The Intellectual Origins of American Slavery
Harpham, John Samuel
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CitationHarpham, John Samuel. 2019. The Intellectual Origins of American Slavery. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractThe aim of this dissertation is to recover the context of moral and political ideas in which slavery in America began. The focus is English culture during the early-modern period or from around 1550 to 1700. During this time the English commerce in enslaved persons from Africa helped to establish slave systems in colonies from Barbados and Jamaica to Carolina and Virginia. What most strikes the modern observer is the ease with which the English accepted the rise of slavery. Very few writers felt a need to defend it as right and almost none protested that it was wrong. For the most part a thought that seems to us unthinkable appears to have required little sustained reflection from them. This dissertation inquires into how that came to be the case.
Chapter One examines the ideas of slavery that were current in early-modern England and argues that these were informed by the account of slavery that had been set down in the legal texts of the Roman Empire. Chapter Two observes that the English often refused to trade in slaves from Africa during the first three quarters of a century after their traders arrived on the western coast and explains why this was so. Chapter Three traces a shift in English perceptions of Africa during this same period. Chapter Four explores the manner in which this shift allowed English observers to see slavery as a distinct product of the state in Africa and the slave trade as legitimate in the terms of the Roman legal tradition. Chapter Five considers English attitudes toward the black skin of African peoples and finds that slavery and skin color were most often regarded as separate subjects in early-modern thought. An extended epilogue describes the transition in eighteenth-century American culture to an understanding of slavery founded upon a certain conception of race.
The close historical work presented here is animated throughout by the hope that, if we are better able to understand this particular subject, then we will gain insight as well into such more general themes as the relation between slavery and modernity, the manner in which ideas shape practices and practices inform ideas, and the limits of moral perception.
Citable link to this pagehttp://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:42013111
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