I grew up hearing adults say, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Heck, I think it is the title of a song. And the older I get, the more I realize that much damage is done in the world by people who seem to think that they are doing the right thing. As a fairly new author, I’ve uncovered a good bit of evidence of this fact while researching for my books. For instance, a main theme of my novel Burning Prospects is the fact that Captain Isaac Ross wanted to free his slaves in his will through colonization. Specifically, colonization to West Africa through the efforts of the American Colonization Society.
Now, this seems like a good and noble thing to do. I grew up feeling proud that my great, great, great, great grandfather freed his slaves. And I have to say that after extensive research on Captain Ross I do believe that he had honorable intentions in wishing to free his slaves. The Mississippi Legislature had outlawed the outright manumission of slaves in 1828 before he wrote his will. It required an act of valor on the part of the slave (special circumstances) and a formal petition to the legislature asking for the slave’s freedom. Captain Ross’ hands were tied to a large extent legally speaking.
Here is where it gets murky. His heirs fought his will in court. They wanted to keep the house, land and also the slaves. In their eyes, their rightful inheritance was getting loaded on a boat and shipped to another continent. So the American Colonization Society (ACS) hired lawyers to convince the courts to uphold the will. Here is a quote from the court case where the ACS lawyer gave the rationale for colonization and the reason the state legislature had passed the law restricting slave manumission in the first place:
“The practice of manumission was productive of great evil, by the rapid increase which it caused in the free negro populations. This kind of population was found by experience to be both oppressive and dangerous, constituting a heavy charge upon the public and a great nuisance to the community. It became, therefore, the necessary policy of these states to rid themselves of this evil, and as far as practicable to prevent its further extension… it may be safely asserted that every such limitation or restriction of the right of manumission, was intended by the legislature only to relieve the state from the accumulations within its borders of an obnoxious free black population.”
The argument worked. The slaves were indeed eventually sent to Liberia. But reading that quote makes you wonder how noble the intentions of the many members of the society were. My guess is that you had your mix of some who truly wanted slaves to be free and felt this was the only legal option and others that simply wanted all black people out of this country. Did the ends justify the means? Wasn’t that argument in itself so insulting that it negated much of the good it intended to do?
Currently I am researching the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Following the hysteria and fear of the attacks at Pearl Harbor it seemed reasonable to many, if not most Americans to keep “enemy aliens” under a close watch. “What can it hurt?” you might be tempted to ask? But this was an outrageous abuse of power and it totally trampled the civil liberties of these individuals. Looking at photographs of Manzanar and other “camps” makes my heart ache for the people carted off to them. I hope that I can write a novel that does them justice. “Good” intentions can surely pave roads to places none of us ever want to visit. I hope that we at least can learn from history and not repeat it.