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Outline and Summary of David F. Ericson’s The Debate Over Slavery (New York University Press, 2000)

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Communication, History, Humanities, Laws of Slavery, Liberalism, Nineteenth-Century America, Politics, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Slavery on June 7, 2011 at 10:44 am

Allen Mendenhall

Ericson, David F.  The Debate Over Slavery:  Antislavery and Proslavery Liberalism in Antebellum America.  New York:  New York University Press, 2000.

 “The slavery issue in the antebellum United States was defined centrally by the failure of a people to bear witness to its own liberal principles” (90).

Chapter One

Rhetoric matters, and this book is about the anti- and pro- slavery rhetoric during the antebellum period.  Ericson argues that rhetoric separated a nation that was not so “divided against itself” as people assume.  Both anti- and pro-slavery rhetoric appealed to “liberalism,” according to Ericson, and thus the overall discourse at that time, in this country, under those circumstances, smacked of “liberty” and “equality”: concepts rooted in the mores of Christianity, Republicanism, and discursive pluralism.  Today we might lump these concepts into classical liberalism or neo-liberalism, but Ericson suggests that we should not lump concepts the way “consensus scholars” do; rather, he suggests that we accept that liberalism, in all its manifestations, is a complex and multifarious tradition inherited and adapted in many ways and for many purposes.  He endorses the approach of “multiple-traditions” scholars that reveals how advocates on both sides of the slavery debate attempted to conform their arguments to the tradition of liberalism.

Chapter Two

Ericson spells out liberalism and distinguishes it from “non-liberal” thought:  “I define liberal ideas as a general set of ideas that appeal to personal freedom, equal worth, government by consent, and private ownership of property as core human values.  Conversely, nonliberal ideas appeal to some notion of natural inequality based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion, or birthright that denies those liberal values to significant numbers of human beings” (14).  The proslavery liberal logic went as follows: “The institution was a just institution because slavery was the status in which African Americans could enjoy the most practical liberty in light of their present circumstances, which rendered them incapable of prospering as free men alongside European Americans” (14-15).  The antislavery liberal logic went as follows:  “The Southern institution of racial slavery was an unjust institution because it effectively denied that African Americans were men with a birthright to freedom equal to that of European Americans” (14).  The antislavery non-liberal logic went as follows:  “The Southern institution of racial slavery was an unjust institution because it effectively denied African Americans the opportunity to work, worship, and learn at the feet of a superior white/Anglo-Saxon/Protestant race” (15).  The proslavery non-liberal logic went as follows:  “The institution was a just institution because African Americans constituted an inferior race consigned by nature or God to be the slaves of a superior white/Anglo-Saxon/Protestant race” (15).  Read the rest of this entry »

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