My Family’s Slaves: A Thanksgiving Story

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Kristin Devine

Kristin is a geek, a libertarian, and a domestic goddess. She lives in a wildlife refuge in rural Washington state with too many children and way too many animals and works with women around the world as a fertility counselor. There's also a blog which most people would very much disapprove of https://atomicfeminist.com/

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  1. Avatar PD Shaw
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    Great story; wouldn’t have expected a fee-tail romance embedded in a Thanksgiving story.

    I have two sets of Mayflower ancestors. One are the Billingtons, known for children who almost blew up the Mayflower and for a father who was eventually executed for murder. The other was Richard Warren, known for having been survived by all seven of his children, who were themselves fruitful and multiplied.Report

  2. Avatar JoeSal
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    Interesting research, that slice of time was a harsh reality and survival was more often the exception than the rule. Happy thanksgiving.Report

  3. Avatar Michael Siegel
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    Amazing writing, Kristin. I’m a puddle after reading that.Report

  4. Avatar Chip Daniels
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    Looking back in judgement is an easy way of blinding ourselves to our own lives and moral challenges.

    Like how on various time travel stories a modern person goes back in time and smugly stands tall against Nazism or slavery or whatever.

    In these stories, evil is always easy to spot and the choices are simple.
    But it never is, is it?
    I’m sure that if we all fell into a time portal and found ourselves in an English pub chatting with people about the More/ Blakeway case, there would be quite a few people who would make a strong and compelling argument for why Lord Zouche was a righteous and decent man, and the adulterous lovers deserved their fate.

    In other words, it would sound amazingly like our own debates today over our own issues. We live in a time when children are forcibly taken from their parents and shipped off to some prison or sent back to a faraway land wholly alien to them. We live in a world where the rich and powerful experience a different legal system than the rest of us.

    Its like that meme: If we ever wondered what we would do in a world of injustice, we’re doing it.Report

    • Avatar Dark Matter in reply to Chip Daniels
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      First, great article. Thank you.

      I’m sure that if we all fell into a time portal and found ourselves in an English pub chatting with people about the More/ Blakeway case, there would be quite a few people who would make a strong and compelling argument for why Lord Zouche was a righteous and decent man, and the adulterous lovers deserved their fate.

      Oh, I think a better argument is “rule of law” and/or creating a system which would in theory help these kids would also be creating a system that fails more often and worse.

      The law assumes a wife’s children are her husband’s for good reasons (I think this is still a thing btw). The law assumes the father, the head of the household, knows what is best for the children for good reason. Establishing legal machinery to second guess that and override him would predictably result in henious results.Report

      • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to Dark Matter
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        The rule of law would also assume that Lord Zouche knew what was best for the husband and all others who resided on his lands.

        And establishing a legal machinery (like, say, a constitutional republic) to second guess that and override the noble Lord would predictably result in heinous results.Report

        • Avatar Dark Matter in reply to Chip Daniels
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          And establishing a legal machinery (like, say, a constitutional republic) to second guess that and override the noble Lord would predictably result in heinous results.

          This is like asking why they can’t just use GPS to find people. These things hadn’t been invented yet and maybe couldn’t work given the resource constraints the society worked under.

          We, right now, use animals for their meat to their great suffering. A perfect solution would be vat grown meat by bio-engineered germs. It’s not ethics or imagination which is stopping us.

          Worse, we’re looking at a corner case for their society. Their society as a whole didn’t want that outcome and thought it unjust. That outcome was to their society what our having a cop shoot an innocent man is to ours.Report

