Did the Enlightenment Endorse Slavery?

The counter-Enlightenment is alive and well. Students of the Enlightenment are often confronted by more or less crude defamations of it. Sometimes it is caricatured by postmodernists (ignorant of the writings of David Hume), who accuse the lumières of being overconfident in the power of reason. At other times, the Enlightenment is denounced as globalist (by nationalists), laissez faire capitalist (by socialists), or irreverent towards religion (by the faithful). But, in modern times, no other indictment is more serious than the slur that the Enlightenment endorsed slavery.

There are two parts to this charge. The first is the accusation of hypocrisy. Despite proclaiming that “all men are created equal,” the argument runs, there was widespread support for slavery, which made a mockery of Enlightenment aspirations of liberty. Enlightenment freedom, in this view, only meant the freedom of the well-off to prey on the oppressed and downtrodden. Secondly, some argue that the notion of racial inferiority was a creation of Enlightenment thought. Or, as Slate puts it, “the Enlightenment created modern race thinking.” At times, these two accusations contradict each other: after all, one can only be a hypocrite if one holds oneself to a high standard, not if one is an outright racist. Nevertheless, these charges must be refuted.

Let’s first look at the assertion that the lumières created race thinking and then examine the connection between slavery and the Enlightenment.

Racism Before the Enlightenment

The claim that racism was born in the eighteenth century is a symptom of selective historical amnesia. It is hand-me-down neo-Rousseauianism at its worst. Fortunately, it is easy to refute. Racism has a long and ugly history.

The Greeks enslaved barbarians, whom they regarded as natural slaves, bereft of the full capacity of reason. Aristotle was one of the main advocates of this doctrine. In The Politics, he writes, “Where then there is such a difference as that between soul and body, or between men and animals … the lower sort are by nature slaves, and it is better for them as for all inferiors that they should be under the rule of a master.” Both Plato and the Romans had similar preconceptions. In De Provinciis Consularibus, Cicero remarks that the Jews and Syrians are “nations born for slavery.” Although slavery was central to ancient civilizations, most prejudice was directed against ethnic foreigners, not framed according to the racial categories we think in today. But this distinction must have seemed somewhat academic to the enslaved barbarian.

Several sources from the early Islamic period reveal unambiguous racial animosity. For example, the poet Suhaym, born a slave in Africa, writes, “If my colour were pink, women would love me / But the Lord has marred me with blackness.” The black court poet Abu Dulama amuses his caliph by subserviently mocking his skin color, “We are alike in colour; our faces are black and ugly, our names are shameful.” The reader of One Thousand and One Nights is surely aware of its unfortunate political incorrectness with regard to race and sexuality. Bernard Lewis, in Race and Slavery in the Middle East, labels both King Shahzaman and King Shahriyar “white supremacists” with “sexual fantasies, or rather nightmares, of a sadly familiar quality.”

We can also find early attempts to categorize humanity into racial groups. Certain aspects of human physiognomy, associated with specific races in reality or imagination, are frequently reviled. Writing in the ninth century, Ibn Qutayba says that blacks “are ugly and misshapen, because they live in a hot country. The heat overcooks them in the womb, and curls their hair.” This racial theory was undergirded by pseudo-scientific reasoning: a temperate climate was thought to be optimal, whereas cold causes whites to be “undercooked” and excessive heat “overcooks” blacks. Said al-Andalusi similarly dismisses both Northerners and Southerners as people “who are more like beasts than like men.” Another author, Ibn al-Faqih al-Hamadani, praises the Iraqi people for being neither too white nor too black: “nor are they overdone in the womb until they are burned, so the child comes out something between black, murky, malodorous, stinking, and crinkly-haired, with uneven limbs, deficient minds, and depraved passions, such as the Zanj, the Ethiopians, and other blacks who resemble them [emphasis mine].”

In medieval Europe, meanwhile, anti-Semitism was rampant. This special kind of racism has its roots in religious hatred. Jews have been targets of suspicion since antiquity, but the paranoia reached new peaks during the Crusades. In Crusader propaganda, there was much emphasis on meritorious violence and on Christ’s suffering on the cross. The dangerous charge of deicide was often leveled at the Jews. Following Urban II’s call to arms, some crusaders in Rouen remarked that it was a secondary concern to fight Christ’s enemies in the east “when in front of our eyes are the Jews, of all races the most hostile to God.” Slaughter ensued. These murders were arguably motivated by economic opportunism and anti-Judaic hostility, not racial revulsion. However, this soon changed. By the mid-twelfth century, images of subhuman Jews, satanic hook-nosed creatures, emerged. Jews were now killed for being Jewish. As Gavin Langmuir has shown, “[m]any now saw Jews as inhuman beings.” When the Black Death arrived, many blamed the Jews for allegedly poisoning the wells.

