Tag Archives: Abolitionism

The Logic of the Antislavery Movement

The following is the text of a presentation I gave at the Antislavery Usable Past workshop at the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation. For more information about the conference and the paper, please click here.

I would like to talk about two things today: capitalism and abolitionist missionaries in Africa in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. I am interested in both of these things, and I think they are related in an important way. First, I want to dwell for a bit on capitalism as an interpretive lens for understanding the problem of slavery and abolition. And that leads me to this quote:

Whoever is not willing to talk about capitalism should also keep silent about fascism.

– Max Horkheimer (1939)

This is a famous quote. We can call it the Horkheimer thesis. It’s quite controversial, but it’s also very true, and most of the controversy is about the extent of its true-ness. There also seems to be a nineteenth century parallel to the Horkheimer thesis. There is no direct quote, but it might be paraphrased as follows:

Whoever is not willing to talk about capitalism should also keep silent about slavery.

-Edward Baptist
Sven Beckert
Seth Rockman
Caitlin Rosenthal
Walter Johnson
Dale Tomich
etc., etc.

We might call this the new synthesis in slavery studies, which has emerged rather quickly over the past two or three years (although it’s rooted in earlier work and much older debates in the field).

While earlier work tended to focus on individual slaveholding economies and the extent to which they were capitalist, or pre-capitalist, or feudal (or whatever Eugene Genovese thought slavery was about), this new work sidesteps those questions by exploring how African chattel slavery was integral to the entire process of capitalist globalization. Although they did not have all of the benefit of hindsight, contemporaries recognized this curious phenomenon as it was unfolding, and this brings me to the following quote from Marx:

Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns as are machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery which has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies which have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry…Slavery is therefore an economic category of paramount importance.

-Karl Marx (1846)

This is a great quote to use with students in classroom discussions, or as an essay prompt (Do you agree with Marx? Why or why not?). In a way, Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton is an extremely elaborate answer to this question. The new synthesis on nineteenth-century chattel slavery also helps to explain, at least in part, why slavery continues to persist in the modern global economy. If slavery is integral to capitalism, at least in some sense, and if we are living in an age of unprecedented capitalist hegemony, as pretty much everyone seems to agree, then of course slavery will continue to be a problem. And it will continue to be a problem, I would like to suggest, until we fully acknowledge and understand the central role that various forms of unfree labor play in capitalist economies. And this brings me to the topic of abolitionism.

If, as the new synthesis suggests, one cannot talk about slavery without talking about capitalism, then the same must be true, at least to some extent, about abolitionism. If slavery is integral to capitalism, then antislavery must, at least in some way, be about anti-capitalism. Now, I don’t want to suggest that abolitionists were running around in Che Guevara t-shirts, waving AK-47s, and talking about the dictatorship of the proletariat (although a minority of abolitionists, I think, did stuff that could be considered roughly equivalent). Many, if not most, abolitionists sought a limited form of capitalism, without excess greed, or excess wealth, or excess exploitation. In that sense, their views were very similar to those recently articulated by Pope Francis, and they can be traced, in part, to the same egalitarian traditions in the New Testament (in its Catholic form, it’s known as Distributism).

As most of you folks probably know, there is an extensive literature on the relationship between capitalism and abolitionism, stretching back to Eric Williams, who set the terms of the debate, for better or for worse, back in the 1940s. But it’s been relatively quiet over the past few decades, and it remains to be seen how the new synthesis in slavery studies will challenge what we know about abolitionism. Even if the answers are not clear at this point, however, it should not stop us from asking the questions.

George JulianIn thinking about the lessons of antislavery (the question of this conference), it occurred to me to investigate what the original abolitionists had to say about this. What lessons did they see in their movement? As it turns out, they said quite a bit, and some of them even said stuff about capitalism. One of the most important moments, when abolitionists gathered to collectively reflect on their movement, was the big “Antislavery Reunion” in Chicago in the summer of 1874. And one of the featured speakers at this reunion was George Julian. A congressman from Indiana, Julian was an old-school abolitionist, a lawyer who had helped organize both the Free Soil and the Republican parties. His long involvement in the movement had led him to some of the same conclusions that Marx had reached earlier, and he also anticipated some of the conclusions of the new synthesis in slavery studies.

