Wollstonecraft's Thoughts on Slavery and Corruption

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Although Mary Wollstonecraft appears to have thought about slavery nearly as much as she thought about rights and duties, the body of scholarship on her idea of slavery is slight. Despite the recent proliferation of books and articles on her work the only extended discussions of this subject are to be found in essays by D. L. Macdonald, who argues that Wollstonecraft anticipates Hegel's master-slave dialectic, and Moira Ferguson, who attaches a great deal of importance to the effects of Afro-Caribbean slavery on Wollstonecraft's thoughts about British women's "slavery." (1) I argue, contrary to Ferguson, that the Afro-Caribbean backdrop and the politics surrounding it, potent as they may be, are incidental to Wollstonecraft's idea of British women's condition. To focus one's attention on the situation in the Caribbean as the chief motivation for Wollstonecraft's idea of slavery is to risk missing what is most important and disturbing about Wollstonecraft's thoughts on the matter, which derive from the language of virtue and corruption that prevails in Protestant political discourse: throughout A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), a slave is an individual who is morally corrupt and who is complicit in his or her own ongoing corruption. Wollstonecraft sees moral corruption--'slavery'--at work everywhere she turns: among British women, men of wealth, soldiers, servants, and the inhabitants and rulers of empire. This corruption extends from the display of artificial manners to the promotion of a culture of luxury, which inevitably results in abuses of power.

To describe those slaves who lack rights as uprooted, tortured, incarcerated, disenfranchised, unpaid, or uneducated is to recognize the conditions they may suffer, but it is not to identify fully what the slave is. A slave is oppressed and unenlightened, lacking in reason and virtue. (2) By contrast, we must assume that one who is oppressed yet enlightened is necessarily in the process of casting off shackles and is not a slave but a revolutionary. That it may be difficult to locate enough revolutionaries in society to effect change is a problem of which Wollstonecraft is well aware: "Educated in slavish dependence, and enervated by luxury and sloth, where shall we find men who will stand forth to assert the rights of man;--or claim the privilege of moral beings, who should have but one road to excellence?" (3) Because Wollstonecraft finds the condition of British women especially troubling, she first addresses the need for a national system of public coeducation that will lead women out of "slavery" and into freedom and a condition of virtue. But she writes about the greater part of society suffering enslavement as well:

   The civilization of the bulk of the people of Europe is very
   partial; nay, it may be made a question, whether they have
   acquired any virtues in exchange for innocence, equivalent to
   the misery produced by the vices that have been plastered over
   unsightly ignorance, and the freedom which has been bartered for
   splendid slavery. (W 13)

Wollstonecraft does see pockets of reason and virtue existing in ancient and modern history among a handful of enlightened Europeans, and, despite the pacifism she brings to her opposition to military imperialism, she celebrates individual military leaders, such as the Roman general Fabricius and the American general George Washington, who, she believes, led defensive battles against civil and political slavery.

Scholars have noted that Wollstonecraft's frequent descriptions of marital relations and women's condition in terms of a system of slavery reflect her broader interest in an idea of slavery that is both literal and figurative. In the Rights of Woman and in the earlier A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), D. L. Macdonald suggests, Wollstonecraft is preoccupied with the injustices of the Afro-Caribbean institution as well as the literally slavish aspects of British women's social, economic, and legal condition; in the Rights of Woman, Macdonald points out, women are also represented to be metaphorical slaves to pernicious social forces. …