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Wed, 24 Aug 2011 22:06:02 -0400
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Inhuman Bondage: On Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights

Review of Robin Blackburn, The American Crucible: Slavery,
Emancipation and Human Rights

By Eric Foner
The Nation
August 10, 2011


This past spring, television viewers in Britain were
treated to a six-part series called Civilization about
the rise (and possible fall, if China has its way) of
the West, hosted by the historian Niall Ferguson. The
series offered a highly reductive version of history,
identifying "the West" with qualities such as
competition, scientific inquiry and the rule of law,
and denigrating societies from Asia to the Middle East
and Latin America for lacking these virtues. In effect,
it provided a usable past for those who see the world
as riven by a clash of civilizations.

One episode explored why after independence, the United
States forged ahead economically while the nations of
Latin America stagnated. In an unusual twist, Ferguson
chose South Carolina, a state governed by a tight-knit
planter oligarchy, as a model of Jeffersonian democracy
resting on small property ownership, in contrast to the
autocratic societies south of the border organized
around large latifundia. Only after forty-five minutes
of the one-hour show did Ferguson mention the existence
of slaves-the majority of South Carolina's population.
When slavery was finally discussed, it was presented
not as a crucial structural feature of early American
society but as a moral dilemma, an "original sin"
expiated by the election of Barack Obama.

Among the many virtues of Robin Blackburn's The
American Crucible is its demonstration that slavery
must be at the center of any account of Western
ascendancy. Without the colonization of the New World,
Blackburn notes at the outset, the West as we know it
would not exist, and without slavery there could have
been no colonization. Between 1500 and 1820, African
slaves constituted about 80 percent of those who
crossed the Atlantic from east to west. More than any
other institution, the slave plantation underpinned the
extraordinary expansion of Western power and the
region's prosperity in relation to the rest of the

In two earlier books, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery
(1988) and The Making of New World Slavery: From the
Baroque to Modern (1997), Blackburn traced the creation
of New World slavery and its abolition in the British,
French and Spanish empires, covering the years to 1848.
These works established him as one of the foremost
scholars of slavery as an international institution.
Blackburn then took a detour to write two prescient
volumes on the looming crisis in pension funding, which
had somehow escaped the notice of bankers and credit
rating agencies. In part, The American Crucible
summarizes his earlier volumes; but it goes well beyond
them, drawing on recent scholarship to amplify his
previous arguments about slavery's rise and fall and
taking the story to around 1900. He explores
emancipation in the nineteenth century's three greatest
slave systems-those of the United States, Cuba and
Brazil. The book is an outstanding example of a major
trend in recent historical writing: looking beyond
national boundaries in favor of Atlantic or
transnational history. Yet Blackburn cautions that
while both the growth and abolition of slavery were
international processes, they took place "in national
histories" and followed no single pattern or path. With
its theoretical sophistication and combination of a
broad international approach and careful attention to
local circumstances, The American Crucible takes its
place alongside David Brion Davis's Inhuman Bondage as
one of the finest one-volume histories of the rise and
fall of modern slavery.

Blackburn emphasizes that far from being static, New
World slavery was a constantly evolving institution,
and he identifies three broad eras in its history. In
the first, which he dates from about 1500 to 1650,
slavery was centered in the Spanish colonies, small-
scale and urban-based. By 1630 half the population of
the great colonial cities Lima, Havana and Mexico City
consisted of African slaves and their descendants. But
in the countryside, in the silver and gold mines that
enriched the Spanish crown and on the haciendas ruled
by powerful colonial settlers, the indigenous
population performed most of the labor.

At the time, the Spanish Empire lacked an extensive
plantation system. That system developed first in
Brazil and then quickly spread to the British and
French colonies of the Caribbean and mainland North
America, launching the second era of modern slavery's
history (1650-1800). Sugar and tobacco produced by
slave labor, along with African slaves themselves, 6
million of whom were transported across the Atlantic in
the eighteenth century, became key commodities of
international commerce. Sugar was the first mass-
marketed product in human history. By 1770 colonial
exports and re-exports, mostly of slave-produced goods,
represented between a third and a half of Atlantic
trade. The profits swelled merchants' coffers and the
treasuries of European nation-states. By this time,
too, the slave plantation had become a highly versatile
economic unit, well adapted to the demands of the
capitalist marketplace and quite modern in its methods
of production, marketing and credit arrangements. Far
from a retrograde drag on economic development, slavery
was "a sinew of national strength" and of economic

