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Outline and Summary of David Brion Davis’s The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, History, Slavery, Thomas Jefferson, Western Civilization on January 27, 2011 at 7:42 pm

Allen Mendenhall

This post inaugurates what I hope will become a trend on this blog, and that’s to outline and summarize various books that I’m reading.  This project should benefit students and scholars alike, as it will make information more accessible, comprehensible, and compact.  Let’s hope I don’t run up against copyright restrictions.  I should note from the outset that these posts are not meant as exhaustive explanations–exhaustive explanations aren’t possible, and anyway outlines and summaries are by definition not exhaustive–but they will condense authors’ arguments into easily digestible portions.  With that, then, let us consider this, the first of these endeavors.  

David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1966).


1.       The Historical Problem: Slavery and the Meaning of America

This chapter opens by pointing out a fundamental contradiction in early American values that prized liberty yet perpetuated slavery.  This contradiction is, Davis says, a paradox.  American society rested on the irresolvable contradiction between celebrating freedom and denying freedom.   This contradiction might reflect the difference between ideal and reality.

Europeans viewed the New World as a wilderness of paradise unspoiled by the corrupting institutions and materialisms of Europe.  America gained currency as a virginal “promised land” of hope and progress.  But the status of slavery in this new land remained uncertain.  America may have initiated a new form of slavery with the transatlantic trade.  African slaves arrived in the New World as early as 1503; they played an instrumental role in the commerce of Spain and Portugal.  Competition between all maritime European powers made the slave trade more lucrative.  Slavery was indispensable to the economic growth of the New World.

Slavery entered books of history, morals, law, and economics during the 18th century.  This era saw another paradox: narratives of progress and enlightenment incorporating the antiquity and backwardness of slavery.  What was once considered a mild and domestic institution (slavery) became a harsh and depraved global phenomenon.  Slavery grew exponentially.  If history was progressive, America retrogressed. 

European thinkers interpreted progress in different ways, and their interpretations clashed with justifications for slavery.  Abbé Raynal saw progress as a product of reason and enlightenment.  Henri Alexandre Wallon and Auguste Comte saw it as part of Christian belief.  George Bancroft saw it as a flourishing of democratic principles.  These views about progress reveal inconsistencies in American thought and theory that accepted or avoided the problem of slavery.  A common logic employed to reconcile these contradictions was that selfish European merchants, striving to get rich quick, exploited the promise and possibility of the otherwise uncorrupted New World.  According to this logic, Europeans imposed an evil institution upon a virgin land.  Another line of logic held that in the process of enslaving Africans, Americans had at least done Africans the service of civilizing them.


“Recognition that slavery in America involved a genuine moral problem does not require us to believe that emancipation was preordained by the progressive unfolding of moral truth, or that men in the nineteenth century were morally superior to those in periods when slavery was universally accepted, or that in the contest between slaveholders and abolitionists all virtue and reasonableness were on one side.” (27)

“In recent decades historians have been less content with theories of progressive currents washing away the dregs of an evil past.  Certain skeptics and reductionists have portrayed the entire slavery controversy in terms of contending economic interests, holding that the institution was supported as long as it was profitable to a given group or nation, and was repudiated only when it ceased to pay.  […] Twentieth-century historians have not been so charitable.  They have told us that if the reformers were not hypocrites or a front for economic interests, they were perhaps a displaced elite who sought to retain power and status by mobilizing public opinion.  Such lines of investigation, when cautiously pursued, have brought rewarding insights into the relations between ideology and social structure.  But while these newer approaches have revealed weaknesses in the traditional teleological view of the antislavery crusade, they have tended to divert attention from the fact that Negro slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries posed a genuine moral problem that reflected deep tensions in Western culture and involved the very meaning of America.” (28)    

2.       Patterns of Continuity in the History of Servitude

During the American slavery debates of the nineteenth-century, abolitionists argued that American slavery was unique—harsher—than its predecessors, whereas proslavery forces argued that American slavery was similar to other forms of bondage throughout history.  The abolitionists seem to be right on this score.  This chapter does not compare the treatment of bondsmen in America to slaves of other, previous slave societies because, as the author claims, not enough evidence exists to explore that issue.  This chapter distinguishes between slavery as a legal status and slavery as an institution of people and economies.  This chapter argues that there is a definite continuity between ancient and modern slavery.  This chapter suggests that, although American slavery took on a distinctive form, the most striking forms of bondage in America had their origins in other eras and regions.

