Dec 1, 1980

Russian & American Defenses of Servitude

“Emancipation threatened the slave-owners very way of life; it threatened the Russian nobility only in its pocketbook.”

“In Defense of Servitude: American Pro-Slavery and Russian Pro-Serfdom Arguments, 1760–1860.” The American Historical Review” 85(October 1980):809–827.

Kolchin compares the arguments for slavery offered in the United States with those for serfdom in Russia. Both Russian and American defenders of an unfree labor system used racial arguments. Even though there was no obvious racial differences, between Russian lords and serfs, arguments about serfs’ inherent and native inferiority occurred, though not as elaborated as arguments about Southern American blacks’ inferiority. American slaveowners and Russian lords alike employed paternalistic, class oriented arguments which claimed that the superior class’s care of their inferiors made the latter better off than they would be if freed. In the case of the USA, slaveowners contrasted the slaves’ lot with the free workers in the North and contended that, racial difference apart, their system was necessary for civilization.

The need to defend unfree labor apparently led to similar arguments occurring in different social climates (though American slaveowners did use religious justifications that Russian lords tended to avoid). Indeed, both slaveowners and lords played the same semantic games, claiming their system was not of bondage, or at least not of severe bondage. Both groups took reactionary views on most social issues. Being opposed to the main intellectual currents of the day (natural rights, democracy, Jeffersonianism, etc.), they were deeply suspicious of change.

The arguments for slavery and serfdom differed in their development over time. Up till 1800, defenses of the institutions were not widespread and the idea of gradual emancipation was raised. After 1800 the cautious antislavery sentiment in certain parts of the South disappeared and was replaced by awkward, hesitant defenses of the institution, usually on racist grounds that it was a necessary evil. Starting in 1830, however, there began a flood of militant, unapologetic defenses of the virtues of slavery, often on the “practical” grounds that it was the best way to organize society. In Russia, however, the liberal trend of the eighteenth century continued into the nineteenth. By the 1840s free labor ideas had spread among the nobility. Russia never had a militant proserfdom movement.

Why the differences? The author provides five reasons. (1) Though Russian nobility did employ racial arguments, the fact that slaves in the USA, unlike serfs in Russia, were of an obviously different color than their masters made the idea of freedom more threatening in the USA—it was like the idea of releasing aliens. (2) In a country where the “people” were politically equal (“all men are created equal”), freeing black slaves was a threat to slaveholders and nonslaveholders alike since they had previously thought of the “people” as white adult males. In Russia, on the other hand, the peasants were the “people”; they were 4/5 of the country. An all white America was a bureaucratic, closed, nondemocratic society, the gentry was not in a position to shape policy. The Czars and many of their close advisors were committed to eventual liberation, and the nobility could not change this. Southern slaveholders, however, could attack abolitionist sentiments in newspapers, magazines, meetings, petitions, etc. (3) Russia lacked a free press. The gentry had no audience which they could appeal; the slaveholders did. (4) The South felt that not just their institution of slavery but their own region was under attack; in Russia serfdom lacked this sectional cast. (5) Because of the first four factors (racial differences, democracy, a free press, the sectional nature of the institution) the Southern slaveholders were more independent and had a strong sectional civilization with which they identified and they were very reluctant to give it up. Russian nobility, on the other hand, had more of an absentee mentality with regard to their institution— they were both literally and figuratively not around enough to supervise their serfs, or identity with a culture of serf holders. Emancipation threatened the slave-owners very way of life; it threatened the Russian nobility only in its pocketbook.