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The Dilemma of Edmund Ruffin

ISSUE:  Summer 1934

A prophet early in the nineteenth century, as he listened to the almost daily tale of new inventions ,and watched the output of goods magically multiply as they emerged from whirring machines instead of from skilful but slow human fingers, might have prophesied many things. If he were a philosopher-prophet rather than a merely sentimental one, he would have looked forward not so much to a golden age of plenty for all as to an age of colossal and perhaps insoluble problems.

“These machines,” he might have said, “will throw many people out of work but on the other hand they will produce so many new sorts of goods and open up so many new lines to human labor that population in the countries where they are profitably used will enormously increase. Improved transportation, the need for both raw materials and markets for finished products, will increase foreign trade incredibly. The population of single cities, centers of production and distribution, will equal those of whole nations today. The goods will be so numerous, so desirable, so cheap that a vision of a hitherto unknown standard of living will be opened to the eyes of all, whether they share in it or not. At first a few nations will manufacture; then more. As production increases, virgin markets will become fewer. Some day an immovable glut may clog the whole mechanism. Meanwhile, the almost unthinkable increase in populations, the growing complexity of economic life, the closer contacts between nations, and the rising demands of all individuals for their shares in the swelling volume of goods to be obtained, will all place a terrific strain upon those, few or many, who are responsible for the ordering of society. The overwhelming problem will not be that of production, which, given capital, ample labor supply and inventive genius, will solve itself ; the problem will be that of distribution, that is, for the sake both of markets and of social stability, so to order the relations of each individual to the whole society that each shall feel he has his fair share of the social product and that the whole of that product may continuously pass into the hands of consumers. So far man, even under far simpler circumstances, has shown no very marked ability to govern himself or others; obviously the best of human thought should be given to the task of reorganizing relationships in such a I way as to relieve the extraordinarily high social tension which is clearly in prospect.”

Anyone knowing human nature and the institutional history of the race, however, would realize that that would not be done. In our own country for many decades—indeed, down to 1865—the problem of the relationship of the individual to society at large assumed a peculiarly simple form. It was as simple as black and white, for the argument was merely whether labor should be “slave” or “free,” as the terms were then understood. The North had almost exclusively white “free” labor with a sprinkling of free blacks. The South had almost exclusively black “slave” labor with a sprinkling of free blacks and whites as employed labor.

The two systems on simply economic grounds might have long co-existed in different sections of the same country. They were incompatible in the same section. Moreover, besides the North and South there was the great and growing West. As it became slave or free, so would swing the political power in the nation as a whole.

In my new book I have tried to trace all the factors in the growing strife between the two older sections, and can only say briefly here that the stakes played for by the upholders of the two different systems were so great that for the American during the greater part of the nineteenth century the real problem of the relation of the individual to society and to the social product was obscured by the simpler but wholly inadequate slavery-versus-free-labor controversy, culminating in the greatest war in history until the recent World War. Europe might discuss socialism, communism, and other forms of social change. We emerged from our own passionate dispute over labor with little or no genuine conception of the social problem, and a generation or two behind the social thought of the Old World.

As we re-read the contemporary outpourings on the controversy in newspapers, pamphlets, and books, we are struck by the absence of consciousness, on either side, of the real problems to be solved in the new machine age.

There was, however, one man who clearly sensed the larger implications of the issue, Edmund Ruffin of Virginia. Ruf-fin pointed to the real dilemma with a vision that was distinctly remarkable in the early 1850’s. The choice which lay before society, he declared, was not that between slavery and free labor but that between slavery and some other form of relationship between labor and capital—say socialism— that would ensure to the worker the same safeguards and security he was guaranteed as a slave.


We may pause for a moment to consider the contemporary background of Ruffin’s argument. The slave was indeed a chattel, but in exchange for liberty he obtained security. From birth to death, in sickness and in health, he was guaranteed subsistence—including food, clothing, and shelter—medical attention, and the other necessities of life, He or she need not fear the loss of a job, the arrival of another child, or a bad crop. Whatever happened, the slave had a first lien, so to say, on the industry, indeed almost on the whole social system, of which he formed a part. It was of the very nature of that system that the profits of industry had to be such, and distributed in such a way, as to ensure security during life and at least a minimum of life’s needs to every laborer contributing to the total result.