Laws regulating slavery seem to have appeared after the gradual creation of slavery.  For nearly 3,000 years, in most areas where slavery was practiced, slaves constituted property and “could be bought, sold, traded, leased, mortgaged, bequested, presented as a gift, pledged for a debt, included in a dowry, or seized in a bankruptcy” (32).  Roman law treated slaves as both a person and a thing.  Medieval jurists often confused slavery and serfdom.  In Greece, slave populations were high and slave communities were widely distributed.  Slavery was integral to Roman society as well.  Greece bred slaves for Rome.  In most of Europe, slavery declined and then disappeared with the rise of feudal society.  Some forms of serfdom were modeled off slavery.  The Domesday Book lists 10% of the population as slaves.  Masters could kill these slaves without penalty.  These slaves nevertheless enjoyed certain rights to property.  Other European nations borrowed slave trading tactics from Italians.  African children were kept as pets in Italian Renaissance courts.  Portuguese navigators gathered slaves from Africa and unsettled what was then an Arab monopoly on African trade.  American forms of slave trade can be traced to the Mediterranean, and American slave laws can be traced to Rome. 

Slavery functioned better in open-trade societies than in closed, feudal societies.  Early slavery was not necessarily race-based, but neither were racial distinctions wholly absent.  Only in America was the line between freeman and slave drawn so sharply.  Slave markings were first used to identify ownership and to deter and prevent escapes.

A criterion for measuring the harshness of different slave systems is to compare their treatment of manumission.  The harsher the system, the more difficult it was for slaves to attain freedom.  Manumission was common in Greece and Rome despite harsher slave exploitation there.  Manumission counts rose across the Western world during the Middle Ages.  Most Western societies were especially harsh towards slaves who sought to attain freedom on their own.  They were also harsh toward those who assisted runaway or fugitive slaves. 

Slaves traditionally were treated as property.  Early white slaves were referred to in the same way that black slaves were much later.  Slaves traditionally carried the label of lazy.  No slave society was the same as that which flourished in the American South and in the West Indies.  But the basic characteristics of slavery in these regions were not so different from that of predecessors.  What abolitionists exposed about slavery in the American South was probably generally true of slave societies predating the American South.   

3.       Slavery and Sin: The Ancient Legacy

The fundamental contradiction of slavery is calling a human something that is not human—that is, relegating a human to the status of property with no will of its own.  We have found no evidence of so-called abolitionism in ancient society.  At this time, slavery was taken for granted and did not constitute a problem.  Slavery was a way of life.  Nevertheless, biblical and classical texts informed antislavery movements centuries later.  The Old Testament treats slavery as an expression of humility, but it also extols emancipation, such as Moses’ liberating of the Israelites from bondage.  The Old Testament does not explicitly object to slavery as an institution. 

Despite common assumptions, there is no evidence that Plato opposed slavery.  He simply forbade enslavement as a method of punishing citizens.  Plato supplied the idea that inferiority, racial or otherwise, was a valid basis for slavery.  He also saw the master-slave relationship as a small-scale instance of the hierarchical relations of society writ large.  Aristotle departed from Plato by associating the contradiction of slavery not with cosmology about the natural order, but with reference to domestic, hierarchical relationships.  Aristotle pointed out that masters were not sovereigns because they were subject to the coercion and compulsion of other sovereigns.  Slavery, then, was not pure tyranny, but it lacked rationality.  Aristotle tended toward the theory that slaves were deficient in soul and beauty.  He was bothered by social and not putatively natural distinctions.  For Plato and Aristotle, slavery was a system whereby enlightened men cared for and controlled their inferiors. 

The Sophists were the first to challenge the institution of slavery.  They celebrated universal reason and human brotherhood.  For them, philosophers were the only free men.  Freedom, accordingly, was for the elite.  The Stoics associated slavery with the world’s imperfections.  A slave’s body, according to Stoics, belonged to his master, but his soul was his own. 

According to Florentinus and Ulplian, slavery was a product of the laws of nations and did not comport with natural law. 

Christianity emphasized the virtues of slavery as humility and patience and put forth the idea that one was right to become a slave to his savior Jesus Christ.  The idea of subservience to Christ led some early Christians to manumit their slaves.  Christ’s message, for these early Christians, was universal brotherhood in bondage before God.  This message meant an erasure of social distinctions.  Some theologians, however, insisted on the difference between spiritual and physical slavery.  Some thought of slavery as the result of man’s fall from grace.  Slavery thus became justified as part of natural law or God’s divine will.  Nevertheless, Christian emphases on equality led to gradual forms of emancipation.  But Christianity was not alone in this trend; for Muslim societies saw the same or similar phenomena. 


“For some two thousand years men thought of sin as a kind of slavery.  One day they would come to think of slavery as sin.” (90)

4.       The Response of Slavery in Medieval and Early Modern Thought

The institution of slavery became more theoretical and less concrete as it disappeared from European society.  Because early Christians associated slavery with sin, the disappearance of slavery meant a disappearance of a fundamental aspect of Christian doctrine.  Everything on earth, including slavery, was divinely inspired, and if it were not divinely inspired—that is, if it did not comport with natural law—then other things such as the family or the church might not be divinely inspired.  The doctrine of original sin tied in with ideas about slavery.  Augustine and others urged Christians to treat slaves as brothers in Christ.  Aquinas suggested that slavery was part of nature’s pattern of governance, but he also claimed that slavery was against nature.  Slavery could not be a positive good because that would imply that sin is a positive good.  The canonists argued that slavery was consistent with natural law only insofar as it applied to sinful men.  This idea did not quite lead to the idea that slaves were naturally inferior, but it offered precedent for that idea. 

