Of Human Bondage

Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study

by Orlando Patterson
Harvard University Press, 511 pp., $30.00

The founders of social science expressed a continuing interest in the origins and workings of human bondage. This interest can be traced from Montesquieu and John Millar in the eighteenth century to Tocqueville, Comte, Marx, Lewis Henry Morgan, Sir Henry Maine, Spencer, E.B. Tylor, Edward Westermarck, William Graham Sumner, and Max Weber. The ideology of moral and material progress, coupled with debates over the “anomaly” of chattel slavery in the New World, also led by the 1840s to the first systematic histories of Greco-Roman slavery and to theories explaining the institution’s decline and disappearance from Western Europe. In the major European languages scholars and popularizers produced thick volumes on the history of slavery from antiquity to modern times. However superficial or filled with Christian moralizing, this nineteenth-century literature recognized the importance and puzzling variations of an institution that has appeared from the time of the first written and ethnographic records and in virtually every part of the world.

But from the First World War to the mid-1950s (a period that set new records for the mobilization, degradation, and extermination of millions of unfree workers), slavery almost disappeared as a subject of central theoretical and historical interest. As Igor Kopytoff has recently pointed out, anthropology “almost completely forgot slavery” in this period when “so much of its modern world view was being forged.” According to the standard textbooks and general works, “the message has been that slavery is incomparably less important a phenomenon that compadrazco or the distinction between cross and parallel cousins.”

For non-Marxian economists slavery raised few promising questions until 1957, when Alfred H. Conrad and John R. Meyer applied to historical data modern mathematical models and statistical techniques. During the interwar decades American history was largely dominated by disciples of the “Progressive historians”—notably Frederick Jackson Turner and Charles Beard—who held that slavery had always been peripheral to the major forces and struggles that explained the rise of American civilization. Black slavery became a branch of “Southern history,” a field increasingly devoted to vindicating the Lost Cause, to exposing the imperialist motives of the capitalist North, and to reinterpreting the Civil War as an avoidable and calamitous American tragedy. Between 1918 and 1956 the monumental but frankly racist work of Ulrich B. Phillips, who was strongly influenced by Turner and was the star of the William A. Dunning school of pro-Southern historiography, remained the standard authority on American Negro slavery. The one sentiment shared by the historians who romanticized the antebellum South and the antiracist anthropologists who empathized with “primitive” and often slaveholding peoples was a common antipathy toward the modernizing, moralistic “civilization” that had brought on the First World War and global depression.

Even critics of Phillips and other racist scholars tended to accept the premise that black slavery was an aspect of the essentially southern or West Indian “racial problem.” The pioneering works of such scholars as Melville J. Herskovits, E. Franklin Frazier, John Dollard, and Gunnar Myrdal challenged the myths …

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