If slavery was, as many Southerners claimed, the corner stone of their social system, the corner stone for the slave himself was lifelong economic security. We may contrast this with the position of “free” labor as set forth by the agent of a factory in Fall River just before the Civil War. His statement is quoted by Norman Ware, in his “The Industrial Worker, 1840-1800,” from a report in Massachusetts Senate Document 21, 18(58. “As for myself,” he said, “I regard my work-people just as I regard my machinery. So long as they can do my work for what I choose to pay them, I keep them, getting out of them all I can. What they do or how they fare outside my walls I don’t know, nor do I consider it my business to know. They must look out for themselves as I do for myself. When my machines get old and useless, I reject them and get new, and these people are part of my machinery.” The contrast could not be set forth more strongly, for although the statement was brutal in its frankness the truth it expressed was the corner stone of the laissez-faire philosophy with regard to the relation of the individual worker to industry and society.

The difference between the economic security and even comfort of the slave as contrasted with vast masses of free white labor was one which naturally did not escape the defenders of slavery in the South. Slavery had its many dark sides and there is no use in glossing them over by painting a rose-colored, romantic picture. But so also did the free labor system of England and the North in the pre-war decades. If there were cruel masters in the South so were there in the North, such as one in Holyoke, Massachusetts, who found that his work people could produce three thousand yards more of cloth a week if he worked them without breakfast. No slave children were worked so hard as were the free white children of the North in the ill-ventilated and crowded factory rooms. A slave owner would not harness pregnant women to draw heavy coal carts as did the mine owners of England. The female slave and her offspring were worth too much in cash, aside from any other consideration, to permit of it, whereas under the free-labor system there was no loss to the mine owner. The English Parliamentary investigations of 1842-43 showed that children from three to seven years of age were employed below ground for twelve hours a day. In 1840 the mining population of England was above seven hundred and fifty thousand, of whom one-third were actually employed, mostly in the dark passages in the mines where hopeless men and women worked promiscuously together in the dark. If slavery bred sexual licence, it was nothing compared to the horrible conditions prevailing among men, women, and children in one of the greatest and most lucrative trades in free white England.

There was thus much in the Southerner’s claim that his slaves were better cared for and happier than at least very large sections of the free white laboring population. I think that the claim was probably a true one, certainly as made with regard to England, which felt the full impact of the industrial revolution before any other country. For the purpose of this essay we may boil the contrast down to two main points. The slave lost his individual personality by virtue of his servitude but gained security. The free laborer had a nominal freedom but no security. It was these two points, apart from all the emotional and moral ones, that alone in the discussion were relevant to the most important problem, that of the relation of the individual to society as a going concern.

Almost universally, however, those who argued along these lines assumed the permanence of the two systems. Moreover, the South in its defence of slavery had to deny its drawbacks. The North, defending freedom against slavery, had to make itself believe that there was nothing wrong with the sort of freedom it was attaining. For the North to have admitted that the relation of the free laborer to society was unsatisfactory and likely to become more so, would have seemed like weakening in its offensive against slavery; and the whole West and the political control of the nation at large were involved. Thus America, instead of being able to discuss the larger social question, was forced not only to dissipate its energies in fighting, as we may say, the battle on a false front, but to disguise the real issue.

Ruffin, however, was one of the few Americans, if not indeed almost the only one, who saw the problem clearly in all its implications. The condition of free labor, in his opinion, could not remain permanent, and the real choice of America would inevitably come to lie not between freedom and slavery, but between slavery and socialism in some form. So long as there remained abundance of land to be had for the asking, the factory workers might be able to maintain a certain amount of bargaining strength as against the employers, but “whenever,” he wrote, “the valuable vacant lands shall have been all settled upon, and there will be no longer sufficient inducements for emigration, and when by retaining and crowding of population, the supply of labor shall (as is inevitable) greatly exceed the demand, then in New England, as has already been effected in Old England, slavery to want will be established rigidly, and in the form most oppressive and destructive to the laborers, but the most profitable of all slavery to the employers, to capitalists.” Here, as Professor Avery Craven, from whose book I have taken the extract from Ruffin, says, the iron law of wages was clearly stated.