Julian’s speech in Chicago was aptly titled: “The Lessons of the Anti-Slavery Conflict.” And in this speech he devoted a large amount of time to what he called “the slavery question in other forms.” One of the most important lessons of antislavery, Julian argued, was women’s rights. This will come as no surprise to students of first-wave feminism and its deep roots in abolitionist political culture. But equally, if not more important, according to Julian, was the struggle against capitalism. “African slavery was simply one form of the domination of capital over the poor,” he argued.

The system of Southern slavery was the natural outgrowth of that generally accepted political philosophy which makes the protection of property the chief end of Government. It was only the strongly-emphasized expression of the maxim that ‘capital should own labor’…The labor question, as I have often said, is the natural successor and logical sequence of the slavery question. It is the slavery question, renewed in other forms and generalized. The abolition of poverty is the next work in order after converting the African chattel into a man, and the Abolitionist who does not see this fails to grasp the logic of the Anti-Slavery movement.

-George Julian (1874)

Not long after Julian gave his speech about capital and the persistence of different forms of enslavement, the abolitionist conventioneers gathered to celebrate the American Missionary Association. “It alone of all the earlier Anti-Slavery organizations retains a vigorous existence,” read their report. “It embodies much of the old Abolition feeling,” they continued, “now happily turned toward the intellectual and moral culture of the freedmen.” So, in other words, here was another antislavery lesson.

Founded in 1846, but with roots reaching back a decade earlier, the AMA was the largest, the longest-running, and the most wide-reaching abolitionist organization in the United States. Although best known for its educational work among former slaves, the AMA supported similar efforts among Chinese immigrants, Native Americans, and the white working class. And its foreign department included stations in Canada, Egypt, Haiti, Hawaii, Jamaica, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Thailand, and the Marquesas Islands, among other places.

The AMA’s Mendi Mission, located in what is now southern Sierra Leone, was its flagship project for almost four decades, running between 1842 and 1882. Established as an extension of the Amistad slave revolt, the mission was a transatlantic branch of the Underground Railroad and a key frontier of action and imagination in the global contest over slavery. The mission also challenges conventional interpretations of the Civil War era. Well over one hundred ministers and teachers of different genders, colors, and backgrounds served as a bridge linking religion and politics across two continents, and their attempts to reconstruct Africa prefigured and complimented postwar southern reconstruction. There is a lot more that needs to be said about the AMA and the Mendi Mission, but in the time that I have remaining, I will limit myself to some of the missionaries’ experiments in free labor and labor discipline, because this is where I think the African-American story of the Mendi Mission intersects with the big, macro-level, global capitalism story that I mentioned at the beginning of my talk.

I should point out that by “free labor,” abolitionists meant free as in speech, not free as in beer. (Although I think there are some interesting tensions in that language.) There is a modest body of literature on the free produce and free labor movements, but surprisingly little on the movements’ African dimensions. As it turns out, agricultural production was a longstanding project at the Mendi Mission. As early as 1839, mission founder Augustus Hanson had suggested farm work as a path to racial uplift. Abolitionist missionary William Raymond concurred. “The slave trade will not be stopped,” he prophesied, “and the people raised from their degradation, until their attention is directed to the cultivation of the soil.” By the 1850s, the mission’s geographic headquarters at Kaw Mendi boasted a small field, which supplied root vegetables and other staples for local consumption. The African men who worked on the farm were intended as living advertisements for the free labor system, and the missionaries kept meticulous records of their attendance, productivity, and wages. Although the mission was never self-sustaining, manual labor of this sort was considered important. Working on the land would encourage discipline and “manly independence.” By occupying idle hands and minds, it would prevent the cycle of civil war that fed the slave trade. Most importantly, it would provide an economic alternative to mercantile networks in tobacco, rum, weapons, and slaves.

The Mendi missionaries made several attempts to introduce an export economy in free labor cotton and sugar. Although cotton grew naturally in the region and Mende weavers carried on an extensive clothing trade, the missionaries’ goal was to increase output on a global scale. Henry Miles, a leader in the Free Labor movement in the United States, encouraged these efforts. It was, he wrote to his African colleagues, “useless to attempt to put down slavery by argument or even by legislation while we persist in upholding the slaveholder by acting the part of agents in commerce for his benefit.” After his son, Richard, signed up for the Mendi Mission, Miles sent cottonseeds and facilitated contact with free labor manufacturers in Manchester, England.

