As even Aristotle acknowledged, natural slavery—the bondage of people who are born to be slaves—is different from other varieties of servitude which Aristotle admitted might sometimes be unjust, such as slavery forced upon the conquered by the conqueror. Yet the condition of slavery itself has not always been the most abject form of servitude, and is not necessarily so today. Some contract labor, though technically free, is more oppressive than many types of conventional bondage. One thinks, for example, of the Chinese “coolies” who were transported in the mid-nineteenth century across the Pacific to the coast of Peru, where they died in appalling numbers from the lethal effects of shoveling sea-bird excrement for the world’s fertilizer market.

The same point applies to much convict labor, which as “involuntary servitude” is specifically made legitimate by the Thirteenth Amendment of the US Constitution as an exception to its national abolition of slavery. While the twentieth century witnessed the slow eradication of most chattel slavery in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, it also set wholly new records for cruelty and atrocity to the tens of millions of men, women, and children who were subjected to state servitude by Nazi Germany, Communist Russia, Communist China, and smaller totalitarian nations. Even in the southern United States, for instance at the notorious Parchman Farm in Mississippi, those sentenced to prison—most of them African American, and many of them convicted unjustly or for very minor crimes—were subjected to chain gangs and other forms of penal servitude that approximated the Soviet and Chinese gulags.

In contrast to traditional chattel slaves, who usually represented a valuable investment, these political or ethnic prisoners were by definition expendable. As late as the 1990s, testimony from former political prisoners in China has proved once again how torture, constant surveillance, and a near-starvation diet can transform human behavior. Students of slavery should at least be aware that strong-minded men and women admit that in the Chinese camps they fawningly tried to ingratiate themselves with guards, stole food from one another, informed on friends, and finally became convinced that it was their own fault that they were dying from starvation.1

More than thirteen hundred years before Aristotle, the Hammurabi Code in Babylonia defined a concept of chattel slavery that served as a way of classifying the lowliest and most dependent workers in society. Among the salient features of this legal status were that once they were owned slaves could be sold or inherited; the same features would reappear through the ages in scores of cultures. Yet in the ancient Near East, as in Asia, Europe, Africa, and the pre-conquest Americas, slavery almost certainly existed long before it was systematized by legal codes. Their effect was to encourage the holders of power to make servitude conform as much as possible to a debased condition of hereditary dishonor and powerlessness that existed before legal codes had been elaborated—much as the holders of power promoted, for themselves, the opposite ideal of hereditary kingship.

The difficulties of appraising slave systems, which vary greatly in the way they treat their subjects, have been underscored by Orlando Patterson’s great comparative study, Slavery and Social Death.2 In some primitive societies, such as the Tupinambá of Brazil, slaves were spared from heavy labor but were destined to be eaten, like sacrificial animals, following a ceremonial killing. In more advanced societies, such as that of the Aztecs, some “slaves” (captured enemy warriors) were in fact held in much honor before they were ritually dispatched. Other societies that achieved high rates of manumission by allowing slaves to purchase their freedom were extraordinarily brutal and oppressive in other ways, such as by sanctioning torture and mass executions.

As historians have carefully examined specific systems of slavery, they have often expressed surprise over the privileges and even freedom enjoyed by certain individual slaves. In ancient Babylonia and Rome, as in the medieval Islamic world and sub-Saharan Africa, chosen slaves served as soldiers, business agents, and high administrators. In seventeenth-century Virginia a black slave named Francis Payne harvested enough tobacco to buy his owner two indentured servants and then purchase freedom for himself, his wife, and his children. In the interior of Britain’s Cape Colony in southwestern Africa, black slave herdsmen in the 1820s were allowed to tend livestock in regions so remote that they would travel many weeks without supervision or without even sighting a white figure of authority. In the 1850s, an American slave named Simon Gray served as the captain of a flatboat on the Mississippi River, supervising and paying wages to a crew that included white men. Entrusted with large sums of money for business purposes, Gray carried firearms, drew a regular salary, rented his own house, and took a vacation to Hot Springs, Arkansas, when his health declined.


