British Liberty and the Slave Trade

Now planned for May 2021, it will bring together 12 historians from Britain and the United States to explore the different meanings of slavery in British and Irish political thought between the Restoration and the American Revolution.  By examining a series of canonical texts from the angle of Britain’s involvement in the African-American slave trade, the conference will contribute to the globalisation of British history within Oxford, and will shed light on the origins of racial inequality on both sides of the Atlantic.

British Liberty and the Slave Trade: Silences, Evasions and Contradictions

Liberty was the fundamental concept in eighteenth-century British political thought, and slavery was its ever-present nemesis.  During the long eighteenth century, denunciations of slavery were pervasive in England, Scotland, Ireland and in the North American colonies.  The English routinely congratulated themselves on the revolution of 1688 which had delivered their forefathers from ‘popery and slavery’.  Pride in such achievements was mixed with anxiety that England might succumb to despotism, as France, Spain, Sweden and Denmark had done.   Throughout the eighteenth century the contrast between English liberty and ‘Gallic slavery’ was an article of faith for whigs, reformers and radicals, an insistent message conveyed not only in the press and pamphlets but in paintings and satirical prints, in verse and in song.   But what was the relationship between the rhetoric of slavery and the reality of the transatlantic slave trade?  Between 1660 and 1807 the British empire transported more than 3.4 million enslaved Africans to America, as many as all the other slave-trading nations put together. The existing literature, an extraordinarily rich body of scholarship which includes the Cambridge school and its North American and Antipodean offshoots, contains no answers to this problem.   Few historians have even bothered to pose the question.

The neglect of chattel slavery by historians of British political thought has created a remarkable gap in the existing scholarship, all the more striking as prominent scholars such as Richard Tuck, David Armitage and Jennifer Pitt have become interested in empire, colonialism and international relations.  Just as surprising is the relative absence of intellectual history from the literature on transatlantic slavery and abolition.  Little progress in this field has been made since David Brion Davis’s classic, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (1966).  A great deal of attention has focused on the economic, social and cultural contexts of African-American slavery, and major surveys and syntheses by Ira Berlin, Kenneth Morgan, Christopher Leslie Brown and Seymour Drescher, among others, testify to the vibrancy and energy of recent scholarship.  Yet the intellectual history of antislavery still consists of a brief survey of the same key figures: Montesquieu, Hutcheson and Wallace, the Abbé Raynal. 

It was Dean Josiah Tucker who first made the case that ‘the most eminent Republican Writers’, including John Locke and the Scottish patriot Andrew Fletcher, were complicit in the enslavement of others, while ‘pleading so warmly for Liberty for themselves’.  His Treatise concerning Civil Government (1781) was an assault not only on the rebellious Americans, but on their Irish predecessors, Molyneux and Swift, and their sympathisers in England, in particular the ‘new light’ Dissenters, Richard Price and Joseph Priestley, all of whom he categorised as followers of Locke.  In particular, Tucker was infuriated by the American colonists’ claim that men who were bound by laws to which they had not consented were slaves.  Tucker delighted in exposing Locke’s connections with slavery in the Carolinas, and the inconsistencies of Fletcher’s thought.  Even more outrageous were ‘the greatest American Champions for the unalienable Right of Mankind’.  General Washington was a planter and slave-owner, he pointed out, while Henry Laurens, recent president of the continental Congress, had made his fortune ‘buying and selling his Fellow-Creatures on Commission’.  Tucker wanted to expose the hypocrisy of the republic of slaveholders emerging across the Atlantic, and of its classical precedents too.  But he also resented the reformers’ habit of collapsing vastly different forms of dependency into one single concept of bondage.  Nothing was more evident than that it was ‘far better to be a Subject under the absolute Monarchies of France or Denmark, than to be a Vassal to a Grandee of Poland, or what is nearly the same Thing, Slave to a Planter in Jamaica’.

Historians have not shown much interest in the contradictions repeatedly highlighted by Dean Tucker.  The exception is scholars working on Locke, who considered this problem in two key chapters of his Second Treatise, ‘Of Slavery’ (4) and ‘Of Conquest’ (16).  The opening of the Two Treatises famously proclaimed that slavery was such a ‘vile and miserable estate’ that no Englishman would defend it.  Locke demonstrates particularly forcefully the silences, evasions and contradictions that recur in Anglophone political thought the institution of slavery.  The opposition to European absolutism and the rise of colonial slavery seem to have inhabited separate compartments in Locke’s head.  A rich body of scholarship – by Armitage, Arneil, Brewer, Farr, Waldron and others – has investigated the connections and contradictions between the Second Treatise and the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, where the power of the free man over his ‘Negro slaves’ is described as absolute.  The contributors to this workshop will bring the same richness of detail and analytical rigour to other canonical texts in British and Irish politics, including Thomas Hobbes, Mary Astell, Andrew Fletcher, Jonathan Swift, David Hume, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke and Mary Wollstonecraft.

The contradiction highlighted by Josiah Tucker in the eighteenth century also has implications for contemporary political philosophy.  Over the last 25 years Quentin Skinner and Philip Pettit have sought to resurrect the republican or ‘neo-Roman’ theory of liberty that flourished between the English Civil War and the American Revolution.  That theory is based on a rigid distinction between liberty and slavery, a distinction that Skinner traces back to the beginning of Justinian’s Digest.  The fact that Rome was dependant on chattel slavery, or that the Digest was fundamental to early modern understandings of chattel slavery, is not mentioned by Skinner nor, indeed, by critics who have chastised him for excluding from view ‘the social and material conditions in which words are deployed’ (Ellen Meisksins Wood). A genealogy of liberty might include not only the slaveholders Cicero or Livy, but might also consider the entanglement of the English commonwealthsmen in the African-American slave trade.  The rhetoric of slavery was applied to the position of women in British society, from Mary Astell to Mary Wollstonecraft, and these proto-feminist writers have been deployed by critics of the ‘freedom from domination’ school of political philosophy.  Once again, however, the connection with abolitionism – already a significant area for female political agency by the 1790s, has been ignored.  The ideological blindspots discussed above make us wonder whether the more urgent problem is not so much what it means for humans to be free, but how to identify with the suffering of people who have not always been presented to us as full human beings.

The workshop will bring together experts in intellectual history and the history of the slave trade.  The contributors will include:

  • Valentina Arena (UCL), author of Libertas and the Practice of Politics in the Late Roman Republic (2012);
  • Teresa Bejan (Oriel College, Oxford), author of Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration (2017);
  • Laura Brace (Leicester), author of The Politics of Slavery (2018);
  • Holly Brewer (University of Maryland), author of By Birth or Consent: Children, Law, and the Anglo-American Revolution in Authority (2012);
  • Chris Brown (Columbia), author of Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism (2012);
  • Hannah Dawson (King’s College London), author of Locke, language and early-modern philosophy (2007);
  • Richard Drayton (King’s College London), author of Nature's Government Science, British Imperialism and the Improvement of the World (2000);
  • Ian McBride (Hertford College, Oxford), author of Eighteenth-Century Ireland: The Isle of Slaves (2009);
  • Sankar Muthu (University of Chicago), author of Enlightenment Against Empire (2003);
  • Karen O’Brien (University College, Oxford), author of Women and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century Britain (2009);
  • Will Pettigrew (Lancaster), author of Freedom’s Debt: The Royal African Company and the Politics of the Slave Trade (2013).