With the start of the Civil War in 1861, the missionaries saw a golden opportunity to enter the global marketplace. Since “American Slavery owes its continued existence and power to the great and increasing demand for cotton,” they reasoned, a new supply from African workers would put the entire system out of business. Although retired from the mission by this time, abolitionist celebrity George Thompson proposed a 500-acre cotton plantation on the West African littoral, complete with its own city, over which he would “have just as full control, as any king.”

So that gives you a sense of some of the stakes involved in this project, and the big plans that American abolitionists had in store for the African economy. And it’s worth pointing out that it was not only the Mendi Missionaries doing this. The missionaries maintained active links with the African Civilization Society, the British Freedmen’s Aid Society, Liberian settlers, the Basel mission on the Gold Coast, and other groups attempting similar free labor experiments. Pro-slavery apologists even floated fanciful ideas in the 1850s and 1860s to send southern American slaveholders and overseers to Africa to teach labor discipline to the allegedly “lazy” inhabitants. To these men, the entire continent was “only a great wilderness of loungers.” Abolitionists sometimes fell into similar rhetoric, but unlike their opponents, they placed the blame for African “degradation” on the slave trade and its legacies within the global economy.

Perhaps the most visible symbol of the Mendi Mission was the John Brown steamship. Named after the militant abolitionist, who had led an ill-fated raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in 1859, the ship was a symbol of the bustling economic transition that the missionaries hoped to accomplish in Africa. In fact, it was the first mercantile vessel of its kind in that part of the continent. As a representative of the mission, it refused to transport spirituous liquors or other material considered harmful to African industry and progress. Constructed in the early 1880s, as the memory of John Brown began to be supplanted in the United States by the defeat of Reconstruction and the culture of reconciliation, the John Brown steamship also sent a message that the memory of radical abolitionism would live on, outside the borders of the United States.

Of course, all of these utopian schemes for the economic transformation of Africa were no match for reality. Most free labor projects failed miserably due to a lack of funds, poor organization, or tropical disease. Where it took hold, an increase in legitimate commercial activity actually tended to bolster indigenous forms of slavery. At the same time, the Mendi missionaries faced strikes, desertions, theft, and a general lack of interest in their strict labor regime. Although the missionaries eventually established a moderately successful lumber mill at Avery station, near what is now Mano on the Bagru River, the settlement was never self-supporting, and the mill was eventually destroyed during the anti-colonial “Hut Tax” Revolt of 1898.

It would be easy to conclude that the Mendi missionaries did not learn the lessons of Marx, or George Julian, or the new synthesis in slavery studies. But that is not really true. Most of the missionaries were at least vaguely aware of these issues. And most missionaries realized that economic transformation alone would not be enough to completely abolish slavery. All of the missionaries recognized the central role of warfare in the perpetuation of African slavery (and slavery more generally). In fact, we can still see this today, in places like Iraq and Syria. “Put an end to war,” wrote missionary James Tefft in 1854, “and the slave-trade cannot be carried on. Stop the slave-trade, and there remains no cause for war.” Of course, exactly how to go about stopping war, or exactly how to go about stopping the slave trade, were complicated strategic questions.

Barnabas RootThere was an interesting split among the Mendi missionaries on this issue. Some of them, perhaps the majority, felt that British, or American, or French imperial forces were necessary allies of the mission. Providing the secular stick to the mission’s cultural carrot, these forces would pacify the African landscape and create a more business-friendly environment for foreign investment and trade. Others felt that such efforts were counter-productive, merely replacing one form of warfare with another. And they tended to support the rights of indigenous African communities to determine their own fate. Missionary Barnabas Root, who was educated by American abolitionists in Africa, and who led a church in Reconstruction-era Alabama before returning to his home, made this point clear. Rather than forcing foreign cultural norms on West African people, he wrote in 1876: “I am strongly in favor of going half way to meet the people in these respects when it can be done…I would prefer that Christianity come unattended by that officious hand-maiden modern civilization.”