Some decades earlier, a South Carolina slave named April Ellison won his freedom after learning how to build and repair cotton gins. After changing his first name to William, buying the freedom of his wife and daughter, and winning a legal suit against a white man who had failed to pay a debt, Ellison became a wealthy planter and owner of sixty-three slaves, a number which by 1860 placed him among the upper 3 percent of slave-holders in South Carolina.

Such examples show that, regardless of law or theory, a slave’s actual status could historically vary along a broad spectrum of rights, powers, and protections. They could include, as Moses Finley suggested, claims to property or power over things; power over one’s own and others’ labor and movement; power to punish or be exempt from punishment; privileges or liabilities within the judicial process; rights and privileges associated with the family; privileges of social mobility; and privileges and duties in religious, political, and military spheres.3

Historically, however, it is clear that impressive-sounding laws to protect slaves have seldom been enforced. As Jean Bodin suggested in the sixteenth century, only an absolutist state can override the absolute authority of slave-holders. Yet, as in the nineteenth-century American South, this principle of slaveholder autonomy also meant that slaveholders might strongly encourage slave marriages and slave families, even though such marriages had no legal standing.

While Orlando Patterson has been especially interested in pre-modern slavery and its social and psychological attributes—the “natal alienation” that resulted from being deprived of stable and legitimated family ties and the “generalized dishonor” to which societies subject bondsmen—we should remember that the central quality of most forms of slavery has been defined by the nature of the work performed. Comparatively speaking, for example, one can observe an ascending order of status, starting with the slaves who cut sugar cane or sweat in the boiler room of a sugar mill in the tropical West Indies, going on to the slaves who serve as sex objects in a Persian harem, or wear fine linens and drive rich white people in a coach in Virginia, or have a still higher status, performing as acrobats, dancers, soldiers, doctors, or bureaucrats in ancient Rome.

But when we think of highly privileged slaves—the well-to-do farm agent in Babylon, the Greek poet or teacher in Rome, the black silversmith, musician, or boat captain in the American South—we must also remember another central point. Being slaves, they could at any moment be stripped of their privileges and property. They could be sold, whipped, or even killed at the whim of an owner. Such radical uncertainty and unpredictability was characteristic of all slave systems. The Mumluk army officer or powerful eunuch who issued orders in the emperor’s name had no outside protection in the form of family, clan, or lineage. Whatever rights or privileges a slave might have gained could be revoked without warning. This utter vulnerability may be the essence of dehumanization.

Though historians have long recognized dehumanization as central to slavery, they have not—despite the significant clue Aristotle provided when he called the ox “the poor man’s slave”—explored its bestializing aspects. This neglected point seems to me central. Drawing on comparisons of slaves with domestic animals that have been made throughout history, Karl Jacoby has argued convincingly that the domestication of sheep, goats, pigs, cattle, horses, and other animals during the Neolithic revolution served as a model for enslaving humans.4 Whether used for food, clothing, transport, or heavy labor, these domesticated animals underwent an evolutionary process of neotony, or progressive “juvenilization.” That is, they became more submissive than their wild counterparts, less fearful of strangers, and less aggressive (which in physical terms was reflected in a shortening of the jawbone and a decrease in the size of the teeth). Far from being chance occurrences, these changes in anatomy and behavior were closely geared to human needs, especially in farming.

To control domesticated beasts, human beings devised collars, chains, prods, whips, and branding irons. They also castrated males and subjected animals to selective breeding. More positive incentives arose from a kind of paternalism in which human beings replaced the dominant male animal that had exercised some control over the social group. As Jacoby astutely observes, once the harvests and livestock accumulated by agricultural societies had revolutionized the objectives of warfare, similar means of control were applied to human captives.

