This essay originally appeared in the June 15, 2021 Epoch Times.
There’s a prevailing orthodoxy and its opponents are branded “insurrectionists.” Nonconformists are banned from social media outlets. They’re threatened and they lose their livelihoods. Street mobs attack them and destroy their property. Government officials not only refuse to protect their rights, but also sometimes even conspire with the oppressors.
The foregoing paragraph could describe modern “woke” cancel culture. Or it could describe its direct American ancestor: cancel culture imposed by slaveholders on the pre-Civil War South.
Despite what you may have heard, slavery was not universal in 19th century America. In 1850, less than 10 percent of American families held slaves (pdf). However, in the relatively sparsely populated Southern states, the percentage of slaveholding families was higher, and they exercised disproportionate influence in political life. That influence came to be called the “Slave Power.”
Unlike most slaveholding societies, a large part of the American population opposed slavery—such as, for example, most of the Founding Fathers. Those favoring prompt emancipation were called “abolitionists.”
In 1835, abolitionist groups started a major campaign to promote their agenda. They printed and spread their newspapers and pamphlets throughout the country—particularly in the South. They urged whites and African-Americans to support emancipation.
Slaveholders were furious at this attempt to interfere with their “property.” They responded by trying to suppress the message.
Slaveholders organized boycotts against business people who opposed human bondage. The goal was, as one scholar writes (pdf) “to starve them out.” The abolitionist leader Arthur Tappan, among others, was forced into bankruptcy.
Pro-slavery groups held raucous street demonstrations denouncing their opponents as “insurrectionists” who were promoting “sedition” and “incendiary” behavior. They threatened nonconformists with violence and ostracism. Mobs attacked dissenters and destroyed their property and businesses. In Mississippi, an anti-slavery man named Robert Bell was hanged as an “insurrectionist.”
But the most significant pro-slavery response was what we now call “de-platforming.”
It’s hard to believe it today, but in the 19th century, the leading social media platform was the U.S. Post Office. The initial reasons for the Post Office were the same in this country as in Britain: to facilitate government communication, promote trade and commerce, raise revenue, and facilitate official spying on suspicious characters (pdf). However, soon after the American Founding that view of the Post Office began to change.
By 1835, both the public and government officials saw the U.S. Post Office as primarily a social medium. It was a way for people to exchange news and ideas—including political ideas. The postal service continued to convey government communications and business information, but ever more of its traffic consisted of personal letters, pamphlets, broadsides, newspapers, and magazines. The postal system had become the “town hall” for the young continental nation.
Pro-slavery forces were alarmed by this development. They also were frightened by advanced printing technology that made mass mailings easier. As another scholar has noted, slaveholders thought the new technology “meant that abolitionists had a new and ‘unnatural’ tool for spreading their ‘detestable villainy,’” and that the abolitionists’ use of it was an “intentional and coordinated act of aggression.” (pdf) (Note the parallel to the left’s practice of labeling interactions they don’t like as “micro-aggressions.”)
Thus, slaveholders responded by de-platforming—that is, by denying abolitionists access to the media. In the summer of 1835, a pro-slavery mob in Charleston, South Carolina, seized the mail and confiscated and burned abolitionist literature. Southern postmasters such as Thomas Scott of Raleigh, North Carolina, refused to deliver “Northern fanatical publications.” Postmasters not personally inclined to screen the mail felt forced to do so because of pressure from the Slave Power. People who chose to receive pro-emancipation literature were ostracized or shunned.
Recently, some “progressive” lawmakers have introduced bills to censor the internet. They’re the political descendants of lawmakers serving the Slave Power. In 1836, the Virginia legislature enacted a measure forcing postmasters to notify justices of the peace whenever they received publications “denying the right of masters to property in their slaves and inculcating the duty of resistance to such right.” Under the law, the justice of the peace would censor any writings he deemed dangerous. Those publications were burned in his presence. He also could arrest people who subscribed to them.
Similarly, in 1841 Maryland lawmakers ordered censorship of the mails through grand jury proceedings.
President Andrew Jackson—a slaveholder—asked Congress to enact legislation federalizing this kind of censorship. South Carolina Sen. John C. Calhoun opposed the measure, but only because he wanted to see the job done at the state rather than at the federal level.
To a considerable extent, this de-platforming worked: Slaveholders and their government stooges were largely successful in shielding Southerners from any views on slavery but their own.
Is the parallelism between these two examples of cancel culture—one by slaveholders and one by modern “progressives”—just an accident?
I think not. The Constitution’s First Amendment protects freedom of speech and of the press. Americans have experienced episodes of political censorship, but mostly in times of war or imminent foreign threat. However, in instances of cancel culture, censorship arose without any such threat. Cancel culture, now or then, is not an attempt to protect the country, but a cynical effort to silence opposition.
Moreover, slaveholders and “progressives” both claim unlimited power over the labor of others. A socialist demanding that government enforce a “right” to health care is essentially asserting that health care professionals should be treated as state slaves, conscripted to work for anyone the government designates. A person asserting power to appropriate the labor of others is unlikely to care much about freedom of any kind, except as a short-term expedient.
In other words, parallels between the cancel culture of the slaveholders and that of modern “progressives” are not accidental at all.