The clearest example of medieval anti-Semitic racism can be found in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Spain. Following pogroms and expulsions, hundreds of thousands of Jews were forcibly converted to Christianity. These conversos were suspected of being insincere crypto-Jewish converts, who were secretly undermining the unity of Spanish Christendom. The doctrine of limpieza de sangre (purity of blood) provided a racial explanation as to why the converts were unable to fully assimilate. Several institutions enacted blood purity laws that barred people with Jewish lineage from holding office. For example, in 1547 the archbishop of Toledo ordered all churches under his remit to impose this racial test on prospective clerics. Certificates of blood purity had to be produced when seeking employment in local government and no one with impure blood was allowed to colonize America. This discrimination was not merely a social inconvenience. The watchful eye of the Inquisition was fixed on the descendants of conversos. Those who failed the limpieza de sangre test were overrepresented among the victims of de Torquemada and his successors.

A brief survey of historical records pertaining to the early American colonies clearly shows that vicious racial contempt was part of everyday life there. White supremacy had been brought to America from Europe: racism was prevalent from the outset. Writing in 1578, the explorer and chronicler George Best reasons that dark pigmentation results from “some naturall infection of the first inhabitants of that Countrey [Africa], and so all the whole progenie of them descended, are still polluted with the same blot of infection.” Best thought that the original infection stemmed from God’s damnation of Ham for his sexual incontinency. According to Best, God made the descendants of Ham “so blacke & lothsome, that it might remaine a spectacle of disobedience to all the World.” Explanations for supposed black inferiority were often religious in nature: slavery was seen as a divine curse laid upon people of color. We find Reverend Thomas Cooper, in 1615, expressing the view that “this cursed race of Cham [shall be] scattered towards the South, in Africa.” The missionary Morgan Godwin, touring Barbados in the 1670s, and attempting to convert slaves, reports that he frequently met with the question: “What, those black Dogs be made Christians?” Historian Alden Vaughan writes that the theory that racial inferiority originated from divine displeasure “was as profoundly a racist ideology as anything advocated two centuries later by Edmund Ruffin or George Fitzhugh or three centuries later by Ku Klux Klansmen.”

The rival historiographical school of thought on the origins of racism in colonial America holds that racism was a product of slavery. According to this counterintuitive account, racism did not cause slavery; slavery created racism. This view has acquired some contemporary support. Ta-Nehisi Coates, for example, has endorsed it in the Atlantic. No one disputes that slavery reinforced racial prejudice, but to claim that the causality was one way goes against the available historical evidence. Clearly, racism was a precondition for the development of slavery. However, even if this epiphenomenal narrative were correct it would not undermine my argument: since, in that case, racism was the product of economic conditions—the labor shortage on seventeenth-century plantations—not of eighteenth-century Enlightenment thought.

The assertion that the Enlightenment invented racism is sometimes motivated by noble aspirations. If racism is a recent thing, something created by economic conditions not that long ago, then we might hope to supersede it. By changing the economics, we could eradicate racial animosity. But if racism existed before slavery, then transcending it will be more difficult, especially if the racist impulse is embedded in our human nature. Unfortunately, attempts to analyze human physiognomy and categorize supposed races into hierarchical castes is an old practice.

The Enlightenment and Slavery

Slavery long predates Jefferson and Washington. By 1619, there were more than 250,000 black slaves in Spanish and Portuguese colonies alone. Slavery has, in fact, been an integral part of nearly every empire since pre-ancient times. The Romans derived entertainment from their slaves by feeding them to lions and bears; the Aztecs sacrificed slaves by the thousands in ritual killings. American colonial slavery was an inheritance from pre-Enlightenment England. Thomas Jefferson’s original Declaration of Independence contains a paragraph denouncing slavery, as a product of English monarchical despotism: “[George III] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.”