          • Avatar CJColucci in reply to Dark Matter
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            It is a trivial enterprise to show that the overwhelming majority of people born before, say, the end of WWII, had attitudes, or did things, that we would consider morally reprehensible today, and that would be the safe bet for any given individual. We would like to think that, had we been around back then, we would have been better people, but that is highly unlikely. While we should not ignore, and our history classes should teach, that some of our ancestors owned slaves and most of the rest of them were OK with that, or that some of our ancestors voted for immigration laws that, enacted a few years earlier, would have kept my ancestors out of this country, and most of the rest of them were OK with that, or that men benefited from the uncompensated household labor and sexual companionship of women and thought any other arrangement bizarre, and so on and so on, pointing out that, say, an 18th-century slaveholder owned slaves in the 18th century doesn’t much advance our understanding of them or of ourselves. We can’t assume we are better than they were because we, ourselves, are “against” slavery. In a world where the institution doesn’t exist, where no one’s daily bread depends on the labor of slaves, when no one runs any risk by speaking against it, what does it even mean to be “against” slavery? Why should we assume that, in a slave-owning world, where real interests were at stake, we would have been among the heroic, protesting minority rather than the complacent or complicit majority?
            Grown-up conversation of what all this means can be difficult, and I commend Kristin for her contribution.Report

            • Avatar George Turner in reply to CJColucci
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              There are some interesting reality shows where they take modern families and put them in historical circumstances to see how they fare. I recall one that was set in Idaho or Montana, with the families trying to live like pioneers. The BBC aired another called “The Victorian Slum” where families lived in a carefully reconstructed urban environment that was advanced one decade in time per week of the show.

              The upshot from both was that if you don’t want to starve or freeze, you will do pretty much what people back then did, as difficult as it was.

              There’s a TED Talk about the world’s real divide between rich and poor, which is the washing machine. A similar point could be made about cooking, heating, and many other tasks we now take for granted. Without such conveniences, so much available time is devoted to daily chores (cooking from scratch over a fire, washing and mending clothes, cutting firewood) that families are running to stand still.Report

            • Avatar Dark Matter in reply to CJColucci
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              First of all, everything you said was right.

              2nd, we’re reading about a nasty divorce case with the children being used as weapons/revenge against the adults. That’s very much a modern thing.

              The whole “the children died” tugs at the heart strings but with general survival statistics that grim, maybe it shouldn’t.Report

            • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to CJColucci
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              ” We can’t assume we are better than they were because we, ourselves, are “against” slavery.”

              This is sort of what I was grasping at, that it is very easy to see injustice of the past because we have history books that neatly lay out for us what was just and unjust without our need to engage with the messy complexity of things.

              One way of accepting this complexity is to retreat into a sort of relativism, where we throw up our hands in frustration.

              But a more useful way, I think, is to accept that our contemporary world has every bit as much injustice as any other, and let it goad us into thoughtful action.

              For example, slavery is still very much a real part of the world. The electronic devices we are writing on and the clothes on our back were made by people who were, if not actual slaves, very much living in worlds where their freedom and agency is not much different than the More children centuries ago.

              This is where history and political ideas become real and force us into something other than idle conversation.

              It would be as painful and difficult for us to eradicate serfdom in the 21st century as it was for Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries because injustice is as deeply entwined in our time as it was in theirs.Report

              • Avatar Dark Matter in reply to Chip Daniels
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                But a more useful way, I think, is to accept that our contemporary world has every bit as much injustice as any other, and let it goad us into thoughtful action.

                No. Fewer people starve to death. Fewer freeze to death. Fewer are raped. Fewer are killed. A much higher percentage of people live past their first birthday. There is vastly more leasure time. Multiple diseases have been effectively eliminated. Our “poor” live lives in many ways better than the “rich” of old.

                We have made massive progress.

                Equating every moral issue to slavery is a power grab and results in the misallocation of resources. Many so called “moral” issues are virtue signalling, culture war stuff, or simply not worth treating because the side effects are worse than the issue.Report

              • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to Dark Matter
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                Yes, point taken that things are on the whole much better, and we should celebrate that fact.

                But you would agree that injustice remains, and is all the more unjust because it is so unnecessary?

                For instance, infants dying of diarrhea was just an unavoidable occurrence a century or so ago, but is entirely unnecessary now.

                So a hundred years ago we might not log it as an injustice, but today it very much is. We could eradicate it entirely if we so chose, the way smallpox was eradicated. But it would cost money to provide clean drinking water globally.