Christianity held in the medieval era that a slave had to be manumitted to be baptized.  A slave of a Jewish master generally could not be baptized.  The church endeavored to prevent Christians from becoming slaves themselves.  In the fifteenth century, the pope threatened to excommunicate slave traders dealing in Christian slaves.  The church began punishing the enslavement of Christians.  Slavery was justified so long as it was done to Moors or other infidels.  But that understanding was problematized by the enslavement of converts to the Christian faith. 

No society, to the author’s knowledge, forbade sexual relations between slaves.  Marriage, however, entailed certain rights and obligations that flew in the face of the idea of a sovereign master.  In the medieval era generally, marriage between a slave and a free person was permitted only if the free person understood the legal status of the slave.  Aquinas did not challenge the master’s authority to do what he wished with a slave’s family, including splitting up that family.  That is because marriage was (and is) regulated by contract.  Generally, the church urged slave marriages because such a union was sanctioned by God.

The Reformation had little effect on the institution of slavery.  The idea still held in Christian thinking that all people, including slaves, should accept their station in life as ordained by God.  The revival of classical learning during the Renaissance and beyond served to shift this mode of thinking. 

A great contradiction developed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: that between the ideal of liberty on the one hand, and mercantilist enslavement policies on the other.  As the idea that slavery was not sanctioned by natural law gained currency, justifications for slavery veered toward expediency or necessity as authorizing concepts.  Slavery as a matter of public policy became more important in the seventeenth century when military and economic power between nations became more important.  Augustine and Calvin justified human bondage; Grotius and Arminius did the opposite.  Grotius divorced natural law from divine will, claiming that it was accessible via human reason.  Rather than defend or attack the institution of slavery, Grotius cast slavery as a phenomenon customarily practiced.  He could not defend the absolute rights of masters over slaves.  Grotius apparently believed that cruelly treated slaves had a right to flee from their masters.

For Hobbes slavery was inevitable in systems of power relations.  He noticed no contradiction between the ideals of social liberty and the practice of human bondage.  Hobbes thought there was no legal basis for challenging slave revolts, even if masters, given their absolute authority over slaves, could do almost everything in their power to prevent a slave revolt before it happened. 

Locke, despite being a staunch defender of liberty, did not go out of his way to protest against slavery.  Locke believed that mixing labor with nature resulted in property rights, but this belief did not lead him to abolitionism.  He believed slavery existed apart from social contract theory.  He believed that slavery comported with natural law and therefore amounted to a legitimate system of property holding.  His example shows that abolitionism was not commonly accepted in the seventeenth century.   


5.       Changing Views on the Value and Dangers of American Slavery

In the late seventeenth century, Louis XIV, with slight reservations about climate and costs, sanctioned the import of slaves into Canada.  But Canada’s efforts at slavery were unsuccessful because it could not compete with economies in warmer regions, which enjoyed more commercially viable opportunities.  That did not stop Canada from trying, in the early eighteenth century, to mimic the slave system in the West Indies.  This raises the question whether slavery was truly considered a moral evil among northern Americans (and Canadians) in colder climates, or whether the institution simply failed to flourish in those colder regions because of less economic opportunity.  This chapter generally investigates the moral attitudes and assumptions buttressing the institution of slavery.

America did not always or unconditionally demand slaves; the system of slavery developed gradually in spurts and over time.  The desire for slavery cannot be reduced to a single explanation; a complex series of facts and contingencies led to the institutionalization of human bondage.  On the one hand, American society believed that slavery was the cornerstone of its economy; on the other hand, it believed that slaves undermined cultural safety and solidarity among colonists.  Colonists thus relied on slavery while fearing it.  Slavery became more profitable at the same time that slave revolts became more common.  It was a widely accepted fact in Western Europe that the commercial expansion of Western Europe was impossible without slavery.

The colonies of Britain and France began producing sugar in the mid-seventeenth century.  This business was profitable and required an increase in manual labor.  These colonies complained of a lack of labor, especially cheap labor.  Britain sought to establish monopolies on the slave trade in these colonies.  By the 1680s, both the colonies and British merchants demanded free trade in slaves to make the institution of slavery cheaper and more efficient.  When Britain conceded to freeing up trade, British slave companies swarmed Africa to collect a greater pool of slaves.  By the time of the American Revolution, these companies and government policies made it possible to cast slavery as a problem bound up with monarchy and a tyrannical state.  Nevertheless, Americans profited too much from slavery to demand its abolition. 