Ruffin agreed with the socialistic doctrine that the unfair distribution of the social product should be remedied by social control, but objected to socialism as a system because of what he believed to be the inevitable stoppage of progress due to the killing of initiative in the individual member of a completely regimented State. Of the two horns of the dilemma he preferred the system of slavery as guaranteeing comparative economic security to all concerned in it, combined with a wide field, in the more intelligent portion of the community, for initiative to operate. Moreover, he started with the fundamental assumption that the Negro race was essentially inferior to the white, and that the relationship of master to servant was therefore a natural one. The point he made, however, was that whatever economic form society might take, it must, as slavery did, provide for the security of all its members if it was to be stable and lasting.


That was eighty years ago. Meanwhile we in America have been able to put off the evil day when we must choose one of the two horns of Ruffin’s dilemma or find some other horn if there is one. The Civil War did not settle anything logically or abstractly, but practically it did abolish the slave system and give America over to the exploitation of “free” labor. The battle over the relation of the individual to society had so long been waged on the line of “slave” or “free” that when that was settled it appeared that the problem had been disposed of, though in reality it had not been tackled at all. Moreover, as we pointed out, the North had felt itself forced to deny Southern accusations that there was anything wrong in its system, and now the North was dominant. Had there been no “slave-free” controversy the country as a whole might have had a more open mind to discuss the real problem of labor and capital. In addition, for a generation or more after the war there was the West to be developed, and, with set-backs, there seemed to be ample opportunity for labor, except for the foreigners whom the North considered inferior races in quite as axiomatic a way as the South had thought of the Negro. Most of the hard, dirty work, the manual labor in building railroads, in mining, in the steel mills, in the sweated garment trade, was being done by these “foreigners”—Poles, Irish, Hungarians, Russian Jews, even Koreans and heaven knows what—whose life and whose slums were outside the ken of the ordinary “American.” Yet these people were becoming naturalized and in fact were, at the polls, as much American citizens as the most cultivated magnate whose ancestor may have landed at Jamestown or Plymouth. The South was treated as a conquered province and during its long agony was almost forgotten by the rest of the country. In the North and West the rapid expansion of business and the complete ignoring of the “foreigners” seemed to give the lie to Ruffin’s dilemma.

It is true that there were strikes and revolts against the system. Leaders like the elder Roosevelt and Wilson arose, who sensed the coming storm, but in general it was not until 1929, then 1930, then 1931 and the terrible spring of 1932, that Ruffin’s two-horned dilemma seemed suddenly to stand at the bedside of “real Americans” tossing sleepless amid the ruins of all they had believed secure for themselves. The immovable glut of goods which our prophet foresaw had come into existence. For a century and more we had concentrated on production and not on distribution. The world machine was out of gear. So long as it had been only the farmers, the “foreigners,” the “lower classes” who had demanded a fairer distribution of the social product, the demands could be branded as “radical,” “red,” “socialistic,” but when the Americans who had always felt themselves safe, sensed the fact that there was no longer even for them any economic security left, they were panic-stricken.

We have been the more panic-stricken perhaps because the dilemma with which we have been faced, although similar to Ruffin’s, is less simple than he saw it. We are now willing to admit that he was right when he claimed that the choice was not between slavery and free labor but between one form of society in which the profits were so ordered as to provide security for all, and some other form which would accomplish the same result. We admit that the completely laissez-faire system of freedom has broken down, but one horn of Ruflin’s dilemma can no longer be seized, and the other is not wanted by most of us.

Slavery in the old sense cannot be called back into life. The world has moved definitely away from it. No one, black or white, would, even for the sake of security, become a slave, nor, in the economic society of today, would anyone for a moment consider assuming the responsibilities involved in becoming a master. That system of security is no longer available to us.

On the other hand, in spite of how simple it may be made to sound on paper when only generalities are indulged in and all details are ignored, the average American profoundly mistrusts any thoroughgoing socialistic system. There is not only Ruffin’s objection to it, that without the spur of personal initiative progress might largely stop and society become an inert mass. There is the additional point, nearer to the thought and fireside of each American used to running his own affairs, the unexplained point as to who, in a thoroughly regimented society, would run it and him. Human nature may change in some particulars over long periods, though the old saying “scratch a Russian and you will find a Tartar” applies on a much ampler scale. However our nature may alter in the centuries to come, it is not likely to become completely efficient and altruistic overnight with the adoption of a new structure for society. As we think of the sort of people by whom we, more or less helpless and hapless private citizens, are governed in such cities as New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and others, or of the sort of official we so often meet in our contacts with government, the thought of a far more complete submission of our lives and wills to the officials of a thoroughly regimented and socialistic State is not alluring.

