The Long Trek to Freedom

Before the middle of the eighteenth century, slavery was generally accepted in Europe and its colonies as a divinely ordained punishment for original sin or simply as a natural part of the eternal order of things. Yet by then Europeans had stopped enslaving one another for centuries; slavery was a condition mainly imposed on blacks brought from Africa to the New World in order to produce tropical staples for European consumption. England and France in particular had an enormous stake in the slave trade and the plantation system, which were primary sources of prosperity and commercial development for both countries. But very few black slaves were to be found in either England or France, and it was an open question whether slavery could still be enforced in either country. Restricting slavery to particular races and regions opened it to criticism because it deviated from norms in European countries; but, paradoxically, it also meant that those who had little direct contact with slavery could easily put it out of their minds.

The ideas of the Enlightenment were bound to raise fundamental questions whether slavery and the slave trade were compatible with the new ideals of liberty, equality, and rationality. In his 1748 Spirit of the Laws Montesquieu considered various justifications for slavery, including the alleged subhumanity of blacks, and showed how unreasonable they were. But the Enlightenment was a two-edged weapon when applied to the kind of servitude that existed in the eighteenth century. While Enlightenment thinkers developed a conception of universal human rights, they also studied and classified the physical variations among human beings and thus laid the foundations for a concept of biological race that could be used to establish new hierarchies. It became possible to justify slavery on grounds of alleged scientific fact rather than divine fiat, owing to the new sciences of comparative anatomy and physical anthropology. Several prominent Enlightenment thinkers who at times had qualms about slavery, such as Voltaire, Hume, and Jefferson, were convinced that blacks were much inferior to whites in their rational capacities—a belief that allowed apologists for the institution, such as the Jamaican planter Edward Long, to develop a modern and “scientific” defense of black servitude. Enlightenment theories, depending on how they were interpreted and applied, could condemn slavery as a denial of the rights of humanity or defend it as consistent with science and rationality.

As the books under review by Steven M. Wise, Andrew Levy, and Fergus M. Bordewich make clear, the strongest and most effective opposition to slavery did not come from Enlightenment rationalists but from religious zealots who were inspired by the evangelical or pietistic revivals and the “awakenings” that began in the eighteenth century and continued into the nineteenth. These men of faith discovered that slavery was not just ideologically questionable but contrary to the will of God—a sin that could no longer be tolerated by believing Christians.

Evangelical concern for the souls of enslaved Africans became evident before any visible hostility to the …

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