During this second era, slavery came to play a central
role in key features of Western economic
development-the spread of market relations,
industrialization and the rise of a consumer economy.
Carefully examining the old debate about the
relationship between slavery and the Industrial
Revolution, Blackburn concludes that the vast
accumulation of capital derived from slave labor was a
necessary, but not sufficient, cause of
industrialization. Such profits did not boost
manufacturing development in Spain and Portugal.
Industrialization required not only money but a large
home market and a supportive state, both of which only
late eighteenth-century Britain possessed. Once it got
under way, industrialization spurred the further growth
of slavery, creating a giant market for cotton from the
American South and fueling the spread of a "commodity-
based notion of freedom," in which ordinary consumers
demanded more and more of the sugar, tobacco, rum and
coffee produced on slave plantations.

* * *

In the nineteenth century, slavery entered its third
era, one rife with contradictions. During the century's
first four decades, Haiti, born of a slave revolution,
emerged as the hemisphere's second independent
republic, and the northern United States, the
independent nations of Latin America and the British
Empire began taking steps toward abolition. Yet
Blackburn cautions against the idea of a preordained,
"irresistible advance" toward emancipation. Even as
slavery died elsewhere, it thrived in Brazil, Cuba and
the American South. Indeed, in 1860, on the eve of the
American Civil War, far more slaves (around 6 million)
resided in the Western Hemisphere than ever before. And
slave-grown products (Cuban sugar, Brazilian coffee,
American cotton) played a greater role than ever in the
new economy of mass consumption. By this time, to be
sure, industry had outstripped plantation slavery in
supplying goods for the consumer marketplace. But,
Blackburn insists, no purely economic reason existed to
prevent slave plantations from continuing to coexist
with industrializing economies, supplying their demand
for raw materials and consumer goods from the tropics.

Blackburn also rejects the idea that emancipation arose
from what he calls "latent virtue," a comforting notion
sometimes invoked by American historians to excuse the
founding fathers for lack of action against slavery on
the grounds that their ideals set in motion the
abolition process. High ideals alone did not abolish
slavery. And while not neglecting slave agency,
Blackburn argues that the concessions and customary
rights wrested by slaves from their owners over a long
period of day-to-day struggle did not pose a
fundamental challenge to the system. Rather, he
insists, emancipation emerged from specific historical
circumstances-a nexus of slave resistance, ideological
conflict and political crisis.

Blackburn examines in detail the myriad strains of
antislavery thought-religious, nationalist,
humanitarian, economic-and the abolitionists'
pioneering use of mass-produced pamphlets, lithographs,
petitions and the like to spread their message. By the
early decades of the nineteenth century, a genteel
antislavery sentiment had become a hallmark of
enlightened opinion on both sides of the Atlantic. But
Blackburn is quick to note the limited accomplishments
of respectable antislavery. Often, early emancipations
consisted of "free womb" laws that ended slavery over a
prolonged period by freeing future offspring, not
living slaves. Moreover, in most times and places,
abolitionists represented only a small minority of the
free population. Only in times of crisis did
abolitionists acquire the power to influence national

It was not the slow accumulation of rights by slaves or
the persuasiveness of antislavery arguments that
produced emancipation but "revolutionary ruptures" and
political crises. In revolutionary France, as well as
in a Spanish Empire wracked by wars of colonial
independence, a Britain beset by the crisis over
parliamentary reform in the early 1830s and Civil War
America, slave resistance suddenly gained new salience,
and abolitionist arguments found a receptive audience
among the general populace and political elites. As in
his previous studies of slavery, Blackburn also insists
that emancipation was closely connected to the state-
building process. The act of abolition presupposed the
existence of a new kind of state, one intolerant of the
special local sovereignty of slave owners and capable
of carrying out radical measures. It gave the state
moral legitimacy, allowing it plausibly to claim to be
the embodiment of liberty.