There are many people who work for the sheer love of working and others who are so keen about their particular work, like many scientists, artists, and others, that they would gladly continue even without economic gain. But the great mass are not very anxious to work, and in addition there is much work to be done which is uninteresting or unattractive to almost anyone. In the slave State there was economic security, but under compulsion to work. In the socialistic State there would be many who would not care to work, others who would not care to work at certain necessary jobs. There would again have to be some form of compulsion, Who would apply it, and how? Our governments, from village to nation, have been peculiarly inefficient, corrupt, and given to favoritism. There is no reason to believe that any sudden change to a new form would make them any different. There is no use blinking the fact that our political life has been stinkingly corrupt. The corruption lies deep in the heart of the people and is not confined to either party. The leopard would indeed have to change his spots marvellously if by waving a wand called Socialism we are to see all this corruption suddenly replaced by a million and more honest, able, and disinterested public servants, (It has been estimated that there are over 1,000,000 elective offices alone in the United States.) It is much like Bryan’s expecting in case of war that a million capable soldiers would spring to arms overnight. There are reasons for this corruption which lack of space forbids my considering. Although the inference from them makes the further prospect far from hopeless, I am here considering only the present and the near future.

Aside from the difficulties of nation-wide planning for industry, all evidence we have points to the fact that in America a government-owned business is not as efficiently run as a private one. There is no sane reason for believing that if the State became socialistic the national income would increase. In this year, 1934, it is, I believe, estimated at about $40,000,000,000. That is $333 per individual if evenly divided among all, or about fifteen hundred dollars per family of four-and-a-half persons. It may be said that most business men were wrong in 1929 and got us into a mess, but so were most of the “experts” who are counted on to “plan” for us and perhaps run the State of the future. As far as predictions are concerned, the record of the business men in that year is not a whit more damning than that of the economists, to say nothing of the way the latter differ among themselves at present as to what should be done. What guarantee of economic security is there, even to the extent of the fifteen hundred dollars per family, in a socialistic or communistic State? None whatever except the word of those who favor them. On the other hand, if a change were made too suddenly, the ensuing catastrophe for all in a highly industrialized country such as the United States might well be the most appalling in history, beside which the horrors of transition in agricultural and decentralized Russia would be nothing.


Thus we come back to Ruffin. The slave, with his low standard of living, and after some generations unused to liberty, was fairly happy in the price he paid for economic security for life. But the colored man of today would not purchase it at the same price. In the same way I do not believe that the ordinary American of today, of whatever racial descent, is willing to purchase it at the expense of a completely regimented life and a standard of living so much below what he has considered possible, even if not actually attained.

Yet Ruffin was right. A modern society, to endure, has got to provide at least a minimum of economic security for its members. We have got to find the way. If, as we must, we discard the way of slavery and if there is no sudden transition to a highly socialized State, is there any other? Is the “New Deal” of Roosevelt, for example, of any help?

I think it may be in this way. Although I believe in the slow advance of man throughout the ages, I have no confidence in any overnight changes. We have ahead of us either the slow process of trial and error or a more sudden “revolution.” Revolutions, however, though they appear sudden, are slow in the making and take many generations to work out afterward. If they are thoroughgoing and not mere outbursts of violence, they come as a rule only after intolerable grievances have accumulated through long periods. I do not believe that is the situation today in America. On the other hand, if we are not to try a sudden overturn into communism, socialism, fascism, or original chaos, then the only method left is that of trial and error, and that is no method until we are willing to try and very likely to err.

Roosevelt has been trying that method. He himself solemnly states that he is aiming at neither communism nor fascism. Norman Thomas notes that whatever he may be aiming at it is assuredly not socialism. What it appears to be is a fairly conservative alteration of the economic life of the nation within the framework of what shall yet remain a capitalistic, individualistic, and democratic society. It is very unlikely that he will wholly succeed. It is possible he may wholly fail. It is more likely that he will accomplish something, though much less than he would like. Much of the experimenting thus far may prove very costly, but it has been very educational. Those economists and others who have talked so glibly of managed currencies, commodity dollars, and national planning are having a chance to see the lions in the path, beasts which, in the privacy of their libraries, the scholars refused to believe existed. It may be too that the “real Americans” are also learning something, learning that in spite of the difficulties in planning a more ordered economic life, something has to be attempted, perhaps much sacrificed, in order to attain to a more stable order. We have looked over the edge of the cliff and have seen how deep is the abyss.

