Slavery In African American History

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Slavery in African American History

HIST222 - African American History after 1877

Slavery in African American History


Slavery's influence on American political thought has been no less profound, though not always recognized. Louis Hartz (1955) famously argued that slavery had little impact on American political thought due to the pervasiveness of liberal and egalitarian views. The ubiquity of liberal ideas and the absence of feudal institutions reduced class conflict and produced a common, almost unconscious, political philosophy among Americans that emphasizes moral and political equality, individual liberty, and private property. Given this climate, the elitist views of the slaveholders could have no lasting influence. Hartz was right to an extent: The early United States was indeed distinguished by a relative lack of social differentiation, which produced a common American spirit defined by “freedom, initiative, adventure, [and] self-expression, in pursuit of trade and industry”. Yet the absence of sharp class stratification in the United States was largely due to slavery. The enslavement of Africans helped to entrench liberal egalitarian views among whites across social classes. While earlier scholars such as Hartz believed that slavery had little to do with American democracy, most scholars today argue that slavery, race, and freedom were intimately connected in American history. This paradoxical relationship has profoundly shaped American political theory.

Slavery and the Racial Order

American slavery was a struggle between masters' attempts to impose “social death” on the slave and slaves' efforts to seek freedom and build a community. Slavery is a system in which the master seeks to strip the slave of all kinship ties and social standing so that the slave is physically alive but socially dead, belonging to no recognized community and possessing no legitimate genealogy. Slaves resisted this social death in three ways. First, they sought freedom, by purchasing it, suing for it, running away, or rebelling. Second, they sought to make the terms of labor more favorable, through work slowdowns, attempts to shorten the working day, subterfuge, sabotage, maintaining their own livestock or garden plots, participating in markets, or hiring out their labor and keeping a portion of their wages (Berlin, 1998). Third, they created their own families and their own culture. While masters sought to impose their rule from sunup to sundown, from sundown to sunup slaves created a community that denied the authority of the master and defied social death. Slaves shaped their own customs, religion, dialect, music, economy, and political perspectives, merging African, indigenous, and European practices into a uniquely and truly American culture. This conflict between “sunup to sundown” and “sundown to sunup,” or between social death and the resistance of the black community, is one of the fundamental experiences of the American political tradition.

It also produced the racial order. Europeans sat at the top and Africans the bottom of the social hierarchy throughout the Americas. Further, African slavery was the dominant form of labor exploitation in the hemisphere because it was economically cheaper than importing European indentured servants or enslaving the indigenous population, since African slaves were plentiful, cheap, and ...
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