Literature of Liberty reviews a slew of major historians’ recent studies of a subject far too often neglected in libertarian circles.

An In-Depth Literature Review

Slavery represents an extreme affront to liberal values as historically the most blatant form of hegemony or legal, involuntary subordination of one person to another. In the ancient world there was disagreement over the naturalness of slavery and other forms of legalized inequality. Aristotle’s doctrine of the natural slave and of the just subordination of slave to master offered a natural law defense of slavery with questionable parallels to other forms of “natural” subordination: body to mind, citizen to polis, wife to husband, and child to parents. Under Aristotle’s system, the slave’s virtue was not autonomy but obedience to the master’s mind and will. Other ancients, however, argued‐​still within the natural law—that slavery was a matter of nomos (custom or conventional man‐​made law) rather than physis (nature). But Aristotle preserved a muted reference to the dissenting liberal view:

IV: Slavery

others affirm that the rule of a master over slaves is contrary to nature, and that the distinction between slaves and freemen exists by law only and not by nature; and being an interference with nature is therefore unjust. (Politics i, 1253b)

Certain liberal‐​minded Sophists (as discussed in Eric Havelock’s The Liberal Temper in Greek Politics) even went beyond indicting slavery and judged that all authority and subordination rested on coercion and nomos as its sole justification. Slave‐​holding Greeks, embarrassed by such reasoning, were likewise caught up in a moral dilemma when they wished to denounce tyrannical government as a form of slavery. The desire for political liberty, thus, easily led to questioning slavery and coercive inequality of every kind and degree. The complex of tensions and contradictions involved in the institution of slavery are discussed in detail in two volumes by David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1966); and The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution: 1770–1823 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975).

Even the philanthropic Stoics and early Christians never called for the abolition of slavery, however much they might stress the slave’s common humanity. In his chapter on ancient “Masters and Slaves,” M.I. Finley trenchantly remarks:

On the contrary, it was that most Christian of emperors, Justinian, whose codification of the Roman law in the sixth century not only included the most complete collection of laws about slavery ever assembled but also provided Christian Europe with a ready‐​made legal foundation for the slavery they introduced into the New World a thousand years later. (In The Ancient Economy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973, pp. 88–89.)

A radical shift in moral consciousness was necessary to make society sensitive that the evil of chattel slavery was but one glaring form of a vaster system of unjust legal subordination and privilege. The opening summary by Davis, accordingly, analyzes the various eighteenth‐​century cultural and intellectual forces and the new sensibility that converted indifference to indignation concerning slavery. Even earlier (as the Russell‐​Wood summary discloses along with the cited books by Lewis Hanke) natural law and rights arguments were advanced by the Spanish missionary, Bartholomé de las Casas, to condemn Amerindian slavery. But it remained for the agenda of the systematically liberal temperament of the Enlightenment philosophes (see Hunting’s summary) to launch a sustained and socially effective movement to abolish slavery as a moral contradiction to the values of natural liberty and equality. These liberal efforts led to the temporary end to slavery in French colonies in 1792, to slavery’s abolition in British possessions in 1833, and finally to American emancipation of slaves following 1863.

In the United States, the antislavery movement itself exposed other embarrassing contradictions of subordination and unequality. Thus, American abolitionists, while working for social equality of black slaves, were rent asunder in 1840 on the issue of allowing a woman, Abby Kelley, to be elected to the previously all‐​male business committee of the American Antislavery Society. Still more radical, the leading abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison met great resistance in antislavery circles by advocating “nonresistance,” a form of Christian anarchism that opposed all forms of direct political action—even to remedy slavery—as forms of moral subordination and corruption of autonomy (see Ronald G. Walters, The Antislavery Appeal: American Abolitionism After 1830. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976, pp. 3–18.

Slavery, Ideology, and Subordination

David Brion Davis

Yale University

“‘The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture’: The Argument Summarized.” In The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution 1770–1823. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975, pp. 39–49.

Why did the West’s moral consciousness shift to embrace antislavery during the 1760s and 1770s? “By the eve of the American Revolution there was a remarkable convergence of cultural and intellectual developments which at once undercut traditional rationalizations for slavery and offered new modes of sensibility for identifying with its victims.” In the era of liberal Enlightenment and revolution, the ideological function of attacking slavery was symbolic of a broader critique of all forms of legal subordination.

