decidedly positive and good application.

Jefferson and his generation kept faith with the argument through thick and thin. They held to it when it seemed slavery might just really go away on its own in an era of sinking tobacco profits, despite the trade business in rice and cotton down in the Carolina and Georgia lowcountry. They continued when the cotton gin opened up the inland South to cotton cultivation, when Andrew Jackson and company violently purged the old Southwest of Indians, and slave labor camps spread across the American empire. With new markets in need of slave labor, many Upper South enslavers could take their tender sentiments and cry all the way to the bank.

Then things changed. A new generation of enslavers, most prominently in the person of John C. Calhoun, responded rising antislavery sentiment in the North and the Missouri and Nullification controversies by articulating a new theory. They called slavery a Positive Good. No longer did they cede rhetorical ground and admit, even in theory, that slavery ought to end. Instead it should go on forever not simply for lack of a means to emancipate, but because slavery benefited the slaves too. They learned civilization and Christianity. It lifted them from African squalor and put them to useful work. In fact, slavery did far better for them than free labor did for whites:

I may say with truth, that in few countries so much is left to the share of the laborer, and so little exacted from him, or where there is more kind attention paid to him in sickness or infirmities of age. Compare his condition with the tenants of the poor houses in the more civilized portions of Europe—look at the sick, and the old and infirm slave, on one hand, in the midst of his family and friends, under the kind superintending care of his master and mistress, and compare it with the forlorn and wretched condition of the pauper in the poorhouse.

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

Positive Good arguments came initially, as they do now, as a shock. The nation had agreed. Every good American hated slavery and wanted it gone. Now this man from South Carolina, who looked like a cross between Beethoven and a supervillain broke the rules. The argument took a long time to catch on even in the South. As late as the last years before the Civil War, particularly in the Upper South, Necessary Evil argument never went entirely out of style.

But the seeds of  predated Calhoun’s infamous speech on the subject. Calhoun preached the Positive Good gospel to the Senate in 1837. In 1814, Thomas Jefferson trotted out remarkably similar arguments:

Nor in the class of laborers do I mean to withold from the comparison that portion whose color has condemned them, in certain parts of our Union, to a subjection to the will of others. even these are better fed in these states, warmer clothed, & labor less than the journeymen or day laborers of England. they have the comfort too of numerous families, in the midst of whom they live, without want, or the fear of it; a solace which few of the laborers of England possess. they are subject, it is true, to bodily coercion: but are not the hundreds of thousands of British soldiers & seamen subject to the same, without seeing, at the end of their career, & when age & acciden[t] shall have rendered them unequal to labor, the certainty, which the other has, that he will never want? and has not the British seaman, as much as the African been reduced to this bondage by force, in flagrant violation of his own consent, and of his natural right in his own person? and with the laborers of England generally, does not the moral coercion of want subject their will as despotically to that of thei[r] employer, as the physical constraint does the soldier, the seaman or the slave?

Jefferson took free and unfree labor as practiced by the United Kingdom as his point of comparison where Calhoun and others would point to urban workers in the North, but the argument otherwise runs the same: an employer has no reason to treat his employees well. They live always on the edge of starvation, one firing away from utter destitution. They thus depend on their employer’s whim in a way that Jefferson imagines not very different from how slaves suffer under his own whims. If the British can impress sailors, then why not Americans enslave Africans? If the Royal Navy flogs a sailor, then how does it differ from his overseer putting stripes on some slave’s back? Note, however, that Jefferson doesn’t simply call the situations comparable. He goes a step further and declares the slaves better off: They have better food, warmer clothes, and don’t work near so hard. Only in the negatives does Jefferson find similarity. Otherwise, slaves come out better off.

A sentence later, Jefferson realized he might have revealed to much and disavowed any intention of advocating for slavery. Should one take his word on it, one might also come to the relief of an inconvenienced Nigerian prince or find an investment in bridges of particular interest.

Calhoun couldn’t have said it better himself. The antislavery movement could never agree, preaching instead the moral, political, and economic superiority of free labor. The Jefferson who loathed manufactures and cities could never go along with that. If this doesn’t transform him into Calhoun in drag, then it does clearly place the two men and their schools of thought close together and fundamentally aligned. Both want to preserve slavery where it existed, believing it and the culture it produced superior to free labor despite the occasional imperfections writ large on the bodies of the enslaved and small in the paranoia of the enslavers. The rhetorical shift matters; it aroused considerable controversy within even South Carolina, but we should not mistake that controversy for a genuine and thoroughgoing antislavery movement within the section. Nor should we confuse the rhetorically-convenient qualms of some Southerners with a willingness to align with outsiders in some kind of shared antislavery project. Whether advocating necessary evil or positive good theories of slavery, the speakers remained the peculiar institution’s committed defenders.

