Bondage, Criminality, and the Humanitarian Impulse in the Long 18th Century

AHA Session 140
Friday, January 5, 2018: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Columbia 7 (Washington Hilton, Terrace Level)
Rosemarie Zagarri, George Mason University
Criminal Servitude, Authority, and Morality in the Anglo-American World
Nicole Dressler, Northern Illinois University
Deviance, Race, and Childhood in Early Criminal Justice Reform
Crystal Webster, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Session Abstract

In the eighteenth century an extraordinary circulation of people, ideas, and goods shaped the Atlantic world. The majority of enslaved captives from Africa transported to North America, a trade increasingly dominated by Great Britain, arrived in this century. After 1718, the British government also transported thousands of people convicted of crimes to North America as criminal laborers, a policy seen by many as a humane alternative to capital punishment. Nicole Dressler interrogates Anglo-American discussions about transportation and unfreedom. While most Americans and Britons regarded convicts as lowly and corrupted people, a growing number of commentators questioned the justice and efficacy of this system of punishment as the century progressed. Debates over the morality of the convict trade and servitude, Dressler argues, played an unrecognized, critical role in early humanitarian thinking and influenced abolitionist and moralist rhetoric and discourse.

These debates had important ramifications for the early abolitionist movement. Convict laborers complained of being treated as slaves and equated their treatment with that of enslaved Africans. Similarly, abolitionists pointed to the innocence of Africans held in bondage as evidence of the system's injustice. Anthony Di Lorenzo observes that debates surrounding criminality and punishment spilled over into the realm of racialized slavery in revealing ways. Assertions of the innocence of enslaved Africans by abolitionists, both black and white, were often framed as an appeal to “conscience” or a “higher law.” Radical natural rights theory threatened to undermine not only the system of racialized slavery, but also the underlying justifications for unfree labor. Moreover, the conservative reaction to such theories had significant ramifications for the direction of antislavery activism in the decades to follow.

During the early nineteenth century, the humanitarian reform movement turned to the treatment of children in the criminal justice system as influenced by these earlier debates on the nature of innocence, unfreedom, and criminality. At this point, reformers attempted to grapple with the emerging parental state’s concern for the (white) child, radical abolitionism, and the question, what should be done with Black child-convicts? In this context, argues Webster, debates over the treatment of Black children in the juvenile delinquency reform movement took shape in ways that influenced racialized notions of deviance and childhood. The panel thus demonstrates the complexity and interconnectedness of discourses relating to forced labor and criminality in the Atlantic world and points to new directions for scholarship on the role of human bondage, race, and childhood in the institutionalization of humanitarian reform.

See more of: AHA Sessions