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Liberalism and Racial Slavery: A Unique Twin Birth

Domenico Losurdo looks at the foundational link between liberalism and Atlantic slavery, and liberal philosophers' shifting positions on slavery in the period between Somersett v Stewart and the American Civil War.

Domenico Losurdo29 June 2018

Junius Brutus Stearns, Washington as a Farmer at Mount Vernon (1851).

We are saddened to learn of the death of Domenico Losurdo. In Liberalism: A Counter-History, published by Verso in Gregory Elliott's translation in 2011, Losurdo examines the record of "not liberal thought in its abstract purity, but liberalism, and hence the liberal movement and liberal society, in their concrete reality...the conceptual developments, but also — and primarily — the political and social relations it found expression in, as well as the more or less contradictory link that was established between these two dimensions of social reality." In an intellectual history that spans from the early eighteenth to the twentieth century, Losurdo shows that the "freedom" promoted by ideologists of liberalism has always been premised on fundamental exclusions. 

In the excerpt below, the book's second chapter, Losurdo looks at the foundational link between liberalism and Atlantic slavery, and liberal philosophers' shifting positions on slavery in the period between Somersett v Stewart and the American Civil War. 

1. The limitation of power and the emergence of an unprecedented absolute power

To render it explicable, the paradox must first be expounded in all its radicalism. Slavery is not something that persisted despite the success of the three liberal revolutions. On the contrary, it experienced its maximum development following that success: "The total slave population in the Americas reached around 330,000 in 1700, nearly three million by 1800, and finally peaked at over six million in the 1850s." 1 Contributing decisively to the rise of an institution synonymous with the absolute power of man over man was the liberal world. In the mid-eighteenth century, it was Great Britain that possessed the largest number of slaves (878,000). The fact is unexpected. Although its empire was far more extensive, Spain came well behind. Second position was held by Portugal, which possessed 700,000 slaves and was in fact a kind of semi-colony of Great Britain: much of the gold extracted by Brazilian slaves ended up in London. 2 Hence there is no doubt that absolutely preeminent in this field was the country at the head of the liberal movement, which had wrested primacy in the trading and ownership of black slaves precisely from the Glorious Revolution onwards. It was Pitt the Younger himself who, intervening in April 1792 in the House of Commons on the subject of slavery and the slave trade, acknowledged that "[n]o nation in Europe ... has ... plunged so deeply into this guilt as Great Britain." 3

That is not all. To a greater or lesser extent, there survived in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies "ancillary slavery," which is to be distinguished from "systemic slavery, linked to plantations and commodity production." And it was the latter type of slavery, established above all in the eighteenth century (starting from the liberal revolution of 1688–89) and clearly predominant in the British colonies, which most consummately expressed the de-humanization of those who were now mere instruments of labour and chattels, subject to regular sale on the market. 4

This did not even involve a return to the slavery peculiar to classical antiquity. Certainly, chattel slavery had been widespread in Rome. Yet the slave could reasonably hope that, if not he himself, then his children or grandchildren would be able to achieve freedom and even an eminent social position. Now, by contrast, his fate increasingly took the form of a cage from which it was impossible to escape. In the first half of the eighteenth century, numerous English colonies in America enacted laws that made the emancipation of slaves increasingly difficult. 5

The Quakers lamented the advent of what seemed to them a new and repugnant system. Slavery for a determinate period of time, and the other forms of more or less servile labour hitherto in force, tended to give way to slavery in the strict sense, to a permanent, hereditary condemnation of a whole people, who were denied any prospect of change and improvement, any hope of freedom. 6 Again, in a statute of 1696, South Carolina declared that it could not prosper "without the labor and service of negroes and other slaves." 7 The barrier separating service and slavery was as yet not well defined, and the institution of slavery had not yet appeared in all its harshness. But the process that increasingly reduced slaves to chattels, and established the racial character of the condition they were subjected to, was already underway. An unbridgeable gulf separated blacks from the free population. Ever stricter laws prohibited interracial sexual and marital relations, making them a crime. We are now dealing with a hereditary caste of slaves, defined and recognizable by the colour of their skin. In this sense, in John Wesley’s view, "American slavery" was "the vilest that ever saw the sun." 8

The verdict of American Quakers and British abolitionists has been fully confirmed by contemporary historians. At the end of a "cycle of degradation" of blacks, with the ignition of the white "engine of oppression" and the conclusive soldering of "slavery and racial discrimination," we see at work in the "colonies of the British empire" in the late seventeenth century a "chattel racial slavery" unknown in Elizabethan England (and also classical antiquity), but "familiar to men living in the nineteenth century" and aware of the reality of the southern United States. 9 Hence slavery in its most radical form triumphed in the golden age of liberalism and at the heart of the liberal world. This was acknowledged by James Madison, slave-owner and liberal (like numerous protagonists of the American Revolution), who observed that "the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man" —power based on "mere distinction of colour" — was imposed "in the most enlightened period of time." 10

Correctly stated, in all its radicalism, the paradox we face consists in this: the rise of liberalism and the spread of racial chattel slavery are the product of a twin birth which, as we shall see, has rather unique characteristics.

2. The self-government of civil society and the triumph of large-scale property

On its emergence, the paradox we are attempting to explain did not escape the most attentive observers. We have just seen Madison’s admission; and we are familiar with Samuel Johnson’s irony on the passionate love of liberty displayed by slave-owners; and Adam Smith’s observation on the nexus between the persistence and reinforcement of slavery, on the one hand, and the power of representative bodies hegemonized by slave-owners, on the other. In this connection, however, we must also record other, no less significant interventions. In fighting for conciliation of the rebel colonies, Burke recognized the influence of slavery within them. But this did not impair the "spirit of freedom." On the contrary, it was precisely here that freedom appeared "more noble and liberal." Indeed, "these people of the southern colonies are more much more strongly ... attached to liberty, than those to the northward." 11 This is a consideration that we also encounter, some decades later, from a Barbadian planter: "you will ... find that no nations in the world have been more jealous of their liberties than those amongst whom the institution of slavery existed." 12 On the other side, in England, countering Burke and his policy of conciliation of the rebel colonists, Josiah Tucker pointed out how "the Champions for American Republicanism" were simultaneously the promoters of the "absurd Tyranny" they exercised over their slaves: this was "a republican Tyranny, the worst of all Tyrannies." 13

In the authors cited here, there is a more or less clear awareness, accompanied by different value judgements, of the paradox we are examining. And perhaps precisely now it begins to lose its aura of impenetrability. Why should we be surprised that those demanding, or in the forefront of the demand for, self-government and "freedom" from central political power were the major slave-owners? In 1839 an eminent representative of Virginia observed that the position of the slave-owner stimulated in him "a more liberal cast of character, more elevated principles, a wider expansion of thought, a deeper and more fervent love, and juster estimate of that liberty by which he is so highly distinguished." 14

The wealth and leisure it enjoyed, and the culture it thus managed to acquire, reinforced the proud self-consciousness of a class that became ever more intolerant of the abuses of power, the intrusions, the interference and the constraints of political power or religious authority. Shaking off these constraints, the planter and slave-owner developed a liberal spirit and a liberal mentality.