No doubt the archetypal slave, as Gerda Lerner has maintained, was a woman.5 And in patriarchal societies, women were treated like domesticated or petlike animals in order to ensure their dependence and submission; they not only worked in the fields but reproduced, augmenting the size and wealth of tribes and lineages. In the Hebrew Bible, as in Homer and other early sources, male captives were typically killed on the spot; otherwise they might have escaped or risen in revolt. Women, one gathers, were customarily enslaved as workers or concubines.


But with the rise of great urban and agricultural states the need for servants and labor for public works coincided with improved techniques for controlling male prisoners (whose inability to understand their captors’ language might have made them seem more like animals than men). As the laws governing chattel property evolved in the earliest civilizations, it was almost universally agreed that a slave, like an animal, could be bought, sold, traded, leased, mortgaged, bequeathed, presented as a gift, pledged for a debt, included in a dowry, or seized in a bankruptcy. This treatment as a commodity applied even to the most privileged slaves in Babylonia and other ancient civilizations; for the Western world, it was eventually codified in Roman law.

Despite the many attempts to equate human captives with domestic animals—the first African slaves shipped to Lisbon in the mid-1400s were stripped naked and marketed and priced exactly like livestock—slaves have fortunately never been held long enough in distinct, isolated groups to undergo significant hereditary change. Yet neotony, the development of childlike characteristics in slaves, was clearly the goal of many slaveholders, despite their lack of any scientific understanding of how domestication had changed the nature and behavior of animals.

In ancient Mesopotamia slaves were not only named and branded as if they were domestic animals but were actually priced according to the equivalent in cows, horses, pigs, and chickens. As Orlando Patterson has pointed out, the key to the “Sambo” stereotype of the typical slave, “an ideological imperative of all systems of slavery,” is the total absence of “any hint of ‘manhood.’ ” Patterson quotes the famous description by the historian Stanley Elkins:

Sambo, the typical plantation slave, was docile but irresponsible, loyal but lazy, humble but chronically given to lying and stealing; his behavior was full of infantile silliness and his talk inflated with childish exaggeration. His relationship with his master was one of utter dependence and childlike attachment: it was indeed this childlike quality that was the very key to his being.6

This stereotype describes precisely what a human male slave would be like if slaves had been subjected to the same process as that of domesticated animals. While ancient Greeks saw such slavelike traits in the people they called “barbarians” and the stereotype was much later associated with socalled Slavs—the root of the word “slave” in Western European languages—it was only in the fifteenth century, when slavery increasingly became linked with various peoples from sub-Saharan Africa, that the stereotype began to acquire specific racial connotations.7 As slavery in the Western world became more and more restricted to Africans, the arbitrarily defined black “race” took on all the qualities, in the eyes of many white people, of the infantilized and animalized slave.


Since human beings have always had a remarkable ability to imagine abstract states of perfection, they also succeeded at an early stage in imagining a perfect form of subordination. Plato compared the slave to the human body, and the master to the body’s rational soul. Slaves incarnated the irrationality and chaos of the material universe, as distinct from the rationality of the masterlike Demiurge. There was thus a cosmic justification for Aristotle’s dictum that “from the hour of their birth, some men are marked out for subjection, others for rule.” Aristotle’s idea of the natural slave, which would help shape virtually all subsequent proslavery thought, also in effect pictured what a human being would be like if “tamed” by neotony. He began by stressing the parallel between slaves and domesticated beasts:

Tame animals are naturally better than wild animals, yet for all tame animals there is an advantage in being under human control, as this secures their survival. And as regards the relationship between male and female, the former is naturally superior, the latter inferior, the former rules and the latter is subject. By analogy, the same must necessarily apply to mankind as a whole. Therefore all men who differ from one another by as much as the soul differs from the body or man from a wild beast (and that is the state of those who work by using their bodies, and for whom that is the best they can do)—these people are slaves by nature, and it is better for them to be subject to this kind of control, as it is better for the other creatures I have mentioned.