Slavery in the American north could not compete with slavery in the West Indies.  Even in places like Virginia, the ballooning institution of slavery was deflated by fears of overproduction, debt, and market instability.  In Spanish colonies, too, the demand for slavery was tempered by fears of security (i.e., slave insurrection).  These fears were based in reality; many revolts occurred.  In the American colonies, these revolts triggered debates about maintaining disproportionately higher ratios of whites to blacks.  Fear of slavery led to higher taxes on slave imports.  These taxes allowed colonists to cast the British as oppressive.  These taxes also increased after incidents of slave revolt; they were easily evaded.  Demand for increased labor generally was tempered by fear of slave overpopulation.  This fear did bring about moral questions about slavery.

Of all colonies, Georgia early on tried to avoid slavery.  But eventually it became a hotbed of slavery.  Early colonizers in Georgia worried about the human suffering caused by slavery.  Many such colonists considered themselves missionaries or philanthropists.  Practical considerations, such as establishing a buffer zone free from fear of slave revolt, also played a part in Georgia’s early views on slavery.  Georgia would lose military prowess if overtaken by slaves.  Slavery might, one argument ran, deter white immigration to Georgia or produce idle classes.  By the mid-1700s, ideas about slavery in Georgia began to change due to agricultural demands.  Although the number of opponents of slavery was small, the fact that opposition rested on moral grounds at so early a date is significant.  Eventually Georgians accepted slavery as a necessity.

The economic value of slavery was not always obvious.  One argument maintained that slavery took away paying jobs from whites.  Economic minds from Charles Davenant to Jean-Francois Melon defended slavery on various grounds.  It oversimplifies to link economics to social attitudes; but the two seem tied in some ways.  Africans desired European imports, but they had only people to trade.  During the mid-1700s, exports to Africa increased exponentially, which meant that slave trading also increased exponentially.  American trade with the West Indies enriched many in New England.  But slavery did not always bring about wealth.  Dealing in the slave trade was risky and involved delays, setbacks, costs, contract breaches, and the like.  The slave trade depended on the wealth of the West Indies.  But wealth in the West Indies never materialized in the way that Europeans hoped for or expected.  Much of the West Indies became blighted and dangerous.

European powers, most notably Britain and France, competed over the proliferation of slavery.  Over time, however, this competition spread away from the West Indies and toward other areas of the globe—such as India and Africa—dominated not by slavery but by colonialism.  The Revolution deprived England of profits obtainable through slavery.  After this period, favorable economic conditions declined rapidly in the West Indies as the former colonies were cut off from Europe.      

6.       The Legitimacy of Enslavement and the Ideal of the Christian Servant: Moral Doubts and Rationalizations

This chapter addresses the ethical, or unethical, dimensions of slavery and specifically the tensions between Christianity and a system of human bondage. 

Quote:  “At the time of America’s conquest, the Christian view of slavery accommodated a series of balanced dualisms.  Slavery was contrary to the ideal realm of nature, but was a necessary part of the world of sin; the bondsman was inwardly free and spiritually equal to his master, but in things external he was mere chattel; Christians were brothers, whether slave or free, but pagans deserved in some sense to be slaves.  There was a further division in thought between the troublesome question of the origin and legitimacy of a slaveholder’s power, and the ideal of the servant in a Christian family where spiritual equality harmonized with outward obedience and authority to provide a model of the fraternal relationship of unequals.  Such amiable servitude, originating perhaps in a benign serfdom, could easily be dissociated from the violent act of enslavement.  Jurists and theologians might continue to endorse the abstract theory of enslaving prisoners of war, but the crime of manstealing they universally condemned.  To make a man a slave always involved the possibility of sin, especially if the act seemed to break the order and balance of nature; but to hold a bondservant was to exercise an ordinance that was part of the governing structure of the world.” (166)

Slavery was nearly universal among American Indians.  Colonials idealized the noble savage and had a hard time enslaving the natives because Europeans were early on against that idea.  Europeans associated Africans with Moores and cast Africans as infidels, but Europeans romanticized the natives as part of the New World and not of the ancient world, which laid the foundations for slavery.  The same cannot be said of natives in Brazil.  The earliest debates over the morality of slavery in America focused on natives rather than Africans.  Some writers, including Gabriel Sagard, portrayed natives as a pure people living in social equality until corrupted by European avarice and aristocracy.  These writers maintained that natives had honor.  By contrast, some writers, such as Du Tertre, portrayed African slaves as contented—and even desiring of masters—so long as given food and shelter.  Despite the colonial portrayal of Indians as living in a virtual utopia, the reality was that colonials participated in systems of slave trade learned from Indians.  Tribes that allied with Europeans were free from the “punishment” of enslavement.  Nevertheless, most colonials believed Indians were naturally free.  Enslavement of natives lasted roughly through the eighteenth century.  Attempts to outlaw Indian slave trade took place while the African slave trade flourished.  Eventually the distinction between native and African was such that the former could enjoy rights and freedom while the latter could not.  Europeans remained more worried about the plight of natives than of Africans. 