Slavery, as an extreme form of subordination, contained unstable tensions and contradictions that undermined its defense. On the one hand, the slave was regarded as a passive tool without an autonomous self‐​consciousness; on the other hand, the slave was also viewed as a conscious agent with traces of human personality. Also making for the instability of slavery was the paradox that the “master” was completely dependent on the slave’s consciousness and recognition of him as a master to whom the slave owed obedience and subordination. Physical bondage reflected, in addition, an alleged but questionable cosmic hierarchy and subordination. Men who internally were “slaves” to sin or passions and judged incapable of virtuous self‐​government, were “natural slaves” deserving also of external bondage and subordination to virtuous or rational masters. The Cynics, Sophists, and Stoics offered the slave an ideological comfort that though outwardly a slave, he might inwardly be free. This cold comfort and the Christian emphasis on endurance and subordination prevented attacks on slavery.

The Quakers and other perfectionist sects questioned the morality of slavery as an inhumane treatment of fellow humans and an arbitrary subordination of equals who did not deserve to be treated as objects. Along with the Quakers’ attitude, four developments in Western culture and British Protestantism fostered the burgeoning of antislavery consciousness: (1) Secular social philosophy came to interpret the master‐​slave relationship as a matter of fear, power, self‐​interest, utility, and social order. This undercut the ethical opposition to successful slave revolts. Furthermore, by sympathetically identifying with the slave’s lot, the liberal Montesquieu (and Francis Hutcheson) “put the subject of Negro slavery on the agenda of the European Enlightenment.” (2) The growing influence of the ethic of benevolence embodied in the “man of feeling” and “moral sense” made slavery appear as an inhumane and brutal affront to liberal progress. The liberal, sympathetic spirit, reflected in Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and The Wealth of Nations (1776), viewed slavery as morally undeserved and as preventing “the spontaneous impulses” which the man of feeling cultivated. (3) The evangelical faith stressed conversion and sanctification of all men including slaves and warned against the abuse of power as a temptation of masters. (4) Finally, anti‐​slavery sentiments were fostered by primitivist “noble savage” currents which deflated white ethnocentrism and encouraged viewing blacks as autonomous human beings capable of virtue and creativity and as undeserving of subordination.

Slavery and Imperialist Ideology

A.J.R. Russell‐​Wood

Johns Hopkins University

“Iberian Expansion and the Issue of Black Slavery: Changing Portuguese Attitudes, 1440–1770.” The American Historical Review 83 (February 1978): 16–42.

To justify their overseas imperial conquests, colonization, and slavery, the Portuguese devised an official “ideology of expansion.” This ideology together with their self‐​doubts formed the Portuguese attitude toward blacks, and toward slavery in Africa, Asia, and the Americas.

The fifteenth century inaugurated an upsurge of the Portuguese slave trade marked by the enslavement of Moorish, African, and Asian peoples with whom the Portuguese had neither religious rivalry nor territorial disputes. Portuguese imperial expansion was motivated by a mixture of “God, gold, or greed” to economically exploit black slave labor in Portugal, Brazil, and the sugar plantations of Madeira. In the imperial process, black slavery compelled the Portuguese to reinterpret the old concepts of “honor” and “just war” to allow offensive actions by Christians against “infidels.” Though these expansionist crusades and slavery‐​expeditions were piously cloaked in the name of service to God, Charles Gibson more accurately described the first such expedition against Moroccan Ceuta in 1415 as the “first act of state‐​directed imperialism of modern European history.”

The Portuguese ideology of expansion aimed to ease the Portuguese moral dilemma concerning imperialism and slavery. A pro‐​Portuguese warrior‐​God conveniently sanctioned His chosen people to extend Christianity to the pagans and infidels of Africa and Asia by means of the politicized Iberian tradition of crusades and “just wars.” “Pillage, piracy, and wanton destruction” were legitimate policies in this ideology to deprive infidels of the sinews of war that they might conceivably direct against Christians.

Political pressures wrested papal sanctions, bulls, and indulgences to bolster the military and economic interests of Portuguese imperial expansion to Africa and beyond. Pope Nicholas V, for example, granted to Dom Alphonso V authorization to subdue the infidel Saracens, annex their lands, and reduce them to perpetual servitude—all this in the name of Christ and blessed with a plenary indulgence.

