Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Commodified Freedom: Interrogating the Limits of Anti-Slavery Ideology in the Early Republic

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Commodified Freedom: Interrogating the Limits of Anti-Slavery Ideology in the Early Republic

Article excerpt

Historians have long understood the relationship between slavery and freedom in western culture as a "problem" to be explained, a paradox to be resolved. Whereas the long-held view has explained the relationship as one in which "freedom in the Western world" is understood to have been "dependent to some degree on the slave systems that western Europe also developed," David Eltis recently has offered a convincing argument that the relationship can be better understood in properly historical terms by reversing that formulation: "the rise of slavery in the Americas," Eltis argues, "was dependent on the nature of freedom in western Europe."1 If Eltis is right about the direction of the causal link between slavery and freedom (and I believe he is), it remains for us to learn more about precisely how the one produced the other. One of the difficulties we face in our effort to better understand the relationship between slavery and freedom derives, I believe, from our tendency to treat these as fixed, stable categories when, in fact, the fuzzy boundaries and unclear content of these categories was precisely what fueled debate about "slavery" and "freedom" in the eighteenth century.

My goal in this essay is to explore the diverse and contradictory strands of "freedom" that were at play in the early modern Atlantic world. There may have been a political consensus against royalist absolutism in that world, but the parameters of the various individualist freedoms unleashed by the triple crown of Protestantism, post-Restoration constitutionalism, and mercantilism-"shifts in European thought," writes Eltis, "that helped the rights of the individual against group or state to evolve into recognizably modern form"-remained unclear.2 In this essay, I suggest that commodification can serve as an important category of analysis for interrogating what we might call "the problem of freedom" in the early republic. I first will make the case for commodification as an appropriate category for analysis and interpretation of the politics of slavery; next I will suggest what we can leam from this approach; and finally, I will suggest why it matters.

n. Commodity-&.Commodity-M.Commodification: It has been useful for me to begin this essay by pondering the word "commodification." Although commodification interests us greatly in the era of late capitalism (enter the word in any search engine and you will get a large and fascinating variety of "hits"), neither this action-noun nor the verb from which it derives was much on the minds of those who inhabited the world of early capitalism-the Atlantic world in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and (long) eighteenth centuries. It was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Douglas Bruster observes, that "the word 'commodity' itselfonce connoting something like 'convenience/ a meaning now obsoletereferred instead with more frequency to coMcriii things, exchangeable goods and wares."3 And it was at this time (the turn of the seventeenth century) that John Wheeler's 1601 Trgaiui q/^ Co?%?w«rcg mapped the great degree to which all the world had come to be enclosed in the grip of the market:

The Prince with his subjects, the Master with his servants, one friend and acquaintance with another, the Captain with his soldiers, the Husband with his wife, Women with and among themselves, and in a word, all the world chopped) and changeth, runneth and raveth after Marts, Markets and Merchandising, so that all things come into Commerce, and pass into traffic (in a manner) in all times, and in all places: not only that, which nature bringeth forth, as the fruits of the earth, the beasts, and living creatures, with their-spoils, skins and cases, the metals, minerals, and such like things, but further also, this man maketli merchandise of the works of his own hands, this man of another man's labor, one selleth words, another makctli t[r]affic of the skins and blood of other men, yea there are some found so subtle and cunning merchants, that they persuade and induce men to suffer themselves to be bought and sold . …

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