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41 MIN READ TIME

Abolition as Market Regulation

WHAT LANGUAGE SHOULD WE use when we talk about slavery? Walter Johnson takes historians to task for using the word “dehumanize.” While I am skeptical about the dangers of the word itself, I strongly agree that the discourse about slavery should not be artificially separated from conversations about modern capitalism. How does the history of slavery look if we make more use of the language of capitalism?

One place to begin is to describe the abolition of slavery not as a human-rights measure but as a form of market regulation. In the abstract, this shift makes sense: abolition not only stripped slaveholders of their property, it also restricted property rights. It prevented men and women from being sold (or selling themselves) into bondage. Abolition also outlawed certain kinds of transactions and, as a regulation of “bonds,” it restricted the right to contract.

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Boston Review
Winter 2017
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Other Articles in this Issue


Boston Review
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WALTER JOHNSON ARGUES AGAINST a triumphalist narrative
EVERY GREAT HISTORICAL EPOCH in the freedom struggle
RETHINKING OUR NOTION OF JUSTICE through the history
OUR IDEA OF RACIAL CAPITALISM, as Walter Johnson explains
WALTER JOHNSON IS UPSET at the state of the historiography
WALTER JOHNSON GIVES A BRACING critique of two ways
Following W. E. B. Du Bois and Cedric Robinson, Walter
Walter Johnson demonstrates how little liberal humanism
BLACK HUMANITY IS UNEXCEPTIONAL, Walter Johnson exhorts.
IT HAS BEEN WORSE. Let’s not forget “The Nadir,” as
Are we not coming more and more, day by day, to making
And I point to the list of the names of the missing
Births of a Nation: Surveying Trumpland with Cedric
Symptomatic of being a slave is to forget you’re a
In addition to the work of our contributors, the editors
Dwayne Betts is a poet, memoirist, and teacher. His