Abolition and modern slavery: Q&A with Professor John Stauffer

By Christopher W. Wilson
Slave shackles

In honor of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the museum is hosting a National Youth Summit on Abolition, a webcast on February 11 for secondary students to look at the strategies used by 19th century abolitionists to end slavery in the U.S. and how this history can inform efforts to end modern-day slavery. Chris Wilson, the museum's director of the Program in African American Culture, asked Professor John Stauffer to answer three essential questions to get the conversation started. Stauffer is Professor of English and Professor of African and African American Studies and Chair of the History of American Civilization Program at Harvard University and a well known and oft-consulted expert in the field.

Antislavery Pamphlet, 1848, Division of Political History, National Museum of American History
Antislavery Pamphlet, 1848, Division of Political History, National Museum of American History

How would you define slavery? How does modern slavery compare with its 19th-century counterparts?

Slavery is the attempt to dehumanize people and treat them as domesticated beasts of burdens such as horses, cattle, oxen, etc. Slaves are forced to work against their will, using violence or the threat of it, with no pay. Thus, a simple definition of slavery is that it is a state of war between the slave and the master. Like beasts of burden, a slave is also treated as commodity that can be bought and sold. In some societies and eras, such as 18th and 19th century North America, the commodity value of slaves increased dramatically. At other times, such as today, the commodity value of slaves is minimal; they can’t be sold for much and are considered "disposable people," as the sociologist Kevin Bales has noted.

There are other characteristics of slavery that have persisted in world history. Because of their circumstances, slaves are radically alienated from friends, family, social networks; they can be uprooted at any time, and typically can be killed with impunity by their masters.

Another characteristic of slavery from ancient Babylonia, Greece, and Rome through the early twentieth century is the attempt on the part of masters to physically distinguish slaves from free people. In the U.S., slavery is almost always linked to race—people of African descent were slaves—but there are plenty of instances in which slavery was not based on the concept of race—the ancient world, and 20th century state slavery in Germany and Russia, and modern slavery. When masters could not easily identify slaves as such, they branded them, shaved their heads, made them wear striped clothing or badges, or used some other physically distinguishing characteristic to "mark" them as slaves.

How did abolitionists work to end slavery in the 19th-century?

The greatest weapon of the abolitionists was words and images, convincing people that slavery was a horrible evil that needed to be abolished. As a group the abolitionists proposed numerous strategies in the hopes of working with Southerners to end slavery. These measures included the desire for lawful debate; the use of moral suasion, including millions of antislavery petitions to Congress and the proliferation of antislavery writings and images in newspapers, pamphlets, and broadsides; numerous proposals for compensated emancipation, which Southerners totally ignored; boycotts of slave-grown products; international pressure, especially from Great Britain, in the hopes of bringing Southerners to the bargaining table; slave resistance (especially running away) and the specter of slave rebellions—what Frederick Douglass and Herman Melville both called "a slumbering volcano" blanketing the South; a sophisticated Underground Railroad; and the emergence of antislavery political parties, in which immediatists worked closely with gradualists to end slavery through peaceful and constitutional channels. Much like the early gradual abolition movement, nonviolence was the foundation of the modern immediatist movement, though not every immediatist adhered to that ideal.


Slave Shackles, 19th century, Division of Home and Community Life, National Museum of American History
Slave Shackles, 19th century, Division of Home and Community Life, National Museum of American History

Does using the term modern slavery to define modern human trafficking contemporary exploitation minimize the experience of enslaved African Americans who endured the legal, generational, race-based slavery of the 19th century United States?

Throughout history, there has been a huge variation in how slaves were treated. Some slaves were comparatively well treated and enjoyed privileges others did not. Other slaves were continually brutalized, worked to death within a few years, or murdered. This variation often occurred on the same plantation, factory, camp, etc.

Speaking of this larger context of world slavery, modern slavery, or ancient slavery, where these systems were not "race-based," does not minimize the experience of 19th century enslaved African Americans.

Slavery in the U.S. South was virtually unique from slavery in other "slave societies"—in which slavery was a defining aspect of the economic, social, political, cultural conditions—in two ways: in almost every other slave society, slaves "died out," meaning deaths exceeded births and masters depended on continual slave imports to sustain the slave population. In the U.S. South, births exceeded deaths and there was a net natural growth in the slave population. This was chiefly because the forms of work—tobacco, cotton, corn production—were backbreaking, but they wouldn't kill you in the way sugar and rice production, or mining did in other slave societies. The other virtually unique characteristic of U.S. slavery is that in other slave societies there was a slim chance for manumission [emancipation from slavery], whereas in the U.S. slaves were slaves for life, with no chance of manumission.

To continue the conversation on these important topics, register and join us on February 11 at 12 PM EST. This Q&A blog post was coordinated by Christopher Wilson, Director of the Program in African American History and Culture at the National Museum of American History.