Thomas Jefferson, James Henry Hammond, and Uncanny X-Men #237

Between early October and late November, 1988, Marvel Comics published Uncanny X-Men #235-238. These four issues contain the first appearance of the fictional island of Genosha, a place somewhere between Madagascar and the Seychelles. The Genoshans, almost invariably white, have built up a wealthy, technologically advanced society in an otherwise inhospitable place. They enjoy every luxury that superhero comics of the late 1980s could provide. Or rather I should say the free Genoshans enjoy those luxuries, courtesy the enslaved Genoshans whose bodies and lives they pillage.

Listening to Jay & Miles X-Plain the X-Men, which I heartily recommend to any fan of comics, brought to my notice the story’s proslavery rhetoric. It passed me by when I first read the issues and I thus understood Genosha exclusively in the light of later stories. Those painted it more directly as Apartheid-era South Africa. You can find Apartheid in the original story too, as well as other twentieth century horrors, but Jay and Miles rightly noted that this story overwhelmingly concerns slavery. Inspired, and with their kind encouragement, I read the comics again with an eye to a short post about the arguments.

My reread found four issues so dense with depictions of and allusions to American slavery that I filled four and a half pages of notes just marking out pages and panels. At first, I thought I might note such references in passing, but they come too numerous and in too many layers for such a casual treatment. Unpacking them would also distract from examining the proslavery arguments and make for a whole series of posts. I might write them in the future, but for today my original goal will suffice. Should you wish to read along, you can get digital copies of the issues on Comixology or through Marvel’s Netflix-for-comics program, Marvel Unlimited.

On the island of Genosha, they enslave mutants. In the strange and wonderful world of Marvel comics, mutants get their powers from their genes rather than through the bites of radioactive animals or via aliens handing over jewelry as decent people do. If your genome shows up in regular tests, the state seizes you and subjects you to a process that erases your mind and alters your body, literally to the point of replacing your skin, to meet the needs of non-mutant society. Most enslaved mutants work in Genosha’s iron mines and steel mills, generating high-quality material on the cheap to feed the world economy. The story also depicts mutants cleaning streets and tending gardens, but mainly they mine. Having them grow cotton would seem anachronistic in a story written in the 1980s, but it works out the same.

The architects and administrators of the system keep it a secret from the world and even their own families. Even the son of the man in charge of enslaving mutants has convinced himself that Genosha’s mutant slaves enjoy their station, right up until his affianced qualifies for enslavement. In explaining the system to her, Genosha’s Genegineer goes full nineteenth century:


Uncanny X-Men #237. Written by Chris Claremont. Pencils by Rick Leonardi. Inking by Terry Austin. Lettering by Tom Orezechowski. Colors by Glynis Oliver.

I know this isn’t your fault, that you view what’s happening as some horrible, unspeakable fate worse than death, but without such gifted people as yourself, how else do you think Genosha can maintain its standard or living…or even survive?

GjendependThe Genegineer here lays out a necessary evil case for slavery. Their whole civilization runs on the labor of the enslaved. They can’t do without it, even if it requires the sacrifice of loved ones. “Paradise on Earth” demands its price. Without the slaves, Genoshans “are nothing.”

The necessary evil argument can sound very sympathetic. Its advocates grant the injustice of slavery and the suffering of the enslaved. Take it from Thomas Jefferson:

There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us.  The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.  Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal.  This quality is the germ of all education in him.  From his cradle to his grave he is learning to do what he sees others do.  If a parent could find no motive either in his philanthropy or his self-love, for restraining the intemperance of passion towards his slave, it should always be a sufficient one that his child is present.  But generally it is not sufficient.  The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities.  The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances.  And with what execration should the statesman be loaded, who permitting one half the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots, and these into enemies, destroys the morals of the one part, and the amor patriae of the other.

No one can question Jefferson’s especially intimate familiarity with slavery. He sounds a great deal like the Genegineer:


I am truly sorry, Jenny. I so looked forward to your becoming my daughter-in-law.

However sincere Jefferson’s or the Genegineer’s anguish over slavery, it only goes so far. Jefferson dreamed of a continent free of slaves, but his plans for emancipation always scheduled it well into the future. Someone else, not the Sage of Monticello, would have to manage the actual process. The time, conveniently, never seemed quite right. Like the Genegineer, Jefferson fretted over the consequences of abolition. In his old age, the author of the Declaration of Independence avowed

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

I can say with conscious truth that there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would, to relieve us from this heavy reproach, in any practicable way. the cession of that kind of property, for it is so misnamed, is a bagatelle which would not cost me a second thought, if, in that way, a general emancipation and expatriation could be effected: and, gradually, and with due sacrifices, I think it might be. but, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.

Jefferson wanted slavery, and blacks, gone. But it wouldn’t do to go crazy for it. He would happily instead have others suffer some sacrifices in order to preserve himself in his luxuries. Just like the Genegineer:



how else do you think Genosha can maintain its standard or living…or even survive?