                A bit more pointed of an example- today China is said to be forcing upwards of a million people into concentration camps depriving them of the most basic human liberty.

                How should the American citizens respond, how should we instruct our government to react?

                Should our access to cheap consumer goods play a part in our calculus, or would that make us like the 18th century people who gave lip service to abolition, yet enjoyed the cheap fruits of it?

                Again, the point is that the good things we value like liberty and justice don’t just kinda happen thru serendipity. There is always a price tag associated with them.Report

              • Avatar Dark Matter in reply to Chip Daniels
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                But you would agree that injustice remains, and is all the more unjust because it is so unnecessary?

                You have to move the goal posts pretty far by Mayflower standards in order to keep finding injustice. At some point the solutions get ugly and “unjust”. “Ugly” here normally means “FORCE these people to live like we want them to”.

                We could eradicate it entirely if we so chose, the way smallpox was eradicated. But it would cost money to provide clean drinking water globally.

                Agreed that clean water is the best marginal good, i.e. good/money.

                However the issue is less money than politics. Everyone in the US has clean water. The places which serious struggle with that either have no government, are dealing with war, have no economy because of experiments with socialism, or are so corrupt it’s difficult or impossible to work with them.

                China is said to be forcing upwards of a million people into concentration camps depriving them of the most basic human liberty.

                China today is a VAST improvement over China 50 years ago when to fight inequality and injustice they were making millions of people starve to death.

                How should the American citizens respond, how should we instruct our government to react?

                Unclear. War is a non-starter. Forcing them to go back to the good old days of isolation and mass starvation is another non-starter.

                Long term this situation probably fixes itself, i.e. as the value of human life increases the costs of doing what they’re doing will also continue to increase and their culture will change. This implies helping them improve their economy is a massively good thing.

                Again, the point is that the good things we value like liberty and justice don’t just kinda happen thru serendipity. There is always a price tag associated with them.

                What is your suggestion on what we should do?Report

              • Avatar Kristin Devine in reply to Dark Matter
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                Awesome convo guys, thanksReport

              • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to Dark Matter
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                And China 50 years ago was vastly better off than 50 years prior; But should we have used that as a defense of the (then) status quo?

                Because “better off” is a relative term; Killing one person unjustly and dividing their wealth to 5 others leaves the group “better off”; But I don’t think that counts, do you?Report

              • Avatar Dark Matter in reply to Chip Daniels
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                The status quo is things are getting better, not worse. And more to the point, what do you want to do differently? What could we reasonably do that would make things better?

                One of our problems is we have lots of other priorities higher up on the list, and those other priorities are higher up on the list for good reason. Another problem is we probably can’t do much here short of war, and war would be massively more ugly than the current situation.Report

              • Avatar George Turner in reply to Chip Daniels
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                says:

                Hrm… Was it better off? Life expectancy at birth in 1963 was 44. It was 39 in 1949. In 1950, parts of Africa, India, or New Guinea would be worse than that, but not by all that much. China 50 years ago would be very close to the bottom of how bad it can get, anywhere, and I’d surmise that China in 1919 wouldn’t have been significantly worse, and was quite possibly doing better.Report

              • Avatar Dark Matter in reply to George Turner
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                China 50 years ago puts us in to the middle of the Great Leap Forward where 55(*) million people starved to death (and that’s just one item on a long list of problems).

                “Bottom of how bad it can get” is a good description.

                (*) Most recent estimate which presumably has best information. The more we know (the more the Chinese let be known) the larger this number gets.Report

              • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to Dark Matter
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                Yes, exactly my point!

                Even at the depths of Stalinism or the Great Leap Forward, things were much better off…for some people.

                Every awful government is supported by a large class of people for whom there is no starvation or repression.
                John Kennedy once remarked that the Depression was just something he read about, since his family never experienced it.
                Right now there are people in Venezuela for whom the economic crisis is something they read about but don’t feel. And they really truly are better off than before Chavez.

