The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

Slavery, World

Slavery was a near-universal feature of human societies from the emergence of agriculture until its near disappearance between 1770 and 1880. As such, it has played an essential role for millennia, and its complete loss of legitimacy and disappearance in practice is one of the most significant of the changes that mark the advent of modernity. Before the later 18th century, many thinkers defended slavery as a natural institution that was beneficial, at least for some people. Aristotle held this view, for example. Many Christian and Muslim thinkers defended it on scriptural grounds. Others deprecated slavery and saw it as regrettable or tried to limit its extent. Thus, some Christian and Muslim thinkers tended to argue that, although slavery as such was legitimate, it was not proper to enslave one’s coreligionists. However, even these thinkers believed that slavery, although regrettable, was an unavoidable feature of human society.

The image that most people have of slavery today is taken largely from the experience of plantation slavery in the New World. However, this case was extreme, and the form taken by slavery historically has varied considerably. The essential element of slavery is completely unfree labor. Slaves possess no control over their labor, over what they do or how and when they do it. Even more significantly, they have no property right of any kind in the product of their labor. They do not own it as a self-employed artisan or free farmer would, and they do not receive monetary compensation or payment as in the case of wage laborers. Instead, all of the benefits of the work accrue to another party, the slaveowner, who exercises the full range of property rights over the slave’s labor, including the crucial power of alienation—that is, the owner can sell the ownership of the slave’s labor to another party. As such, slavery is at the extreme end of a spectrum of unfree labor, with such phenomena as serfdom or debt bondage and indentured labor being less extreme or thoroughgoing varieties. However, there is considerable variation historically in both the kind of work slaves are normally expected to do and the range of legal rights that they may have. In the extreme cases, such as New World plantation slavery, the slave is simply an object with no more rights or legal status than an animal or other kind of chattel, and thus has his humanity radically denied. In other forms of slavery, the slave enjoyed some legal recognition as a person and had certain rights, although these rights were never as extensive as those possessed by free persons. For most of the history of the Islamic world, slaves were not used in large-scale production or plantation agriculture, but in domestic slavery and (uniquely) as soldiers. Elsewhere, slave labor was common in agriculture, whereas the use of slaves in commercial plantation agriculture and mining became a significant feature of some parts of the world economy after the 1460s.

In the ancient world, slavery was a near universal institution. Slave labor was used for the whole range of productive tasks, from agriculture to manufacturing, including the few cases of large-scale manufacture such as brick making. Most slaves worked in agriculture, hardly surprising given that these were overwhelmingly agricultural economies where the economics of large-scale agricultural holdings, as in ancient Rome, made slavery most profitable. Although there was an active trade in slaves, the main source of slaves was war—with the enslavement of all or part of the defeated population a common feature. Another important source of slaves was debt, debtors being taken into slavery if they could not service their debts. In the ancient world, slavery was found around the world and was not associated with either particular kinds of work or with specific ethnic groups—anyone could become a slave if they were unfortunate enough to fall into certain categories.

During the early part of the Middle Ages, this pattern continued. The Islamic Middle East became the main center of demand for slaves, which, together with the central role played by Islam in the creation of a system of interlinked trading circuits that connected the various parts of the Old World, led to the appearance of a fully organized trade in slaves. The major sources of slaves at this time were Central Asia, Africa (particularly Eastern Africa), and the Slavic lands of Eastern and Central Europe—the term slaveactually derives from the word Slav. During the 8th century, large-scale plantation agriculture began to develop in the Middle East, particularly in southern Iraq. This system came to an abrupt halt with the massive slave uprising of 869–879 known as the Zanj revolt (in the Arabic of the time, zanj meant black and referred both to African slaves and the part of Africa from which most of them came, the Eastern littoral down to Zanzibar). Following this upheaval, large plantations using slave labor were abandoned in that part of the world because of the risks of another rebellion.

The central and later Middle Ages saw a gradual decline of slavery in most parts of the world, apart from the Islamic world and Africa, a decline most marked in China but also true of Europe. By the 15th century, outright slavery seemed to be about to disappear in most parts of the world. However, at this point, it underwent both a revival and a transformation. There occurred a growth in demand for both domestic slaves and slave soldiers in the Islamic world following the consolidation of that area into a small number of large states, notably the Ottoman and Safavid Empires. Of equal importance, a system of large-scale plantation agriculture appeared in the New World following its conquest by the Spanish and Portuguese. These plantations produced a range of cash crops such as indigo, rice, cotton, and, above all, sugar. In addition, large-scale mining was introduced in places such as Potosi in Bolivia and Zacatecas in Mexico. All of these activities involved the use of slave labor on a massive scale and with an unprecedented degree of harshness. Slavery here was a response to the need for a captive labor force that could guarantee sustained production of cash crops and metals for sale not in their place of origin, but on a worldwide market. A paid labor force was not a realistic option at this time given the depopulation of the New World by diseases brought by the Europeans and the need to keep a labor force in place for a prolonged period of time for sustained production of cash crops and commodities. However, a slave revolt did not pose the kind of threat to European states that the Zanj revolt had to the Abbasid Caliphate inasmuch as the plantations were located a long way from the main urban centers. The result was the creation of the world’s largest-ever slave labor system.

