The Cruel Irony of Property Rights
I have an acquaintance who is working on Ph.D. in early American history. Her dissertation is on the institutional ownership of slaves, and a recent conversation with her has gotten me thinking. Focusing her research on Virginia, she has found that slave owning by churches was quite wide spread. Apparently this was mainly an Episcopalian and Presbyterian thing. (Methodists and Baptists were less enthusiastic.) Then, as now, the wealthy would often make bequests of property to churches, mainly for the support of ministers. Also, churches would sometimes purchase slaves as a way of investing their endowments. The interesting question is whether or not being owned by a religious corporation made a slave better or worse off.
I confess that when I first heard about this, I was hoping that the answer would be that slaves were better off by being owned by churches. I was hoping that Christian notions of charity would have played at least some role in how slaves were treated, and that the churches would have ameliorated the injustice of owning slaves with some humanity. Not so. The answer, however, has less to do with the ideological failure of Christian charity — although that seems to have happened to be sure — than with plain old fashion property rights. In most congregations, church property was not controlled by the minister but by the vestry, a committee of powerful members of the congregation. The minister was often simply a salaried employee who served at the pleasure of the vestry. The vestry, in turn, tended to be cheap. They weren’t always excited about expending scarce church funds of things like doctors for injured slaves or other expenditures to ameliorate their condition. In particular, when a church owned slaves but lacked the capital to provide for them, it was sometimes extremely difficult for the vestry’s to raise funds for slave-related expenses. In contrast, slaves that were privately owned were regarded as an expensive investment that many owners were unwilling to wantonly harm through a false economy. In short, institutionally owned slaves where quite literally victims of the tragedy of the commons.
In a cruel irony, clearer property rights in human beings in this case seems to have improved their material condition.