One of the things I’ve come to realize is the central importance of African slavery not only in the history of the United States, but of the whole New World and the British, French, Spanish and Portuguese empires.
My understanding has been greatly helped by the historian David Brion Davis. He wrote about slavery as a moral issue—how it was justified in the first place, and how the Western world came to turn against it.
I’ve read his principal books—The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (1966), The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (1975), Slavery and Human Progress (1984), Inhuman Bondage: the Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (2006) and his latest book, which I finished reading last week, The Problem of Slavery in The Age of Emancipation (2014).
Slavery is a problem because in Western culture because of the heritage of the Greeks and Romans, who regarded freedom as necessary to human dignity, and because of the Christian religion, which taught that all human beings are equally children of God.
In the ancient Mediterranean world, there were two kinds of slaves—debt slaves and war captives. Selling yourself or your children into slavery was the ultimate form of bankruptcy, and it exists in the world today. I read somewhere that the world’s largest concentration of slaves are debt slaves in India.
Ancient armies did not have facilities for keeping prisoners of war. Their choices for dealing with defeated enemies were to kill them (or at least kill all the adult males) or to enslave them.
When the Atlantic slave trade began, the rationalization was that the African slaves had been defeated in war in their own homelands and already forfeited their lives.
The first white opponents of Western slavery were the Quakers and other peace churches. Since war was anti-Christian, the Quakers believed, then slavery, as the fruit of war, also was wrong.
Quakers were leaders of the anti-slavery movement in both Great Britain and the United States; many and maybe most white members of the Underground Railroad were Quakers.
Another strain of opposition to slavery came from the rationalistic thinkers of the 18th century, who opposed hereditary privilege and believed that government should should be based on recognition of human rights.
They were not as wholehearted as the Quakers. Slaveowners such as Thomas Jefferson admitted that slavery was in theory a great evil, but insisted that the times and conditions for emancipation weren’t right.
The invention of so-called scientific racism was in part a response to qualms of people like Jefferson. If black Africans are not as human as white Europeans, then slavery does not have to be justified. There is no reason not to treat enslaved people as if they were livestock.
This argument did not touch the Quakers and other religious opponents of slavery because they opposed slavery on moral grounds, not scientific grounds.
Black people, both free and enslaved, meanwhile fought for their own liberation, in slave uprisings and in appeals to white people for the abolition of slavery. Without their struggle, the majority of white people might have been able to ignore the moral issue indefinitely.