Initially the demand for a captive labor force in the Americas was met by attempts to enslave the surviving indigenous populations plus the importation of Europeans, mainly convicts. However, Native Americans found it too easy to escape, and Europeans tended to die too rapidly due to their susceptibility to tropical illnesses. The solution was to turn to what now became the main supplier of slaves to both the Atlantic and Islamic world, Africa. European convicts remained a significant source of both slaves and indentured labor, particularly in North America, but in the Americas and Caribbean as a whole, they were vastly outnumbered by those brought over from Africa. Africa became the main source of slaves for a number of reasons. One simple reason was its geographical location—in the tropics (so that its population was relatively less susceptible to tropical diseases) and halfway between both the New World and the Middle East, the two major areas with a demand for slaves. The main reason, however, was that slavery was a long-established institution within Africa, organized in much the way it had been in the entire world during antiquity, with the losers in wars being taken as slaves. Hence, there was an infrastructure already in place to capture and supply slaves to the increasingly eager Europeans and Arabs.

It was this development that led to the other major change in slavery at this time, its acquiring a distinctive racial identity. Before the 15th century, the institution of slavery was not associated with any specific ethnic group, but from that time onward it became associated in both the Christian and Islamic worlds with Africans. It became a racial institution and was increasingly linked with a racial ideology that justified the enslavement of Africans in particular as opposed to other racial groups. At this point, the ideological rationale for this institution did not yet involve the kind of pseudoscientific arguments that were developed later. Instead it tended to rely on scriptural exegesis, particularly the biblical legend of the Curse of Ham, and arguments derived from classical philosophy that some people (now assumed to be Africans) were born to be slaves, which was both their destiny and what was best for them. By the time the plantation complex was fully established in the later 17th century, slavery had become inextricably intertwined with this racial ideology.

During the 16th and early 17th centuries, large organized slave trades appeared that connected Africa to other parts of the world trade system, with literally millions of Africans being taken and sold as slaves in many parts of the world. The first was the trans-Saharan trade, which connected central Africa to the ports of the Maghreb and to the Nile valley and Cairo and the Middle East in general via the great slave market in Cairo. The second was the Indian Ocean trade, which connected East Africa to the Middle East and all of the lands around the Indian Ocean. The third was the transatlantic trade, which linked West Africa from Senegal down to Angola to the Americas and the Caribbean. In addition, pirates from the Barbary Coast states regularly raided the coastlines of Western Europe to capture slaves. This method of acquiring slaves, however, was different from the others, in that it was a survival of the older medieval and ancient traditions of acquiring slaves by raiding and warfare, rather than commercial exchange.

The critical feature of these three main slave trades was that they were indeed trades. Arabs and Europeans did not in general acquire slaves by raiding. Instead they bought slaves from Africans who had gone into the business of slave-taking precisely to sell them to the external market represented by the Europeans and Arabs. The slaves were paid for with a number of commodities, but above all with firearms. This exchange gave the Africans who supplied the slaves an enormous military advantage over other Africans. The result was the creation of a set of damaging incentives for Africans. Essentially, they had the choice of becoming slave-takers or slaves. One result was the appearance of large empires based on the supplying of slaves such as Asante, Dahomey, Lunda, and Oyo. These then supplied slaves in ever larger numbers to external traders. Some were marched across the Sahara in great slave caravans, whereas others were taken long distances to the coasts, where they were then held in forts before being put on ships to be taken over the Indian or Atlantic Oceans to their final destinations. There were significant differences between the Atlantic slave trade and the other two. In particular, the Europeans were mainly interested in male slaves because they wanted them for heavy manual labor, whereas the Arabs had a higher demand for female domestic slaves—most of the male slaves taken to the Middle East were castrated.

By the mid-18th century, slavery had once again become a major part of the world trade system. The various slave trades were highly profitable, as were the plantations and mines that slaves worked in the New World. However, it was at this point that the whole institution came under attack. In late 18th-century Europe, for the first time people started to articulate a fundamental critique of both the theory and practice of slavery. This viewpoint derived, in part, from the 18th-century notion of humanitarianism and “sympathy” with Africans and slaves, who were now seen as fellow human beings whose situation and suffering inspired sympathy and identification, rather than indifference. Antislavery arguments also had their origin in the increasingly influential idea of universal human rights that applied to all human beings regardless of their status or ethnicity. The result was the appearance of an organized campaign against slavery in general and the slave trade in particular. The campaigners faced formidable obstacles in the shape of entrenched and powerful special interests and centuries of practice and intellectual tradition.

Nevertheless, a great intellectual and popular movement opposed to slavery was created and went on to gain a series of victories. The first victory was the famous Somerset’s Case of 1772, in which Lord Mansfield held that slavery could not be justified by natural law and so could only exist in Britain if it had been authorized by positive law (i.e., Parliamentary enactment), which it had not. After several attempts, the British Parliament abolished the slave trade in 1807, following a campaign that had begun with the formation of the British Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787 and featuring such figures as Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharpe, Oloudah Equiano, and William Wilberforce. Similar organizations were set up in other countries, most notably the Société des Amis des Noirs in France, led by Brissot and the Abbé Gregoire. After a prolonged struggle, slavery was finally abolished in the British Empire in 1834. It was then abolished in one part of the world after another, with the final significant event being its abolition in Brazil in 1888.

