The Fortunate Heirs of Freedom: Abolition & Republican Thought

By Daniel J. McInerney | Go to book overview

5
THE COSTS OF LIBERTY THE ABOLITIONIST ARGUMENT ON POLITICAL ECONOMY

ON SEPTEMBER 21, 1849, Rev. Daniel Foster addressed the people in his home community of Danvers, Massachusetts, on the subject of slavery. In his opening remarks, Foster emphasized the momentous choice facing his listeners, pointing to the particular evil that the chattel system represented: "We exert an inevitable and most important influence in the decision of the one transcendent question, on the right and speedy settlement of which depends, more or less intimately, the well-being of all men. That question is, 'Shall slavery be extended and perpetuated in our land, giving over society to the desolation of unrestrained selfishness?'"1

Foster's concern may appear unusual or even misplaced to modern eyes. Out of the many conceivable dangers posed by the chattel system, one might imagine that the problem of "selfishness" would not hold a position of such urgency and importance. Yet Foster merely echoed a frequently stated fear among reformers about slavery. His remarks and those of fellow advocates point to a critical -- if initially puzzling -- component of the abolition argument.

The warnings that Foster and others raised over the chattel system's "selfish" force were part of a larger set of assumptions reformers held about the political economy of slavery. In their critical examinations of the slave system, advocates often directed attention to matters of labor and class relations and reflected on questions of utilitarianism and liberal commitments. But Foster's comments suggest one other important subject of political economy, a theme prominent in reform appeals though relatively ne

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