                I can easily imagine some Chinese official in 1965, or Venezuelan official in 2019 making all sorts of blandishments about how things are much better off than before, because for him, they are.
                And they can easily explain the grim statistics because, well, those people were um, criminals, or revolutionaries, or starved because they were inept or whatever.
                But in any case, they would tell you that any proposed change to the status quo would certainly make things worse, not better.

                Right now, in some parts of America, life expectancy is dropping. But not for me or you. Its just something we read about.

                Right now, in some parts of America people are terrified of the knock at the door for fear their family will be taken away to camps or shot.
                But not for me or you.

                Because hey, for us, things are pretty good.Report

              • Avatar Dark Matter in reply to Chip Daniels
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                For China we’re talking about 8% of the population starving to death. The bulk of the remaining presumably lost a lot of weight. Yes, there were certainly some people who did quite well for all of that.

                If I understand you, you’re claiming if anyone in America is suffering then we’re ethically the same as China during the Great Leap Forward. This sets an ethical bar so high it’s impossible to pass.

                It also obscures important differences. If every change being opposed is the equiv of the Red Guard defending the Great Leap Forward then every change can be justified, even horrifically bad ideas.

                Put something on the table (which you’ve yet to do) and I’ll tell you whether I think it would make things better or worse.

                Right now, in some parts of America people are terrified of the knock at the door for fear their family will be taken away to camps or shot.

                Who specifically do you have in mind?Report

              • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to Dark Matter
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                says:

                No, my point is that even in the very best of societies, there are those who experience injustice and inequity. And in the very worst, there are people who experience freedom and prosperity.

                And every unjust regime has its defenders who use many of the same arguments to justify the status quo.
                Right now for example, over at Crooked Timber there is a guy earnestly defending the Chinese government against the Hong Kong protesters.
                And just as there are Holocaust deniers, there are Holomodor deniers who will bend your ear about how everything you know about Stalin is fake news.

                So what to do? In the face of the fact that we experience the world very differently, where some of us experience justice and some of us don’t, how can we as citizens react and direct our government servants?

                Well, I think the first step is to listen honestly to people’s experiences and testimony.
                And to acknowledge that a “just society” is always a work in progress and in need of constant improvement and modification.Report

              • Avatar Dark Matter in reply to Chip Daniels
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                says:

                In the face of the fact that we experience the world very differently, where some of us experience justice and some of us don’t, how can we as citizens react and direct our government servants? Well, I think the first step is to listen honestly to people’s experiences and testimony.

                I don’t know what “listen honestly” means, but that sounds fine.

                But the second step is to understand anecdotes aren’t data. People lie, refuse to take responsibility for their actions, and are simply wrong a lot of the time. Further a heart wringing story doesn’t give a scale to the problem and often doesn’t present an obvious solution.

                …to acknowledge that a “just society” is always a work in progress and in need of constant improvement and modification.

                And that solutions can have unintended consequences or even costs that are worse than doing nothing. “Do something” is not a plan, much less the best plan.Report

              • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Chip Daniels
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                says:

                Right now, in some parts of America, life expectancy is dropping. But not for me or you. Its just something we read about.

                More than 100% of this decline is driven by increases in drug abuse and obesity. All else being equal, improvements in medical technology are still driving life expectancy higher. I’m not saying people who abuse drugs or overeat deserve to die young, but as badly as you want there to be a villain here, there just isn’t.Report

              • Avatar George Turner in reply to Brandon Berg
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                So you’re saying that when we look back at the Founding Fathers, the one who is still causing problems is Dolly Madison?Report

              • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to Brandon Berg
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                says:

                If America is already great, why does it need to be made great…again?

                What injustice was Trump elected to rectify?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chip Daniels
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                Why wasn’t Hillary Clinton 50 points ahead?Report

              • Avatar Dark Matter in reply to Chip Daniels
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                What injustice was Trump elected to rectify?

                A nasty side effect of allowing redistribution to be a “just” function of the government is it’s always possible to claim your group should get more and for politicians to promise “more” to a majority of the electorate.

                There are three groups, A,B,& C, each of whom is a third of the electorate. We have 100 units to split amoung them.