At the same time, there also was a series of large-scale slave rebellions, particularly in the Caribbean and Brazil. The most famous and significant rebellion was the successful revolt in the French colony of Santo Domingue in 1791, led by Toussaint Louverture, which was the first successful slave rebellion in history and led to the appearance of Haiti as an independent state. There also were major uprisings in Jamaica in 1831–1832, Demerara (modern Guyana) in 1795 and 1823, Surinam in 1765–1793, Barbados in 1816, and Bahia in Brazil in 1822–1830 and 1835. These uprisings all made the institution much more difficult to sustain, not least because they raised the cost of maintaining it for the slaveholders. However, the revolts by themselves would not have been enough to destroy the institution had there not been a fundamental shift in attitudes and beliefs about slavery brought about by the campaigns of the antislavery movement. Had the antislavery movement not happened, ruthless force would still have been used to sustain colonial slavery, but thanks to the abolitionists’ efforts, force alone no longer commanded enough legitimacy to make such action possible.

One of the most impressive features of the abolition of slavery was its mostly peaceful nature. In all but two cases, the institution was abolished peacefully, with compensation being paid to the owners or a “free womb” provision being applied by which although existing slaves remained enslaved, their children were born into freedom. The two exceptions were Haiti and the United States. In the American case, slavery’s abolition was uniquely costly, happening only after a terrible war and more than half a million deaths. The obvious question to ask is why this was. The explanation lies in the nature and history of slavery in North America, both before and after 1776.

Slavery existed in all of the American colonies before 1776 and the American Revolution. However, it was a central economic institution only in some of the southern colonies, most notably South Carolina, but also Georgia and Virginia. One aspect of the Revolution was the spread of opposition to both the slave trade and slavery among many (but not all) of the founders. When the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia, the status of both slavery and the slave trade was one of the controversial issues facing the delegates. The outcome was a series of compromises. The Constitution provided for the prohibition of the importation of slaves after 1808. However, it also contained a fugitive slave clause, which effectively spread the cost of sustaining slavery in the face of attempted escapes over the entire Union, rather than leaving it to be borne by the slave owners. There also was the notorious “three fifths” clause of the Constitution, by which slaves were to count as three fifths of a person for the purposes of allocating seats in the House, a provision that significantly increased the voting weight of white southerners.

The institution of slavery was to divide the various states in the 1780s, and over the next 70 years, those divisions became more profound. There were increasing differences between various sections of the nation over the question, which reflected conflicts of both political and economic interest. However, the major division was an ideological one, and this division was one of the unique features of the American situation. The years after 1820 in particular saw the emergence of two intellectual and political ideologies. The northern states and New England saw the appearance of an increasingly radical Abolitionist movement, led by figures such as William Lloyd Garrison, William Ellery Channing, Lydia Maria Child, and Frederick Douglass. They argued against the institution of slavery on the grounds of universalist human rights—in other words, on the basis of the common humanity of all human beings and the basic rights that they all shared. Although more radical and thoroughgoing, these arguments were essentially the same as those made by antislavery activists elsewhere since the 1770s.

However, uniquely, the United States witnessed the appearance and articulation of a systematic proslavery ideology. After the 1820s, the slaveholding interest in the southern states, particularly in South Carolina, increasingly defended the “peculiar institution.” Although in this argument they were no different than were such groups as plantation owners in the British and French empires, they went considerably further than defending slavery on pragmatic and self-interested grounds. Americans such as George Fitzhugh and John C. Calhoun supported the institution of slavery as a positive good, at least for people of African descent. This proslavery ideology came to connect the defense of slavery to a more general critique of capitalist modernity as it was taking shape at the time. Their views were not anticapitalist in all respects because they favored free trade and private property. However, they advocated a different kind of capitalism, one in which racial slavery was a prominent institution. Those who embraced this position also connected the defense of slavery to arguments about the nature of the original constitutional compact and, thus, of the relationship between the states and the federal government and the nature of the United States as a political entity.

There are two reasons that this ideological division did not occur elsewhere. These reasons centered on the actual physical location of both slaves and slave owners and the nature of the racial ideology of most white Americans, compared with that held by, for example, Brazilians. In the case of European colonial empires, although plantation owners were a powerful interest, they were located a considerable distance from the metropolitan country and so did not form part of the national elite of a nation such as Britain or France in the way that southern planters did in the United States. In addition, the slaves were geographically far removed and so their emancipation had only limited implications for the population of the colonial power. This isolation was not the case in such places as the United States or Brazil, where large numbers of slaves of African descent lived among slaveholders and free whites. Here emancipation had radical implications for relations between people of African and European descent.

