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.