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Between Slavery and Freedom: Philosophy and American Slavery

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Using the writings of slaves and former slaves, as well as commentaries on slavery, Between Slavery and Freedom explores the American slave experience to gain a better understanding of six moral and political concepts—oppression, paternalism, resistance, political obligation, citizenship, and forgiveness. The authors use analytical philosophy as well as other disciplines to gain insight into the thinking of a group of people prevented from participating in the social/political discourse of their times.

Between Slavery and Freedom rejects the notion that philosophers need not consider individual experience because philosophy is "impartial" and "universal." A philosopher should also take account of matters that are essentially perspectival, such as the slave experience. McGary and Lawson demonstrate the contribution of all human experience, including slave experiences, to the quest for human knowledge and understanding.

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Philosophy and American Slavery: An Introduction

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An Introduction

HOWARD MCGARY AND BILL LAWSON

Slaves in the United States certainly ranked among the most powerless and oppressed people in modern times. Contrary to popular opinion, slaves reflected deeply on every aspect of the miserable state they were forced to endure. In the writings of slaves and former slaves, we find discussion and speculation on such concepts as oppression, paternalism, resistance, political obligation, citizenship, and forgiveness.1 In this work, we will examine these six concepts as they relate to and bear on American chattel slavery. Each of the topics to be considered better illuminates the world of slaves, the aftermath of slavery on the political process, and the way we understand key moral and political notions.

Our study is novel because we not only use the skills characteristic of analytical philosophy to study these notions, but we also make use of illuminations gained from other disciplines. In particular we draw on the work of historians of slavery, but more importantly we focus on the narratives of former slaves. This work is not an analysis of the slave narratives, but rather an explication of insights derived from these texts. This approach will enable us to gain an understanding of a group of people who were prevented from publicly participating in the discourse of their times about issues of far-reaching importance.

 

One. Oppression and Slavery

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BILL LAWSON

In 1850 Virginia planter George Fitzhugh wrote:

The slaves are all well fed, well clad, have plenty of fuel, and are happy. They have no dread of the future—no fear of want. [The slaveholder] is the least selfish of men.

The institution of slavery gives full development and full play to the affections.1

Fitzhugh was not alone in his opinions. There were many apologists for chattel slavery in the United States.2 Most historians of the American slave experience, however, have concluded that slaves were oppressed, although they disagree over what the mark of oppression was during slavery. Some, like Stanley Elkins in his influential work Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual life, have defined the mark of oppression as the psychological damage done to slaves.3 Others, such as Frank Tannenbaum and Orlando Patterson, have focused on slaves’ alienation.4 Kenneth Stampp saw the cruel treatment of slaves as the defining mark of slavery.5 Finally, commentators such as James Oakes claim that the role of the government in keeping slaves oppressed was the defining feature of slavery.6

 

Two. Paternalism and Slavery

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HOWARD McGARY

How should we view those who were the principal actors during slavery? Were slaves “Sambos” who acquiesced in their own oppression, or were they psychologically whole persons who struggled to end their enslavement? On the other side of the equation, were slaveholders heartless, money-grubbing, evil persons who took delight in the enslavement of Africans, or were they merely pawns caught up in an evil system? These are complex questions. Slavery was a multi-faceted system. Thus, it is difficult to give a single description of slavery in the United States that captures all of its nuances. There has, however, been an intense debate over how the typical slave and slaveholder should be characterized.

One group of scholars has been reluctant to describe the typical slaveholder as evil.1 These commentators argue that slaveholders had the best interest of slaves at heart. They describe slaveholders as misguided, ignorant, or morally weak. In other words, typical slaveholders held a set of false beliefs which caused them to act in what we now can see were morally objectionable ways. Others have argued that slaveholders appreciated that what they were doing was wrong, but they did it anyway in order to gain economic power and social privilege.2

 

Three. Resistance and Slavery

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HOWARD McGARY

Historians have documented rebellions and revolts by blacks who were held as slaves.1 There were violent confrontations between blacks and whites as slaves fought to break their bondage. These occurrences were rare, however, and this fact has led some scholars to question the extent and nature of slave resistance. My aim in this chapter is not to list or examine clear-cut cases of resistance by blacks held as slaves, but to argue that there were more subtle forms of resistance that are often overlooked by historians and other scholars interested in the issue of resistance to slavery. Historians who have endorsed what I have labeled subtle forms of resistance count such things as sabotage, disruption, obstruction, noncooperation, ignorance, illness, and the destruction of farm animals and tools as acts of resistance.2 Other historians, like George Fredrickson, Christopher Lasch, and Lawrence Levine, have claimed that such acts should not qualify as acts of resistance.3 For them, resistance is an act that requires planned action involving some actual or potential violence. I disagree, but before we can appreciate the subtle forms of defiance as genuine acts of resistance, we must be clear about what we mean by the concept “resistance.”

 

Four. Citizenship and Slavery

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BILL LAWSON

One of the most important events of Reconstruction was the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.1 Section One of this Amendment states:

 

all persons born or naturalized and subject to the jurisdiction thereof are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any laws which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States: nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.2

 

The importance of this amendment for the political standing of blacks was cited by Senator Lot M. Morrill of Maine during debate in the Senate on the legislation:

 

If there is anything with which the American people are troubled, and if there is anything with which the American statesman is perplexed and vexed, it is what to do with the negro, how to define him, what he is in American Law, and what rights he is entitled to. What shall we do with the everlasting, inevitable negro? is the question which puzzles all brains and vexes all statesmen. Now, as a definition, this amendment [to Section I which establishes the citizenship of the native of African descent] settles it. Hitherto we have said that he was nondescript in our statutes; he had no status; he was ubiquitous; he was both man and thing; he was three fifths of a person for representation and he was a thing for commerce and for use. In the highest sense, then … this bill is important as a definition.3

 

Five. Moral Discourse and Slavery

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BILL LAWSON

After two hundred and fifty years of chattel slavery and a scant twenty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Supreme Court Justice Joseph P. Bradley, arguing against the Civil Right Act of 1875, which guaranteed equality of access to public accommodations, made the following claim:

 

it would be running the slavery argument into the ground to make it apply to every act of discrimination which a person may see fit to make as to guests he will entertain, or as to the people he will take into his coach or cab or car, or admit to his concert or theater, or deal with in other matters of intercourse or business.1

Justice Bradley then states:

 

When a man has emerged from slavery and, by the aid of beneficent legislation, has shaken off the inseparable concomitants of that state, there must be some stage in the progress of his elevation when he takes the ranks of mere citizen and ceases to be the special favorite of the laws, when his rights as citizen, or a man, are to be protected in the ordinary modes by which other men’s rights are protected.2

 

Six. Forgiveness and Slavery

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HOWARD McGARY

The American slave experience provides us with the opportunity to examine the best and the worst of human behavior. As we have argued, the slave narratives have proven to be an excellent source for those who want to know more about slavery and its aftermath.

An often neglected issue in discussions of slavery is the attitudes of slaves and the recently emancipated toward their former oppressors. There are studies, of course, which examine the conflict between blacks and whites surrounding the freeing of slaves. But it is ludicrous to think that the end of slavery eliminated the enormous resentment that blacks felt toward slaveholders after years of brutalization and dehumanization.

In fact, it would be preposterous to think that any human beings subjected to centuries of brutality and subjugation would simply forget their past and go on with their lives. This would be doubly surprising because, as argued in chapter 1, the end of slavery did not bring about the end of black oppression.

 

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