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Inhuman Bondage: On Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights | The Nation

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Inhuman Bondage: On Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights

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Blackburn offers an excellent account of the path toward emancipation in the United States and of Abraham Lincoln’s evolving attitudes and policies. The Civil War clearly exemplified the linkage of nineteenth-century nationalism with abolition, and the destruction of the hemisphere’s largest and most powerful slave system compelled Cuba and Brazil to reckon with their reliance on slavery. Spain enacted a free womb law for Cuba in 1870, but abolition there, as elsewhere, also involved violence. About half the rebel army in the war of independence of the 1870s consisted of present or former slaves, and patriots demanded equal citizenship for all, regardless of race, in an independent Cuba. Slavery in Brazil finally ended in 1888, seemingly peacefully, although numerous slave revolts and the enlistment of thousands of slave soldiers in the war against Paraguay between 1865 and 1870 preceded emancipation.

The American Crucible
Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights.
By Robin Blackburn.
Buy this book.
 

About the Author

Eric Foner
Eric Foner, a member of The Nation’s editorial board, is the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia...

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When it comes to the consequences of abolition, Blackburn presents a rather somber assessment. Antislavery ideas were always linked to notions of liberty and progress, but less often to racial equality. As they extended their empires across the globe in the late nineteenth century, European powers “claimed to be inspired by abolitionist principles” even when acting in blatantly racist ways. Everywhere in the Western Hemisphere, new systems of racial and labor subordination succeeded plantation slavery. Emancipation’s economic impact turned out to be less drastic than many had hoped or feared. The export value of the main crops—American cotton, Brazilian coffee and Cuban sugar—quickly recovered.

Blackburn is particularly pessimistic about the postslavery United States, warning against a scholarly tendency to “exaggerate the gains made by former slaves and their descendants.” While acknowledging the remarkable effort during Reconstruction to create an interracial democracy in the South, he sees that era as a minor detour on the road to a new system of racial domination based on segregation, disenfranchisement and economic subordination. He goes so far as to say that in the entire hemisphere, “the blacks of the US South gained least from the ending of slavery.”

It is unclear what standard of comparison Blackburn is applying here, because, as he notes, postemancipation societies in general remained highly unequal. Despite its failure, Reconstruction closed off even more oppressive possibilities in the United States. Moreover, the rewriting of the laws and Constitution during Reconstruction to enshrine the idea of equal citizenship rights for blacks established the legal framework for subsequent challenges to the postemancipation racial regime. And the creation of autonomous black churches and schools put in place institutions that would serve as the strongholds for future struggles. Without attributing social change to “latent virtue,” one can note that unlike racial systems in other countries, the South’s Jim Crow laws remained regional, not national, and that options existed for American blacks not matched elsewhere, especially the possibility of migration to the North and West, where a different (though hardly egalitarian) racial system prevailed.

Slavery and emancipation form two of the three parts of Blackburn’s subtitle. The third, human rights, receives less attention but represents a new concern compared with his previous work. In part, Blackburn’s discussion is a response to recent scholarship by Lynn Hunt, who locates the origins of human rights consciousness in the Enlightenment and the French Revolution [see “On the Genealogy of Morals,” April 16, 2007], and Samuel Moyn, who situates the idea’s emergence much more recently, in the 1970s [see “Human Rights in History,” August 30/September 6, 2010]. Earlier definitions of human rights, Moyn points out, were tied to the nation-state, as the title of one key such document, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, makes clear. People enjoyed human rights by virtue of membership in a particular polity, not their common humanity. Only lately, Moyn claims, did the idea arise of human rights that transcend and challenge national sovereignty and are thus truly universal.

Blackburn acknowledges the force of Moyn’s argument and has no desire to create a selective and ahistorical genealogy of human rights. He insists, however, rightly in my view, that the abolitionist movement played a major role in developing the concept of human rights unbounded by race and nationality. “In the heat of these momentous clashes over slavery,” he writes, “a new notion of human freedom and human unity was proclaimed.” Indeed, the attack on slavery also involved a critique of the pretensions and power of the nation-states that protected and profited from the institution.

Unlike previous scholars, Blackburn places the slave uprising in St. Domingue—the richest of all the sugar colonies, which became the nation of Haiti—at the center of the early history of human rights. The Haitian revolution, he notes, is rarely given its due by historians. Half a century ago, R.R. Palmer wrote an acclaimed two-volume work, The Age of the Democratic Revolution, that barely mentioned Haiti. Lately, thanks in part to the bicentennial of Haitian independence in 2004, a spate of works have appeared. Drawing on this literature, Blackburn insists that the rebellious slaves profoundly affected Atlantic political culture and human rights consciousness. Not only did events in St. Domingue directly inspire the 1794 French decree abolishing slavery (later reversed by Napoleon); the revolutionary convention’s decision to seat black and brown delegates from the island marked a stunning affirmation that the entitlements of the Declaration of the Rights of Man were available to all French citizens, regardless of color.

Ironically, if “the West” is to celebrate the idea of universal human rights as one of its distinctive contributions to modern civilization, part of the credit must go to the mostly African-born slave rebels of Haiti.

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