It was here that the nature of the racial ideology of North Americans as opposed to Latin Americans came into play. In Brazil and the former Spanish Empire, relations between the races were organized by a hierarchy that ranked Europeans above Asians, who were above Africans, who in turn were superior to Amerindians. The result was a complex hierarchy of defined subgroups produced by sexual relations among the four primary groups. This social stratification was not significantly threatened by emancipation. In North America, however, the idea of whiteness came to be defined in a strict and exclusive way according to the “one drop” rule so that anyone not of pure European descent who had some known African ancestors counted as African or black. This rule also was linked to the idea, shared by most Americans—including many who opposed slavery—that a mixed or multiracial society was impossible unless one racial group was in a position of clear superiority. This perspective made the prospect of emancipation, in the minds of man, fraught with serious difficulties, unless it could somehow be combined with the physical removal of the freed slaves, as many advocated. Thus, the question of slavery in the United States was much more polarizing and intractable than elsewhere, and it came to be intimately connected to other political conflicts, above all the continuing and increasing disagreement over the nature of the United States as an entity. Even so, it is plausible to argue that the actual outcome of a bloody Civil War could have been avoided through an expedient such as the compensated manumission of the slave population, which might have been instituted had people realized just how bloody the war would be. It also has been argued that allowing the Gulf States to secede in 1860 would have precipitated the collapse of slavery due to impossibly high enforcement costs for the slaveowners given that the fugitive slave provision would no longer have been effective. All of this, however, is pure speculation, as opposed to the reality of the Civil War and its aftermath.

Slavery and its abolition are the subject of a number of historiographical debates. Libertarians tend to adopt a clear position on some of these, but are divided over others. One relates to the arguments put forward originally by Eric Williams in Capitalism and Slavery. In this work, he makes two arguments that libertarians have generally rejected. He argues first that the abolition of slavery was not produced by humanitarian sentiment, but rather by the self-interest of property owners in the emergent capitalist economy, given the greater economic efficiency of free, compared with slave, labor. This notion has been rebutted by authors such as Seymour Drescher and Roger Anstey, who argue that, in fact, slavery and the slave trade were still highly profitable at the time of their abolition and that therefore the antislavery movement needs to be given greater credit for abolition. Williams’s second argument centers on the fact that it was the profits of the slave trade and the slave plantations that provided the funding for the early stages of industrialization. This claim also has been criticized, most notably by Patrick O’Brian, who has argued that, although the profits of slavery were considerable, the bulk of the capital formed in 18th-century Europe derived from the profits of other trades and domestic agriculture.

The major division among libertarians over the historiography of slavery relates to the vexed question of the American Civil War. A minority tradition among contemporary libertarians regards the war as the disastrous turning point in American history and in the growth of the federal government and trend toward a position that is broadly pro-Confederate as a result. Others see the war as a price that had to be paid to remove the terrible curse of slavery. The more nuanced position, articulated by authors such as Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, sees the war as unnecessary, but neither favors the South nor supports its case. All libertarians, however, agree in seeing the general campaign against slavery after 1770 as one of the great movements for human liberty and its success as perhaps the greatest victory for the cause of freedom.

Slavery and its abolition are important issues for libertarians for a number of reasons. Slavery is the diametric opposite of freedom, and so slavery, by contrast, negatively defines what freedom actually is. Given that, the abolition of slavery in most of the world is one of the great victories for the cause of liberty. Moreover, the way in which it was achieved remains a model for all subsequent campaigns to extend or defend freedom. The most important aspect is the way that the campaigners focused on the transformation of public attitudes and beliefs, and it is this transformation that has made their victory permanent. So complete was their ideological victory that no one, no matter how opposed to liberty, would now dare to articulate an argument in defense of slavery. Their victory also established the absence of slavery as a central feature of modernity and is one of the things that most clearly distinguishes modernity from previous historical periods. The analysis and arguments used and developed in the fight against slavery also have been applied to other issues by libertarians. Thus, they are employed to analyze the historic status of women, hence the historically close connection between antislavery and individualist feminism. Radical libertarians have extended the general critique of unfree labor to include wage labor as a form of relation that, although freer than slavery or serfdom, is still not completely free.

However, the most important aspect of slavery and antislavery for libertarians is the following: Given the nature of slavery in the post-Renaissance world and its nature as a racially defined institution, the campaign against it and its successful definition as a terrible wrong involved the extension of the notions of human rights and liberty to all human beings by virtue of their essential common nature as humans. It is this universalism, the idea of freedom as something that pertains to all human beings, rather than to one sex or to a particular group or race, that is a central and defining feature of modern libertarianism, and the fight against slavery was crucial for its appearance.Slavery was a near-universal feature of human societies from the emergence of agriculture until its near disappearance between 1770 and 1880. As such, it has played an essential role for millennia, and its complete loss of legitimacy and disappearance in practice is one of the most significant of the changes that mark the advent of modernity. Before the later 18th century, many thinkers defended slavery as a natural institution that was beneficial, at least for some people. Aristotle held this view, for example. Many Christian and Muslim thinkers defended it on scriptural grounds. Others deprecated slavery and saw it as regrettable or tried to limit its extent. Thus, some Christian and Muslim thinkers tended to argue that, although slavery as such was legitimate, it was not proper to enslave one’s coreligionists. However, even these thinkers believed that slavery, although regrettable, was an unavoidable feature of human society.