But doubts troubled the Portuguese and Iberian conscience. Even João de Barros (1496–1570), the court historian known as the “Portuguese Livy” could not reconcile the ideology of expansion with the cruel realities of the slave trade. The most trenchant critics of the Portuguese policies were the Spanish Jesuit, Luís de Molina (1536–1600), and the Spanish Dominican missionary, Bartholomé de las Casas (1474–1566). Las Casas defended the liberty of Amerindians and castigated the slave trade and its historian apologists: “And to be marvelled at is the manner in which the Portuguese historians glorify as illustrious such heinous deeds, representing these exploits as great sacrifices made in the service of God.” Growing doubts about the moral contradictions of imperialism and slavery were poetically expressed in Camões’s epic of Portuguese expansion, the Lusíadas.

Enlightenment Liberalism vs. Slavery

Claudine Hunting

Texas A & M University

“The Philosophes and Black Slavery.” Journal of the History of Ideas 39 (July/​September 1978): 405–418.

Under the banner of liberty, equality, and fraternity, the French Enlightenment philosophes, Encyclopédistes, and liberal economists managed to effectively criticize proslavery economic policy of the French government. The philosophes, armed with arguments from reason, morality, and satire, propagated a liberal social and economic ideal despite the general indifference toward slavery as a normal institution and despite the French government’s profitable vested interests in its colonial slave trade. The two decades from 1748–1765 saw the first phase of the philosophes’ attack against slavery: 1748 seeing the publication of the philosophe Montesquieu’s L’Esprit des lois, 1751–1765 seeing the appearance of those volumes of the Encyclopédie crucial to the themes of slavery and liberty.

The philosophes wielded a panoply of moral, intellectual, and emotional weapons to communicate their liberal philosophy of natural liberty in opposition to slavery. Morally, they attacked the “religious” motivation of saving souls for Christ by enslaving blacks and depriving them of their natural birthright of liberty and equal personhood. For the philosophes slavery was a moral issue unjustifiable by religious or economic motives. Reason and intellect, the philosophes argued, showed that all men were by nature free and equal. Freedom was “a right that nature gives to all men to have control over their own person and possessions” (Encyclopédie IX, 471). All men are equal because of natural liberty, and all are free because of natural equality, as Joucourt and Diderot noted elsewhere. In addition to the philosophes’ moral and intellectual arguments of liberty and equality, they also advanced the emotional appeal of human fraternity. Human solidarity and love should move us to treat all men as our brothers.

The philosophes exposed the economic greed behind the imperialist and colonialist exploitation of black slaves. Voltaire succinctly summed up the matter in Candide (1759), by putting in the mouth of a brutally dismembered sugar plantation slave the indictment: “It is at that price you eat sugar in Europe.” Joucourt likened to highway robbery the colonial settlers’ trafficking in black flesh to extract profitable sugar, cocoa, and tobacco. Following liberal economic doctrines that viewed liberty and industry as the real sources of abundance, Joucourt launched a radical attack on state colonialism and the slave trade:

Can it be considered lawful to deprive mankind of its most sacred rights for the sole purpose of gratifying one’s greed, vanity or idiosyncrasies? No…Let European colonies perish rather than have so many suffer. (Encyclopédie XVI, 533)

Ominously, the Enlightenment liberals also warned of the potential slave revolts inevitable under such a cruel system.

The temporary abolition of slavery in 1792 during the French Revolution was thus prepared for by the philosophes’ antislavery arguments. It still remained, however, for French literature to rehabilitate blacks to the full image of dignity and weaken the racism that slavery had insinuated into society.

The Anatomy of a Slave Revolt

David Barry Gaspar

University of Virginia

“The Antigua Slave Conspiracy of 1736: A Case Study of the Origins of Collective Resistance.” William and Mary Quarterly 35 (1978): 308–323.

If a last moment change in the plans of their masters had not occurred, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Antiguan slaves would have arisen in open rebellion against the system of slavery on October 11, 1736. Instead of leaving a legacy of bloodshed and race warfare, the Antiguan slaves left a rich, historical record collected during the trial of the leading slave rebels. Contained in the testimony of master and slave is an absorbing and suggestive recital of factors which led the slaves of Antigua to plan for freedom.

The Antiguan slave conspiracy strongly resembles other Carribean rebellions. The slaves chose their leaders from among the household and artisan workers rather than from the fieldhands. The evidence taken at the trial strongly suggests an overriding ethnic character to the conspiracy. All but one of the charismatic slave leaders were Creole and the slaves enlisted in the abortive rebellion seem to have had common African backgrounds. These privileged “elite” slaves freed from field work had time to plot, and their long residence on Antigua familiarized them with the whites’ weaknesses.