African communities (in Africa) were rather advanced and steeped in Muslim mores and cultures, and they often dealt with Europeans as equals.  Gradually, though, European interests resulted in mass migration of merchants and businesses to Africa, which disrupted the political structures there.  Some tribes, such as those of Guinea, looked to enslave other tribes and thereby collect European goods.  The Ashantis and Dahomeans became the most skilled at enslaving other tribes.  Europeans conducted slave raids whereby they beat, bound, and stole Africans from tribal villages.  These acts were justified by the logic that, despite the violence of the raids, Europeans would ensure that their captives had a better life than the one they had in Africa, and that the Europeans were simply participating in a system that the Africans themselves practiced.  In other words, Europeans thought of Africans as destined for slavery, so Africans might as well, the logic went, be enslaved by a more humane civilization.  In short, Europeans thought of the slave trade as a more humane alternative for Africans, who were subject to enslavement, war, disease, and cannibalism in Africa.  The European world, moreover, was Christian, so slaves were potentially saving their soul through their forced removal.  Plantation life was easier to idealize than slave markets.       

Jesuits were the harshest European critics of slavery and the slave trade, especially in Brazil.  They were generally more concerned about the enslavement of natives than the enslavement of Africans.  The fact that Spanish and Portuguese religious institutions used slaves justified the entire institution of slavery.  Despite some antislavery sentiment, no European thinkers by the eighteenth century were advocating for the full-fledged abolition of slavery in Brazil.

7.       The Legitimacy of Enslavement and the Ideal of the Christian Servant: The Failure of Christianization

At the turn of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, European courts of law began ensuring that owners held good title to slaves.  Slaves could not be obtained by fraud or illegitimate means.  This principle held in Puritan New England as well.  Although Protestant theologians objected to theft and mistreatment of slaves, they believed in the naturalness of slavery as an institution.  William Ames doubted whether Christians could exercise absolute authority over slaves, but he nevertheless believed that slavery was valid as punishment for crimes.  Christians tended to associate slavery with bondage in the Old Testament.  Christian theologians reasoned that because God was the ultimate sovereign, masters could not have absolute control over slaves; nor could slaves be denied liberty outright.  This idea was undercut by fear of a total disruption of the social order, which was bound up in human sin, the sole reason for slavery.  Liberty, by this logic, was only spiritual in this world, and slavery was decent in that it was a form of protecting those who could not protect themselves.  Protestant Christians idealized slavery and the master-servant relationship as domestic and familial and instituted by God.  Cotton Mather told black congregants that they were better off enslaved in this land than free in other lands.

Americans sought to Christianize, baptize, and civilize African slaves.  Americans thought religious instruction would instill slaves with reason.  Christianity prevented slave revolts.  Baptism was seen as freeing slaves in mind and spirit, even if not in legal or practical terms.  Some masters feared the Christianizing of slaves as a form of overeducating slaves in the ways of freedom.  These masters believed that slave ignorance was the key to maintaining a safe and prosperous society.  An ancient tradition that Christians could not be held in bondage problematized proslavery arguments. 

Chattel slavery had no basis in common law until British courts held in the seventeenth-century that Africans, as infidels, could be enslaved.  Not until 1729 did British judges rule that conversion to Christianity would have no effect on a slave’s claim to freedom.  Many of the colonies had implemented this rule by statute as early as the seventeenth-century. 

The mid-eighteenth century saw a rise in the number people willing to educate, Christianize, moralize, and civilize slaves in the colonies.  At this time colonials began to agitate against cruel treatment of slaves.  Slaveholders blamed slave revolts on missionaries who had put the idea of liberty into the minds of slaves.  Missionaries tried to transform slaves by building schools, teaching slaves the Bible, and exposing and criticizing harsh masters.  These objectives were shared by Catholics in other areas of the globe.

Some Protestant missionaries, including Cotton Mather, tried to establish model Christian plantations in Barbados, but this endeavor was a massive failure.            

8.       The Continuing Contradiction of Slavery: A Comparison of British America and Latin America

Antislavery attitudes may have developed out of the very institution of slavery as the horrors and failed expectations of that institution became more known.  Slave codes may provide evidence of loss of faith in the workability of the institution.  English treatment of slaves was equally severe across various regions; Portuguese and Spanish treatments were less harsh.  It is not true that slavery in Latin America was less severe.  But the greater the severity of British slavery, the greater the objections to the morality of the institution were on the whole. Catholics were more concerned than Protestants about the nature of slaves’ souls. 

By the late eighteenth-century, travelers believed that slave conditions were better in Brazil and the Spanish colonies than in America, perhaps because the Catholic Church did not celebrate private profit.  Both Latin American and American travelers and residents idealized slave life.  Portugal and Spain were less willing to cease the international slave trade.  The fact that slaves in Brazil had more rights did not mean that they underwent less exploitation.  Indeed, they were sold away from their families at younger ages.  Although Jesuits in Brazil favored humane treatment of slaves, overseers were harsh and sought quick profits, which meant little concern for a slave’s humanity.  In Brazil, there was less worry about selling slaves away from families or about enlisting pretty women in prostitution rings.  There are reports of burning slaves to death in Brazil; and in general the judicial framework ensured control in the hands of whites.  Conditions for slaves were better in cities.  In the late eighteenth century, detailed codes began to regulate slavery in Spanish and Portuguese territories.  These codes in some instances forbade the mutilation or abuse of slaves.  The idea that slave life in Brazil was more humane was not true, or at least there is not enough evidence to support the idea.