The image that most people have of slavery today is taken largely from the experience of plantation slavery in the New World. However, this case was extreme, and the form taken by slavery historically has varied considerably. The essential element of slavery is completely unfree labor. Slaves possess no control over their labor, over what they do or how and when they do it. Even more significantly, they have no property right of any kind in the product of their labor. They do not own it as a self-employed artisan or free farmer would, and they do not receive monetary compensation or payment as in the case of wage laborers. Instead, all of the benefits of the work accrue to another party, the slaveowner, who exercises the full range of property rights over the slave’s labor, including the crucial power of alienation—that is, the owner can sell the ownership of the slave’s labor to another party. As such, slavery is at the extreme end of a spectrum of unfree labor, with such phenomena as serfdom or debt bondage and indentured labor being less extreme or thoroughgoing varieties. However, there is considerable variation historically in both the kind of work slaves are normally expected to do and the range of legal rights that they may have. In the extreme cases, such as New World plantation slavery, the slave is simply an object with no more rights or legal status than an animal or other kind of chattel, and thus has his humanity radically denied. In other forms of slavery, the slave enjoyed some legal recognition as a person and had certain rights, although these rights were never as extensive as those possessed by free persons. For most of the history of the Islamic world, slaves were not used in large-scale production or plantation agriculture, but in domestic slavery and (uniquely) as soldiers. Elsewhere, slave labor was common in agriculture, whereas the use of slaves in commercial plantation agriculture and mining became a significant feature of some parts of the world economy after the 1460s.

In the ancient world, slavery was a near universal institution. Slave labor was used for the whole range of productive tasks, from agriculture to manufacturing, including the few cases of large-scale manufacture such as brick making. Most slaves worked in agriculture, hardly surprising given that these were overwhelmingly agricultural economies where the economics of large-scale agricultural holdings, as in ancient Rome, made slavery most profitable. Although there was an active trade in slaves, the main source of slaves was war—with the enslavement of all or part of the defeated population a common feature. Another important source of slaves was debt, debtors being taken into slavery if they could not service their debts. In the ancient world, slavery was found around the world and was not associated with either particular kinds of work or with specific ethnic groups—anyone could become a slave if they were unfortunate enough to fall into certain categories.

During the early part of the Middle Ages, this pattern continued. The Islamic Middle East became the main center of demand for slaves, which, together with the central role played by Islam in the creation of a system of interlinked trading circuits that connected the various parts of the Old World, led to the appearance of a fully organized trade in slaves. The major sources of slaves at this time were Central Asia, Africa (particularly Eastern Africa), and the Slavic lands of Eastern and Central Europe—the term slaveactually derives from the word Slav. During the 8th century, large-scale plantation agriculture began to develop in the Middle East, particularly in southern Iraq. This system came to an abrupt halt with the massive slave uprising of 869–879 known as the Zanj revolt (in the Arabic of the time, zanj meant black and referred both to African slaves and the part of Africa from which most of them came, the Eastern littoral down to Zanzibar). Following this upheaval, large plantations using slave labor were abandoned in that part of the world because of the risks of another rebellion.

The central and later Middle Ages saw a gradual decline of slavery in most parts of the world, apart from the Islamic world and Africa, a decline most marked in China but also true of Europe. By the 15th century, outright slavery seemed to be about to disappear in most parts of the world. However, at this point, it underwent both a revival and a transformation. There occurred a growth in demand for both domestic slaves and slave soldiers in the Islamic world following the consolidation of that area into a small number of large states, notably the Ottoman and Safavid Empires. Of equal importance, a system of large-scale plantation agriculture appeared in the New World following its conquest by the Spanish and Portuguese. These plantations produced a range of cash crops such as indigo, rice, cotton, and, above all, sugar. In addition, large-scale mining was introduced in places such as Potosi in Bolivia and Zacatecas in Mexico. All of these activities involved the use of slave labor on a massive scale and with an unprecedented degree of harshness. Slavery here was a response to the need for a captive labor force that could guarantee sustained production of cash crops and metals for sale not in their place of origin, but on a worldwide market. A paid labor force was not a realistic option at this time given the depopulation of the New World by diseases brought by the Europeans and the need to keep a labor force in place for a prolonged period of time for sustained production of cash crops and commodities. However, a slave revolt did not pose the kind of threat to European states that the Zanj revolt had to the Abbasid Caliphate inasmuch as the plantations were located a long way from the main urban centers. The result was the creation of the world’s largest-ever slave labor system.

Initially the demand for a captive labor force in the Americas was met by attempts to enslave the surviving indigenous populations plus the importation of Europeans, mainly convicts. However, Native Americans found it too easy to escape, and Europeans tended to die too rapidly due to their susceptibility to tropical illnesses. The solution was to turn to what now became the main supplier of slaves to both the Atlantic and Islamic world, Africa. European convicts remained a significant source of both slaves and indentured labor, particularly in North America, but in the Americas and Caribbean as a whole, they were vastly outnumbered by those brought over from Africa. Africa became the main source of slaves for a number of reasons. One simple reason was its geographical location—in the tropics (so that its population was relatively less susceptible to tropical diseases) and halfway between both the New World and the Middle East, the two major areas with a demand for slaves. The main reason, however, was that slavery was a long-established institution within Africa, organized in much the way it had been in the entire world during antiquity, with the losers in wars being taken as slaves. Hence, there was an infrastructure already in place to capture and supply slaves to the increasingly eager Europeans and Arabs.