Slavery, whether on the fictional island of Genosha or the real state of Virginia remained necessary as well as evil. We might associate the platform of slavery in perpetuity with later writers of a more radical bent, but the Jefferson and others like him ultimately held to the same ends. They called slavery evil, often and at length, but it proved a curiously dear sort of evil from which they loathed to part. All their tender consciences and good intentions fell short in the face of its considerable rewards.

The Genegineer has some sympathy for his son’s beloved and so preaches the necessarily evil of slavery to her, but only to her and only to a point. Ultimately he goes further still, recasting slavery as a positive good in the frame of radicals in the later Antebellum. Slavery’s sacrifice of the enslaved came with a benefit. He declares Genosha “a paradise on earth,” and the government propaganda, via an “informatape” agrees:

Informatape UXM237

Over the years, Genosha has built an economy and society that is the envy of the world. There is no poverty here, no hardship, with unparalleled opportunities for education and employment ours is a free land where people are judged by deeds and character, not for the color of their skin.

Unless I’ve missed one, all the enslaved Genoshans we see have white skin. By choosing to enslave whites, they have consummated one of the more radical dreams of slavery’s defenders and followed their critique of free labor, which theorists imagined as exploitative and adversarial, to its natural conclusion. The human sacrifices, by the slaves, necessary to free Genosha from hardship and poverty, except for the slaves, likewise echo antebellum thought. Specifically, the framing of freedoms sacrificed to create freedom for others recalls James Henry Hammond’s mudsill theory:

In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. That is, a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill. Its requisites are vigor, docility, fidelity. Such a class you must have, or you would not have that order class which leads progress, civilization, and refinement. It constitutes the very mud-sill of society and of political government; and you might as well attempt to build a house in the air, as to build either the one or the other, except on this mud-sill. Fortunately for the South, she found a race adapted to that purpose to her hand. A race inferior to her own, but eminently qualified in temper, in vigor, in docility, in capacity to stand the climate, to answer all her purposes. We use them for our purposes, and call them slaves.

By mudsill, Hammond meant the wood at the bottom of the door that keeps the mud out; the thing that people step on and might use to scrape clean their boots. Like Jefferson, Hammond had especially intimate acquaintance with slavery. Unlike Jefferson, he sold either his enslaved son or grandson.

Genoshans didn’t find a docile race inured to the climate any more than American enslavers did. They created one through the horrors of comic book science, but only the genre conventions separate them from their American counterparts. Where Genoshans could use fantasy technology to render their slaves compliant, Southern whites understood that an educated slave would soon seek freedom. Thus they undertook to suppress slave education even in such otherwise universal and urgent matters as reading the Bible. Thus, they hoped, they would keep slaves to their “natural” role and free from infection with dreams of liberty. When that inevitably failed, they resorted to violence.

James Henry Hammond

James Henry Hammond

Hammond continued, insisting that the white South cared much better for its slaves than any Yankee could hope to receive or buy with wages:

The difference between us is, that our slaves are hired for life and well compensated; there is no starvation, no begging, no want of employment among our people, and not too much employment either. Yours are hired by the day, not cared for, and scantily compensated, which may be proved in the most painful manner, at any hour in any street in any of your large towns. Why, you meet more beggars in one day, in any single street of the city of New York, than you would meet in a lifetime in the whole South. […] Our slaves are black, of another and inferior race. The status in which we have placed them is an elevation. They are elevated from the condition in which God first created them, by being made our slaves.

Per Hammond, the slaves had it so good that they ought to thank their enslavers. The Genoshan propaganda promised Hammond’s vision of the South. The Genegineer promised his victim that she would be just as happy, even if she came on the wrong end of the system:


You needn’t worry, though. You’ll be cared for–well-fed, well-housed–most of the world’s population would probably kill for such a life.

If Jennifer Ransome, the Genegineer’s victim, didn’t see it that way then it didn’t matter. Though ordinary Genoshans vastly outnumbered their slaves, the opposite of the circumstance that southerners like Hammond often founds themselves in, they understood their situation much the same. Where four million slaves might once rise up in the antebellum South, and the threat of that rising justified endless repressions, “A few hundred super-powered mutants” posed an existential threat to their more numerous enslavers. Thus the Genoshans, like Southern whites, concluded that


Their power is sufficient to destroy us. That’s why we have to impose such strict controls. Not slavery, child, self-defense.

They had the wolf by the ears. Not content with that, like antebellum Southern whites, the Genoshans insisted that they did the wolf a favor to hold it there. They didn’t even demand thanks, just a small bit of backbreaking labor and large helping of dehumanization, degregation, and a dash of medical torture. What else could they do? Recognize the villain of the story when they looked in the mirror?

I could go on. The comics provide something close to a guided tour of proslavery argument, if with numerous departures for genre conventions and the convenience of the story. One shouldn’t get one’s historical education from a superhero comic, but these four issues offer up a vision of slavery deeply informed by the history. They go well beyond the conventional images and famous names, demonstrating a thoroughgoing understanding of slavery itself, its function as a social control, economic system, and the defenses marshaled in its favor in the nineteenth century United States.