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When Liberalism Defended Slavery

Walter Johnson demonstrates how little liberal humanism, with its celebration of individual rights and agency, has to offer those wishing to understand the history of slavery or seeking justice for communities that have survived enslavement. I would extend Johnson’s critique by pointing out that liberal humanism has long been a central component of the political ideology of slaveholders and their allies and abettors. Overlooking this relationship of liberal humanism and slavery—seeing liberalism merely as an insufficient approach to slavery—means offering an incomplete critique of both.

Strange though it may seem today, liberalism—the political doctrine that attributed rights to individuals that no government, no matter how democratic or just, could violate—offered one of the most important legal and ideological protections for slavery in the nineteenth century. Liberalism defined rights as private, and the ultimate such right was the right to hold private property. Racism was, of course, central to the definition of some human beings as property. But liberalism meant that no matter what a legislator or judge thought of people of African descent or the morality of holding slaves, the state could not interfere with private property rights. In its infamous 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford decision, the Supreme Court not only denied citizenship and rights to people of African descent, but also affirmed that slavery enjoyed the same constitutional protections as every other form of property-holding. Despite the genuine moral revulsion of many liberals toward slavery, the individual right to private property stymied efforts to overthrow it. We might say the same of liberal responses to any number of catastrophes we face today, from mass poverty to global climate change.

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About Boston Review

Walter Johnson, Harvard historian and author of the acclaimed River of Dark Dreams, urges us to embrace a vision of justice attentive to the history of slavery—not through the lens of human rights, but instead through an honest accounting of how slavery was the foundation of capitalism, a legacy that continues to afflict people of color and the poor. Inspired by Cedric J. Robinson’s work on racial capitalism, as well as Black Lives Matter and its forebears—including the black radical tradition, the Black Panthers, South African anti-apartheid struggles, and organized labor—contributors to this volume offer a critical handbook to racial justice in the age of Trump.