It was this development that led to the other major change in slavery at this time, its acquiring a distinctive racial identity. Before the 15th century, the institution of slavery was not associated with any specific ethnic group, but from that time onward it became associated in both the Christian and Islamic worlds with Africans. It became a racial institution and was increasingly linked with a racial ideology that justified the enslavement of Africans in particular as opposed to other racial groups. At this point, the ideological rationale for this institution did not yet involve the kind of pseudoscientific arguments that were developed later. Instead it tended to rely on scriptural exegesis, particularly the biblical legend of the Curse of Ham, and arguments derived from classical philosophy that some people (now assumed to be Africans) were born to be slaves, which was both their destiny and what was best for them. By the time the plantation complex was fully established in the later 17th century, slavery had become inextricably intertwined with this racial ideology.

During the 16th and early 17th centuries, large organized slave trades appeared that connected Africa to other parts of the world trade system, with literally millions of Africans being taken and sold as slaves in many parts of the world. The first was the trans-Saharan trade, which connected central Africa to the ports of the Maghreb and to the Nile valley and Cairo and the Middle East in general via the great slave market in Cairo. The second was the Indian Ocean trade, which connected East Africa to the Middle East and all of the lands around the Indian Ocean. The third was the transatlantic trade, which linked West Africa from Senegal down to Angola to the Americas and the Caribbean. In addition, pirates from the Barbary Coast states regularly raided the coastlines of Western Europe to capture slaves. This method of acquiring slaves, however, was different from the others, in that it was a survival of the older medieval and ancient traditions of acquiring slaves by raiding and warfare, rather than commercial exchange.

The critical feature of these three main slave trades was that they were indeed trades. Arabs and Europeans did not in general acquire slaves by raiding. Instead they bought slaves from Africans who had gone into the business of slave-taking precisely to sell them to the external market represented by the Europeans and Arabs. The slaves were paid for with a number of commodities, but above all with firearms. This exchange gave the Africans who supplied the slaves an enormous military advantage over other Africans. The result was the creation of a set of damaging incentives for Africans. Essentially, they had the choice of becoming slave-takers or slaves. One result was the appearance of large empires based on the supplying of slaves such as Asante, Dahomey, Lunda, and Oyo. These then supplied slaves in ever larger numbers to external traders. Some were marched across the Sahara in great slave caravans, whereas others were taken long distances to the coasts, where they were then held in forts before being put on ships to be taken over the Indian or Atlantic Oceans to their final destinations. There were significant differences between the Atlantic slave trade and the other two. In particular, the Europeans were mainly interested in male slaves because they wanted them for heavy manual labor, whereas the Arabs had a higher demand for female domestic slaves—most of the male slaves taken to the Middle East were castrated.

By the mid-18th century, slavery had once again become a major part of the world trade system. The various slave trades were highly profitable, as were the plantations and mines that slaves worked in the New World. However, it was at this point that the whole institution came under attack. In late 18th-century Europe, for the first time people started to articulate a fundamental critique of both the theory and practice of slavery. This viewpoint derived, in part, from the 18th-century notion of humanitarianism and “sympathy” with Africans and slaves, who were now seen as fellow human beings whose situation and suffering inspired sympathy and identification, rather than indifference. Antislavery arguments also had their origin in the increasingly influential idea of universal human rights that applied to all human beings regardless of their status or ethnicity. The result was the appearance of an organized campaign against slavery in general and the slave trade in particular. The campaigners faced formidable obstacles in the shape of entrenched and powerful special interests and centuries of practice and intellectual tradition.

Nevertheless, a great intellectual and popular movement opposed to slavery was created and went on to gain a series of victories. The first victory was the famous Somerset’s Case of 1772, in which Lord Mansfield held that slavery could not be justified by natural law and so could only exist in Britain if it had been authorized by positive law (i.e., Parliamentary enactment), which it had not. After several attempts, the British Parliament abolished the slave trade in 1807, following a campaign that had begun with the formation of the British Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787 and featuring such figures as Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharpe, Oloudah Equiano, and William Wilberforce. Similar organizations were set up in other countries, most notably the Société des Amis des Noirs in France, led by Brissot and the Abbé Gregoire. After a prolonged struggle, slavery was finally abolished in the British Empire in 1834. It was then abolished in one part of the world after another, with the final significant event being its abolition in Brazil in 1888.