“The psychological and sociopolitical base for a large‐​scale plot was perhaps strongest among the many artisans who regularly paid their masters a part of their earnings, obtained either by being hired out or by working on their own.” Such independent and self‐​reliant productive slaves were difficult to control. The two charismatic slave revolt leaders—the Coromantee Court (from the Gold Coast) and the Creole Tomboy—enlisted followers by playing on their fellow slaves’ discontent and on their desire for dignity and manhood. These leaders bound them with an oath to kill whites. Religious sanctions administered by diviners (or obeahmen) strengthened and solemnized the oath of rebellion.

Moreover, the conspiracy drew its strength from the numerical superiority of slaves over whites, exceptionally lax enforcement of slave controls, the gradual rise of many slaves to higher social status and independence, as well as the increasingly frequent opportunities found by slaves for petty, yet overt, resistance.

Not surprisingly, the slaves’ stated, pervasive goal was freedom. Beyond the rebellion, however, they gave little thought to how they would protect themselves on the sparsely forested island, or how long they would remain free from the renewed control of their masters. The depth of this thirst for freedom deeply stunned their masters who moved swiftly and ruthlessly to regain dominance and punish the conspirators. Conspiring for freedom was costly: over seventy slaves were executed while as many were banished from family, friends, and Antigua.

Colonial American Slave Law

William M. Wiecek

University of Missouri, Columbia

“The Statutory Law of Slavery and Race in the Thirteen Mainland Colonies of British America.” William and Mary Quarterly 34 (1977): 258–280.

Government laws legitimatized powerful undercurrents of racial prejudice and institutionalized American slavery. During the American colonial period, other free communities enacted statutory laws that condemned blacks to lifetime servitude and thus protected the white owners from the threat of slave revolts.

So thoroughly did colonial lawmakers establish slavery that the newly formed states of the 1770s and 1780s wholly adopted their forebearers’ servile legal code. Moreover, they agreed with United States Supreme Court Justice John McLean in treating this statutory legacy as firmly establishing American slavery.

To understand post‐​Revolution slavery we need to study the assumptions of its statutory basis in the colonial period. Colonial lawmakers labored to justify how human blacks lost those rights enjoyed by human whites. Moreover, legislators had to decide whether slaves were to be considered real or personal property, some mixture of the two, or a unique case. Ultimately slaves were defined as personal chattel, moveable property tied to a free person. This definition did not prevent some states, however, from allowing slaves to be sold with land as if they were real property.

The colonial statutes stipulated lifetime servitude for slaves, and thereby distinguished their status from indentured servants. They also stamped slavery with its racial definitions: negroes, mulattoes, and Indians could be slaves, but not whites. Finally, the colonial lawmakers determined that the children of slaves should follow their mother’s status. This revealing innovation resolved the social dilemma resulting from sexual liaisons between the races; it also testifies to how strictly legislators sought to segregate the races.

Along with these pillars of slave law, colonial statutes minutely defined most relationships between the races. Slaves had civil existence only through their masters. Denied access to the usual channels of justice, slaves were relegated to special courts. During the colonial period, statutes forbade teaching slaves reading and other skills. The law disabled slaves from carrying weapons. Ultimately, even travel by slaves was restricted. Legislators devised elaborate policing systems to ferret out disruptors of this increasingly complex labyrinth of social controls.

By the time of the American Revolution, an intricate web of slave statutes had been woven. In an otherwise free community, it legalized a society of unequal status. This legal system also reinforced the bedrock prejudices underlying slavery. The only significant legal changes in slavery after 1776 came from state legislatures above the Mason‐​Dixon line. These legislatures slowly and cautiously abolished chattel slavery over the next 80 years. Below the Mason‐​Dixon, the laws sanctioning a slave‐​based society stood virtually unchanged until 1861.

Jefferson on Slavery

Edmund S. Morgan

Review Article of Gary Wills, Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. New York: Doubleday, 1978. In The New York Review of Books 25 (August 17, 1978): 38–40.

Jefferson’s moral and political thinking on the vital topics of the basis of social contract and his attitude toward slavery receives clarification from Gary Wills’s new exegesis of the Declaration of Independence. Seeking sources beyond John Locke, Wills propounds Jefferson’s intellectual indebtedness to such Scottish Enlightenment thinkers as Kames, Hume, Hutcheson, Ferguson, Reid, Dugald Steward, and Adam Smith.