Confirming this phenomenon are the changes that occurred from the Middle Ages. Between 1263 and 1265, by means of the Siete partidas, Alfonso X of Castile regulated the institution of slavery, which he seemed to recog- nize reluctantly because it was always "unnatural." What limited the property right in the first instance was religion: an unbeliever was not permitted to own Christian slaves and, in any event, the slave had to be guaranteed the possibility of living in conformity with Christian principles — whence the recognition of his right to establish a family and have the chastity and honour of his wife and daughters respected. Later, there were even cases of masters denounced to the Inquisition for their failure to respect the rights of their slaves. Further limiting the power of the property-owner was the state, profoundly influenced by religion. It was committed to disciplining and limiting the punishment inflicted by masters on slaves and variously sought to promote their emancipation (we are dealing with Christian subjects). Emancipation occurred from above when the slave performed a meritorious deed for the country; in such cases, the master deprived of his property was compensated by the state. 15

The advent of modern property entailed the master’s ability to dispose of it as he saw fit. In the Virginia of the second half of the seventeenth century, a law was in force that sanctioned the effective impunity of a master even when he killed his slave. Such behaviour could not be considered a "felony," since "[i]t cannot be presumed that prepense malice (which alone makes murder felony) should induce any man to destroy his own estate." 16 First with the Glorious Revolution and then later, more completely, with the American Revolution, the assertion of self-government by civil society hegemonized by slaveholders involved the definitive liquidation of traditional forms of "interference" by political and religious authority. Christian baptism and profession of faith were henceforth irrelevant. In Virginia at the end of the seventeenth century, one could proceed "without the solemnities of jury" to the execution of a slave guilty of a capital crime; marriage between slaves was no longer a sacrament, and even funerals lost their solemnity. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, a Virginian jurist (George Tucker) could observe that the slave was positioned "below the rank of human beings, not only politically, but physically and morally." 17

The conquest of self-government by civil society hegemonized by large-scale property involved an even more drastic deterioration in the condition of the indigenous population. The end of the control exercised by the London government swept away the last obstacles to the expansionistic march of the white colonists. Already harboured by Jefferson, and then explicitly and brutally formulated by the Monroe administration (the natives of the East must clear off the land, "whether or not they agree, whether or not they become civilized"), the idea of deporting the redskins became a tragic reality with the Jackson Presidency:

General Winfield Scott, with seven thousand troops and followed by "civilian volunteers," invaded the Cherokee domain, seized all the Indians they could find, and, in the middle of winter, sent them on the long trek to Arkansas and Oklahoma. The "civilian volunteers" appropriated the Indians’ livestock, household goods, and farm implements and burned their homes. Some fourteen thousand Indians were forced to travel the "trail of tears,’" as it came to be called, and about four thousand of them died on the way. An eyewitness to the exodus reported: "Even aged females, apparently ready to drop into the grave, were travelling with heavy burdens attached to their backs, sometimes on frozen grounds and sometimes on muddy streets, with no covering for their feet." 18

3. The black slave and the white servant: from Grotius to Locke

While it stimulated the development of racial chattel slavery and created an unprecedented, unbridgeable gulf between whites and peoples of colour, the self-government of civil society triumphed, waving the flag of liberty and the struggle against despotism. Between these two elements, which emerged together during a unique twin birth, a relationship full of tensions and contradictions was established. Such a celebration of liberty, which was bound up with the reality of an unprecedented absolute power, can clearly be interpreted as an ideology. But however mystificatory it might be, ideology is never null. In fact, its mystificatory function cannot even be conceived without some incidence in concrete social reality. And still less can ideology be regarded as synonymous with conscious falsehood. Were that to be the case, it would not succeed in inspiring people and generating real social activity, and would be condemned to impotence. The theorists and agents of the liberal revolutions and movements were moved by a powerful, convinced pathos of liberty; and precisely for that reason, they displayed embarrassment at the reality of slavery. Obviously, in a majority of cases, such embarrassment did not push them to the point of questioning the "property" on which the wealth and social influence of the class protagonist in the struggle for the self-government of civil society were based. As regards England, the course was taken that removed slavery in the strict sense to a geographical area remote from the metropolis, situated at the edge of the civilized world, where, precisely on account of the proximity and pressure of barbarous circumstances, the spirit of liberty was not manifested in all its purity, unlike in England proper — the true homeland, the promised land of liberty.

However, this was a conclusion reached via a route marked by oscillations and contradictions of various kinds. In Grotius the colour barrier is not yet visible that separates the fate reserved for blacks from the condition to which the poorest layers of the white population can be subjected. We read: "perfect and utter Slavery, is that which obliges a Man to serve his Master all his Life long, for Diet and other common Necessaries; which indeed, if it be thus understood, and confined within the Bounds of Nature, has nothing too hard and severe in it." However, slavery was not the only form of servitus, but only the "most ignoble ... Kind of Subjection" (subjectionis species ignobilissima). 19 There was also servitus imperfecta, peculiar, among others, to serfs and mercenarii or wage-labourers. 20 Thus, labour as such was subsumed under the category of "service" (servitus) or "subjection" (subjectio). Obviously, there is a difference between the two forms of "service" and "subjection." While it violated "natural reason" or "the Rules of full and compleat Justice" — i.e. the norms of morality — on the basis of the legislation in force in some countries the master could kill his slave with impunity and hence exercise a right of life and death over him. 21 This was something not found in the sphere of servitus imperfecta and the labour relationship that employed mercenarii or wage-labourers. Nevertheless, we are dealing with a particular species of the single genus that is service or subjection. The boundary between the various species is fluid. For example, of the "apprentices [apprenticii] in England," it was to be noted that they "come nearest to the State of Slavery, during their Apprenticeship" — that is to say, to the condition of slaves proper. 22 On the other hand, by way of atoning for a crime one could be condemned to labour and to render one’s services either as a slave or as an individual subjected to some form of "imperfect slavery." 23

Compared with Grotius, Locke was concerned to distinguish more rigorously between the various kinds of service. Elements of continuity are certainly not lacking. Speaking of wage-labour and the contract that establishes it, the English philosopher wrote: "a free man makes himself a servant to another." As we can see, labour as such continues to be subsumed under the category of service. In fact, the contract introduces the wage-labourer "into the family of his master, and under the ordinary discipline thereof." This discipline was in fact very different from the unlimited power that characterized the relationship of slavery and defined the "perfect condition of slavery." 24 Grotius’ distinction between servitus perfecta and servitus imperfecta reappears in broad outline.

But Locke urges us not to confuse servant and slave. Grotius compared the slave to a "perpetual Hireling," or a wage-labourer bound for the duration of his natural term to the same master. 25 By contrast, Locke stressed that we are dealing with two different statuses. In addition to being "temporary," the power exercised by the master over a servant "is no greater than what is contained in the contract between them." 26 If, on the one hand, this made the condition of the servant better, on the other, it rendered that of the slave proper manifestly worse. Shaking off the moral inhibitions of Grotius, who called on the master to respect not only the life but also the specificity of his slave, Locke endlessly stressed that the master exercises over the slave an "absolute dominion" and "absolute power," a "legislative power of life and death," an "arbitrary power" encompassing "life" itself. 27

At this point, the slave tends to lose his human characteristics and become reduced to a thing and a chattel, as emerges in particular from the reference to the planters of the East Indies who possess "slaves or horses" on the basis of a regular "purchase," and this "by bargain and money." 28 Without any hint of criticism, Locke engaged in a conjunction that signifies a firm, indignant denunciation in abolitionist literature. This applies to Mirabeau, who (as we shall see) compared the condition of American slaves with "our horses and our mules"; and to Marx, who observed in Capital: "The slave-owner buys his worker in the same way as he buys his horse." 29

Locke marks a turning point theoretically. Sometimes freed by their masters, black slaves were long subjected to a condition not markedly dissimilar from that of indentured servants — that is, temporary white semi-slaves on a contractual basis. And it is this ambiguity that finds expression in the text of Grotius, who can hence also apply the category of contract to servitus perfecta. In Locke, by contrast, we can read the development which chattel slavery and racial slavery began to undergo from the late seventeenth century. A whole series of English colonies in America enacted laws intended to make it clear that the slave’s conversion did not entail his emancipation. 30 Locke expressed himself thus in 1660 when, referring to Paul of Tarsus, he asserted that "conversion did not dissolve any of those obligations they were tied in before ... the gospel continued them in the same condition and under the same civil obligations [under which] it found them. The married were not to leave their consorts, nor the servant freed from his master ..." 31 In complete conformity with this theoretical position, in the draft Carolina Constitution Locke reiterated the irrelevance of possible conversion to Christianity for the condition of the slave. And, once again, the element of novelty emerges. Although rejecting an abolitionist interpretation of Christianity, Grotius repeatedly appealed to Christian literature to underscore the common humanity of servant and master, both of them subject to the Father in Heaven, and hence in a relationship with each another that was in some sense one of fraternity. 32 The Second Treatise of Government is concerned, instead, to make it clear that the principle of equality applies exclusively to "creatures of the same species and rank," only if "the lord and master of them all should [not], by any manifest declaration of his will, set one above another, and confer on him, by an evident and clear appointment, an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty." 33 Blacks were burdened by the curse which, according to the Old Testament story, Noah had uttered against Ham and his descendants. This ideological motif, often invoked by defenders of the institution of slavery, seems also to find some echo in Locke.

