August 05, 2006

Barone on Anglosphere and Abolition

Michael Barone's blog has an interesting post on several recent books on the abolition of slavery. In this he discusses in particular the role of the Anglosphere in abolition. He observes:

"This is not the lesson that today's transnational and multicultural elites in the United States and the United Kingdom like to tell. They like to portray American slavery as particularly vicious and slavery as a system imposed by evil Dead White European Males on a virtuous but unfortunately powerless Rest of the World. Davis and Temperley know better. Almost all human societies had slavery. Only one human society--the Anglosphere, starting in Britain and then in America--set out to abolish first the slave trade (enormously profitable to many Britons) and then slavery itself (enormously profitable to many Americans). "There had been nothing like it in ancient or medieval times or in any other society of which we have record." The philosophes of France, with their emphasis on pure reason, did not think to advocate the abolition of the slave trade and slavery. (See Gertrude Himmelfarb's The Road to Modernity: the British, French, and American Enlightenments on this point: The French philosophes' idea of a good society was one ruled by enlightened despots, i.e., despots governed by themselves, which their successors tried to put into place during the French Revolution.) English Evangelical Christians, like William Wilberforce and Granville Sharp, did--and accomplished their goal. So, in their wake, did Americans like William Lloyd Garrison, the Grimke sisters, and Frederick Douglass. Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 (much to its economic detriment) and the United States followed, at the earliest date permissible under the Constitution, in 1808 (though the economic detriment to the United States was much less)."

Of course many things were going on in the process of Abolition, some moral, some pragmatic, and many a mix of various motives. The moral Abolitionists, many of whom were technology entrepreneurs, were quite good at understanding how to create economic incentives to further their ends -- for example, the Quaker merchants of York understood that alternate economic activities would have to be created in West Africa if local people, who made their living from the slave trade, were to cooperate in abolition. To this end they created the modern chocolate industry (several key companies of which are still based in York) to increase the market for West African cacao.

One consideration that is often overlooked is that the particular outcome of the American revolution (with the southern mainland becoming part of the independent US, and the British West Indies remaining in the Empire) accelerated abolition in both parts of the Anglosphere. The declining sugar industry in the islands, which for the most part were unsuitable for the other slave-grown crops, was stuck with slaves who could no longer be exported for sale to mainland cotton plantations. The mainland cotton plantations, which were demographic sinks and could not replace their own numbers, were cut off from what would otherwise have been a fresh source of slaves. British abolition in the islands was a moral triumph, but it also had somewhat of the character of a government bailout of a declining industry, as the state compensated plantation-owners for liberated slaves that frankly could not have been sold en masse in the internal market of the Indies. This would not have been the case had the Revolution failed, or had the rebels succeeded in their ambitions of making the islands part of the USA.

Common Law played a part as well. Lexington Green made the following comment in email to me:

"Slavery -- USA and UK were not only responding to a religious revival, but harking back to their own earlier politico-legal roots. Slavery had been illegal in England itself for a long time. Slavery was always a bad fit with English law. The Anglophone slave owning communities had to adopt Spanish law, which being Roman derived, was a better fit to incorporate humans as chattels."

The key was the Mansfield Decision, in which Lord Mansfield accepted the plaintiff's argument that Common Law had never recognized the status of slave, and no English statute had ever created such. Colonial statutes had created the status in the colonies, copied from the Spanish (Roman-derived) slave codes. Roman law had of course supported the existence of slave markets in Iberia before 1492, so there never had been a legal gap there -- slavery had been part of Roman, Visigoth, Muslim, and post-Reconquista Iberian societies alike. Until the Barbadians colonized Charleston, and brought Spanish-inspired slave codes with them, Virginia and Maryland had been using cobbled-together adaptations of indentureship and apprenticeship laws to control the chattel slaves that had ended up there. It had not been clear for some decades after 1619 in Virginia whether these Africans and Afro-Latins (the first slave whose name was known was called "Antonio") were to be held for life, or whether their children would be slave or free.

Many were set free at some point in the early years. If there are any descendants of the first Africans brought over, they may well be considered white today, since many of the initial freed slaves intermarried.

You can see these Roman concepts slowly infiltrate colonial law in the Anglosphere between 1619 and 1700.

Posted by James C. Bennett at August 5, 2006 05:20 PM


I certainly wouldn't want to suggest that "global warming" is anywhere near on a par with slavery, but did you see where Ahhnold and Blair linked up recently to combat co2 emissions? Is there a potential paralell in the works sometime in the future.

*Caveat: I hope I don't sound like a green b/c I most certainly am not.

Posted by: Johnathan Gay at August 10, 2006 05:02 PM
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