The Rise of Liberalism and Spread of Chattel Slavery


To render it explicable, the paradox must first be expounded in all its radicalism. Slavery is not something that persisted despite the success of the three liberal revolutions. On the contrary, it experienced its maximum development following that success: ‘The total slave population in the Americas reached around 330,000 in 1700, nearly three million by 1800, and finally peaked at over six million in the 1850s’. Contributing decisively to the rise of an institution synonymous with the absolute power of man over man was the liberal world. In the mid eighteenth century, it was Great Britain that possessed the largest number of slaves (878,000). The fact is unexpected. Although its empire was far more extensive, Spain came well behind. Second position was held by Portugal, which possessed 700,000 slaves and was in fact a kind of semi colony of Great Britain: much of the gold extracted by Brazilian slaves ended up in London. Hence there is no doubt that absolutely preeminent in this field was the country at the head of the liberal movement, which had wrested primacy in the trading and ownership of black slaves precisely from the Glorious Revolution onwards. It was Pitt the Younger himself who, intervening in April 1792 in the House of Commons on the subject of slavery and the slave trade, acknowledged that ‘[n]o nation in Europe … has … plunged so deeply into this guilt as Great Britain.’

That is not all. To a greater or lesser extent, there survived in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies ‘ancillary slavery’, which is to be distinguished from ‘systemic slavery, linked to plantations and commodity production’. And it was the latter type of slavery, established above all in the eighteenth century (starting from the liberal revolution of 1688-89) and clearly predominant in the British colonies, which most consummately expressed the de-humanization of those who were now mere instruments of labour and chattels, subject to regular sale on the market. This did not even involve a return to the slavery peculiar to classical antiquity. Certainly, chattel slavery had been widespread in Rome. Yet the slave could reasonably hope that, if not he himself, then his children or grandchildren would be able to achieve freedom and even an eminent social position. Now, by contrast, his fate increasingly took the form of a cage from which it was impossible to escape. In the first half of the eighteenth century, numerous English colonies in America enacted laws that made the emancipation of slaves increasingly difficult.

The Quakers lamented the advent of what seemed to them a new and repugnant system. Slavery for a determinate period of time, and the other forms of more or less servile labour hitherto in force, tended to give way to slavery in the strict sense, to a permanent, hereditary condemnation of a whole people, who were denied any prospect of change and improvement, any hope of freedom. Again, in a statute of 1696, South Carolina declared that it could not prosper ‘without the labor and service of negroes and other slaves’. The barrier separating service and slavery was as yet not well defined, and the institution of slavery had not yet appeared in all its harshness. But the process that increasingly reduced slaves to chattels, and established the racial character of the condition they were subjected to, was already underway. An unbridgeable gulf separated blacks from the free population. Ever stricter laws prohibited interracial sexual and marital relations, making them a crime. We are now dealing with a hereditary caste of slaves, defined and recognizable by the colour of their skin. In this sense, in John Wesley’s view, ‘American slavery’ was ‘the vilest that ever saw the sun’.

The verdict of American Quakers and British abolitionists has been fully confirmed by contemporary historians. At the end of a ‘cycle of degradation’ of blacks, with the ignition of the white ‘engine of oppression’ and the conclusive soldering of ‘slavery and racial discrimination’, we see at work in the ‘colonies of the British empire’ in the late seventeenth century a ‘chattel racial slavery’ unknown in Elizabethan England (and also classical antiquity), but ‘familiar to men living in the nineteenth century’ and aware of the reality of the southern United States. Hence slavery in its most radical form triumphed in the golden age of liberalism and at the heart of the liberal world. This was acknowledged by James Madison, slave owner and liberal (like numerous protagonists of the American Revolution), who observed that ‘the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man’ power based on ‘mere distinction of colour’ was imposed ‘in the most enlightened period of time’.

Correctly stated, in all its radicalism, the paradox we face consists in this: the rise of liberalism and the spread of racial chattel slavery are the product of a twin birth which, as we shall see, has rather unique characteristics.


  1. Losurdo, Domenico, and Gregory Elliott. Liberalism: A Counter-history. London: Verso, 2011. Print. 35-37.

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Filed under History, Notes on History, Philosophy, Politics

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