There is no doubt: the English liberal philosopher legitimized the racial slavery that was being established in the politico-social reality of the time. Subject to ever more onerous conditions, the practice of emancipation tended to disappear; while, together with the neutralization of religion and baptism, laws prohibiting interracial sexual and marital relations sanctioned the insurmountable character of the boundary between whites and blacks. At this point the category of contract can serve to explain only the figure of the servant, while the slave is such as a result of right of war (more precisely, just war, of which Europeans engaged in colonial conquests are protagonists), or of a divine "manifest declaration."

In order to clarify the difference between "the perfect condition of slavery" and that of the indentured servant, Locke referred to the Old Testament, which provides for permanent, hereditary slavery only for gentiles, excluding from it servants who are blood relations of the Hebrew master. 34 The Old Testament line of demarcation between Hebrews and gentiles is configured in Locke as the line of demarcation between whites and blacks: servants of European origin are not subject to "perfect slavery," which is intended for blacks and repressed to the colonies.

4. The pathos of liberty and unease about the institution of slavery: the case of Montesquieu

Liberal unease over slavery found what is perhaps its most acute expression in Montesquieu, who devoted some memorable pages to a critique of the institution. The reasons traditionally adduced by "jurists" in justification of slavery were "not sensible." 35 And it was pointless trying to find others: "If I had to defend the right we had of making Negroes slaves, here is what I would say: The peoples of Europe, having exterminated those of America, had to make slaves of those of Africa in order to use them to clear so much land." Yet this condemnation, so ringing and seemingly unequivocal, soon gave way to a much more ambiguous discourse: "There are countries where the heat enervates the body and weakens the courage so much that men come to perform an arduous duty only from fear of chastisement: slavery there runs less counter to reason." In such cases, while not conforming to abstract reason, slavery was in accord with "natural reason" (raison naturelle), which took account of climate and concrete circumstances. 36 True, Montesquieu observed that "there is no climate on earth where one could not engage freemen to work." 37 But if the tone is uncertain here, much clearer is the assertion that a distinction must be made between those countries where the climate can in some way be an element justifying slavery and those where "even natural reasons reject it, as in the countries of Europe where it has so fortunately been abolished." 38 Hence it is necessary to take cognizance of the "uselessness of slavery among ourselves" and restrict "natural slavery [servitude naturelle] ... to certain particular countries of the world." 39 On the one hand, Montesquieu endlessly stressed that freedom is an attribute — in fact, a way of living and being — of Nordic peoples, while, on the other, slavery had been ‘naturalized ... among the southern peoples." 40 A general law could be formulated: "one must not be surprised that the cowardice of the peoples of hot climates has almost always made them slaves and that the courage of the peoples of cold climates has kept them free. This is an effect that derives from its natural cause." 41

Prominent in Grotius and Locke, the contrast between metropolis and colonies also emerges in Montesquieu. It is not by chance that in The Spirit of the Laws, rather than being introduced in the books devoted to analysing freedom, the considerations on slavery make their appearance in the context of the discourse on the relationship between climate and laws and customs. The transition from Books XI–XIII, whose subjects are the "Constitution," "political freedom," and "freedom" as such, to Books XIV-XVI, which deal with "climate," despotism and "domestic slavery" (slavery proper), is, at the same time, the transition from Europe — in particular, England — to the non-European world and the colonies. For that very reason, in asserting a climatic justification of slavery, its supporters would have no difficulty in appealing to Montesquieu. 42 With his argument the French philosopher targeted not the theorists of slavery as such, but those who held to the thesis that "it would be good if there were slaves among us." 43

As regards the colonies, it was a question of seeing "what the laws ought to do in relation to slavery." Rather than abolition, Montesquieu’s discourse focused on amending the institution: "whatever the nature of slavery, civil laws must seek to remove, on the one hand, its abuses, and on the other, its dangers." 44 Are those "civil laws" the Code noir issued some years earlier by Louis XIV, which consecrated black slavery and, at the same time, proposed to regulate it? The language of that document suggests as much. While he reiterated his "power," in the preamble the sovereign asserted his concern for black slaves, who lived in "climates infinitely remote from our habitual sojourn." They were to be guaranteed food and adequate clothing (Articles 22 and 25). And such guarantees, together with any treatment that was necessary, also applied to "slaves who are infirm on account of old age, illness or other circumstances, regardless of whether the illness is curable" (Article 27). 45 These are concerns that also find expression in The Spirit of the Laws: "The magistrate should see to it that the slave is nourished and clothed; this should be regulated by law." 46 Montesquieu went on to assert that the slave must not be left completely at the mercy of the master’s arbitrary power. The latter might impose a death penalty in his capacity as a "judge," respecting legal "formalities," not as a private person. The Code noir argued in analogous fashion, providing for sanctions for the master guilty of the arbitrary mutilation or killing of his slave (Articles 42–43).

The Spirit of the Laws counted the sexual exploitation of female slaves among the main "abuses of slavery": "Reason wants the power of the master not to extend beyond things that are of service to him; slavery must be for utility and not for voluptuousness. The laws of modesty are a part of natural right and should be felt by all the nations in the world." 47

In homage to the precepts of the "Catholic, apostolic and Roman religion," the Code noir regarded as "valid marriages" those contracted between slaves who professed this religion (Article 8). It banned the separate sale of individual members of the family thus constituted (Article 47) and sought to repress the sexual exploitation of female slaves. A free, single man who had had children by a slave was obliged to marry her and recognize the offspring, who were to be freed together with the mother (Article 9).

Further confirming that he intended to amend, rather than abolish, slavery is the fact that Montesquieu, as well as to its "abuses," called attention to the "dangers" it entailed and the "precautions" required to confront them. Particular attention must be paid to the "danger of a large number of slaves" and that represented by "armed slaves." This warranted a recommendation of a general kind: "In the moderate state, the humanity one has for slaves will be able to prevent the dangers one could fear from there being too many of them. Men grow accustomed to anything, even to servitude, provided the master is not harsher than the servitude." 48

In his desire to temper colonial slavery, Montesquieu looked for inspiration to the norms promulgated by the ancien régime, which in fact had no influence in the English world admired by him. In any case, his condemnation of slavery is sharp only when it also seeks to break in "among ourselves," thereby throwing Europe’s proud self-consciousness about being the exclusive locus of liberty into crisis. Along with despotism, slavery was present in Turkey and the Islamic world, and in Russia (in the form of abject serfdom), and prevailed unchallenged in Africa. But there was no room for it in Europe, or, rather, on metropolitan territory. The discourse relating to the colonies was different and more complex.

5. The Somersett case and the delineation of liberal identity

Blackstone’s position is close to Montesquieu’s. We are in the mid-eighteenth century: "the law of England abhors, and can not endure the existence of, slavery within this nation"; not even its humblest, most base members, not even "idle vagabonds" could be subjected to slavery. 49 The "spirit of liberty" (argued the great jurist) "is so deeply implanted in our constitution, and rooted even in our very soil" that it could not in any instance permit the presence or spectacle of a relationship that was the concentrated expression of absolute power. 50 "[S]trict slavery" existed in "old Rome" and continued to flourish in "modern Barbary," but was now incompatible with the "spirit" of the English nation. 51

On the other hand, among the rights enjoyed by free men was free, undisturbed enjoyment of property, including property in slaves, on condition that the latter remained banished to the colonial world. The relationship between master and slave — and this applied to all "sorts of servants," including slaves — was one of the "great relations in private life"; 52 political authority had no right to intervene in it. And thus, celebration of England as the land of liberty was not perceived by Blackstone as being in contradiction with his reassertion of the black slave’s duty to serve his master. That was a duty which, on the basis of the "general principles" of the "laws of England," did not come to an end even were the "heathen negro" to be converted to Christianity. Not even in that case could the slave stake a claim to "liberty." 53

