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Two epochal developments profoundly influenced the history of the Atlantic world between 1770 and 1870—the rise of women’s rights activism and the drive to eliminate chattel slavery. The contributors to this volume, eminent scholars from a variety of disciplines, investigate the intertwining histories of abolitionism and feminism on both sides of the Atlantic during this dynamic century of change. They illuminate the many ways that the two movements developed together and influenced one another.
Approaching a wide range of transnational topics, the authors ask how conceptions of slavery and gendered society differed in the United States, France, Germany, and Britain; how women’s activism reached across national boundaries; how racial identities affected the boundaries of women’s activism; and what was distinctive about African-American women’s participation as activists. Their thought-provoking answers provide rich insights into the history of struggles for social justice across the Atlantic world.
Looking back over the last century-and-a-half, many of today's defenders of genuine female equality would agree with the 1849 declaration of the radical German feminist Louise Dittmar: "The freedom of women is the greatest revolution, not just of our own day, but of all time, since it breaks fetters which are as old as the world." Inspired by the soon to be crushed Revolutions of 1848, Dittmar called on German reformers to include women in their emancipations, "otherwise women must pass on their slave-chains from generation to generation." Still drawing on Professor Bonnie S. Anderson's chapter in this volume, we find similar views expressed fifty-seven years earlier, at the height of the French Revolution, when the German Theodor Gottlieb von Hippel also likened the status of women to slavery and, in striking contrast to most male rebels, even argued that "the oppression of women is the cause of all the rest of the oppression in the world."
There may well be some ancient historical basis for this linkage between the oppression of women and human slavery, a connection that then became a vivid and existential "rediscovery" in the European revolutions of the 1790s and 1840s and a familiar theme, as Karen Offen's chapter shows, even in mid-seventeenth-century French literature, especially in novels written by women.
The modern historian Gerda Lerner has advanced the hypothesis that the virtual enslavement of women in the earliest patriarchal societies, where their reproductive potential "became a commodity to be exchanged," provided a model for the first enslavement of prisoners-of-war, most of whom would have been women. When reading Homer and other classical writers, we find that male prisoners-of-war were traditionally killed, since they were too dangerous to control, while women were enslaved, often dishonored by rape, and brought into tribal societies. Women were thus the archetypal slaves, and as slavery became associated with supposedly inferior foreign women, this had a further degrading influence on all women: "slave girls staffed the brothels and filled the harems of the ancient world.... Women, always available for subordination, were now seen as inferior by being like slaves."
In my own writings, I have suggested that prehistorical slavery was also probably modeled on the domestication of animals, a process that ideally would convert captive human beings into so-called natural slaves. Thus 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. Aristotle, who proclaimed that "from the hour of their birth, some men are marked out for subjection, others for rule," connected the theme of domestication with the theme of gender: "Tame animals are naturally better than wild animals," he wrote, "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 ... these people are slaves by nature."
These traditional dualisms had for millennia not only justified slavery and patriarchy but, even worse, had been aimed at transforming the self-consciousness and behavior of slaves and women, much as the biological process of neoteny had tamed and disciplined domestic animals. Remembering that beloved household pets are seldom treated or thought of as animals in the degrading sense (pigs, rats, lice), this comparison gives added meaning to the nineteenth-century "cult of domesticity," which romanticized women who had been trained to maintain the household as a refuge or "haven from a heartless world." The feminist Louise Dittmar struck a tender nerve and evidenced her own psychological liberation when she claimed that women of her time were enslaved by the "fetters of idealization" and the "shackles of beauty."
Aristotle's merging of gender, domestication, and natural slavery enriches the significance of the preface to the famous 1848 "Declaration of Sentiments," adopted at Seneca Falls, New York, by sixty-four women and thirty-two men, many of them veterans of the American abolitionist movement who had been inspired in part by the news that revolutionary France had abolished French colonial slavery: "The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her." This crucial indictment and its historical context symbolize the temporary convergence of the movements for slave emancipation and women's rights.
The feminists' choice of the slavery analogy, apparently begun in France in the mid-seventeenth century and forcefully used by the Englishwoman Mary Astell in 1700, was part of a long linguistic tradition that goes back to antiquity. As Orlando Patterson has imaginatively argued, the Western concept of freedom grew out of the experiences with slavery and manumission in ancient Greece and Rome. For the nonslave, as Patterson puts it, "[t]o contemplate the social death of the slave was to conceive of one's existence in a wholly new light, as the cherished condition of not being socially dead, not being kinless, not being bereft of one's household and tribal gods. Who in his, or her, right mind would ever have thought of anything so crazy until the perverse reality of slavery came into the world?"