In America, the colonials adopted some slave customs such as sugar cultivation (in Barbados) and farming.  In Barbados, some, like Richard Ligon, considered the plight of white servants to be worse than the plight of black slaves.  In the late-seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the colonists adopted laws making slaves conveyable property.  A master had all the means of protecting a slave that a slave himself would have if he (the slave) were a freeman.  Slaves were property, but generally not totally the same as personal, expendable property.  Slaves usually could marry in the colonies, but their marriages were of course subject to the effects of slavery.  Slaves in Barbados could act as a master’s agent.  Laws requiring masters to feed, house, and clothe slaves were easily evaded and difficult to enforce.  Slaves were not protected from murder or physical assault.  In the eighteenth-century, both in the Caribbean and in the colonies, penalties for harming slaves stiffened.  In North Carolina, some slaves were allowed to escape their masters on the grounds of excessive assault by masters.  Many states had ways for slaves to report grievances, but prosecutors or police rarely did anything about the grievances.  Slaves were not permitted to testify against whites.  Proslavery advocates complained that antislavery forces were wrong to point to laws to show the harshness of slavery, since those laws were mostly adopted from antiquity when harsh treatment was the norm.  In no country was it possible to deny outright the slaves’ humanity. 

9.        The Continuing Contradiction of Slavery: Emancipation, Intermixture, and Prejudice

Slaves in Latin America had more opportunities at manumission than those in the colonies.  Slavery was more common than different throughout the Americas.  Manumission was an exception to that.  Most British colonies restricted owners’ rights and means to manumit slaves.  The justification for restrictions was that Africans could not assimilate into the culture. 

In antiquity, one unjustly held in slavery had a right to sue for freedom.  The same was true in Spanish law in the mid-sixteenth century.  Indeed, in the 1520s in Spain there developed the practice of slaves paying for their freedom.  In Brazil in the nineteenth century, laws not only allowed slaves to purchase their freedom, but also created a national lottery to pay for various emancipations.  The laws did not result in mass emancipations.  The laws in American states were inconsistent because many Southern courts upheld contracts and other agreements in favor of slaves’ freedom.  Statutory law and judge-made law came into conflict.  The laws in America and Latin America were not as different as was once supposed. 

Marrying slave women was not as stigmatized in Brazil and South America generally.  The Portuguese intermarried at higher rates than other Europeans did.  But intermarriage was mostly condemned among Europeans, even the Portuguese.  In American states, children generally took the status of their mother.  The Dutch and French in particular stigmatized any child with black blood.  Some laws in the States made mulattoes free in order to punish owners for miscegenation.  All in all, it was easier for mixed children to be freed.

The idea of the racial superiority of white Europeans was probably not a result of slavery because it predates slavery.  Despite intermarriage in South America, racial prejudice there persisted much longer.  Legal discrimination generally increased in the U.S. while decreasing in the West Indies.       


10.    Religious Sources of Antislavery Thought: Quakers and the Sectarian Tradition

The religious origins of antislavery turn on the notion of sin.  Sin was both a justification for slavery and ammunition against slavery.  The Hebraic tradition of escaping bondage lent purchase to the antislavery movement.

Quote:  “The point is that men could not fully perceive the moral contradictions of slavery until a major religious transformation had changed their ideas of sin and spiritual freedom; they would not feel it a duty to combat slavery as a positive evil until its existence seemed to threaten the moral security provided by a system of values that harmonized individual desires with socially defined goals and sanctions.” (292)

Christianity retained ideals of egalitarianism.  Change in political ideals came as the idea gained currency that, through Christ, man was liberated from sin and so could live in a state of universal brotherhood.  All institutions, by this logic, were subject to the judgment of God.  This logic was extoled in millennialism.  Millenarians were, in principle, the first abolitionists. 

Protestantism splintered into sects after the British Civil War in the mid-seventeenth century.  One sect was the Quakers, who would become very antislavery.  Quakers did not adhere to the discipline and authority of human institutions as did other sects.  They emphasized liberty of conscience.  Holding each other accountable and insisting on good works and charity kept congregants from going astray.  Love and brotherhood could not admit slavery or war, both of which Quakers condemned.  Quakerism expanded simultaneously with the slave trade, so the two were almost always in conflict.  William Penn, however, bought and owned slaves, and Pennsylvania, despite its massive Quaker presence, enacted harsh slave codes.  Leading Quaker families participated in slavery, and many Quakers were silent on the issue of slavery.  Nevertheless, more than other Christian denominations, Quakerism objected to the institution of slavery.  Quakerism allowed members to release themselves from the burdens of the past and to embrace a new life in Christ that was free from sinfulness such as that manifested in slavery.  Quakers saw in slavery the same types of persecution they had endured.  George Keith, a Quaker with a European education, used Quakerism and antislavery principles to embarrass merchants who had persecuted him in Germany.  He later converted to Anglicanism.  Nevertheless, Keith lent boldness to the Quaker antislavery movement.  Quaker meetings agitated against slavery. 

