In a 2013 speech, Republican presidential frontrunner Ben Carson called the Affordable Care Act "the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery." Obamacare, he insisted, "is slavery in a way, because it is making all of us subservient to the government, and it was never about health care. It was about control."
Earlier this year, Carson urged pro-life activists to find inspiration in the success of a kindred social movement: the campaign to end slavery.
The African American neurosurgeon doubled down on his conflation of abortion with human bondage last month, drawing a parallel between women who want to control their own wombs and slaveholders' domination of enslaved bodies.
"During slavery--and I know that's one of those words you're not supposed to say, but I'm saying it. During slavery, a lot of the slave owners thought that they had the right to do whatever they wanted to that slave....And, you know, what if the abolitionists had said,...'I don't believe in slavery. I think it's wrong. But you guys do whatever you want to do'? Where would we be?"
On the subject of slavery, as on many issues, Carson portrays himself as a truth-teller--as an outsider willing to talk honestly about a topic that others choose to avoid. However accurate his claims to trustworthiness are--and recent reports that Carson has fabricated stories about his youth raise questions about his integrity--the candidate's willingness to invoke slavery to score political points is, in fact, nothing new. Instead, Carson is tapping into a long, troubling American tradition.
During the Revolution, white Patriots, though surrounded by the black victims of slavery on a daily basis, regularly framed British taxation as tantamount to slavery. In 1766, Connecticut minister Joseph Emerson called the repeal of the Stamp Act "a deliverance from slavery;--nothing less than from vile, ignominious slavery." British Loyalists also showed little compunction about casting their economic travails as enslavement. Frustrated by the oppressive tactics of Patriot committees that enforced colonial boycotts, a New York City minister proclaimed that rebellious colonists "are making us the most abject slaves that ever existed."
In the run-up to the Civil War, white Americans on both sides of the conflict again characterized their own oppression as a form of slavery. In the fall of 1850, Massachusetts clergyman William C. Whitcomb insisted that a new, more stringent fugitive slave law "WILL MAKE SLAVES OF US ALL. Talk not of the Free States! there are none such now!" Eleven years later, Alabamian Elizabeth Rhodes celebrated her state's decision to secede by scrawling in her diary that she "rejoiced to know that we are no longer part of the Union which would make us slaves."
The institution of slavery was outlawed at the end of the Civil War, but Americans continued to draw questionable analogies between slavery and present-day circumstances. During Reconstruction, former Virginia governor Henry Wise maintained that black enfranchisement amounted to white enslavement. "It will be most unnatural as well as unconstitutional for the people of our own color and race to permit them to make us their slaves," he told a crowd in 1867. In the century that followed, countless American hawks posited the Soviet Union a threat to liberty every bit as great as chattel slavery.
Progressives also made dubious comparisons to slavery. In 1912, attorney Louis D. Brandeis argued that employees of the U.S. Steel Corporation were treated "worse than slaves." Brandeis contrasted humane slaveholders, who had "personal contact" with their slaves, with absentee steel magnates, like Andrew Carnegie, who displayed an utter disregard for "human life."
These slavery analogies betray a profound indifference to, if not ignorance of, the tragic plight of bondsmen and women. Slaves and their offspring were condemned to a lifetime of uncompensated labor. They were also subject to rape, corporal punishment, and separation from loved ones at a moment's notice.
Yet Americans--from Patriots and Loyalists during the Revolution to Ben Carson today--have felt comfortable likening human bondage to high taxes, unjust laws, black enfranchisement, or, in Carson's case, national healthcare and abortion.
Ben Carson is right about one thing: we must not be afraid to talk about slavery. But such conversations should approach the topic as an object of historical and moral inquiry, not as convenient political shorthand.
On hundred and fifty years ago, the United States abolished slavery. It's high time we put analogies about the peculiar institution to bed, too.