My defense of the Enlightenment is not a defense of the lumières: many were crude racists. Some were enthusiastic slave owners, others were more reluctant—like Jefferson, who forbade further importation of slaves in the hopes of stopping “the increase of the evil.” Immanuel Kant fatuously stated that compared to whites “the yellow Indians have a small amount of Talent. The Negroes are lower and the lowest are a part of the American peoples.” He once dismissed the opinion of a person of color because “this fellow was quite black … a clear proof that what he said was stupid.” Opinions like these deserve our moral opprobrium, even if they were typical of their time. But this does not prove that the Enlightenment was racist. Dare to know—sapere aude—was Kant’s motto for the Enlightenment spirit. The moment he disregarded the black man, Kant failed in his central injunction: he had abdicated his critical faculties; he had been insufficiently enlightened. Thus, racism and slavery resulted from a lack of enlightenment, not an overabundance of it.

The call for enlightenment was an admission that the era was not enlightened. It was an ideal to strive for, not an assessment of contemporary society. The lumières did not view themselves as enlightened. They were aware of the limitations of their knowledge and wisdom. This recognition was the beginning of enlightenment: realizing one’s ignorance and attempting to lessen it. Hence, noting that there were eighteenth-century slaveholders misses the point. It is untenable to claim that the central ideal of the Enlightenment—free thought—furthered chattel slavery. Of course, individual philosophes tried to reconcile liberty and slavery, but this was a sign that they had failed to enlighten themselves—that they were still held hostage by their culturally conditioned prejudices. It was not the result of their having learned to think for themselves.

When Samuel Johnson published his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, there was no entry for abolition. Abolitionism was a novelty that the Enlightenment introduced, not an inheritance from earlier centuries. The examples of Anthony Benezet and the Quakers illustrate this. Benezet was a man of singular vigor and moral clarity. Born in France in 1713, he was forced to flee to England at the tender age of two, as the result of religious persecution. While he was in his late teens, his family moved to Philadelphia. There he took up teaching. He was humane towards his students and discriminated neither on grounds of race nor sex. In the evenings, he taught the children of slaves, and he later founded schools for girls. He writes: “I am bold to assert, that the notion entertained by some, that the blacks are inferior in their capacities, is a vulgar prejudice, founded on the principle of ignorance of their lordly masters, who have kept their slaves at such a distance, as to be unable to form a right judgement of them.”

Upon arriving in Philadelphia, Benezet converted to Quakerism. Several prominent abolitionists were Quakers, but importantly, before the Enlightenment, that had not been the case. Prior to Benezet’s involvement in the anti-slavery movement in the mid-eighteenth-century, Quakers had not opposed slavery. Their founder, George Fox, had encouraged kindness towards slaves, but never denounced the institution of slavery itself.

Benezet wrote several screeds against slavery, culminating in the 1771 publication of Some Historical Account of Guinea, Its Situation, Produce and the General Disposition of Its Inhabitants: An Inquiry into the Rise and Progress of the Slave Trade, Its Nature and Lamentable Effects. A. C. Grayling writes that this tract “lit the touchpaper that was Enlightenment sensibility.” It did indeed. Benezet quotes Locke, “The labour of his body, and work of his hands are his own … For one man to have absolute arbitrary power over another, is a power which nature never gives.”

Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin and Adam Smith were all enemies of slavery. Revolutionary France abolished slavery in 1794, only to have it reinstated by the reactionary Napoleonic regime. Several northern American states enacted anti-slavery bills following independence. And the British empire, belatedly, abolished slavery in 1833. In no instance was the road to liberty straight. The promise of equality was never fully realized, and the motivations behind emancipation were seldom wholly good. Financial and political interests often outweighed moral considerations. But, without the ideals of the Enlightenment, abolition would never have been contemplated. The persistence of slavery throughout the eighteenth century was simply because human society was not yet sufficiently enlightened at that time.

The Haitian Revolution

How, one wonders, can the emancipation of enslaved Haitians be assimilated into an indictment of the Enlightenment? If you believe the ideals of the Enlightenment justified slavery, how do you account for a man like Toussaint Louverture? In the years leading up to abolition, there were people of color and whites jointly arguing—and fighting—for liberation. As Jeremy Popkin has shown, abolition was “not simply the straightforward consequence of slaves’ desire for freedom or of French revolutionaries’ devotion to the rights of man.” Both the conflict between slaveholders and abolitionists and the journée of 20 June 1793 were the result of complex events. Vested interests and raw political opportunism often counted for more than principled demands for abolition. Nevertheless, the fight for freedom and independence was inspired by the impossibility of reconciling the oppression of slaves with the natural rights of all men. Revolutionary spokesman Honoré Gabriel de Riqueti expresses this unequivocally:

What [the Assembly] will say to the blacks, what it will say to the planters, what it will tell to the whole of Europe, is that there are not and cannot be, either in France or in any territory subject to French laws, any men other than free men, other than men equal to each other, and that any man who keeps another in involuntary servitude acts against the law.