Although recognized, the institution of slavery was, as it were, repressed from the "soil" of England, confined to the border zone between the civilized world and barbarism. But what happened when a white master brought one of his slaves with him from the colonies as movable property? This was the problem raised by an impassioned debate in England in 1772. Turning to the courts, a slave — James Somersett — succeeded in extricating himself from the master who attempted to take him with him, in his capacity as movable property, on his return journey to Virginia. The Chief Justice’s judgment did not challenge the institution of slavery; it limited itself to asserting that "colonial laws" only applied "in the colonies," and hence that slavery had no legal basis in England. Somersett’s counsel eloquently proclaimed: "The air of England is too pure for a slave to breathe." But from this principle he deduced the conclusion that it was necessary to avoid an influx of blacks from Africa or America into England. Somersett’s master was held responsible for an assault on the purity of the land of the free, who could not tolerate being confused and mixed up with slaves, rather than a violation of the liberty and dignity of a human being. Not by chance, the 1772 judgment provided the premises for the subsequent deportation to Sierra Leone of blacks who, as loyal subjects of the Crown, sought refuge in England after the victory of the rebel American colonists. 54

The contours of liberal freedom are beginning to become clear. Authors like Burgh and Fletcher could still be regarded as champions of the cause of liberty by Jefferson, who lived in a situation where black slavery and widespread ownership of land (taken from the Indians) made the project of enslaving white vagrants purely academic. In Europe things were different, as emerges from the interventions of Montesquieu and Blackstone. Those who did not subscribe to the principle of the inadmissibility and "uselessness of slavery among ourselves" began to be regarded as foreign to the emerging liberal party. Starting with Montesquieu and then, more clearly, Blackstone and the judgment in the Somersett case, what characterized the emergent liberal party were two essential points: (1) condemnation of despotic political power and the demand for self-government by civil society in the name of liberty and the rule of law; (2) assertion of the principle of the inadmissibility and "uselessness of slavery among ourselves," or of the principle on whose basis England — and, prospectively, Europe — possessed "too pure" an air to be able to tolerate the presence of slaves on its "soil." The second point is no less essential than the first. The legitimation of "slavery among ourselves" would involve the dispersion of the pathos of liberty that played a key role in the liberal demand for self-government by civil society, or the self-government of the community of the free.

6. "We won’t be their Negroes": the colonists’ rebellion

But the metropolis/colonies opposition, with its tendential exclusion of the latter from the sacred space of civilization and liberty, was bound to provoke a reaction from the colonists. Independently of particular concrete political and social demands, what was wounded was their self-consciousness. The metropolis seemed to be assimilating the American colonies to the "modern Barbary" denounced by Blackstone; it seemed to be degrading them to a sort of dustbin, where the metropolitan rejects or prison population were dumped. The inmates of the mother country’s prisons were deported across the Atlantic to supply, along with blacks from Africa, the more or less forced labour required by it. According to the observation of the English abolitionist David Ramsay, slavery continued to survive in the region of the confines of the civilized world — namely, the West — "where [its] proper religion and laws are not deemed to be in full force; and where individuals too often think themselves loosened from ties, which are binding in the mother country." 55

If it saved the metropolis’s honour as the privileged site of liberty, despite the persistence of slavery on its extreme periphery, this view was wrong in the colonists’ view, because it confounded and assimilated free Englishmen, prison rabble and people of colour. In this way, lamented James Otis, a prominent supporter of the liberal revolution underway, one forgot that the colonies had been founded not "with a compound mixture of English, Indian and Negro, but with freeborn British white subjects." Even more swingeing was Washington, who warned that the American colonists felt "as miserably oppressed as our own blacks." 56 Having repeated that the American colonists could boast a lineage not less noble and deserving of liberty than the metropolitan English, John Adams exclaimed with reference to the rulers in London: "We won’t be their Negroes"! 57

Quite apart even from the problem of representation, the spatial delimitation of the community of the free was perceived as an intolerable exclusion. On the other hand, the colonists, in demanding equality with the dominant British class, widened the gulf that separated them from blacks and redskins. While in London the zone of civilization was distinguished from the zone of barbarism, the sacred space from the profane, primarily by opposing the metropolis to the colonies, the American colonists were led to identify the boundary line principally in ethnic identity and skin colour. On the basis of the 1790 Naturalization Act, only whites could become citizens of the United States. 58

The transition from a spatial delimitation of the community of the free to an ethnic and racial one brought with it combined, contradictory effects of inclusion and exclusion, emancipation and dis-emancipation. Whites, even the poorest among them, also came within the sacred space; they found themselves forming part of the community or race of the free, albeit situated at inferior levels. White slavery disappeared, condemned by New York polite society as "contrary to ... the idea of liberty this country has so happily established." But the tendential emancipation of poor whites was only the other side of the coin of further dis-emancipation of blacks. The condition of the black slave deteriorated by virtue of no longer being, as in colonial America, one of several systems of unfree labour. 59 In Virginia (and other states) land and black slaves were given to veterans of the War of Independence, in recognition of their contribution to the cause of the struggle against despotism; 60 the tendential social rise of poor whites coincided with the consummate de-humanization of black slaves.

7. Racial slavery and the further deterioration in the condition of the "free" black

It was not only a question of slaves. The triumph of the ethnic delimitation of the community of the free was bound seriously to affect the condition of those blacks who were notionally free. They were now struck by a series of measures that tended to render the colour line, the demarcation between the race of the free and the race of slaves, inviolable. Blacks not subject to slavery began to be perceived as an anomaly that would sooner or later have to be rectified. Their condition at the end of the eighteenth century was summed up by one of them in Boston, referring both to strictly legal forms of oppression and to the insults and threats which, while not legal, were widely tolerated by authority: "we may truly be said to carry our lives in our hands, and the arrows of death are flying about our heads." 61 It is a description that might seem unduly emotive. But we should attend to de Tocqueville:

The electoral franchise has been conferred upon the Negroes in almost all the states in which slavery has been abolished, but if they come forward to vote, their lives are in danger. If oppressed, they may bring an action at law, but they will find none but whites among their judges. 62

On close inspection, it can be said of "emancipated Negroes" that "their situation with regard to the Europeans is not unlike that of the Indians." In fact, in some respects, they were "still more to be pitied." In any event, they were "deprived of their rights" and "exposed to the tyranny of the laws and the intolerance of the people." 63 The condition of blacks not reduced to slavery was no different and no better as one moved from South to North. In fact (de Tocqueville pitilessly observed), "the prejudice of race appears to be stronger in the states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists; and nowhere is it so intolerant as in those states where servitude has never been known." 64

The condition of the notionally free black was distinguished from that of the slave, but perhaps even more from that of the genuinely free white. Only thus can we explain the danger that constantly threatened him of being reduced to conditions of slavery, and the temptation that periodically emerged among whites — for example, in Virginia after the slave revolt or attempted revolt of 1831 — to deport the entire population of free blacks to Africa or elsewhere. The latter were anyhow obliged to register, and could only change residence with the permission of the local authorities; they were presumed to be slaves and detained until they managed to prove otherwise. The despotism exercised over slaves was bound to affect, in one way or another, the population of colour as a whole. This was explained in 1801 by the postmaster general in the Jefferson administration, in a letter in which he recommended to a Georgian senator that blacks and men of colour be excluded from the postal service. "Everything which tends to increase their knowledge of natural rights, of men and things, or that affords them an opportunity of associating, acquiring and communicating sentiments, and of establishing a chain and line of intelligence" was extremely dangerous. Even the communication of feelings and ideas must be blocked or impeded by all possible means. In fact, the situation in Virginia immediately after the 1831 revolt was described as follows by a traveller: "Military service [by white patrols] is performed night and day, Richmond resembles a town besieged ... the negroes ... will not venture to communicate with one another for fear of punishment." 65

8. Spatial and racial delimitation of the community of the free

The American Revolution threw into crisis the principle of the "uselessness of slavery among ourselves," which seemed established within the liberal movement. Now, far from being confined to the colonies, slavery acquired a new visibility and centrality in a country with a culture, religion and language of European origin, which conversed with European countries as an equal and in fact claimed a kind of primacy in embodying the cause of liberty. Declared legally void in England in 1772, the institution of slavery received its juridical and even constitutional consecration, albeit with recourse to the euphemisms and circumlocutions we are familiar with, in the state born out of the revolt of colonists determined not to be treated like "niggers." There thus emerged a country characterized by "a fixed and direct tie between slave ownership and political power," 66 as strikingly revealed both by the Constitution and the number of slave-owners who acceded to its highest institutional office.

