On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued an executive order called the Emancipation Proclamation, which is credited with having abolished slavery in the United States. While the institution of slavery is now dead and gone, the subjection and dehumanization of human beings has continued in various more subtle ways. Today a new slavery threatens people of every race and socio-economic status; this new slavery can only be understood through the perspective of history.
Benjamin Rush (1745-1813) was one of the most significant patriots of the American founding era. He and fifty-five other men famously pledged to each other “our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor” in support of the newly independent nation. Some of them, including Rush, paid a high price for that promise as the ensuing war left several utterly impoverished.
Rush was a doctor by trade, educated at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) and the University of Edinburgh. He was regarded as America’s foremost physician and trained more than 3000 medical students over his lifetime. Rush’s principal work as a statesman, however, came in the form of the numerous pamphlets he wrote on such subjects as capital punishment, public education, bicameral versus unicameral legislatures, the education of women, and separation of church and state.
Rush was perhaps most passionate about slavery. In 1775 he founded the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, which was the first antislavery society in America. He frequently published pamphlets against slavery, the most famous of which was An Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements in America Upon Slave-Keeping, published in Philadelphia in 1773. In this pamphlet, Rush responded to six arguments others had used to support the institution of slavery:
The first is that the slaves’ “capacities for virtue and happiness . . . [is] supposed, by some, to be inferior to those of the inhabitants of Europe.” Rush responded that this was simply untrue: “Their ingenuity, humanity, and strong attachment to their parents, relations, friends and country, show us that they are equal to the Europeans.”
The second is that “their black color (as it is commonly called) either subjects them to, or qualifies them for slavery.” Some people in Rush’s day thought that black skin was a genetic deformity or the mark of the curse of Cain. Rush called these ideas “too absurd to need a refutation,” and asserted that physical appearance is no basis for subjecting and dehumanizing a human being.
The third is based on economics: some plantation owners said that “it would be impossible to carry on the manufactories of Sugar, Rice, and Indigo, without negro slaves.” But Rush did not accept this line of reasoning: “No manufactory can ever be of consequence enough to society to admit the least violation of the Laws of justice or humanity.” In fact, Rush posits that there would be an economic benefit to the abolition of slavery: “Now if the plantations in the islands and the southern colonies were more limited, and freemen only employed in working them, the general product would be greater. . . .”
The fourth is that some “have gone so far as to say that Slavery is not repugnant to the Genius of Christianity, and that it is not forbidden in any part of Scripture.” Rush responded with a thorough argument to the contrary from both “Natural and Revealed Religion.”
The fifth is that “importing and keeping slaves” makes them “acquainted with the principles of the religion of our country”—that is, the slave trade was a kind of missionary endeavor. But Rush wrote, “This is like justifying a highway robbery because part of the money acquired in this manner was appropriated to some religious use. Christianity will never be propagated by any other methods than those employed by Christ and his Apostles. Slavery is an engine as little fitted for that purpose as Fire or the Sword. A Christian Slave is a contradiction in terms.”
The sixth is that “we do a kindness to the Negroes by bringing them to America, as we thereby save their lives, which had been forfeited by their being conquered in war.” But even if slave owners treat their slaves well, wrote Rush, it cannot “be urged that . . . we render their situation happier in this Country, than it was in their own.” Being moved from one misery to another cannot be rationalized as a good deed.
Rush proposed three means to end the institution of slavery: end the slave trade, educate the younger slaves in the principles of virtue and religion, and grant them the full rights of citizenship. “At any rate let Retribution be done to God and to Society,” he wrote. “Future ages, therefore, when they read the accounts of the Slave Trade (—if they do not regard them as fabulous [i.e., fables])—will be at a loss which to condemn most, our folly or our Guilt, in abetting this direct violation of the Laws of nature and Religion.”
Although it would be nearly 100 years before slavery was abolished in America, this pamphlet demonstrates that the struggle for true equality among men began very early on and that Benjamin Rush was a forefather of the equal rights advocates of the past two hundred years.
The most shocking thing about reading this pamphlet in the context of 21st century America is how the very arguments Rush responds to, used to support the subjection and dehumanization of the slaves, are in our day used to support the institution of abortion. The first and sixth pro-slavery arguments are concerned with quality of life; the second is about physical attributes; the third deals with economic issues; the fourth and fifth seek to morally justify the practice. These very same arguments have been used by abortion advocates to defend “freedom of choice.”
Abortion has become the new slavery of our day, and the unborn are the new slaves: they have been subjected and dehumanized by the same arguments once used by plantation owners. Pro-abortion activists argue that women have a right to do with their own bodies as they please regardless of how their choices might affect others; plantation owners once said the same thing about their slaves. Slave masters once justified their practices by appealing to the supposedly inferior physical and mental attributes of their slaves; now abortion advocates say the unborn are better off dead than enduring an inferior physical appearance or mental ability. Both slavery and abortion advocates have argued that economic issues support their practices, but the facts of economics are to the contrary.
Strangely, the very people who are most zealous for equality between the races often advocate the subjection and dehumanization of the unborn. They must come to understand the inconsistency of those two positions: either all persons have an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness regardless of race or stage of development, or that right belongs only to those who exercise power over another. The former position is the very principle on which this country was founded, and Benjamin Rush sacrificed much to defend it; the latter is the very kind of tyranny the Declaration of Independence condemned.
If abortion is the new slavery, then a new abolition is needed to oppose it. Benjamin Rush boldly led the way more than two hundred years ago, and more people like him are needed today. People throughout history—especially American history—have given their lives and everything they own to fight this very kind of injustice. Who will oppose this new oppression and write a new Declaration and Emancipation Proclamation?