The Golden Rule and Slavery
by Robert Lewis Dabney
One of these general objections to our New Testament argument is the following. They say, Christ could not have intended to authorize slavery, because the tenour and spirit of His moral teachings are opposed to it. The temper He currently enjoins is one of fraternity, equality, love, and disinterestedness. But holding a fellow-being in bondage is inconsistent with all these. Especially is the great "Golden Rule" incompatible with slavery. This enjoins us to do unto our neighbour as we would that he should do unto us. Now, as no slaveholder would like to be himself enslaved, this is a clear proof that we should not hold others in slavery. Hence, the interpretations which seem to find authority for slavery in certain passages of the New Testament, must be erroneous, and we are entitled to reject them without examination.
Abolitionists usually advance this with a disdainful confidence, as though he who does not admit its justice were profoundly stupid. But it is exceedingly easy to show that it is a bald instance of petitio principii, and it is founded on a preposterous interpretation of the Golden Rule, which every sensible Sabbath-school boy knows how to explode. Its whole plausibility rests on the a priori assumption of prejudice, that slaveholding cannot but be wicked, and on a determination not to see it otherwise. Our refutation, which is demonstrative, reveals the Socinian origin and Rationalistic character of these opinions. Socinianism harbours loose views of the authority of inspiration, and especially of that of the Old Testament. It scruples not to declare, that these venerable documents contain many admixtures of human error, and wherever it finds in them any thing it does not like, it boldly rejects and repudiates it. Moreover, Socinianism having denied the divinity of our Redeemer Christ, finds itself compelled to attempt an answer to the hard question: Wherein, then, is He greater than Moses, David, or Isaiah? And in what respect does He fulfil those transcendent representations which the Scriptures correctly give of His superiority of person and mission? The answer which orthodoxy makes is plain and good: That it is because He is God as well as man, while they were but sinful men, redeemed and inspired; and that His mission is to regenerate and atone, while theirs was only to teach. But the answer which Socinianism has devised is in part this: Christ was commissioned to reform the moral system of the Old Testament, and to teach a new law of far superior beauty, purity, and benevolence. Thus, they have a corrupt polemical motive to misrepresent and degrade the Old Testament law, in order to make a Nodus vindice dignus, for their imaginary Christ, who does nothing but teach. To effect this, they seize on all such passages as those in the "Sermon on the Mount," which refute Pharisaic glosses, and evolve the true law of love. This is the mint from which abolitionists have borrowed their objections against our Old Testament defence of slaveholding; such as this, that however it may have been allowed to the Hebrews, by their older and ruder law, "because of the hardness of their hearts," it is condemned by the new law of love, taught by Jesus. Now, our refutation (and it is perfect) is, that this law of love was just as fully announced by slaveholding Mloses as it is by Jesus; in terms just as full of sweetness, benevolence, and universal fraternity. Yea more, the very words of Jesus cited by them and their Socinian allies, as the most striking instances of the superior mildness and love of His teachings, are in most cases quoted from Moses himself I The authority by which Christ enforced them upon His Jewish auditors was Moses' own! Such is the shameful ignorance of these fanatics concerning the real contents of that Old Testament which they depreciate. Thus, Christ's epitome of the whole law into the two commands to love God and our neighbour, is avowedly quoted from "the law," i.e., the Pentateuch. See Matthew xxii. 36 to 39, and Mark xii. 28 to 33. It may be found in Deut. vi. 4 and 5, and in Levit. xix. 18. Even the scribe of Mark, xii. 32, Pharisee as he was, understood better than these modern Pharisees of abolitionism, that Christ's ethics were but a reproduction of Moses'. He avows the correctness of Christ's rendering of the Pentateuch law, and very intelligently adduces additional evidence of it by evident allusion to 1 Samuel xv. 22, and Hosea vi. 6. Again: does Christ inculcate forgiveness of injuries, benefactions towards enemies, and the embracing of aliens in our philanthropy as well as kindred and fellow-citizens? He does but cite them to the authority of Moses in Levit. xix. 18, Exod. xxiii. 4, 5, Levit. xxiv. 22, Exod. xxii. 21, xxxiii. 9. For here their great prophet himself had taught them that revenge must be left to God, that an embarrassed or distressed enemy must be kindly assisted, and that the alien must be treated in all humane respects as a fellow-citizen, under a lively and sympathetic sense of their own sufferings when they were oppressed aliens in Egypt. The Golden Rule, as stated by our Saviour, is but a practical application of the Mosaic precept "to love our neighbours as ourselves," borrowed from Moses. In Matt. vii. 12, Christ, after giving the Golden Rule, adds, "for this is the law and the prophets." That is, the Golden Rule is the summary of the morality of, the Pentateuch and Old Testament prophets. We repeat that there is not one trait of love, of benevolence, of sweet expansive fraternity, of amiable equity, contained in any of Christ's precepts or parables, that is not also found in the Laws of Moses. Their moral teachings are absolutely at one, in principle; and so they must be, if both are from the unchangeable God. To say otherwise is a denial of inspiration; it is infidelity; and indeed abolitionism is infidelity. Our reply, then, is, that Christ's giving the law of love cannot be inconsistent with his authorizing slaveholding; because Moses gave the same law of love, and yet indisputably authorized slaveholding. We defy all the sophisms of the whole crew of the perverse and destitute of the truth, to obscure, much less to rebut this answer, without denying the inspiration and even the common truthfulness of Moses. But that they will not stickle to do: for what do they care for Moses, or Christ either, in comparison of their fanatical idol?
