American Slavery and ‘the Relentless Unforeseen’Roundup
tags: slavery, Sean Wilentz
Sean Wilentz is the George Henry Davis 1886 professor of American History at Princeton University.
Although they diverge sharply, the most common accounts of American slavery have an air of inevitability about them. This is especially true regarding the abolition of slavery in 1865. Whether celebrated as a monument to freedom or diminished as a transition from one form of racial oppression to another, the course of Emancipation can seem almost preordained, the product of essential features of American life. If anything, we wonder why it didn’t happen sooner, and condemn past generations for their hypocrisy, mendacity, and cruelty. Yet few things if any in modern history were more unexpected than the eradication of human bondage in the Atlantic world.
A fixture and force in Western culture, time out of mind, slavery, and more specifically racial slavery, had been essential to the European settlement of the New World ever since the Portuguese pioneered the plantation system with enslaved African labor in the sixteenth century. Apart from sporadic protests, the spread of slavery went virtually unchallenged by European and British settlers let alone their governments; periodic slave revolts and insurrectionary plots did not appreciably slow the rise of the plantation complex that at its height stretched from Brazil to the Caribbean to British North America. There is evidence inside the Anglo-American world, dating back to the seventeenth century, of popular repugnance at slavery and, especially, at the brutal Atlantic slave trade, but that sentiment slumbered for many decades, sufficient to raise moral doubts but too feeble to produce political action.
Suddenly, in the late 1740s and early 1750s, Western culture reached a turning point, producing what the great modern scholar of slavery and the antislavery movement David Brion Davis called “an almost explosive consciousness of man’s freedom to shape the world in accordance with his own will and reason.” The causes of this moral revolution were manifold and remain much debated, but need not detain us here; what is important is that it brought, in Davis’s words, “a heightened concern for discovering laws and principles that would enable human society to be something more than an endless contest of greed and power.” That concern made slavery appear for the first time—to the un-enslaved—as a barbaric offense to God, reason, and natural rights.
Rejecting the dogmas of the past meant scrutinizing inequality, personal sovereignty, national sovereignty, and servitude of every kind. In France, Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws destroyed ancient justifications for slavery, which inspired and emboldened antislavery religious sectarians and budding philosophes across the Atlantic world. In Philadelphia, the pioneering Quaker abolitionist John Woolman, a major figure in the antislavery awakening, published his first antislavery tract in 1754. A few years later, his friend and fellow Quaker Anthony Benezet began recruiting a network of intellectuals and political leaders to the cause. By the mid-1770s, in the American colonies as well as in Britain and France, a significant number of reformers and intellectuals had come to regard American slavery as pure evil. Over the next fifteen years, they set in motion political movements dedicated to eradicating the degradation of persons into property.
Against slavery’s millennia, the struggle to abolish it came abruptly. By the end of the succeeding century, against slavery’s immense and unyielding power, it had largely succeeded. As a spiritual as well as political endeavor, it is one of the most, if not themost astonishing unfolding of the unforeseen in all of recorded human history. Yet it is too often at best consigned to the inevitable, as something that was bound to happen as if in the natural unfolding of progress. At worst, it is pushed to the margins, as if slavery’s abolition came about without abolitionists, without politics, let alone without rebellious slaves—the byproduct, as some accounts say, of impersonal, amoral economic forces, or the unintended outcome of white people’s selfish squabbles over policy and profits, or even as an accident.
The neglect of historical understanding of the antislavery impulse, especially in its early decades, alters how we view not just our nation’s history but the nation itself. More and more in these pessimistic times, we are learning once again, and with a sense of justice, that the United States and its past are rooted in vicious racial slavery and the lasting inequities that are slavery’s legacy. We learn too little or not at all that the United States and its past are also rooted in the struggle against slavery, and in the larger revolutionary transformation of moral perception that produced that struggle—a transformation that, with all of the contradictions, helped give the New World its symbolic meaning of rebirth.