But how did the platform of the liberal party shape up in a country which, like late-eighteenth-century England, could also boast of having air "too pure" for it to be breathed by slaves? In fact, in the United States as well the ambition to retrieve the principle of the inadmissibility and "uselessness of slavery among ourselves" continued to make itself heard. Albeit utterly fancifully, Jefferson harboured the idea of re-deporting the blacks to Africa. However, in the new situation that had been created, the project of transforming the North American republic into a land inhabited exclusively by freemen proved difficult to implement. It would be necessary seriously to infringe the right, possessed by genuinely free persons, to enjoy their property without external interference! So, in the first decades of the nineteenth century, a movement (the American Colonization Society) emerged that contrived a new way out: it was proposed to persuade the owners, by appealing to their religious feelings and also employing economic incentives, to free or sell their slaves, who, along with all the other blacks, would be sent to Africa to colonize it and convert it to Christianity. 67 In this way, without infringing the property rights guaranteed by law and the Constitution, it would have been possible to transform the United States into a land inhabited exclusively by free (and white) men.

It was a project doomed to fail from the outset. For a start, the acquisition of the slaves by the Union presupposed mobilizing enormous financial resources, and hence the imposition of high taxes. Expelled from the door in the shape of enforced expropriation, imposed from above, of the human cattle owned by the colonists, the spectre of despotic interference with private property by political power ended up arrogantly breaking in through the window as the taxation required to induce owners willingly to surrender their slaves, through a profitable sales contract. Moreover, taken as a whole, the class of planters had no intention of abandoning the source not only of its wealth, but also of its power.

The situation in the North was different. Here slaves were small in number and performed no essential economic function. Abolishing slavery, but at the same time adhering to the federal order that legitimized and guaranteed it in the South, the northern states seemed to want to give a new lease of life in the new situation to the compromise we have already encountered. Without being abolished, the institution whose presence constituted a kind of ironic counterpoint to the claim to be champions of the cause of liberty was banished to the deep South. In fact, four states (Indiana, Illinois, Iowa and Oregon) strictly prohibited access into their territories by blacks. 68 They thus avoided being contaminated by the presence not only of slaves, but also of blacks as such. This ban was the equivalent of the measure whereby, in the aftermath of the Somersett case, England deported to Sierra Leone blacks who not only were free, but also had the merit of having fought against the rebel colonists on behalf of the Empire. Nevertheless, even in the North of the United States, although it had been abolished, slavery had achieved the recognition it lacked in England, as demonstrated in particular by the constitutional provision that required the return of escaped slaves to their legitimate owners, in an indirect sanction of the institution of slavery in states which were formally free. This was a point to which a representative of the South smugly drew attention: "We have obtained a right to recover our slaves in whatever part of America they may take refuge, which is a right we had not before." 69

Clearly, in the United States as a whole the principle of the inadmissibility and "uselessness of slavery among ourselves," which was more than ever reiterated across the Atlantic, had fallen into crisis. How had such a result been arrived at? Let us return to Burke. In asserting that the "spirit of freedom" and the "liberal" vision found their most consummate embodiment in the slave-owners of the southern colonies, he added that the colonists formed an integral part of the nation "in whose veins the blood of freedom circulates," of "the chosen race and sons of England": it was a question of "pedigree," in the face of which "human art" was powerless. 70 Here, as we can see, the spatial delimitation of the community of the free, which is the principle on which late-eighteenth-century liberal England was based, seems to be on the point of transmuting into a racial delimitation. And hence, in Calhoun and ideologists of the slaveholding South in general, a tendency already present in Burke comes to fruition. Having been spatial, the line of demarcation of the community of the free ends up becoming racial.

Moreover, there was no insurmountable barrier between the two types of delimitation. In 1845 John O’Sullivan, popular theorist of the providential "manifest destiny" that put wind in the sails of US expansion, sought to assuage abolitionists’ concerns about the introduction of slavery into Texas (wrested from Mexico and on the point of being annexed to the Union) with a significant argument. It was precisely its temporary extension that created the conditions for abolition of the "the slavery of an inferior to a superior race," and hence "furnished much probability of the ultimate disappearance of the negro race from our borders." At the appropriate time, the ex-slaves would be driven further south, into the "only receptacle" appropriate for them. In Latin America the population of mixed blood, which had formed following the fusion of the Spaniards with the natives, would easily be able to accommodate the blacks. 71 The racial delimitation of the community would then give way to a territorial delimitation. The end of slavery would, at the same time, entail the end of the presence of blacks in the land of liberty. Despite the abolitionists’ cry of alarm, the concentration of slaves in a zone immediately proximate to territories that were fundamentally foreign to the zone of civilization and liberty pushed in this direction.

For some time Lincoln harboured the idea of deporting the blacks, likewise regarded by him as ultimately alien to the community of the free, from the United States to Latin America after their emancipation. 72 In this sense, having confronted one another for decades, what clashed during the Civil War were the causes not of liberty and slavery, but precisely two different delimitations of the community of the free: the opposed parties accused one another of not knowing how, or not wanting, to delimit the community of the free effectively. To those who brandished the spectre of racial contamination as an inevitable consequence of the abolition of slavery, Lincoln replied by emphasizing that in the United States the overwhelming majority of "mulattoes" were the result of sexual relations between white masters and their black slaves: "slavery is the greatest source of amalgamation." For the rest, he had "no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races," or to recognize the right of blacks to participate in political life or hold public office or perform the role of jury member. Lincoln declared himself well aware, like any other white man, of the radical difference between the two races and the supremacy of the whites. 73

The crisis took a decisive step towards breaking-point following the Supreme Court’s judgment in the Dred Scott case in summer 1857: "like an ordinary article of merchandise and property," a black slave’s legitimate owner had the right to take him with him in any part of the Union. 74 We can now understand Lincoln’s reaction: the country could not remain permanently divided, "half slave and half free." 75 In contrast to the England of the Somersett case, the North of the United States could not pose as a land of the free whose air was "too pure" to be breathed by a slave.

The transition from the spatial delimitation to the racial delimitation of the community of the free henceforth made it impossible to repress the reality of slavery. There was now no alternative to the condemnation of this institution except its explicit defence or celebration. As the conflict dividing the two sections of the Union emerged more clearly, the South’s ideologues all the more provocatively mocked the circumlocutions and linguistic interdictions that had facilitated the Philadelphia compromise of 1787. "Negro slavery," declared John Randolph, was a reality that "the Constitution has vainly attempted to blink, by not using the term." 76 With the lifting of this taboo, the legitimation of slavery lost the timidity that had previously characterized it, assuming a defiant tone. Having been a necessary evil, slavery became (in the words of Calhoun with which we are familiar) a "positive good." It made no sense to try to repress it as something to be ashamed of; in reality, it was the very foundation of civilization. Throwing into crisis the pathos of liberty that had presided over the foundation of the United States, and in a way de-legitimizing the very War of Independence, this new attitude helped make the clash between North and South inevitable.

9. The Civil War and the resumption of the controversy initiated with the American Revolution

In these circumstances, while the abolitionists adopted the arguments used during the American War of Independence by the British and the loyalists in their polemic against the South, the theorists of the South used arguments deployed by the rebel colonists. We have seen O’Sullivan, a New York lawyer and journalist, regard the South, bordering as it was on Mexico and Latin America, as the best place to deposit the blacks temporarily, pending their emancipation and deportation from the United States. Hence the South was a territory by no means uncontaminated by the barbarism of the blacks who lived there as slaves. Cohabitation with blacks, and sexual contamination, attested by a high number of mulattos — the abolitionist Theodore Parker piled it on — had also left profound traces on southern whites; it was precisely the influence of the "African element" that explained attachment to an institution contrary to the principles of liberty. 77 And just as pre-revolutionary and revolutionary America had done, so too the South protested against the tendential exclusion, of which it felt itself the victim, from the authentic community of the free. It was now no longer the American colonies in their entirety, but the southern states that considered themselves assimilated to the "modern Barbary" mentioned by Blackstone.