At the same time, there also was a series of large-scale slave rebellions, particularly in the Caribbean and Brazil. The most famous and significant rebellion was the successful revolt in the French colony of Santo Domingue in 1791, led by Toussaint Louverture, which was the first successful slave rebellion in history and led to the appearance of Haiti as an independent state. There also were major uprisings in Jamaica in 1831–1832, Demerara (modern Guyana) in 1795 and 1823, Surinam in 1765–1793, Barbados in 1816, and Bahia in Brazil in 1822–1830 and 1835. These uprisings all made the institution much more difficult to sustain, not least because they raised the cost of maintaining it for the slaveholders. However, the revolts by themselves would not have been enough to destroy the institution had there not been a fundamental shift in attitudes and beliefs about slavery brought about by the campaigns of the antislavery movement. Had the antislavery movement not happened, ruthless force would still have been used to sustain colonial slavery, but thanks to the abolitionists’ efforts, force alone no longer commanded enough legitimacy to make such action possible.

One of the most impressive features of the abolition of slavery was its mostly peaceful nature. In all but two cases, the institution was abolished peacefully, with compensation being paid to the owners or a “free womb” provision being applied by which although existing slaves remained enslaved, their children were born into freedom. The two exceptions were Haiti and the United States. In the American case, slavery’s abolition was uniquely costly, happening only after a terrible war and more than half a million deaths. The obvious question to ask is why this was. The explanation lies in the nature and history of slavery in North America, both before and after 1776.

Slavery existed in all of the American colonies before 1776 and the American Revolution. However, it was a central economic institution only in some of the southern colonies, most notably South Carolina, but also Georgia and Virginia. One aspect of the Revolution was the spread of opposition to both the slave trade and slavery among many (but not all) of the founders. When the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia, the status of both slavery and the slave trade was one of the controversial issues facing the delegates. The outcome was a series of compromises. The Constitution provided for the prohibition of the importation of slaves after 1808. However, it also contained a fugitive slave clause, which effectively spread the cost of sustaining slavery in the face of attempted escapes over the entire Union, rather than leaving it to be borne by the slave owners. There also was the notorious “three fifths” clause of the Constitution, by which slaves were to count as three fifths of a person for the purposes of allocating seats in the House, a provision that significantly increased the voting weight of white southerners.

The institution of slavery was to divide the various states in the 1780s, and over the next 70 years, those divisions became more profound. There were increasing differences between various sections of the nation over the question, which reflected conflicts of both political and economic interest. However, the major division was an ideological one, and this division was one of the unique features of the American situation. The years after 1820 in particular saw the emergence of two intellectual and political ideologies. The northern states and New England saw the appearance of an increasingly radical Abolitionist movement, led by figures such as William Lloyd Garrison, William Ellery Channing, Lydia Maria Child, and Frederick Douglass. They argued against the institution of slavery on the grounds of universalist human rights—in other words, on the basis of the common humanity of all human beings and the basic rights that they all shared. Although more radical and thoroughgoing, these arguments were essentially the same as those made by antislavery activists elsewhere since the 1770s.

However, uniquely, the United States witnessed the appearance and articulation of a systematic proslavery ideology. After the 1820s, the slaveholding interest in the southern states, particularly in South Carolina, increasingly defended the “peculiar institution.” Although in this argument they were no different than were such groups as plantation owners in the British and French empires, they went considerably further than defending slavery on pragmatic and self-interested grounds. Americans such as George Fitzhugh and John C. Calhoun supported the institution of slavery as a positive good, at least for people of African descent. This proslavery ideology came to connect the defense of slavery to a more general critique of capitalist modernity as it was taking shape at the time. Their views were not anticapitalist in all respects because they favored free trade and private property. However, they advocated a different kind of capitalism, one in which racial slavery was a prominent institution. Those who embraced this position also connected the defense of slavery to arguments about the nature of the original constitutional compact and, thus, of the relationship between the states and the federal government and the nature of the United States as a political entity.

There are two reasons that this ideological division did not occur elsewhere. These reasons centered on the actual physical location of both slaves and slave owners and the nature of the racial ideology of most white Americans, compared with that held by, for example, Brazilians. In the case of European colonial empires, although plantation owners were a powerful interest, they were located a considerable distance from the metropolitan country and so did not form part of the national elite of a nation such as Britain or France in the way that southern planters did in the United States. In addition, the slaves were geographically far removed and so their emancipation had only limited implications for the population of the colonial power. This isolation was not the case in such places as the United States or Brazil, where large numbers of slaves of African descent lived among slaveholders and free whites. Here emancipation had radical implications for relations between people of African and European descent.

It was here that the nature of the racial ideology of North Americans as opposed to Latin Americans came into play. In Brazil and the former Spanish Empire, relations between the races were organized by a hierarchy that ranked Europeans above Asians, who were above Africans, who in turn were superior to Amerindians. The result was a complex hierarchy of defined subgroups produced by sexual relations among the four primary groups. This social stratification was not significantly threatened by emancipation. In North America, however, the idea of whiteness came to be defined in a strict and exclusive way according to the “one drop” rule so that anyone not of pure European descent who had some known African ancestors counted as African or black. This rule also was linked to the idea, shared by most Americans—including many who opposed slavery—that a mixed or multiracial society was impossible unless one racial group was in a position of clear superiority. This perspective made the prospect of emancipation, in the minds of man, fraught with serious difficulties, unless it could somehow be combined with the physical removal of the freed slaves, as many advocated. Thus, the question of slavery in the United States was much more polarizing and intractable than elsewhere, and it came to be intimately connected to other political conflicts, above all the continuing and increasing disagreement over the nature of the United States as an entity. Even so, it is plausible to argue that the actual outcome of a bloody Civil War could have been avoided through an expedient such as the compensated manumission of the slave population, which might have been instituted had people realized just how bloody the war would be. It also has been argued that allowing the Gulf States to secede in 1860 would have precipitated the collapse of slavery due to impossibly high enforcement costs for the slaveowners given that the fugitive slave provision would no longer have been effective. All of this, however, is pure speculation, as opposed to the reality of the Civil War and its aftermath.