But a more special word should be devoted to the argument from the Golden Rule. The sophism is so bald, and the clear evolution of it has been given so often, even in the humblest manuals of ethics prepared for school-boys, that it is tiresome to repeat its exposure. But as leading Abolitionists continue to advance the oft-torn and tattered folly, the friends of truth must continue to tear it to shreds. The whole reasoning of the Abolitionists proceeds on the absurd idea, that any caprice or vain desire we might entertain towards our fellowman, if we were in his place, and he in ours, must be the rule of our conduct towards him, whether the desire would be in itself right or not. This absurdity has been illustrated by a thousand instances. On this rule, a parent who, were he a child again, would be wayward and self-indulgent, commits a clear sin in restraining or punishing the waywardness of his child, for this is doing the opposite of what he would wish were he again the child. Judge and sheriff commit a criminal murder in condemning and executing the most atrocious felon; for were they on the gallows themselves, the overmastering love of life would very surely prompt them to desire release. In a word, whatever ill-regulated desire we are conscious of having, or of being likely to have, in reversed circumstances, that desire we are bound to make the rule of our action in granting the parallel caprice of any other man, be he bore, beggar, highwayman, or what not. On this understanding, the Golden Rule would become any thing but golden; it would be a rule of iniquity; for instead of making impartial equity our regulating principle, it would make the accidents of man's criminal caprice the law of his acts. It would become every man's duty to enable all other men to do whatever his own sinful heart, mutatis mutandis, might prompt.
The absurdity of the abolitionist argument may be shown, again, by "carrying the war into Africa." We prove from it, by a process precisely as logical as theirs, that emancipation is a sin. Surely the principle of the Golden Rule binds the slave just as much as the master. If the desire which one would feel (mutatis mutandis) must govern each man's conduct, then the slave may be very sure that, were he the master, he would naturally desire to retain the services of the slaves who were his lawful property. Therefore, according to. this abolition rule, he is morally bound to decline his own liberty; i.e., to act towards his master as he, were he the master, would desire his slave to act.
It is clear, then, that our Saviour, by His Golden Rule, never intended to establish so absurd a law. The rule of our conduct to our neighbour is not any desire which we might have, were we to change places; but it is that desire which we should, in that case, be morally entitled to have. To whatsoever treatment we should conscientiously think ourselves morally entitled, were we slaves instead of masters, all that treatment we as masters are morally bound to give our servants, so far as ability and a just regard for other duties enables us. Whether that treatment should include emancipation, depends on another question, whether the desire which we, if slaves, should very naturally feel to be emancipated, is a righteous desire or not; or, in other words, whether the obligation to service is rightful. Hence, before the Golden Rule can be cited as enjoining emancipation, it must first be settled whether the master's title is unrighteous. The Apostle Paul gives precisely the true application of this rule when he says: "Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal." And this means, not emancipation from servitude, but good treatment as servants; which is proven by the fact that the precept contemplates the relation of masters and servants as still subsisting. All this is so clear, that it would-be an insult to the intelligence of the reader to tarry longer upon the sophism. We only add, that the obvious meaning above put upon the Golden Rule is that given to it by all sensible expositors, such as Whitby, Scott, Henry, before it received an application to this controversy. Yet, though this obvious answer has been a hundred times offered, abolitionists still obtrude the miserable cheat, in speeches, in pamphlets, in tracts, as though it were the all-sufficient demonstration of the anti-Christian character of slavery. They will doubtless continue a hundred times more to offer it, to gull none, however, except the wilfully blind.
This article was extracted from Robert Lewis Dabney, A Defense of Virginia and the South (New York: E.J. Hale and Son, 1867). Click HERE to purchase this title.