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History

Adding Missing Context to the Slavery Debate

The cover of the latest issue of National Review (Roberto Parada)

There has been a lot missing or misrepresented in The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project and related progressive efforts to use slavery to discredit the United States, the American Founding, its principles, or for that matter, Christianity, capitalism, and/or Western civilization. In the latest issue of National Review, we take a look at the 1619 Project book and its ideas from a number of directions.

One of the big missing pieces is understanding the ancient origins and global scope of slavery. My contribution takes a deep dive into that topic. A sampling:

Slavery was a human crime of which Americans were one part. It proliferated for millennia before slaves are first known to have been sold in Virginia, in 1619. It persisted long after it was abolished in the United States in 1865. It was practiced by people far from our shores without American influence. People were enslaved in virtually every society from which American slaves were descended. Few of the world’s major civilizations have been innocent of it. In the story of world slavery, Americans loom much larger in the history of abolition than in the history of enslavement . . .

Slavery and its close cousin, serfdom, were the lot of a vast proportion of the human race, beginning in ancient times and continuing for over 1,300 years after the fall of Rome in the fifth century a.d. Slavery’s origins cannot be located; it predates history, and in many parts of the world it appears as early as there are historical records. . . . Long before Columbus, slavery was practiced in ancient Egypt, Babylon, and Assyria, in the Byzantine Empire, in Kievan Russia, in the Aztec and Mayan empires, and throughout the Islamic world. The Spanish conquistadors found slaves numerous in Central America in the 1520s. . . . Slavery had a long, varied history in Asia. . . . Europeans did not invent the African slave trade; they found it already in progress and made it their own. Slavery and slave-trading had deep roots in Africa. . . . While African slavery was spreading west, north, and east, another vast empire of enslavement was growing in Russia.

I go on from there to examine exactly what was, and was not, unique or different about slavery and abolition in America.

For those looking to dig under the hood: A magazine or web article doesn’t really lend itself to footnotes and sources. There is, in particular, a lot of still-ongoing scholarly debate on quantifying the number of slaves in various systems and slave trades over time and space; I have tried to use something approximating consensus figures. For readers who want to more carefully examine the issue, I offer below a list of sources for the facts and data in my piece (organized alphabetically; the Drescher books were particularly informative for global and comparative examination of the topic):

Books:

Catherine Clinton, Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, Little, Brown and Company (2004).

Gregory P. Downs, The Second American Revolution: The Civil War-Era Struggle over Cuba and the Rebirth of the American Republic, University of North Carolina Press (2019).

Seymour Drescher, Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery, Cambridge University Press (2009).

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

David Eltis, Economic Growth and the Ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, Oxford University Press (1987).

Niall Ferguson, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, Basic Books (2002).

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholder’s Worldview, Cambridge University Press (2005).

Toby Green, A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution, Penguin Books (2019).

Paul E. Lovejoy, ed., Slavery on the Frontiers of Islam, Markus Wiener Publishers (2004).

James McPherson, The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, Oxford University Press (1988).

Richard S. Newman, The Transformation of American Abolitionism: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic, University of North Carolina Press (2002).

Jürgen Osterhammel, The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century, Princeton University Press (2009; English translation in 2014 by Patrick Camiller).

Rev. Joel S. Panzer, The Popes and Slavery, Alba House (1996).

Carl Lawrence Paulus, The Slaveholding Crisis: Fear of Insurrection and the Coming of the Civil War, Louisiana State University Press (2017).

Sue Peabody, There Are No Slaves in France, Oxford University Press (2002).

William D. Phillips, Slavery in Medieval and Early Modern Iberia, University of Pennsylvania Press (2014).

M. M. Postan et al., eds., The Cambridge Economic History of Europe from the Decline of the Roman Empire, Volume 1: Agrarian Life of the Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press (1941).

Ronald Segal, Islam’s Black Slaves: The Other Black Diaspora, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2001).

Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition, Yale University Press (2016).

Harriet Beecher Stowe, A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, J. P. Jewett & Co. (1853).

Articles:

Evsey D. Domar, “The Causes of Slavery or Serfdom: A Hypothesis,” Journal of Economic History, Vol. 30, No. 1, The Tasks of Economic History (Mar. 1970), pp. 18–32.

Seymour Drescher, “British Way, French Way, British Way, French Way: Opinion Building and Revolution in the Second French Slave Emancipation,” American Historical Review, Vol. 96, No. 3 (Jun., 1991), pp. 709–734.

Donald Gray Eder, “Time under the Southern Cross: The Tannenbaum Thesis Reappraised,” Agricultural History, Vol. 50, No. 4 (Oct., 1976), pp. 600–614.

David Hacker, “From ‘20. and odd’ to 10 million: The growth of the slave population in the United States,” Slavery Abol. (2021), https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33281246/.

Malcolm Heath, “Aristotle on Natural Slavery,” Phronesis, Vol. 53, No. 3 (2008), pp. 243–270.

William C. Hine, “American Slavery and Russian Serfdom: A Preliminary Comparison,” Phylon (1960-), Vol. 36, No. 4 (4th Qtr., 1975), pp. 378–384.

Robin Law, “Dahomey and the Slave Trade: Reflections on the Historiography of the Rise of Dahomey,” Journal of African History, Vol. 27, No. 2, Special Issue in Honour of J.D. Fage (1986), pp. 237–267.

Robin Law, “Slave-Raiders and Middlemen, Monopolists and Free-Traders: The Supply of Slaves for the Atlantic Trade in Dahomey c. 1715–1850,” Journal of African History, Vol. 30, No. 1 (1989), pp. 45–68.

Paul E. Lovejoy, “Plantations in the Economy of the Sokoto Caliphate,” Journal of African History, Vol. 19, No. 3 (1978), pp. 341–368.

Jean Jacques Rosa, “The Causes of Serfdom: Domar’s Puzzle Revisited,” Sciences Po Paris (rev., May 2, 2011), abstract at http://ssrn.com/abstract=1833511.

David C. Tambo, “The Sokoto Caliphate Slave Trade in the Nineteenth Century,” International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 9, No. 2 (1976), pp. 187–217.

T. Williams, “The Abolition of Slavery in the Chinese Empire,” American Journal of International Law, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Oct., 1910), pp. 794–805.

 

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