So what can the experience of abolitionist missionaries in Africa in the nineteenth century teach us about eliminating slavery in the twenty-first century? It is difficult to summarize such an extremely complex and important history in a short talk. But, even with this very cursory overview, I think we can discern two broad lessons. First, if we want to fight slavery effectively, we need to develop a more robust critique of global capitalism. Campaigns such as Slavery Footprint, which are a positive development, are not sufficient. No movement for free labor or fair trade, by itself, has ever succeeded in abolishing slavery. If we remain silent about capitalism, then we cannot talk about abolitionism. Secondly, if slavery is rooted in, and feeds off of warfare, then anyone interested in the abolition of slavery should be working alongside groups seeking an end to war – especially the culture of war that favors quick solutions by throwing guns and missiles at a problem, rather than long-term structural change. Without a more sophisticated appreciation of the intimate relationship between capitalism and slavery, and without participating in larger coalitions with groups working for a culture of peace, the movement against modern-day slavery will not succeed.

Globalizing the Nineteenth Century

Nineteenth-century Americans viewed themselves through an international lens. Among the most important artifacts of this global consciousness is William Channing Woodbridge’s “Moral and Political Chart of the Inhabited World.” First published in 1821 and reproduced in various shapes and sizes in the decades prior to the Civil War, Woodbridge’s chart was a central and popular component of classroom instruction. I use it in my research and teaching. It forms a key part of my argument about the abolitionist encounter with Africa. And every time I look at it, I see something new or unexpected.

Like basketball and jazz, the moral chart is an innovation unique to the United States. The earliest iterations depart from the Eurocentric and Atlantic focus with which modern readers are most familiar. Reflecting the early American obsession with westward expansion, they gaze out over the Pacific Ocean to East Asia and the Polynesian Islands. The chart features a plethora of statistical and critical data. Nations and territories are ranked according to their “Degrees of Civilisation,” form of government, and religion. Darker colored regions are “savage” or “barbarous” while rays of bright light pour out from the Eastern United States and Northern Europe.

Thematic mapping of this sort was nothing radically new. John Wyld’s “Chart of the World Shewing the Religion, Population and Civilization of Each Country,” published in London in 1815, graded national groups on a progressive scale, from I to V. Wyld gave himself a V and the United States a I, II, and IV. Woodbridge may have been inspired by this example, but he also took it to a new level. Drawing on the climatological charts developed by German explorer Alexander von Humboldt, he used complex shading and mathematical coordinates to give an air of scientific precision. And he placed the United States on a civilized par with Europe. With its sophisticated detail and colorful imagery, it is easy to see why Woodbridge’s image became a runaway success. It is deeply disturbing to compare it to recent NASA maps of the global electrical grid.

Countless men and women stared at similar maps and reports from foreign lands and dreamed and imagined and schemed about their futures. Some experienced dramatic revelations. Visiting friends in 1837, itinerant minister Zilpha Elaw heard the voice of God: “I have a message for her to go with upon the high seas and she will go.” Others were simply bored. Prior to his arrival in Monrovia that same year, medical student David Francis Bacon daydreamed about Africa, “torrid, pestilential, savage, mysterious.” George Thompson, a prisoner in Missouri in the 1840s, read articles from the Union Missionary aloud to his fellow inmates. “We quickly pass from Mendi to Guinea, Gaboon, Natal, Ceylon, Bombay, Madura, Siam, China, Palestine, Turkey, The Islands, the Rocky Mountains, Red Lake,” he wrote in his journal, “from tribe to tribe – from nation to nation – from continent to continent, and round the world we go.”

Woodbridge’s chart and others like it inspired a slew of “moral maps” illustrated by antislavery activists, in which the slave states were usually colored the darkest black. One of the most explicit, published by British ophthalmologist John Bishop Estlin, used blood red to symbolize the “blighting influence” of the South oozing out into the rest of the country. An 1848 broadside showed slavery poised to swallow the entire hemisphere, from Cuba to Central America to the Pacific Rim. Another used a black arrow to trace the “curse of slavery” from Virginia to war, treason, murder, and hell (which is located in Texas). The most famous of the Woodbridge descendants were the elaborate “free soil” charts and diagrams used in electoral campaigns. Crammed with statistics correlating slaveholding with illiteracy and political tyranny, these charts became crucial organizing tools both before and during the Civil War.