Quakers could own slaves, but they cautioned themselves against doing so, and also against trading slaves in business transactions.  Quakers were cautious about judging those who owned slaves.  Even though Quakers would endorse antislavery pamphlets, many believed that blacks and whites could not live together peacefully.  Later Quakers like Ralph Sandiford and Benjamin Law made abolitionism their main cause.  These two men became virtually insane and were alienated from society.  By the mid-eighteenth century, Quakerism had made antislavery positions more acceptable throughout America.  Eventually, and suddenly, Quakerism supported full-fledged abolitionism around 1760.      

11.    Religious Sources of Antislavery Thought: The “Man of Feeling” in the Best of Worlds

Besides Quakerism, broader developments in English religion may have catapulted the antislavery movement forward.  One such development was the idea that antislavery was an extension of Christian philanthropy.  But the period of proliferating philanthropy among British congregations did not coincide with the antislavery movement (it preceded it).  English Protestants of the early seventeenth-century paved the way for abolitionism.  Richard Baxter’s rhetoric approached the militancy of abolitionist rhetoric in the nineteenth-century.  The same can be said of Morgan Godwyn.  Samuel Sewall was an antislavery Puritan influenced by an increase in the number of slaves in Massachusetts.  In the 1690s, he had been condemned by the very body that orchestrated the Salem Witch Trials. 

The turn of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was a time of the emerging ethic of benevolence.  English Puritanism and Latitudinarians cultivated this ethic.  The Latitudinarians explored the relationship between man and nature and veered toward rationalism as a mode of thought.  They subjected scripture to readings based in reason.  Literary pathos and sentimentality began, in the late eighteenth-century, to pick up on the plight of African slaves.  These trends may have had to do with the leveling of British aristocracy and class.  The popularization of reason freed people of original sin, but led to utilitarianism with its reductionist pleasure/pain dichotomy.  One belief that gained credence was that suffering served a moral purpose.  This was a time of integrating the ideas of benevolence and human progress.  Slaves represented the innocent, and progress required emancipating them.  In theory, the compassion of the master would pass on to the slave, and humanity would live in a gentler state.

12.    Religious Sources of Antislavery Thought: Collective Guilt, Private Opinion, and Commitment

Quote:  “In this chapter we shall trace some of the effects of latitudinarian theology in New England, and examine the special conditions in America that favored or inhibited the application of ideals of universal benevolence and human happiness to the problem of slavery.  Then we may turn to explicit discussions of slavery by a number of British writers who illustrate the changing trends in Protestant thought which we have outlined thus far.  Finally, after emphasizing the limitations of rationalistic theology as a source of reform, we shall consider the relevance of eighteenth-century evangelicalism as a stimulus to individual commitment and decision.” (365)

Liberal theology had profound effects on New Englanders.  It made the most gains among mercantilist elites.  A number of forces, both political and religious, converged in the 1760s.  These forces generated the idea that the sin of slavery was the sin of the nation, and that sins had to be paid for.  Some, like Francis Hutcheson, tried to harness these forces to merge the concepts of innate moral sense and the principle of utility.  He championed the idea that pure morality lies in a concern for fellow man.  A preacher named James Foster propagated Hutcheson’s ideas.  During this time, in the political arena, the argument developed that the British people’s treasuring of liberty was incompatible with enslavement.  By the 1780s, British Protestants preached with radical rhetoric, but saw themselves as upholding traditional religious institutions.

John Wesley glorified life in Africa in his writings in 1774.  Wesley believed that repentance could be achieved by emancipating slaves.  The Methodists revived the idea of original sin.  They espoused love as a Christian virtue.  Along with the Great Awakening, Methodism would spread the ideal of spiritual equality before God, which attracted slaves to conversion.

13.    The Enlightenment as a Source of Antislavery Thought: The Ambivalence of Rationalism

Abolitionism did not materialize in the age of Enlightenment, Humanism, and Rationalism.  Slave trade flourished during the Enlightenment.  Some of the Enlightenment’s greatest thinkers—Voltaire, Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu—came up with justifications for slavery, even if they disapproved of the ways in which slavery was carried out.  Such thinkers considered slavery as a necessary evil.  Edmund Burke did not support the immediate ending of the slave trade or slavery.  Burke’s views were widely held.  People believed that sudden emancipation would lead to chaos. 

The Enlightenment, on the whole, challenged traditional authority.  Montesquieu did more than most to reverse the course of philosophical arguments about slavery.  He wrote about slavery in his discussions of climate (which entailed mostly analyses about universal principles applied to slavery).  He argued that there was an eternal and universal system of law, but that this system was not realizable as an abstraction but through sustained investigation of existing and previous governments.  He pointed out that the issue of slavery was momentous. 