                1st politician gets elected promising A, B & C each getting 33% of the resource.
                2nd politician gets elected promising B & C each getting 50% of the resource.
                3rd politician gets elected promising A gets 25% and B gets 75%.
                4th politician gets elected promising A, B & C each getting 33% of the resource.

                It is ALWAYS possible to give more to the majority and to run for office on the claims that a majority is being treated “unjustly”.Report

  5. Avatar Burt Likko
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    When I was 13 I “borrowed” my father’s copy of a science fiction book called Lucifer’s Hammer. Other sci-fi nerds here will have read it. In the late 1970’s, a large comet strikes the Earth, causing a variety of natural disasters which kills billions and sets civilization on its heels.

    The big lesson was that people taken out of comfortable lives and forced to do difficult things to survive were quick to modify their morality. A society creates only as much moral refinement in the minds of its members as its collective material circumstances can afford.

    There was another big lesson, apparent even to 13-year-old me, which was that while the authors probably wanted to have the remnants of civilization split into warring factions, there was no need to have made them racially polarized, and that tasted bad even to a relatively uncritical young mind; as an adult, I think it would probably have been better to portray the moral breakdown as working equally across all of the social cleavages that used to matter before the disaster.

    Bringing that point ’round back to the OP, the Puritans were not exactly people who would have been quick to suffer moral erosion. They were people of their times rather than ahead of them, so they would have seen little moral problem with the indentured servitude of the More children. They were, after all, going to be paid for their years of labor, their time of servitude was limited and defined by law, hard work was the lot of all men anyway, and the rewards that would have been set before them upon completion of their servitude were potentially much richer than what would have been available to them in England or maybe even in Holland and to be made available to them at a relatively young age. By their reasoning, these children were on their way to getting what, at the end of the transaction, could have been portrayed as a pretty damn reasonable deal.

    If it is the case that a society’s collective economic wealth governs the refinement of its general moral commands, perhaps it’s no wonder that the English mind of the 1620’s that would have told itself the More children were being given a reasonable bargain would have recoiled at the same proposition two hundred years later, when the needs for labor had transformed significantly and the prevalence of industrialized manufacturing and a mechanized infrastructure to distribute food and other goods created a hunger for free labor and a consequent revulsion at the morality of slavery.

    In my own experience during my days as an eviction lawyer, I’ve seen people on the brink of financial ruin dismiss as prosaic a variety of actions that their more financially comfortable (not necessarily “wealthy”) litigation adversaries would have thought morally atrocious. Like, say, intentionally misrepresenting their own ability to pay rent, so as to induce the landlord to agree to provide housing for themselves and their families rather than suffer homelessness. The legal definition of that sort of thing is “fraud,” but having had some time down on my own heels earlier in life, I felt a bit of sympathy for parents who convinced themselves that this was their least bad option and therefore that they were morally justified.

    To be cast into the role of acting as an intermediary between my own economically comfortable clients, a legal system fundamentally wired in their favor with a superstructure of procedure imposed by political fiat as a soporific upon that system’s effects, and the have-nots who did things that outraged my clients, feels a little like stepping into the role that the OP takes looking back on all of these heartrending events of the past.

    I’m grateful for your nuanced, detailed, and thoughtful view upon a previously obnubilated corner of our history, @atomickristin. It’s a fine example of what makes this online community the intellectual oasis I’ve loved for over a decade now. Happy Thanksgiving.Report

  6. Avatar InMD
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    says:

    I really enjoyed this piece Kristin, thanks for sharing it.Report

  7. Avatar North
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    Fascinating bit of writing and some bag up researching, well done. Yeah, I have no time at all for people who morally projecting our current morality through time, whether that be the social justice left who projects it from the present back onto the past or the social right who project it from the past forward to impose it on the present.Report

  8. Avatar Aaron David
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    This was very nice. And thank you!Report

  9. Avatar DW Dalrymple
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    It doesn’t take much to scratch the surface historically these days to find that there is always more to the story. What a great piece Kristin!Report

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