Archive | May 1, 2007

Freeing Slaves and Healing the Sic

In an 1820 letter, English libertarian anarchist Thomas Hodgskin, arguing that economic prosperity and equity depend more crucially on the freedom of labour than on material resources, wrote the following sentence (quoted in Élie Halévy’s book on Hodgskin, p. 78 of the English version):

No circumstances of soil, capital nor ingenuity will ever make the distribution of wealth the same in the United States of America in which slavery is unknown and in our Empire in India.

Evidently taking this passage to make the bizarre assertion that slavery did not exist in the United States in the year 1820, the editor (not Halévy, whose French version leaves the passage as is, but his English translator, A. J. Taylor) has inserted a “sic” in brackets after the phrase “in the United States of America in which slavery is unknown.”

Broken chains In fact this is one of my pet peeves, a false sic. There is nothing wrong with the sentence; contrary to appearances, it does not make the bizarre assertion it appears to make.

Why not? The answer is one that libertarians in particular should appreciate. Hodgskin was writing at a time when the term “the United States of America” was a plural name and not a singular one, applied to a collection of sovereign states joined in federation and not to a unitary, consolidated nation. Thus the phrase “the United States of America in which slavery is unknown” refers not to the entire entity known as the USA but to that subset of states in the USA that had abolished slavery; the “which” is thus restrictive.

As I noted above, there is no sic in Halévy’s French text. That’s because Halévy understood Hodgskin’s phrase perfectly, rendering it into French as “dans ceux des États-Unis d’Amérique où l’esclavage est inconnu” – “in those of the United States of America in which slavery is unknown.”

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