In contrast to Locke’s atomistic individuals, who through intellectual calculation form an artificial social contract and enter into civil society from a conjectural nonsocial “state of nature,” Hutcheson emphasized a universal, innate, and natural “moral sense” that benevolently moved mankind to live in social community. The Declaration’s credo that “all men are created equal” goes beyond Lockean equal ownership of each man’s person to a present social fact that all mankind equally possesses a moral sense, and derivative social rights, despite differences in talents and externals.

This Scottish theory of moral sentiments might help resolve the contradictions in Jefferson’s remarks on the natural inferiority of blacks voiced in the Notes on Virginia. In that work Jefferson judged that blacks were mentally and physically inferior to whites, but endorsed their equality in possessing a common faculty of a moral sense of the “heart.” This assertion was crucial because it is this egalitarian moral sense that “gives man his unique dignity, that grounds his rights, that makes him self‐​governing.”

But Jefferson was no abolitionist. Because of his allegiance to white society, he favored emigration from America for freed slaves. This ambivalent attitude reveals Jefferson’s dilemma as what Morgan terms a “conflict between his hatred of slavery and his devotion to a society that failed to abolish it.” Jefferson’s devotion to white society surfaces in his distress over Congress’s deletion of a section of his Declaration draft. Originally Jefferson had complained of King George’s attempt (through Virginia’s Governor Dunmore) to free any slaves who would support the loyalist cause: “he is now exciting those very people [black slaves] to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty.…” Congress substituted the more ambiguous wording: “He has excited domestic insurrections among us.” The original wording contradictorily combined a condemnation of slavery and the slave trade with a condemnation of slave insurrections to gain freedom. This is a strange tension in a document justifying political insurrection. Jefferson and the supporters of the Declaration felt by their moral sentiment more loyal to the society of white Americans who “stood ready to defend against Kings, loyalists, and slaves alike.”

A similar exegesis of the “domestic insurrections” passage as a muted reference to American slave revolts also appears in Sidney Kaplan, “The ‘Domestic Insurrections’ of the Declaration of Independence.” Journal of Negro History 41 (January 1976): 243–255.

Slavery and the Poor

J.H. Plumb

“Slavery, Race and the Poor.” In In the Light of History. New York: Dell Publishing Co. 1974, pp. 102–113.

Although racism against blacks in America aggravated the mistreatment of slaves and subjected freed blacks to an unequal color caste, it was more an excuse than a cause of slavery. Virulent forms of English xenophobic racism, having no causal link with slavery, had previously been directed against the Dutch, French, and Irish. A more balanced view of American social history dealing with black‐​white race relations is needed to supplement the insights of such works as W.D. Jordan, White over Black: American Attitudes towards the Negro, 1550–1812 (1968); Black History: A Reappraisal, Melvin Drimmer, ed. (1968); American Negro Slavery: A Modern Reader, Allen Weinstein and F.O. Gatell, eds., (1968); and Michael Banton, Race Relations (1968).

In reality, the evils of American and English slavery grew from the more general evil of social subordination of servants, workers, the poor, and slaves a like. Both the poor and slaves suffered similar social oppression over the centuries because both groups could be exploited as cheap sources of labor and wealth. The early English slave codes, in fact, resembled legislation to control the Elizabethan jobless poor. The similarities between the treatment of slaves and the poor allow us to see how normal slavery could appear to an earlier society.

Slavery occasioned tensions among America’s founding fathers who evaded or postponed the question of abolition. Slavery for the American revolutionaries represented a conflict between the natural rights of all men and the Lockean holiness of property. After 1800, two forces were at loggerheads: the revolutionary heritage of freedom or equal rights and fears about the effects of black emancipation on family life and the social order. Thus, even though slavery might be abolished, racism would continue.

The crucial question of why abolition gained so strong a social support is answerable by again looking at the status of the working class poor. In England the most pronounced antislavery movement occurred among the entrepreneurs of the Industrial Revolution. Quaker industrialists and other businessmen formed a new attitude toward the poor working class. From the perspective of Adam Smith, workers in modern industries would be more productive if they received more incentives, better skills, and improved conditions. Josiah Wedgwood and other imaginative industrialists experimented with higher wages and better working conditions for their workers. Spurred by the incentives of self‐​interest, workers had great advantages in production over unfree slaves. In the new industrial society, the poor gradually turned into the working class.