Along with the one just noted, further aspects of the legal argument reappeared that had opposed the rebel colonists to England. In Calhoun’s view, the abolitionists of the North, who wanted to abolish slavery by a federal law, were riding roughshod over the right of each individual state to self-government, and seeking to found the Union on political slavery, on "the bond between master and slave." 78 Naturally, the North reacted by ironizing about this impassioned defence of liberty by the "democratic," slaveholding South. To understand the latter’s subsequent response, we can return for a moment to Franklin. Replying to his English interlocutors, who scoffed at the flag of liberty waved by the rebel colonists and slave-owners, he did not limit himself to recalling the Crown’s interest and involvement in the slave trade. He also employed a second argument, drawing attention to the fact that slavery and servitude had not disappeared across the Atlantic. In particular, coalminers in Scotland were "absolute Slaves by your law"; they were "bought and sold with the Colliery, and have no more Liberty to leave it than our Negroes have to leave their Master’s Plantation." 79 The authors of the denunciation of black slavery were responsible for a white slavery that was certainly no better than the one they condemned so vehemently.

Similarly, on the occasion of the conflict which had been brewing for decades and reached breaking-point with the Civil War, the South retorted in two ways to the accusations against it. It stressed that the North and abolitionist Britain were not in a position to give lectures even on the way blacks (and peoples of colour in general) were treated; and it pointed out how much slavery survived in an industrial society notionally based on "free" labour.

Let us focus for now on the first point. Already during the Philadelphia Convention, the slave-owners rejected the lectures given them in the name of morality, pointing out that the North derived major benefits from the institution of slavery, since its merchant shipping transported the slaves and the commodities produced by them. 80 In 1808 the ban on the "immigration or introduction" of black slaves provided for by the federal Constitution had come into effect. But it remained the case (observed the ideologues of the South) that blacks in the North, in addition to suffering the poverty and oppression that were the lot of the poor in general there, were exposed to maltreatment and violence of every kind, as demonstrated by the periodic outbreak of veritable pogroms. Even more repugnant (stressed Calhoun, in particular, in the years leading up to the Civil War) was the hypocrisy of Britain (the country which, having abolished slavery in its colonies, had become the model for the American abolitionists). "[T]he greatest slave dealer on earth," the country "more responsible than any other ... for the extent of that form of servitude" in the American continent, then engaged in waving the banner of abolitionism, with a view to attracting the lucrative production of tobacco, cotton, sugar, and coffee to its colonies and ruining potential competitors. 81 In reality, what results had the putative emancipation of the slaves produced in the English colonies? The condition of the blacks was in no wise improved; in their case, freedom was more of a mirage than ever, while "the supremacy of the European race" continued to be undisputed. 82 Inevitably, when "two races of men, of different color," and markedly unequal in terms of culture and civilization, tried to live together, the inferior race was destined for subjection. 83 The very country that elevated itself into champion of the struggle against slavery distinguished itself in completely the opposite direction: not only did it use the labour of "slaves" in India and other colonies, but it "[held] in unlimited subjection not less than one hundred and fifty million human beings, dispersed over every part of the globe." 84 We find an even more explicit reference to the lot of the coolies in another eminent representative of the South, George Fitzhugh. Arraigned once again was Britain, which lauded itself for having abolished slavery in its colonies. In reality, the "temporary slaves" from Asia who had taken the place of the blacks, "if not worked to death before their terms of service expire," subsequently died of starvation. 85

In its main lines, the controversy that developed on the eve and in the course of the Civil War reproduced and resumed the one that had occurred some decades earlier, during the clash between the two shores of the Atlantic.

10. "Liberal system of policy," "liberality of sentiment," and the institution of slavery

To understand the spread of the political use of the term "liberal" in its various senses, we must remember two reference points. The first is the proud self-consciousness that matured in the wake of the victory achieved during the Seven Years’ War over the France of monarchical and religious absolutism, which was subsequently reinforced in England by the outcome of the Somersett case. The second is the struggles that developed within the community of the free. When the controversy provoked by the agitation of the rebel colonists erupted, the various positions confronting one another all tended to define themselves as in some sense "liberal." Burke sought to promote conciliation, calling upon "the liberal government of this free nation" to evince a spirit of compromise. 86 Across the Atlantic, at the moment when the United States was founded, Washington emphasized "the benefits of a wise and liberal Government," or a "liberal system of policy," which asserted itself "in such an enlightened, in such a liberal age," and which had as its basis "the free cultivation of Letters, the unbounded extension of Commerce," or "liberal and free commerce," "the progressive refinement of Manners, the growing liberality of sentiment," with the prevalence of a "liberal sentiment" of tolerance also regarding relations between "every political and religious denomination of men in this country." 87 Hitherto the term "liberal" has occurred solely as an adjective. In other contexts, adjective and substantive are interchangeable: "every Liberal Briton" (wrote the London Gazette in 1798) rejoiced at the problems facing revolutionary, tyrannical France, which had to confront the difficult situation created by the uprising of the black slaves in San Domingo. 88 Finally, the term in question made its appearance as a noun: signing himself "A Liberal" was the author (possibly Paine) of an article in the Pennsylvania Packet of 25 March 1780, which came out for the abolition of slavery. 89

Here we have four interventions, which share a liberal profession of faith, but with orientations that are fairly diverse as regards black slavery. In Europe, while stances in favour of it were not wanting, a critical orientation was prevalent: a more or less clear distance tended to be taken from the institution that had had to be repressed to the colonies, in order to confer credibility on the self-consciousness developed by the community of the free. The Wealth of Nations — Adam Smith’s masterpiece, which appeared the same year as the Declaration of Independence drafted by Jefferson, a pre-eminent representative of Virginia’s planters and slave-owners — observed that the "liberal reward of labour," with the payment of a wage that the "free servant" and "free man" could freely dispose of, was the only thing likely to stimulate individual industry; while economic stagnation was the result of servile labour, whether serfdom or slavery proper. 90 In his turn, Millar regarded the institution of slavery as in contradiction with "the liberal sentiments entertained in the latter part of the eighteenth century," with the "more liberal views" developed in the modern world. 91 Going still further, the great economist’s disciple declared that credibility could be restored to the "liberal hypothesis" only by avoiding its confusion with those who waved the flag of liberty while preserving and, in fact, developing the practice of slavery.

Across the Atlantic, by contrast, defence of that institution was much fiercer. Yet it would be mistaken to construct a clear-cut opposition. It is sufficient to reflect on the fact that the tutelary deity of the slaveholding South was, in the first instance, Burke. In 1832 an influential Virginian ideologue, Thomas R. Dew, lauded the advantages of slavery: "the menial and low offices" were reserved for blacks, so that love of liberty and the "republican spirit," peculiar to free, white citizens, flourished with a purity and vigour unknown in the rest of the United States, and had a precedent only in classical antiquity. But in saying this, Dew appealed to Burke and his thesis that, where slavery flourished, the spirit of liberty developed more abundantly. 92 In this way, the theorist of the slaveholding South indirectly adopted and subscribed to the British Whig’s "liberal" profession of faith.

In subsequent decades, during the struggle against the North, which was initially political and then military, the slaveholding South could count on many friends in liberal England. A few years before the Civil War, the arguments of the southern ideologues were explicitly echoed by Benjamin Disraeli. With the abolition of slavery in British and French colonies behind him, he characterized the abolition of slavery as "a narrative of ignorance, injustice, blundering, waste, and havoc, not easily paralleled in the history of mankind." 93 In America, if they mixed with the blacks, the whites "would become so deteriorated that their states would probably be reconquered and regained by the aborigines." 94 Would the abolition of slavery in the United States not encourage this admixture, imparting a novel dignity to it? Later, the secessionist Confederacy’s desperate struggle met with a profoundly sympathetic echo from prominent cultural and political representatives of liberal England, provoking the indignation of John Stuart Mill.

On the occasion first of the Somersett case, then of the American Revolution and finally of the Civil War, the liberal world appeared profoundly divided over the problem of slavery. How are we to find our bearings in this seeming chaos?

