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What does “chattel” even mean?

Welcome to “Dumb Ideas that Changed the World.” The views expressed are solely those of the host and do not reflect the opinions of this station or its funders.


Slavery helped build America and remains one of its worst sins. Dr. Joyce Hope Scott calls it the “greatest crime of all time, the theft of humanity and personhood which resulted in a permanent state of dispossession, exile, and homelessness.” African-Americans were bought and sold here for 246 years, which still comprises 60% of the history of English settlement.


Slaves had no rights and could be whipped or sold at the whim of their white masters. Families were split apart, and children born to slaves remained in bondage for life as well. That’s what is meant by “chattel slavery.” They weren’t regarded as persons, but private property. This isn’t new information. We all know slavery is abhorrent, but that’s not today’s dumb idea.


Equally dumb is the notion that slavery was acceptable in its day and that we shouldn’t judge it by today’s standards. On the contrary, American slavery was always a great moral evil and everybody knew it.


Examples abound. Quakers both North and South turned their backs on slavery in the colonial period. Soon after independence, it was condemned by the Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists. They condemned it and formed anti-slavery societies. Southern churches had to break away to prop-up the vile practice. Author and former slave Frederick Douglass called the still-legal institution a “huge lie” against nature and progress.


Presbyterian minister Thomas Kendall toured the South in the 1830s, giving sermons against the greed and inhumanity of slavery. Enduring the wrath of elders, he faced physical threats and once was tarred and feathered. These are just a few cases. It took the Civil War to free four million American slaves.


Lest we forget, slavery was obscene and inexcusable. They knew exactly what they were doing, and brave abolitionists both black and white made sure of it.


I’m Jeff Gentry


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Best reference:

Scott, J. H. (2022). Reparations, Restitution, and Transitional Justice: American Chattel Slavery & Its Aftermath, a Moral Debate Whose Time Has Come. Wisconsin International Law Journal, 269–299.


Dumb Ideas that Changed the World copyright 2024 by Jeff Gentry. All rights reserved.

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