Bryan Caplan  

A Freedman's Moral Intuition

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In 1865, a former slave owner mailed a job offer to one of his former slaves.  Here's the highlight of the freedman's response:
Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor's visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams's Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.
Too bad the last sentence turned out to be wrong.  Life is not fair.


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COMMENTS (16 to date)
Essen writes:

Do we know if freedman was sent the money? And did he then take up the job?

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

Since this letter was written a hundred years before the existence of the Department of Education, this man ought to have the common decency to his future union brothers to be ignorant. Alas, the quality of his prose shows that former slaves received better education than 90% of high school children today.

James Reade writes:

The last sentence "turned out to be wrong"?

I sense since the writer refers to a "Maker", he may well thus be referring not to justice meted out before the slave owner died.

As such, it's a non-verifiable claim, in the afirmative or otherwise, and hence to say it "turned out to be wrong" is a little bit too strong.

I suspect you believe it to be wrong, but that's a different kettle of fish entirely...

Thomas Boyle writes:

Sure, it's emotionally satisfying to read (loved it!).

But... it's also an example of the sunk cost fallacy.

AJ writes:

Can the average slave descendant in America today write (and think)like that?

David R. Henderson writes:

@AJ,
The average person in America, descendant of slave or not, doesn’t write or think like that. I think, though, that the average person could write and think like that. He/she would “just" have to get a good education. Not schooling. A good education.

Robinson writes:

My favorite passage besides your quote:

Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.
Waldo writes:

The letter is very entertaining and affective. And I would like to believe its authenticity. However, it could have easily been written last Tuesday.

Waldo writes:

The letter is very entertaining and affective. And I would like to believe its authenticity. However, it could have easily been written last Tuesday.

John Palmer writes:

Should the former slavemaster also deduct reasonable amounts for room and board? If so, that would reduce the "surplus" substantially.

Hunter writes:

@Waldo
from the article "a letter which, according to newspapers at the time, he dictated."

@John Perhaps but there is also pain and suffering due to floggings etc.

And he is "negotiating" for a job so he could ask any amount up front he desires.

PrometheeFeu writes:

@Thomas Boyle writes:
"But... it's also an example of the sunk cost fallacy."

I don't see any references to sunk costs. The former slave simply wishes assurances that he will be treated fairly in the future. Since he doesn't trust a contract to do that, he is asking his potential employer to prove his good-faith by sending him compensation for 30-or-so years of forced labor. I'd say it's a signal with a very low false positive rate. If the potential employer sends that much money, he probably isn't doing it out of self-interest (he can probably hire someone for much cheaper) and instead is showing true repentance for his past actions which could lead one to conclude that he will act appropriately in the future. Of course, there is also a high false negative rate. But then again, I would also be willing to accept a high false-negative rate if I feared being enslaved.

MPerry writes:

It seems that every couple of years this letter goes viral again. According to Snopes, it was first printed in newspapers in the 1860s and was published in an anthology of Freedman writings in the 1930s.

The slave who "wrote" it and the master he sent it to were both real people, but the slave was illiterate and dictated it to someone who could write.

Bob Knaus writes:

Does it belong in the category of "Abolitionist Propaganda"? Of course. Is it essentially true? More than likely. Does Bryan miss the point of the last sentence? Absolutely. Our good negro and his ghostwriter both understood very clearly that the "day of reckoning" would not happen under the sun we mortals see.

ThomasL writes:

Yes, the phrases "day of reckoning" and "defraud the laborer of his hire" are allusions--but not quotes--to passages in Scripture.

Ken B writes:

As for DRH's good observation, "The power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous." - Edward Gibbon

The use of the semi-colon is perfect. This would be suspicious but for the claim that the letter was dictated. The intervention of a skilled writter would transform structure and pauses to punctuation correctly.
Boing Boing links to a scan of the 1865 newspaper with the letter. This seems to me the best evidence it's a fake!

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