Blackburn offers an excellent account of the path
toward emancipation in the United States and of Abraham
Lincoln's evolving attitudes and policies. The Civil
War clearly exemplified the linkage of nineteenth-
century nationalism with abolition, and the destruction
of the hemisphere's largest and most powerful slave
system compelled Cuba and Brazil to reckon with their
reliance on slavery. Spain enacted a free womb law for
Cuba in 1870, but abolition there, as elsewhere, also
involved violence. About half the rebel army in the war
of independence of the 1870s consisted of present or
former slaves, and patriots demanded equal citizenship
for all, regardless of race, in an independent Cuba.
Slavery in Brazil finally ended in 1888, seemingly
peacefully, although numerous slave revolts and the
enlistment of thousands of slave soldiers in the war
against Paraguay between 1865 and 1870 preceded

When it comes to the consequences of abolition,
Blackburn presents a rather somber assessment.
Antislavery ideas were always linked to notions of
liberty and progress, but less often to racial
equality. As they extended their empires across the
globe in the late nineteenth century, European powers
"claimed to be inspired by abolitionist principles"
even when acting in blatantly racist ways. Everywhere
in the Western Hemisphere, new systems of racial and
labor subordination succeeded plantation slavery.
Emancipation's economic impact turned out to be less
drastic than many had hoped or feared. The export value
of the main crops-American cotton, Brazilian coffee and
Cuban sugar-quickly recovered.

Blackburn is particularly pessimistic about the
postslavery United States, warning against a scholarly
tendency to "exaggerate the gains made by former slaves
and their descendants." While acknowledging the
remarkable effort during Reconstruction to create an
interracial democracy in the South, he sees that era as
a minor detour on the road to a new system of racial
domination based on segregation, disenfranchisement and
economic subordination. He goes so far as to say that
in the entire hemisphere, "the blacks of the US South
gained least from the ending of slavery."

It is unclear what standard of comparison Blackburn is
applying here, because, as he notes, postemancipation
societies in general remained highly unequal. Despite
its failure, Reconstruction closed off even more
oppressive possibilities in the United States.
Moreover, the rewriting of the laws and Constitution
during Reconstruction to enshrine the idea of equal
citizenship rights for blacks established the legal
framework for subsequent challenges to the
postemancipation racial regime. And the creation of
autonomous black churches and schools put in place
institutions that would serve as the strongholds for
future struggles. Without attributing social change to
"latent virtue," one can note that unlike racial
systems in other countries, the South's Jim Crow laws
remained regional, not national, and that options
existed for American blacks not matched elsewhere,
especially the possibility of migration to the North
and West, where a different (though hardly egalitarian)
racial system prevailed.

Slavery and emancipation form two of the three parts of
Blackburn's subtitle. The third, human rights, receives
less attention but represents a new concern compared
with his previous work. In part, Blackburn's discussion
is a response to recent scholarship by Lynn Hunt, who
locates the origins of human rights consciousness in
the Enlightenment and the French Revolution [see "On
the Genealogy of Morals," April 16, 2007], and Samuel
Moyn, who situates the idea's emergence much more
recently, in the 1970s [see "Human Rights in History,"
August 30/September 6, 2010]. Earlier definitions of
human rights, Moyn points out, were tied to the nation-
state, as the title of one key such document, the
Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,
makes clear. People enjoyed human rights by virtue of
membership in a particular polity, not their common
humanity. Only lately, Moyn claims, did the idea arise
of human rights that transcend and challenge national
sovereignty and are thus truly universal.

Blackburn acknowledges the force of Moyn's argument and
has no desire to create a selective and ahistorical
genealogy of human rights. He insists, however, rightly
in my view, that the abolitionist movement played a
major role in developing the concept of human rights
unbounded by race and nationality. "In the heat of
these momentous clashes over slavery," he writes, "a
new notion of human freedom and human unity was
proclaimed." Indeed, the attack on slavery also
involved a critique of the pretensions and power of the
nation-states that protected and profited from the

Unlike previous scholars, Blackburn places the slave
uprising in St. Domingue-the richest of all the sugar
colonies, which became the nation of Haiti-at the
center of the early history of human rights. The
Haitian revolution, he notes, is rarely given its due
by historians. Half a century ago, R.R. Palmer wrote an
acclaimed two-volume work, The Age of the Democratic
Revolution, that barely mentioned Haiti. Lately, thanks
in part to the bicentennial of Haitian independence in
2004, a spate of works have appeared. Drawing on this
literature, Blackburn insists that the rebellious
slaves profoundly affected Atlantic political culture
and human rights consciousness. Not only did events in
St. Domingue directly inspire the 1794 French decree
abolishing slavery (later reversed by Napoleon); the
revolutionary convention's decision to seat black and
brown delegates from the island marked a stunning
affirmation that the entitlements of the Declaration of
the Rights of Man were available to all French
citizens, regardless of color.

Ironically, if "the West" is to celebrate the idea of
universal human rights as one of its distinctive
contributions to modern civilization, part of the
credit must go to the mostly African-born slave rebels
of Haiti.

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