"Air Too Pure for a Slave to Breathe": The Antislavery Debate before Abolition

Friday, January 6, 2012: 9:30 AM
Iowa Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Madeline Wood, University of Calgary
                The British abolitionists of the late eighteenth century are rightly credited as instrumental in the abolition of the British and European trans-Atlantic slave trade and, ultimately, slavery itself, both at home and in the colonies.  From antiquity, philosophers and legislators have struggled with justification for treating a human being as property.  Slavery in the ancient world, while not seriously threatened as an institution, was debated in some cases as such but more often regarding the proper treatment of slaves.  Slavery for the Stoics was a less a physical state than a psychological state of the mind, while according to the early Christian fathers, it was the natural state of all men who were moral and spiritual slaves to sin.  In medieval England, slavery became much less common as group loyalties changed from tribe to manor; eleventh century the influential Bishop Wulfstan of Worchester advocated manumitting slaves as one method of atoning for sin in tenth and eleventh century penitential literature. 

                This paper will refer to the debate in this early period, and will show its continuation in the early modern period in British literature, judicial decisions, philosophy, and religious writings, providing a body of ideas from which the abolitionists could draw a concept of freedom within the social hierarchy that resonated with the labourer and noble alike.  English writers, William Shakespeare and Aphra Benn, dealt with the legitimacy of slavery as did the philosophers, Francis Hutchison and John Locke.  Denunciations of slavery can be found in the writings of eighteenth century religious leaders,   John Woolman and Benjamin Lay, and Massachusetts Judge Samuel Sewell.  Judicial decisions before the Somerset case supported both sides of the question of the legality of slavery.  During the early modern period, British people of all social ranks increasingly valued the concept and practice of freedom.

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