Aristotle then proceeded to distinguish the natural slave as having a different body and soul from other men:

For a man who is able to belong to another person is by nature a slave (for that is why he belongs to someone else), as is a man who participates in reason only so far as to realize that it exists, but not so far as to have it himself—other animals do not recognize reason, but follow their passions. The way we use slaves isn’t very different; assistance regarding the necessities of life is provided by both groups, by slaves and by domestic animals. Nature must therefore have intended to make the bodies of free men and of slaves different also; slaves’ bodies strong for the services they have to do, those of free men upright and not much use for that kind of work, but instead useful for community life.8

Aristotle did recognize that on occasion “slaves can have the bodies of free men, free men only the souls and not the bodies of free men.” Even more troubling, he observed, was the fact that some people “of the most respected family” sometimes became slaves “simply because they happened to be captured and sold.” Yet such instances of injustice could not weaken Aristotle’s conviction that “it is clear that there are certain people who are free and certain people who are slaves by nature, and it is both to their advantage, and just, for them to be slaves.”

This tactic of “animalization” may well be universal; enslavement is simply its most extreme and institutionalized manifestation. Yet, as Aristotle noted, the slave was not a completely dehumanized being and was not to be seen as only an animal or nothing but an animal. Various Greek philosophers, especially the Cynics and Stoics, saw a fundamental contradiction in trying to reduce any human being to such a subordinate status. “It would be absurd,” Diogenes of Sinope reportedly said, when his own slave had run away, “if Manes [the slave] can live without Diogenes, but Diogenes cannot get on without Manes.” When pirates captured Diogenes and took him to a slave market in Crete, he pointed to a customer wearing rich purple robes, and said, “Sell me to this man; he needs a master.” Externally, according to the Stoics, the servant might be the instrument of his master’s will, but internally, in his own self-consciousness, he remained a free soul.

In other words, the master’s identity depended on having a slave who recognized him as master, and this in turn required an independent consciousness. Contrary to Aristotle and in contrast to the relationship between a man and his dog, the roles of master and slave could be reversed: Diogenes could become the slave and Manes, who even as a slave might have had a freer soul and been less enslaved to his passions, could become the master.9

This is the basic “problem of slavery,” and it arises from the irreducible humanness of the slave. Although slaves were supposed to be treated in many respects like dogs, horses, or oxen, as reflected in all the laws that defined slaves as chattel, the same laws had to recognize that throughout history slaves have run away, outwitted their masters, or rebelled, murdered, raped, and stolen. No masters or lawmakers, whether in ancient Rome, medieval Tuscany, or seventeenth-century Brazil, could forget that the obsequious servant might also be a “domestic enemy” bent on theft, poisoning, or arson. Throughout history it has been said that slaves, although occasionally as loyal and faithful as good dogs, were for the most part lazy, irresponsible, cunning, rebellious, untrustworthy, and sexually promiscuous. This central contradiction was underscored in Roman law (the Code of Justinian), which ruled that slavery was the single institution contrary to the law of nature but sanctioned by the law of nations. That is to say, slavery would not be permitted in an ideal world of perfect justice, but was simply a fact of life that symbolized the compromises that must be made in the sinful world of reality. This was the official view of Christian churches from the late Roman Empire to the eighteenth century.10

The institution of slavery, then, has always given rise to conflict, fear, and accommodation. The settlement of the New World magnified these liabilities, since the slaves now came from an alien and unfamiliar culture and they often outnumbered their European rulers. Many colonial settlements were vulnerable to military attack or close to wilderness areas that offered easy refuge. Accordingly, the introduction of black slavery to the Americas brought spasmodic reactions of warning, anxiety, and racial repugnance. But the grandiose visions of New World wealth—once the Spanish had plundered the Aztecs and Incas—seemed always to require slave labor. Largely because many experiments in enslaving Indians failed, African slaves became an intrinsic part of the American experience.