11. From the assertion of the principle of the "uselessness of slavery among ourselves" to the condemnation of slavery as such

We are trying to answer the question we posed at the beginning: Can authors like Fletcher and Calhoun be considered liberals? In the liberal England derived from the Glorious Revolution, Fletcher could calmly demand the introduction of slavery for vagrants without being in any way isolated, just as Hutcheson and Burgh, who expressed more or less similar positions, were not isolated. While Hutcheson was the master of Smith, Fletcher was in correspondence with Locke and enjoyed, along with Burgh, the respect of Jefferson and the circles close to him. These were the years when, as Hume put it, "[s]ome passionate admirers of the ancients, and zealous partizans of civil liberty ... cannot forbear regretting the loss of this institution [slavery]," which accounted for the grandeur of Athens and Rome. 95 However, with the establishment of the principle of the "uselessness of slavery among ourselves," the positions expressed by Fletcher ceased to be, or ceased to be accepted as, liberal. It is true that they took a long time to die. As late as 1838, a German liberal reported the "advice, certainly more hinted at than clearly stated, which would wish to find a remedy for the serious danger [represented by an unprecedented and acute social question] in the introduction of veritable slavery for factory workers." 96 But it was a suggestion rejected with disdain: the line of demarcation of the liberal "party" had been drawn for a while.

A similar argument can be advanced in connection with Calhoun. In his view, it was the North that was guilty of betraying the liberal principles which had inspired the American Revolution. In fact, "the defence of human liberty against the aggressions of despotic power had always been most efficient in States where domestic slavery was found to prevail." Within the Union, it was the South that had "constantly inclined most strongly to the side of liberty, and been the first to see and first to resist the encroachments of power." 97 And it was in the South that liberalism found its most authentic and mature expression. The term ‘liberal’ (warned John Randolph, sometimes defined as the "American Burke"), which originally meant "a man attached to enlarged and free principles — a votary of liberty," would see its true meaning twisted if it had to be used to refer to those who flirted with abolitionism. 98

A contemporary liberal might be tempted to be shot of the unmanageable presence within the tradition of thought he refers to of an author like Burke, who celebrated the particular intensity of the liberal spirit and love of liberty among slave-owners; or of an author like Calhoun, who in the nineteenth century still hymned the "positive good" that was slavery. And so both of them are officially included in the conservative party. However, such an operation immediately reveals its groundlessness. The category of conservatism is characterized by formalism, in the sense that it can subsume significantly different contents: it is a question of identifying what it is intended to conserve or guard. And there is no doubt that Burke and Calhoun aimed to be vigilant guardians of the social relations and political institutions which emerged, respectively, from the Glorious Revolution and the American Revolution — two eminently liberal revolutions. It would make no sense to regard Jefferson and Washington as liberals, but this is not the case with Burke — who, unlike them, was not a slave-owner and who, when he celebrated the "liberal spirit" and "liberal" emphasis of the slaveholding South, had in mind precisely figures like these two Virginian statesmen. As late as 1862 Lord Acton cited at length, and implicitly subscribed to, the passage by the British Whig who, far from excluding slave-owners, conferred on them a privileged position in the party of liberty. 99

It would be just as illogical to exclude from that party Calhoun, who tirelessly reiterated his attachment to representative bodies and the principle of the limitation of power. If, then, going beyond the merely formal meaning of the term, conservatism is to be understood as an uncritical attachment to a pre-modern, pre-industrial society, characterized by the cult of clod of earth and bell tower, such a category could hardly account for Calhoun’s positions. Once the rights of minorities had been guaranteed, he had no problem with extending the vote and even introducing male "universal suffrage"; and, along with representative bodies, he celebrated the development of "manufactures’, industry and free trade. 100 If to anyone, the category of conservatism might be applied to Jefferson. He identified cultivators of the land as "the chosen people of God," assimilated "great cities" to the "sores" of a "human body," 101 and in 1812, during the war with Britain, accused the latter of being an instrument of "Satan" because it had compelled America to abandon the "paradise" of agriculture and engage in "manufacturing," in order to meet the test of arms (see Chapter 8, §16). And the category of conservatism might also be applied to Washington. He too viewed with concern the prospect that the Americans might become "a manufacturing people," rather than continuing to be "Cultivators" of the land, thereby avoiding the scourge of the "tumultuous populace of large cities." 102 In particular, it is against Jefferson that Calhoun seems to be arguing when he rejects the thesis that manufacture "destroy[s] the moral and physical power of the people." In reality, this was a concern rendered ever more obsolete by "the great perfection of machinery" introduced into industry. 103 Finally, if acceptance of free trade is an integral part of liberalism, it is clear that Calhoun can be included in such a tradition much more easily than his adversaries in the North, who were engaged in strict protectionist practices liable (according to the southern theorist’s denunciation) to "destroy the liberty of the country." 104 Construed in the broadest sense of the term, the liberal party encompassed both Whigs and Tories. The former did not even necessarily represent the more advanced wing. Josiah Tucker was a Tory, who reprehended Locke and Burke for being followers of a "republicanism" based, precisely, upon slavery and serfdom. For the rest, arguing with "Republican Zealots," he liked to position himself among the true interpreters of "English constitutional Liberty." 105 Disraeli was likewise a Tory, who, while on the one hand echoing the arguments of the slaveholding South, on the other significantly widened the social basis of British representative bodies, granting the vote to significant sections of the popular classes and anyway extending it much further than the Whigs had.

On the other hand, outside the liberal party even before the Civil War were those who, in their concern to save the institution of slavery and indignation at the weapons supplied by representative bodies to an increasingly threatening abolitionist agitation, spoke with Fitzhugh in the southern United States of the "collapse of liberal society," or ironized with Carlyle in Europe itself over ruinous "anarchic–constitutional epochs." 106 Although reiterating the absolute necessity of slavery as the foundation of civilization, both ended up challenging, at least on a theoretical level, the ethnic and spatial delimitations of the institution of slavery. For Fitzhugh, as was demonstrated by the examples of classical antiquity and confirmed by the reality of the modern world, work was inseparable from slavery, so that in one form or another "slavery, black or white, was right and necessary." 107 In justifying the slavery of the Afro-Americans across the Atlantic and branding the Irish "black," 108 Carlyle, admired by Fitzhugh and other southerners, and in correspondence with some of them, 109 in his turn reached a general "conclusion": "whether established by law, or by law abrogated, [slavery] exists very extensively in this world, in and out of the West Indies; and ... you cannot abolish slavery by act of parliament, but can only abolish the name of it, which is very little!" 110 Whether dealing with slaves, "servants hired for life," or adscripti glebae, it was still slavery. On the other hand, if the slave was a "servant hired for life," why should one prefer the servant hired for a month or a day? 111

Spurred by the bitterness of the struggle underway, Fitzhugh and Carlyle ultimately returned to the positions of Fletcher, first marginalized and then regarded as alien to the liberal party. The transition from the liberal party’s first turn to the second can be summarized thus: following the defeat of the South, the emancipation of black slaves and amendments to the US Constitution to that effect, a transition was made from asserting the principle of the "uselessness of slavery among ourselves" in Europe and the "free states" of the northern United States to general condemnation, on both sides of the Atlantic, of slavery as such. Starting from this second result, the positions expressed by Calhoun were also rejected by the liberal party. But that is not a reason to expel him retrospectively from the liberal tradition. Otherwise, the same fate would have to be meted out to Locke and a fair number of the protagonists of the American Revolution and the early decades of US history.

In any event, with the end of the Civil War a historical cycle came to a close. Having emerged together from a unique twin birth, which saw them entwined in a relationship not without its tensions, liberalism as a whole now broke with slavery in the strict sense — with hereditary, racial slavery. 


1. Robin Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery, London and New York: Verso, 1997, p. 3.

2. Robin Blackburn, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776–1848, London and New York: Verso, 1990, p. 5.

3. Quoted in Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997, p. 235.

4. Blackburn, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, p. 9.

5. Winthrop D. Jordan, White over Black, New York: Norton, 1977, pp. 123, 399.

6. Arthur Zilversmit, The First Emancipation, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969, p. 66.

7. Jordan, White over Black, p. 109.

8. Robert Isaac Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce, 5 vols, London: Murray, 1838, vol. 1, p. 297 (letter from John Wesley to William Wilberforce, 24 February 1791).

9. Jordan, White over Black, p. 98.

10. Max Farrand, ed., The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, 4 vols, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966, vol. 1, p. 135.

11. Edmund Burke, The Works: A New Edition, 16 vols, London: Rivington, 1826, vol. 3, p. 54.

12. Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery, London: Deutsch, 1990, pp. 199–200.

13. Josiah Tucker, Collected Works, London: Routledge and Thoemmes Press, 1993–96, vol. 5, pp. 21, 72.

14. Shearer Davis Bowman, Masters and Lords, New York: Oxford University Press, 1993, p. 21.

15. Herbert S. Klein, Slavery in the Americas, Chicago: Dee, 1989, pp. 59–65; Blackburn, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, p. 39 and The Making of New World Slavery, pp. 50–2.