Of course Patterson recognizes that it took a complex series of historical events to create the Western and Christian philosophical tradition of freedom, which also drew on the Jewish narrative of a long enslavement in Egypt and the exodus toward freedom and the Promised Land. My point here is that from the ancient Athenians and Roman republicans on to Machiavelli and seventeenth-century British philosophers of liberty, a multitude of Western writers and speakers used the metaphor of slavery to describe the status of Persians, Russians, Asians, Africans, and the rest of the "unfree peoples" of the world, to say nothing of the tyrannical kings, emperors, popes, and dictators who threatened the "liberals'" own freedom. But with few exceptions, these theories and affirmations of liberty were wholly limited to males and preceded any meaningful antislavery activities by one or more centuries. When seventeenth-century French and English writers thought of true slavery, they almost always had in mind the hundreds of thousands of European Christians who had been captured and enslaved by Muslim raiders and taken in chains to the Barbary Coast. Thus a work like Samuel Sewall's 1700 The Selling of Joseph, which did attack the enslavement of black Africans, was as unusual and as isolated a phenomenon as Mary Astell's feminist work Some Reflections on Marriage, published in the same year. While historians search and discover early examples of feminist or antislavery opinion, nothing is more striking than the lack of continuity and thus the lack of anything like organized movements for abolition or for women's rights until the 1790s, 1830s, or 1840s. Of course some of the activists in various movements were interested in and helped to unearth long-forgotten precedents.
If the very concept of freedom was a consequence of slavery-and it seems that it was the relatively sudden and unexpected economic dominance of African-American slavery in the colonial Chesapeake that provided the foundation for an emerging sense of white liberty and equality, culminating in Virginia's Revolutionary generation-there would be nothing novel or contradictory about a slaveholder exclaiming, "Give me liberty or give me death!" But as it happened, the Patrick Henrys and other white American colonists of the 1760s and 1770s did find themselves in a unique and awkward situation. They sincerely believed that in the aftermath of the triumphant French and Indian War, Britain threatened them with a kind of enslavement. But they were also entering an era when the legitimacy and justice of genuine chattel slavery had begun to be sharply questioned. They could thus be accused of flagrant hypocrisy, as in Samuel Johnson's famous quip: "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" Johnson had long expressed bitter opposition to colonial slavery and represented a growing antislavery literary tradition in England and Scotland. One answer to such mockery, as we will soon see in a passage written by Jefferson, was to blame Britain and King George III for the originating sins of African slavery. But many American patriots must have been further shocked when they found their own natural rights rhetoric embedded in petitions for freedom from Northern slaves. And by the 1820s the increasing number of free blacks in the North looked to the nation's Declaration of Independence as their foundational document, defining their undeniable goal of equality at a time of worsening racism. Women, as we shall see, would later be inspired by the same verbal architecture.
On July 4, 1827, towns across New York State celebrated the final and complete emancipation of all slaves in the state, twenty-eight years after New York had passed its first gradual emancipation act. In some town squares audiences listened to the words of the Declaration of Independence precisely one year after the amazingly coincidental deaths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, both of whom had been on the committee appointed to draft the Declaration. By 1827, thanks in part to Jefferson's long life and the political triumph of his party, the document had become sacred scripture. But few New York residents would have been aware of the long passage in the original Declaration, deleted by Congress, in which Jefferson had morally condemned the very foundations of African enslavement in the New World. This is a subject to which I'll soon return.
I should first note that only two years after the New York State emancipation celebration, the most eloquent early black abolitionist, David Walker, would publish a truly revolutionary work that quoted the natural rights doctrines of the Declaration of Independence before exclaiming:
See your Declaration Americans!!! Do you understand your own language? Hear your language, proclaimed to the world ... "We hold these truths to be self evident-that all men are created equal!! That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness!!" Compare your own language above ... with your cruelties and murders inflicted by your cruel and unmerciful fathers and yourselves on our fathers and on us-men who have never given your fathers or you the least provocation!!!!!! ... Now, Americans! I ask you candidly, was your sufferings under Great Britain one hundredth part as cruel and tyrannical as you have rendered ours under you?