All the European colonizers—from the Spanish and Portuguese to the English, Dutch, and French—turned to the purchase of slaves in Africa as the cheapest and most expedient way to meet the immediate demands for labor in mining and tropical agriculture. The institution of slavery in the Americas took on a variety of forms. Some were the result of cultural differences, for example between Catholics and English Protestants; some depended on the differences between the work performed—mining as distinguished from agricultural labor. But slavery in the Americas was not unique in treating human beings as animals—or in defining the bondsman as chattel property that happened to be endowed with elements of human personality. In the mid-eighteenth century, when black slaves could be found from French Canada to Chile, there was nothing unprecedented about New World chattel slavery, or even the enslavement of one ethnic group by another. What was unprecedented by the 1760s and early 1770s was the emergence of a widespread conviction that New World slavery was deeply evil and embodied all the forces that threatened the true destiny of the human race.

This eruption of antislavery thought cannot be explained by economic interest. The Atlantic slave system, far from being in decay, had never appeared so prosperous, so secure, or so full of promise. Among the first groups to denounce the principle of slavery, and all that it implied, were the seventeenth-century perfectionist and millennialist Christian sects—Diggers and Ranters among them—who challenged all traditional authorities and sought to live their lives free from sin. In essence, their ideal involved a form of mutual love and recognition that precluded treating men in any way as objects or animals. Since the more radical sectarian groups that emerged in the English civil wars of the mid-seventeenth century also threatened all forms of private property and patriarchal rule, they exceeded the bounds of even Cromwell’s tolerance and never survived the Stuart Restoration.

The notable exception was the Society of Friends, which early found a way to compromise with the society around it, and thus to survive. The Quakers not only undertook their quest for a purified life more pragmatically but they institutionalized methods for bearing witness to their faith. They did not, in their religious zeal, call for the faithful to reject the conventional trappings of church and state, as many other millennialist sects did. In other words, the Quakers tried to achieve a balance between the impulse to perfection and the necessity of living in an imperfect world. They also acquired considerable economic and political power, and were the only sect to become deeply involved with the Atlantic slave system. By the early eighteenth century there were Quaker planters in the West Indies and Quaker slave merchants in London, Philadelphia, and Newport, Rhode Island.

Yet very soon slaveholding came to attract more moral censure among Quakers than it did among other denominations. This was partly because of the Friends’ ethical opposition to war, which some philosophers were then using as an apology for human bondage; John Locke, for instance, justified slavery as “the state of War continued, between a lawful Conquerour, and a Captive.” The Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) brought about a spiritual crisis within the Society of Friends over the acceptability of war itself, resulting in much soul-searching, attempts at self-purification, and, finally, commitment to withdraw entirely from slaveholding as well as slave trading.

The Quakers’s growing anguish coincided with other reformist developments in Western culture; particularly in British Protestantism. First, the rise of secular social philosophy, from Thomas Hobbes onward, necessitated a redefinition of the place of human bondage in the rational order of being. Yet in the language of humanist philosophy, slavery was extremely difficult to justify. Because John Locke made natural liberty the center of his philosophy, he had to place slavery outside the social compact, whose purpose was to protect all men’s inalienable rights. By the 1730s, arguments in favor of slavery, including the one that equated it with war, were beginning to appear absurd to a generation of English and French writers who had learned from Locke and others to take an irreverent view of past authority and to subject all questions to the test of reason.

It was Montesquieu, more than any other thinker, who put the subject of black slavery on the agenda of the European Enlightenment in his Pensées and L’Esprit des lois. He weighed the institution against the general laws or principles that promoted human happiness and encouraged his readers to imagine the response of a defender of slavery to a national lottery that would make nine tenths of the population the absolute slaves of the remaining tenth.11 By the 1760s the antislavery arguments of Montesquieu and the Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson were being repeated, developed, and propagated by many of the intellectuals of the enlightened world, including such different thinkers as Burke and Diderot. John Locke, the great enemy of all absolute and arbitrary power, had been the last major philosopher to seek a justification for absolute and perpetual slavery.

