Posted by: Inside-Out Peace | February 6, 2009

Has War Solved Anything? Part 2

This is the second of a three-part series of posts, responding to the claim on a bumper sticker that says, “war never solved anything… except communism, slavery and fascism”.  Part one looked at communism.  This post looks at whether war “solved” slavery.

First of all, slavery has not been “solved”.  In 2007, just one charity, called International Justice Mission, brought relief to 1663 victims of oppression:

  • 267 people were freed from slavery
  • 207 women and children were freed from forced prostitution
  • 393 people received citizenship and 567 received upgraded legal status
  • 172 people recovered illegally seized property
  • 281 perpetrators were arrested

There are many, many more people still in bondage throughout the world.  According to the United Nations Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, an estimated 20 million people were held in bonded slavery as of 1999.  In 2004 there were more slaves than were seized from Africa during four centuries of trans-Atlantic slave trade. (Kevin Bales, Disposable People).  So it is horrendous to even say that slavery is “solved”, let alone make the claim that it was war that accomplished this.

Slavery was abolished in the U.S. and several European countries during the 19th century.  The first was Britain, as the result of a peaceful abolitionist movement started by the Quakers in 1783.  MSN Encarta describes it this way:

The major turning point in its development came in 1787 when Evangelical Christians joined Quakers in establishing the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Led by William Wilberforce, an Evangelical member of the British Parliament, and Thomas Clarkson, a Quaker skilled in mass organization, the society initiated petition drives, mass propaganda efforts, and lobbying in an attempt to end British involvement in slave trafficking. Although opposed by English merchants, West Indian planters, and King George III—who equated abolitionism with political radicalism—the society nevertheless managed to achieve its goal. In 1807 the British Parliament abolished the slave trade and the British, through diplomacy and the creation of a naval squadron to patrol the West African coast, began forcing other European nations to give up the trade as well. […]

Wilberforce, Clarkson, and their associates had assumed that ending the slave trade would lead directly to general emancipation (freeing of all slaves). When it became clear that this would not happen, Clarkson joined with Thomas Fowell Buxton in 1823 to form the British Anti-Slavery Society, which at first advocated a gradual abolition of slavery. However, when West Indian planters refused to make concessions, the abolitionists hardened their stance, and by the late 1820s abolitionists were demanding immediate slave emancipation. The great pressure they exerted, combined with continuing slave unrest, led Parliament to pass the Emancipation Act in 1833.

I just want to emphasize: petition drives, mass propaganda efforts, and lobbying led to the abolition of slavery in the British Empire by an act of Parliament.  Thus, war was and is not necessary to “solving” slavery.

The United States Civil War is often vastly over-simplified as being only about the North fighting to free the slaves.  In reality, there were many economic motivations, on both sides, all of which were far more self-serving.  Quoting again from Encarta:

From the beginning of the war, President Lincoln had insisted that his primary aim was the restoration of the Union, not the abolition of slavery. As the war continued, however, Lincoln saw that the preservation of the Union depended, in part, on the destruction of slavery. The Lincoln Administration believed that if they made the abolition of slavery a war aim, they could stop Britain or France from recognizing the Confederacy. Both Britain and France had long since abolished slavery and would not support a country fighting a war to defend it. Furthermore, emancipation might allow the North to undercut the South’s war effort, which was supported by slave labor.

On July 22, 1862, Lincoln had informed his Cabinet that he intended to free the slaves in states that were in active rebellion. However, they had persuaded him to wait until a Northern victory because it would seem less like a desperate measure. Antietam served that purpose. Five days afterward, on September 22, Lincoln issued the first, or preliminary, Emancipation Proclamation. The final proclamation, issued on January 1, 1863, freed the slaves only in the states that had rebelled: Arkansas, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and parts of Louisiana and Virginia.

The president issued the proclamation under the powers granted during war to seize the enemies’ property. Lincoln only had the authority to end slavery in the Confederate states, and then the slaves were freed only as the Union armies made their way throughout the South. In the states that remained loyal to the Union slavery was protected by the Constitution. Slavery was only completely abolished throughout the United States by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which was ratified in 1865.

Seizing property, a.k.a. “freeing the slaves”, was a strategy of the war, not the primary purpose of the war, so it seems somewhat misplaced to give the war full credit for “solving” slavery even in this superficially clear example.

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