Slavery and its abolition are the subject of a number of historiographical debates. Libertarians tend to adopt a clear position on some of these, but are divided over others. One relates to the arguments put forward originally by Eric Williams in Capitalism and Slavery. In this work, he makes two arguments that libertarians have generally rejected. He argues first that the abolition of slavery was not produced by humanitarian sentiment, but rather by the self-interest of property owners in the emergent capitalist economy, given the greater economic efficiency of free, compared with slave, labor. This notion has been rebutted by authors such as Seymour Drescher and Roger Anstey, who argue that, in fact, slavery and the slave trade were still highly profitable at the time of their abolition and that therefore the antislavery movement needs to be given greater credit for abolition. Williams’s second argument centers on the fact that it was the profits of the slave trade and the slave plantations that provided the funding for the early stages of industrialization. This claim also has been criticized, most notably by Patrick O’Brian, who has argued that, although the profits of slavery were considerable, the bulk of the capital formed in 18th-century Europe derived from the profits of other trades and domestic agriculture.

The major division among libertarians over the historiography of slavery relates to the vexed question of the American Civil War. A minority tradition among contemporary libertarians regards the war as the disastrous turning point in American history and in the growth of the federal government and trend toward a position that is broadly pro-Confederate as a result. Others see the war as a price that had to be paid to remove the terrible curse of slavery. The more nuanced position, articulated by authors such as Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, sees the war as unnecessary, but neither favors the South nor supports its case. All libertarians, however, agree in seeing the general campaign against slavery after 1770 as one of the great movements for human liberty and its success as perhaps the greatest victory for the cause of freedom.

Slavery and its abolition are important issues for libertarians for a number of reasons. Slavery is the diametric opposite of freedom, and so slavery, by contrast, negatively defines what freedom actually is. Given that, the abolition of slavery in most of the world is one of the great victories for the cause of liberty. Moreover, the way in which it was achieved remains a model for all subsequent campaigns to extend or defend freedom. The most important aspect is the way that the campaigners focused on the transformation of public attitudes and beliefs, and it is this transformation that has made their victory permanent. So complete was their ideological victory that no one, no matter how opposed to liberty, would now dare to articulate an argument in defense of slavery. Their victory also established the absence of slavery as a central feature of modernity and is one of the things that most clearly distinguishes modernity from previous historical periods. The analysis and arguments used and developed in the fight against slavery also have been applied to other issues by libertarians. Thus, they are employed to analyze the historic status of women, hence the historically close connection between antislavery and individualist feminism. Radical libertarians have extended the general critique of unfree labor to include wage labor as a form of relation that, although freer than slavery or serfdom, is still not completely free.

However, the most important aspect of slavery and antislavery for libertarians is the following: Given the nature of slavery in the post-Renaissance world and its nature as a racially defined institution, the campaign against it and its successful definition as a terrible wrong involved the extension of the notions of human rights and liberty to all human beings by virtue of their essential common nature as humans. It is this universalism, the idea of freedom as something that pertains to all human beings, rather than to one sex or to a particular group or race, that is a central and defining feature of modern libertarianism, and the fight against slavery was crucial for its appearance.

 

Further Readings

Anstey, Roger. The Atlantic Slave Trade and British Abolition, 1760–1810. London: Macmillan, 1975.

Brown, Christopher Leslie. Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

Bush, Michael L. Servitude in Modern Times. London: Polity Press, 2000.

Davis, Robert C. Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500–1800. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Drescher, Seymour. From Slavery to Freedom: Comparative Studies in the Rise and Fall of Atlantic Slavery. New York: New York University Press, 1999.

Drescher, Seymour, and Stanley Engerman, eds. A Historical Guide to World Slavery. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Engerman, Stanley, Seymour Drescher, and Robert Paquette, eds. Slavery. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Geneovese, Eugene. The Political Economy of Slavery: Studies in the Economy and Society of the Slave South. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1988.

Gould, Philip. Barbaric Traffic: Commerce and Antislavery in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Hochschild, Adam. Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery. Basingstoke, UK: Pan Macmillan, 2005.

Segal, Ronald. Islam’s Black Slaves: The Other Black Diaspora. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2002.

Thomas, Hugh. The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440–1870. London: Phoenix Press, 2006.

Wise, Steven M. Though the Heavens May Fall: The Landmark Trial That Led to the End of Human Slavery. London: Pimlico, 2006.

Originally published .