Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery

Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery

Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery

Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery

Excerpt

The controversies of historians of slavery have been so intense and protracted during the past three decades that they have caught the attention of the entire history profession and periodically broken into the news. Such controversies may signal important intellectual progress or they may merely be the fuss produced by trendy misadventures. As scholarly passions abated, it became clear that a genuine revolution in knowledge was taking place. The intellectual turmoil was precipitated partly by the relatively sudden, vast expansion of information on the operation of slave systems and partly by the new techniques of analysis that were employed to assess this information. The result has been a transformation in perceptions of the nature of American slavery, of the black experience under it, of the ideological and political struggles against the system, and of the nature of the moral problem of slavery.

It was the moral implications of some of the recent research rather than mere professional rivalries that accounted for the crackling atmosphere of these debates. The discovery that slaves were effective workers who had developed a much stronger family life, a more varied set of occupational skills, and a richer, more distinct culture than previously recognized created an agonizing dilemma. Did these findings enhance black history by revealing a hitherto undisclosed record of achievement under adversity? Or did they diminish the moral horror of slavery and constitute (no matter how innocent the intention) an apologia for centuries of exploitation? Did the findings rob blacks of a history of resistance to slavery and cast them instead in the role of collaborators in their own oppression?

These questions represent only one level of the debates over the findings. Some scholars insisted that the findings must have been in error, that they were the product either of unrepresentative samples of evidence or of outrageous errors in the technical analysis of the evidence. Others contended that the moral implications were so pernicious that the findings should have been suppressed, even if factually correct. But a more common concern was that the findings could serve to misdirect the . . .

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