Shopping Cart -

Your cart is currently empty.
Upgrade to today
for only an extra Cxx.xx

You get:

plus This issue of xxxxxxxxxxx.
plus Instant access to the latest issue of 460+ of our top selling titles.
plus Unlimited access to 39000+ back issues
plus No contract or commitment. If you decide that PocketmagsPlus is not for you, you can cancel your monthly subscription online at any time. Auto-renews at $11.99 per month, unless cancelled.
Upgrade for 99c
Then just $11.99 / month. Cancel anytime.
Learn more
Pocketmags Digital Magazines
US
Pocketmags Digital Magazines
Read anywhere Read anywhere
Ways to pay Pocketmags Payment Types
Trusted site
At Pocketmags you get
Secure Billing
Great Offers
Web & App Reader
Gifting Options
Loyalty Points
62 MIN READ TIME

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.

Read the complete article and many more in this issue of Boston Review
Purchase options below
If you own the issue, Login to read the full article now.
Single Digital Issue Winter 2017
 
$11.99
This issue and other back issues are not included in a new Boston Review subscription. Subscriptions include the latest regular issue and new issues released during your subscription.
Annual Digital Subscription $24.99 billed annually
Save
48%
$24.99

This article is from...


View Issues
Boston Review
Winter 2017
VIEW IN STORE

Other Articles in this Issue


Boston Review
CEDRIC J. ROBINSON’S PASSING this summer at the age
But for is always game. A man can be murdered twice
To Remake the World: Slavery, Racial Capitalism, and
WALTER JOHNSON ARGUES AGAINST a triumphalist narrative
WHAT LANGUAGE SHOULD WE use when we talk about slavery?
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
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