16. Klein, Slavery in the Americas, pp. 38–9; Stanley M. Elkins, Slavery, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959, p. 59.

17. Klein, Slavery in the Americas, pp. 49, 39.

18. Thomas F. Gossett, Race, New York: Schocken Books, 1965, p. 233.

19. Hugo Grotius, The Rights of War and Peace, 3 vols, ed. Richard Tuck, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005, vol. 2, pp. 557, 556.

20. See ibid., vol. 2, ch. v, §30.

21. See ibid., vol. 2, ch. v, §28; vol. 3, ch. xiv, §3.

22. Ibid., vol. 2, pp. 562–3 n. 7.

23. See ibid., vol. 2, ch. v, §32.

24. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. William S. Carpenter, London and New York: Everyman’s Library, 1924, pp. 157–8, 128.

25. Grotius, Rights of War and Peace, vol. 3, p. 1483.

26. Locke, Two Treatises, p. 158.

27. See Grotius, Rights of War and Peace, vol. 3, ch. xiv, §6; Locke, Two Treatises, pp. 158, 128.

28. Ibid., p 90.

29. Karl Marx, Capital: Volume One, trans. Ben Fowkes, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976, p. 377.

30. Jordan, White over Black, pp. 84–93.

31. John Locke, Two Tracts on Government, ed. Philip Abrams, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967, p. 141.

32. See Grotius, Rights of War and Peace, vol. 3, ch. xiv, §2.

33. Locke, Two Treatises, pp. 118–19.

34. Ibid., p. 128.

35. Charles-Louis Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, trans. and ed. Anne M. Cohler, Basia Carolyn Miller and Harold Samuel Stone, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, p. 247.

36. Ibid., pp. 251–2.

37. Ibid., p. 253.

38. Ibid., p. 252.

39. Ibid., p. 252.

40 Ibid., p. 355.

41. Ibid., p. 278.

42. David B. Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, Ithaca and New York: Cornell University Press, 1966, pp. 394–5.

43. Montesquieu, Spirit of the Laws, p. 253.

44. Ibid., p. 254.

45. The Code noir is reproduced and commented on in Louis Sala-Molins, Le Code noir, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1988, pp. 89–203.

46. Montesquieu, Spirit of the Laws, p. 259.

47. Ibid., p. 255.

48. Ibid., p. 258.

49. William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, 4 vols, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979, vol. 1, pp. 412–13.

50. Ibid., vol. 1, p. 123.

51. Ibid., vol. 1, p. 412.

52. Ibid., vol. 1, pp. 410–11.

53. Ibid., vol. 1, pp. 412–13.

54. Seymour Drescher, Capitalism and Antislavery, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 37; David B. Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975, pp. 231, 472, 495–6.

55. Ramsay, quoted in Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, p. 387.

56. Blackburn, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, pp. 92, 14.

57. Adams, quoted in David B. Davis, "A Big Business," New York Review of Books, 11 January 1998, p. 50 n. 3.

58. Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom, London: Picador, 1999, p. 39.

59. Ibid., p. 19.

60. Ibid., pp. 19, 32; Blackburn, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, p. 116.

61. Leon F. Litwack, North of Slavery, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961, pp. 16–17.

62. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, London: Everyman’s Library, 1994, vol. 1, p. 358.

63. Ibid., vol. 1, pp. 367–8.

64. Ibid., vol. 1, p. 359.

65. Blackburn, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, p. 279.

66. David B. Davis, The Slave Power Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982, p. 33.

67. George M. Frederickson, The Black Image in the White Mind, Hanover (NH): Wesleyan University Press, 1987, pp. 6ff.

68. Foner, The Story of American Freedom, p. 76.

69. Quoted in Paul Finkelman, An Imperfect Union, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985, p. 28.

70. Burke, Works, vol. 3, pp. 66, 124.

71. John O’Sullivan, "Annexation," United States Magazine and Democratic Review, vol. 4, July 1845, pp. 7–8.

72. Gossett, Race, pp. 254–5.

73. Abraham Lincoln, Speeches and Writings, 2 vols, ed. Don E. Fehrenbacher, New York: Library of America, 1989, vol. 1, pp. 401, 511–12, 636.

74. Richard Hofstadter, ed., Great Issues in American History, 3 vols, New York: Vintage Books, 1958–82, vol. 2, p. 369.

75. Lincoln, Speeches and Writings, vol. 1, p. 426.

76. Randolph, quoted in Russell Kirk, John Randolph of Roanoke, Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1978, p. 175.

77. Parker, quoted in Richard Slotkin, The Fatal Environment, New York: Harper Perennial, 1994, pp. 231–2.

78. John C. Calhoun, Union and Liberty, ed. R. M. Lence, Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1992, p. 436.

79. Benjamin Franklin, Writings, ed. J. A. Leo Lemay, New York: Library of America, 1987, p. 651.

80. Paul Finkelman, Slavery and the Founders, Armonk (NY): Sharpe, 1996, pp. 23–4.

81. Calhoun, quoted in Massimo L. Salvadori, Potere e libertà nel mondo moderno, Rome and Bari: Laterza, 1996, pp. 190–1.

82. Calhoun, Union and Liberty, p. 475.

83. Ibid., p. 467.

84. Calhoun, quoted in Salvadori, Potere e libertà, p. 193.

85. George Fitzhugh, Sociology for the South, Richmond: Morris, 1854, pp. 210–11.

86. Burke, Works, vol. 3, p. 153.

87. George Washington, A Collection, ed. William B. Allen, Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1988, pp. 242, 247, 242 ("Circular to the States," 4 June 1783), 326 (letter to La Fayette, 15 August 1786), 545 (letter to the Hebrew Congregation, January 1790).

88. Cf. David Geggus, "British Opinion and the Emergence of Haiti, 1791–1805," in James Walvin, ed., Slavery and British Society, 1776–1846, London: Macmillan, 1982, p. 130.

89. Zilversmit, The First Emancipation, p. 132; Blackburn, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, p. 118.

90. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1981, pp. 98–9.

91. John Millar, The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks, Aalen: Scientia, 1986, pp. 296, 250.

92. Hofstadter, Great Issues in American History, vol. II, pp. 319–20.

93. Benjamin Disraeli, Lord George Bentinck, London: Colburn, 1852, p. 325.

94. Ibid., p. 496.

95. David Hume, Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary, Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1987, p. 383.

96. Robert von Mohl, "Gwerbeund Fabrikwesen," in Lothar Gall and Rainer Koch, eds, Der europäische Liberalismus im 19. Jahrhundert, vol. 4, Frankfurt am Main: Ullstein, 1981, p. 91.

97. Calhoun, Union and Liberty, pp. 468, 473.

98. Randolph, quoted in Kirk, John Randolph of Roanoke, pp. 63, 43 (for the characterization as "the American Burke").

99. Lord Acton, Selected Writings, 3 vols, ed. J. Rufus Fears, Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1985–88, vol. 1, p. 329.

100. Calhoun, Union and Liberty, pp. 35–6, 315.

101. Thomas Jefferson, Writings, ed. Merrill D. Peterson, New York: Library of America, 1984, pp. 290–1.

102. Washington, A Collection, pp. 455 ("Fragments of the First Discarded Inaugural Address," April 1789), 554 (letter to La Fayette, 28 July 1791).

103. Calhoun, Union and Liberty, p. 308.

104. Ibid., p. 313.

105. Tucker, Collected Works, vol. 5, pp. ix, 12, 96.

106. Thomas Carlyle, Latter-Day Pamphlets, ed. Michael K. Goldberg and Jules P. Seigel, Ottawa: Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, 1983, p. 439.

107. Fitzhugh, Sociology for the South, pp. 98, 225; cf. Domenico Losurdo, Nietzsche, il ribelle aristocratico, Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 2002, ch. 12 passim and ch. 22, §1.

108. Carlyle, Latter-Day Pamphlets, pp. 463–5.

109. Fitzhugh, Sociology for the South, p. 286; Eugene D. Genovese, A Consuming Fire, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998, p. 107.

110 Carlyle, Latter-Day Pamphlets, p. 439.

111 Ibid., pp. 464–6.

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