To the Revolutionary Assembly’s eternal shame, it was slow to abolish slavery. In fact, right up until the journée of 20 June, the Assembly had attempted to violently repress the black insurgents. But still, as Popkin has argued, prior to 1794, “the prospect of a world without slavery or racial discrimination was a utopian hypothesis; after 1794, it could no longer be dismissed as something outside the realm of possibility.”

The motivations of the black insurgents were multifaceted and sometimes contradictory. Over time, their demands changed both in scope and nature. But there were some constant themes. A letter of demands from insurgency leaders Jean-François Papillon and Georges Biassou explicitly mentions the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and argues that the doctrine of natural rights is incompatible with slavery: blacks are “your equals according to natural right and if it has pleased nature to diversify the colours of the human species it is no crime to be black or any advantage to be white.” The potency of this declaration was such that the colonial slaveholders banned its circulation in Saint Domingue.

In his classic The Black Jacobins, C. L. R. James writes that Toussaint Louverture “had the advantage of liberty and equality, the slogans of the revolution,” in his fight for liberty. Toussaint made frequent reference to these revolutionary aims, “It is under [the French Republic’s] flag that we are truly free and equal.” Of course, economic pressures and expediencies often overrode moral calls for liberty and equality. But what is sometimes called the Enlightenment revolution in sensibilities was an indispensable prerequisite for emancipation and for the rebels to be granted legal recognition and legitimacy by a mayor European power.

Enlightenment Ideals

Enlightenment can be summarized as the attempt to think for oneself. (Editorial note: for an alternative summary of Enlightenment ideals, see this article.) It matters more how you think than what you think. This attitude towards thought allows the thinker, even if he starts from a position of callous ignorance, to progress towards empathetic understanding. Thinking for oneself requires the freedom to express oneself. The core idea of the Enlightenment was free speech. Thomas Jefferson’s quip that he would rather have newspapers without a government than a government without newspapers is the epitome of Enlightenment ideals. Frederick Douglass put it this way in his famous 1860 Boston speech:

No right was deemed by the fathers of the Government more sacred than the right of speech. It was in their eyes, as in the eyes of all thoughtful men, the great moral renovator of society and government … Thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers, founded in injustice and wrong, are sure to tremble, if men are allowed to reason of righteousness, temperance, and of a judgment to come in their presence. Slavery cannot tolerate free speech. Five years of its exercise would banish the auction block and break every chain in the South. They will have none of it there, for they have the power.

Douglass was correct: slavery cannot tolerate free speech, and nor could it tolerate free thought. Enlightenment was, and is, the enemy of slavery.

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4 comments

  1. Enlightenment gave birth to utilitarism as opposed to a religious worldview that saw salvation in afterlife. Utilitarism in turn caused efficient, hard labour (both slave labour and early capitalist wage slave labour), industrialism, urbanisation, pollution of the environment and yes, often a feeling of western superiority. Does that prove enlightenment was a bad development? No, it also made many people live longer and more comfortable than ever in history even kings did. Anyway, history is often chaotic and morally ambivalent, and the enlightenment is definitely no exception.

  2. This is a valuable corrective to one of the most absurd canards of the postmodern mindset, but when Gustav writes that Britain did not abolish slavery until 1833 he glosses over the previous 50 years or so, during which progressive (enlightened!) people campaigned vigorously to bring about this victory. The process really got moving in 1772 with the judgement of Lord Mansfield in the legal case, Somerset v Steuart, which effectively ended the possibility of a person being a slave in England.

    In his judgement the chief justice said:

    The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasion and time itself from which it was created, is erased from memory. It is so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from a decision, I cannot say that this case is allowed or approved by the law of England, and therefore the black must be discharged.

    Seymour Drescher. Abolition: A History of Slavery and Anti-Slavery (Cambridge University Press, 2009), 101.

    This decision was an immense encouragement to the existing anti-slavery movement, whose continuing agitation led to the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and of slavery within the British overseas possessions in 1833. The process was delayed because the pre-Reform Act (1832) parliament was dominated by conservative landowners, many of whom had interests in Caribbean plantations (as readers of Mansfield Park will recall). It was only after the Reform Act reduced rural and increased urban representation that the progressive forces had the numbers to force parliament to recognise and give effect to the strength of public opinion on this issue. It is a remarkable fact that even at the height of the war with Napoleonic France (1807-15) the British Navy devoted considerable resources to intercepting ships carrying slaves from Africa to Spanish South America and the United States.

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