The most unusual map I unearthed in the course of my research reversed the logic of the typical moral chart by shining a bright light on the African continent. Published by the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1842 and reprinted many times thereafter, this map reveals the movement’s Afrocentric global vision. Europe and North America recede into darkness as Africa takes center stage. The United States, flanked by the term SLAVERY, is almost falling off the map at the edge of the world. Most editions coupled this image with a moral map of the U.S. South, which colored the slaveholding states, and even the waterways surrounding them, as darkly savage, the lowest of the low on the Woodbridge scale. The juxtaposition of these two images significantly complicates historians’ assumptions about Africa as “the dark continent.” Although we now know that the human race, language, culture, and civilization all began in Africa, such views were not uncommon in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Contemporary ideas about African cultures were complex and often mixed condescension with respect. Most surprising of all, I know of no historian who has given sustained attention to this map. With the exception of outstanding books by Martin Brückner and Susan Schulten, I know of few historians who have engaged the legacies of William Woodbridge’s various moral charts.

The past five or ten years have witnessed an explosion of scholarship on the global dimensions of American history and the birth of a new field, sometimes referred to as “The United States in the World.” Nineteenth-century history is very much a part of this trend, but progress has been slow and uneven. The nineteenth century was America’s nationalist century, with the Civil War serving as its fulcrum in both classrooms and books. Perhaps understandably, there is a tendency to look inward during times of national crisis. Yet as I and others have argued, nationalism – and racism, and sexism, and classism, and other related isms – are a fundamentally international process. Woodbridge’s Moral and Political Chart is the perfect example. Simultaneously nationalist and international, it depicts the United States embedded in a world of turmoil and change. Two recent conferences in South Carolina and Germany are evidence of a rising momentum that seeks to re-situate the U.S. Civil War era as part of a much broader global conflict. But a great deal of work remains to be done.

To get a sense of where the field is heading, its strengths as well as its weaknesses, it is necessary to map the terrain. To my knowledge, no one has attempted an organized and comprehensive database of the rapidly growing literature on the international dimensions of nineteenth-century American history. So, not too long ago, I launched a Zotero library to see what could be done. Based on the bibliography for my dissertation, it is decidedly biased and impressionistic. Aside from brilliant entries by Gerald Horne and Robert Rosenstone, the Pacific World and Asia are underrepresented. The same could be said for Mexico and the rest of Latin America. Since the nineteenth-century, like all historical periods, is essentially an ideological construction, I have been flexible with the dates. I think anything from the early national period (circa 1783) through the entry into World War I (circa 1917) should be fair game. Although he is not chiefly concerned with the United States, this roughly corresponds to the limits set a decade ago by C. A. Bayly. I also subdivided the material based on publication medium (book, chapter, article, dissertation, etc.). This system can and probably should be refined in the future to allow sorting by geographic focus and time frame.

Zotero is admired by researchers and teachers alike. Over the past seven years, it has evolved a robust set of features, including the ability to collaborate on group projects. The Zotpress plugin, which generates custom citations for blog posts, is another really neat feature. As a content management system, it still has its flaws. The web interface can be sluggish for lower bandwidth users, and compared to Drupal or Omeka, the member roles and permissions are downright archaic. If an admin wants a user to be able to create content but not edit or delete other users’ content, for example, there is no real solution. Admins are able to close membership, so that users must request an invitation to join the group. This allows tight control over the content community. But it arguably kills a good deal of the spontaneity and anonymity that energizes the most successful crowdsourcing experiments. At the same time, the Zotero API and its various branches are fully open source and customizable, so I really can’t complain.

The biggest problem is the randomness of the semantic web. Primarily a browser plugin, Zotero allows users to surf to a site, book, or journal article and add that item to their bibliography with a single click. Sites do not always have the best metadata, however, so manual fixes are usually required. Several of the books I added from Google Books had an incorrect publication date. Others had very little or no descriptive data at all. Without delving into complicated debates about GRDDL or Dublin Core, I will just say that a catalog is only as good as its metadata. None of this has anything to do with Zotero, of course, which still gives the 3×5 index card a run for its money.

Although I admit I am not a heavy user, Zotero struck me as the ideal platform for an historiographical potluck. My Nineteenth-Century U.S. History in International Perspective group is now live. Anyone can view the library, and anyone who signs on as a member can add and edit information (I just ask that members not delete others’ content or make major changes without consulting the group). As of right now, I have not added any substantive notes to the source material. But it might be neat to do this and compile the database as an annotated bibliography. I will try to update the library as I’m able. At the very least, it will be an interesting experiment. A large part of the battle for history is just knowing what material is out there.

Cross-posted at The Historical Society