A second and closely related transformation was the increasing popularity of the ethic of benevolence as personified by the “man of feeling.” The insistence on man’s inner goodness, on his capacity for sympathy, became part of a gradual secularizing tendency in British Protestantism. Ultimately, this liberal spirit led in two directions, each described by the titles of Adam Smith’s two books: The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations. Smith’s theory of sympathetic benevolence toward other persons as the source of moral judgment and his theory of individual enterprise both condemned slavery as an intolerable obstacle to human progress. The man of sensibility needed to act on his virtuous feelings by relieving the sufferings of innocent victims; the economic man required a social order that allowed, and morally vindicated, the free play of individual self-interest. By definition, the slave was both innocent and a victim, since he could not be held responsible for his own condition.

For Smith, the African’s enslavement, unlike the legitimate restraints imposed upon the members of society by rational laws, seemed wholly undeserved. He represented innocent nature, and hence his actions corresponded, psychologically, to the natural and spontaneous impulses of the man of feeling. Accordingly, for Smith the key to progress lay in recognizing the innocent nature that was objectively characteristic of the slave and that was also the source of the subjective affections of the reformer. The slave would be lifted to a level of independent action and social obligation; the reformer would be assured of the beneficence of his own self-interest by his participation in a transcendent cause. These, at least, were the expectations of the philanthropists, who, as the eighteenth century wore on, increasingly transformed the quest for salvation from a sinful world into a mission to cleanse the world of sin.

By the eve of the American Revolution there was a remarkable convergence of cultural and intellectual developments which at once undercut traditional rationalizations for slavery and offered new ways of identifying with its victims. Thus the African’s cultural difference acquired a positive image at the hands of eighteenth-century students of the primitive, such as Rousseau, and evangelical Christians, such as John Wesley, who searched through travel accounts and descriptions of exotic lands for examples of man’s inherent virtue and creativity. In some ways the “noble savage” was little more than a literary convention that conflated the Iroquois and South Sea islander with sable Venuses and tear-bedewed daughters of “injur’d Afric.”

The convention did, however, partially weaken Europe’s arrogant ethnocentrism and create at least a momentary ambivalence about the human costs of modern civilization. It also tended to counteract the many fears and prejudices that had long cut Africans off from the normal mechanisms of sympathy and identification. Ultimately, literary primitivism was no match for the pseudo-scientific racism which drew on the Enlightenment and reduced the African to a “link” or even a separate species between man and the apes. But for many Europeans, as diverse as John Wesley and the Abbé Raynal, the African was not a human animal but an innocent child of nature whose enslavement in America betrayed the very notion of the New World as a land of natural innocence and new hope for mankind. By the early 1770s such writers portrayed the black slave as a man of natural virtue and sensitivity who was at once oppressed by the worst vices of civilization and yet capable of receiving its greatest benefits.

This complex change in moral vision was a precondition for antislavery movements and for the eventual abolition of New World slavery from 1777, when Vermont’s constitution outlawed the institution, to 1888, when, in a state of almost revolutionary turmoil, Brazil finally freed some half-million remaining slaves. But the diffusion of religious and secular antislavery arguments in no way guaranteed such an outcome. If Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and other slave-holding founders could view human bondage as an embarrassing and even dangerous social evil, they also respected the rights of private property and expressed deep fear of the consequences of any general and unrestricted act of emancipation. The US Constitution was designed to protect the rights and security of slaveholders, and between 1792 and 1845 the American political system encouraged and rewarded the expansion of slavery into nine new states.

As the American slave system became increasingly profitable, the moral doubts of the Revolutionary generation gave way in the South to strong religious, economic, and racial arguments that defended slavery as a “positive good.” Historians are still sharply divided over the fundamental reasons for slave emancipation, which ultimately required an imposition of power even in the regions that were spared a Haitian Revolution or an American Civil War. Yet whatever weight one gives the contending economic and political interests that were involved in the abolition of slavery, it was the inherent contradiction of chattel slavery—the impossible effort to bestialize human beings—that eventually evoked a revolution in moral perception. What finally emerged was a recognition that slaves could become masters or masters slaves, and that human beings are therefore not required to resign themselves to the world that has always been.

This Issue

October 17, 1996