So far Roosevelt appears to have been concerned more with a better distribution of the social product than with the point of Ruflin’s dilemma; that is, how to provide that economic security which slavery for two centuries actually yielded and which socialism and communism merely promise. There is, of course, no guarantee that the solution can be found. The problem is enormously complicated by the great increase in population brought on by the machine, and by the rise in the standard of living. Unless machine civilization collapses, the possible standard of living is likely to rise rather than fall, with an increase in the variety and desirability of goods. As to population, nature has her own rough and ready ways of dealing with surpluses—famine, plagues, starvation, infant mortality, and the rest. These brakes we now decline with all our power to allow her to apply. Economic security would tend to increase numbers, as it did under slavery, which almost broke down under the weight of numbers in the older slave States and which was saved temporarily only by the new lands of the Gulf coast and West. Birth control, not merely for the upper social and economic classes but for all, will probably have to play a large part in the future in solving the problem of economic security and the stabilizing of society. As part of that stabilizing process Roosevelt’s plan for better distribution of the social product will also probably have to be adopted, although possibly in different form from anything yet suggested. The idea of the Codes, though crude as yet and much misapplied, appears to be a creative and constructive one.

To come back at the end to Ruffin. Although we have fought off the day, we are now face to face with his dilemma. We have either got to let civilization go by default, that is do nothing and drift to eventual catastrophe, or we have got to try to find a rational solution to the dilemma. We have got to develop a social consciousness and a sense of social responsibility long lacking among us, have got to make certain sacrifices, and to dare to risk experiments, or else sit at our ease in our canoe and some day slide over Niagara. There is the old saying that “God looks after drunks, children, and Americans,” but even drunks and children sometimes get killed and it may be that even now we are considered old and sober enough to look after ourselves. Other nations have had to do so and there is no divine guarantee that we are to be forever exempt from their fate. Our national growth coincided with the optimistic century of inventive and mechanical “progress.” We had the richest virgin continent in the world to exploit. We grew wealthy and selfish, corrupt and careless. We seemed to have escaped the common fate of humanity, which is suffering and sacrifice. We have failed, perhaps, to attain to a certain humaneness of living because we failed to go through some of the experiences of humanity.

When the North won in the Civil War, the old, embittered Ruffin shot himself because he could not bear to live under the rule of the hated Yankee business man and his laissez-faire doctrine of each for himself for the most money possible and the devil take the other fellow. It is for us to find a nobler way to solve his dilemma.

There is one point, however, which I believe should be emphasized. We are told on every hand that because we have found the way to produce goods of every description on a scale sufficient to supply the needs of all humanity, therefore there is no reason why any should starve in the face of plenty. This statement of the case I believe to be almost criminal in its over-simplification; criminal because in its essential untruth it makes the mass of the population believe that a portion of the community is wilfully withholding from it its share in the social product, and also criminal because it makes a most enormously difficult problem appear easy of solution.

The mere presence of sufficient goods does not mean that all the factors are present for bringing plenty to each individual. There might, for example, be a famine in China and ample supplies of food in America which its owners were willing to give to the Chinese, but if the means of transport were lacking neither the food nor the good will would be sufficient. In the modern world the goods and the desire for consumption are both present, but the difficulty of transport in the simple case just cited is replaced by the difficulties of devising the political and economic machinery for just distribution. The problem of production was solved by means of selfishness and the profit motive. The problem of distribution will be far more difficult because to a great extent it will have to be worked out with the help of unselfishness and the higher motives based on a wider social vision than any to which the race has yet attained. We are all of us caught, the selfish and the unselfish alike, in the complexities of the modern order. With the best intentions we may not see how either to bring about equitable distribution or ensure security without perhaps a breakdown of the whole machinery. No previous problem has ever made such demands on the highest qualities of both mind and character. It is possible that the world may prove lacking in one or both, and that, as so often before, humanity may have to pass through the dark valley of chaos and suffering before rising again to the heights in a social landscape which shall bear little resemblance to that with which we are familiar. Whatever happens, there is no short cut to the millennium.


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