David Walker's Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, which turned up in various parts of the South after being written in Boston, goes on to assert: "Some of you, no doubt, believe that we will never throw off your murderous government.... If Satan has made you believe it, will he not deceive you? Do the whites say, I being a black man, ought to be humble, which I readily admit? I ask them, ought they not to be as humble as I? Or do they think they can measure arms with Jehovah? Will not the Lord yet humble them? or will not these very coloured people whom they now treat worse than brutes, yet under God, humble them low down enough?"
Walker also critiqued and satirized Jefferson's notoriously racist passages in his Notes on the State of Virginia. Walker's vivid ideal of equality, also expressed in the first African-American newspaper, Freedom's Journal, was no doubt related to rapid social changes that enabled a visiting French aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville, who toured America in 1831, to conclude that the nation's most distinctive characteristic was its success in moving toward "almost complete equality of conditions" (and Tocqueville was keenly aware of both slavery and the racial divide).
As various scholars have shown, the Declaration of Independence was a product and summation of a collective series of colonial protests and affirmations. The original text had been hastily written by Jefferson and then substantially revised by the Continental Congress. In the summer of 1776 and for some years to come the Declaration was not viewed as a pivotal or even extraordinary document. Yet in time, especially after the French Revolution's similar Declaration of the Rights of Man, to say nothing of the actress Olympe de Gouges's lesser known Vindication of the Rights of Women and Citizenesses, it became the American Enlightenment's equivalent to sacred scripture-the founding document, even more holy and enduring than England's Magna Charta and 1689 Declaration of Rights. If many in the nineteenth century, especially slaveholding Southerners, attacked the doctrine that all men are created equal as self-evidently absurd, reformers and radicals of various kinds, including workers, abolitionists, feminists, and even anti-Masons, used the Declaration as a model for expressing their own public grievances and aspirations.
Pauline Maier points out that Jefferson was no Moses receiving the Ten Commandments from the hand of God and stresses the marvel of such successful group editing. There is an interesting contrast between the sources of the Declaration's principles and the source of the Ten Commandments and other laws revealed to Moses and the Israelites at Horeb or Mt. Sinai. As the Torah or core of the Old Testament suggests, true freedom in accordance with higher law presupposed centuries of Hebrew enslavement followed by a complex escape from slavery and an arduous struggle to learn what freedom means when regulated by divine law-that is, a new higher bondage to God, not to human masters. Because biblical law came directly from God and was then reiterated by Moses to the younger generation before they crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land, it was endowed with transcendent sanctity; obedience to such laws became the condition stipulated by God in return for the Promised Land.
An independent America was also seen as a promised land, but given the premises of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, Jefferson could affirm that the principles of a more abstract Creator were self-evident to rational humans -in Jefferson's initial draft, not "self-evident" but "sacred and undeniable." Thus the "Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" entitled the American people to a "separate and equal station," in part because it was a self-evident truth that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with such "unalienable" rights as "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." As Garry Wills has convincingly argued, Jefferson had adopted the philosopher Francis Hutcheson's view of a universal moral sense, shared by all races of humanity. Thus despite Jefferson's well-known racist writings on the intellectual capacities of Africans, he thought it more important that blacks were equal to whites in what Wills terms "the cardinal virtues of moral-sense theory, the central manifestations of man's highest faculty." According to Wills, Jefferson could thus affirm "a literal equality of men."
In Jefferson's first draft of the Virginia Constitution, written before June 13, 1776, he assembled a list of indictments against King George III, very similar to those he would soon expand upon in the Declaration, in order to document the king's "insupportable tyranny." Infuriated by the Royal Governor Lord Dunmore's tactical decision in November 1775 to offer freedom to any of Virginia's slaves and servants who deserted their masters and joined "his Majesty's troops," Jefferson accused the king of "prompting our Negroes to rise in arms among us; those very Negroes whom by an inhuman use of his negative [i.e., veto] he hath (from time to time) refused us permission to exclude by law." The last phrase referred to England's veto of a succession of colonial laws intended to limit or stop the further importation of slaves from Africa. Unlike the West Indies, the Chesapeake colonies, in particular, profited from a rapid natural growth of the slave population. For many reasons, including moral misgivings over slavery, whites had feared a growing racial imbalance if the unlimited importation of African slaves continued.
Excerpted from Women's Rights and Transatlantic Antislavery in the Era of Emancipation Copyright © 2007 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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