British Protestantism ushered in moral sensibility and the literary genre of sentimentality.  Some Englishmen such as Samuel Johnson believed that slavery was a violation of natural rights.  Lockean ideas could be used to oppose or support slavery.  An obituary to Montesquieu, crediting him with exposing the illegality of slavery, did more than most documents to initiate the antislavery movement.  Diderot attacked the legality of slavery as well.  A contradiction that developed at this time was the idea that people were living in a moment of revolution when the old would be discarded, but in the New World, which supposedly rejected Old World norms, cruelty and slavery were common.

14.    The Enlightenment as a Source of Antislavery Thought: Utility and Natural Law

The New World was allegedly a progressive space, but questions remained about whether it was truly advancing human civilization.  Some philosophers argued that the New World brought riches that corrupted and perpetuated institutions like slavery.  Another paradox in Enlightenment thinking was the belief that the world was governed by fixed, immanent laws in the universe, but that society was divorced from those laws.  Jefferson believed that history unfolded as a constant progression; this faith in progress caused him to neglect political action on behalf of slaves, perhaps because Jefferson figured that time would work everything out.

David Hume demolished the notion that Europe’s population had been declining since antiquity.  His observations about economics and population had implications for slaves.  For example, Hume pointed out that owning slaves in cities was expensive.  Benjamin Franklin subjected slavery to bookkeeping analyses of cost, risk, etc.  Slavery was a minor concern to these writers.

Du Pont de Nemours, a Frenchman, published a journal in the 1770s that militated against slavery.  It used economic arguments to do so.  Adam Smith’s theories gained currency in the 1770s as well.  These theories drew from both morality and utility.  The Wealth of Nations contributed to the antislavery cause by likening slavery to a monopoly or privilege.  Smith claimed that slave labor was inefficient because slaves had no incentives to earn profit or hold property.  One of Smith’s students, John Miller, anticipated the ideas of Darwin, Marx, and Freud by arguing that property relations, though necessary for social evolution, often regulated sexual relationships.  Sexual freedom, he said, was common among people who did not own much property.  But humans evolved toward property ownership.  To explain why America had not progressed, he suggested that America violated the laws of utility. 

Enlightenment ideas galvanized supporters of slavery as well.  One popular idea was that everyone was enslaved to something like a central power or an aristocratic elite.  The presumption arose that those with wealth and influence had come by those things illegitimately.  Slavery became entangled with grievances over such matters.  Some colonials, such as Arthur Lee, explained that slaves came from a region where kings ruled in palaces and maintained absolute authority over their subjects.  Lee then suggested that much antislavery sentiment was directed at colonists simply to subject colonists to European power.  Likewise, James Otis argued that colonials would become slaves to the British if they let the British confiscate colonial property.  Benjamin Rush argued that colonials could not preach against British slavery and allow Negro slavery in the colonies.

15.    The Changing Image of the Negro

The Enlightenment moved thought and theory away from Biblical justifications for slavery and toward justifications for slavery involving themes of racial inferiority.  The image of the African would affect the way people thought about slavery.  The most defining characteristic of such images was skin color.  Black had long been associated with evil and badness in European metaphor and mythology.  White was the color of purity and innocence.  Some like Sir Thomas Brown and Sir Joshua Reynolds argued that these associations were merely products of culture. 

A common belief was that hot sun or climate burned Africans’ skin into blackness.  Some suggested that blacks became whiter the longer they lived away from Africa.  The answer to why Africans were black remained unknown.  Paracelsus (German), Lucilio Vanni (Italian), and Giordana Bruno (Italian) suggested that blacks were descended from apes.  Some simply attributed black skin to Ham’s curse.  The mid-1600s corresponded with a rise in theories of racial inferiority.  Europeans often thought of humans as fitting into one grade of the animal kingdom.  This idea implicated theories of the Great Chain of Being.  Edward Tyon (among others) studied Africans alongside the Orang-Outang.  James Beattie argued that those scientists seeking to prove racial inferiority were actually seeking to undermine the Bible. 

Most European accounts of Africa were filtered through the Arab world, but European ignorance of Africa was not as complete as once supposed.  European accounts reduced Africans to simple caricatures rather than attending to Africans’ vast complexities.  More than other accounts, stories of business dealings portrayed Africans as human, perhaps because of the power and organization of African tribes.  Europeans usually associated Africans with sexual looseness and promiscuity.  This association was grounds for claiming the inferiority of Africans.  In many African societies, adultery was a serious offense carrying harsh punishments, including death.  Portraying Africa as a sinful and lustful place made room for the European crusade to convert and civilize Africans.  Observers noted and were disturbed by the fact that African rulers sold their subjects into slavery for petty offenses.  Abolitionists were able to show that African-on-African abuses were not as severe as European-on-African abuses.

Plays written by Africans and performed in Europe laid the groundwork for antislavery sentiment.  These plays also prepared the way for works such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  


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