The Slave Society Defined

I've repeatedly used this term "slave society" to distinguish the antebellum South from societies where slavery was practiced. The practice of slavery has developed in virtually every civilization known to man. Slave societies, on the other hand, are considerably rarer.


David Blight sketches the terms for us:

What do we mean when we use that phrase 'slave society'? Essentially, it means any society where slave labor -- where the definition of labor, where the definition of the relationship between ownership and labor -- is defined by slavery. By a cradle to grave -- and some would've even said a cradle to grave and beyond -- human bondage. Where slavery affected everything about society. Where whites and blacks, in this case -- in America in a racialized slavery system -- grew up, were socialized by, married, reared children, worked, invested in, and conceived of the idea of property, and honed their most basic habits and values under the influence of a system that said it was just to own people as property. 

The other slave societies in human history -- and you can get up a real debate over this, especially among Africanists, Brazilianists, Asianists and others, and it's why slavery is such a hot field in international history -- but the other great slave societies in history where the whole social structure of those societies was rooted in slavery, were Ancient Greece and Rome; certainly Brazil by the eighteenth and nineteenth century; the whole of Caribbean -- the Great West Indies sugar-producing empires of the French, the British, the Dutch, the Spanish, and a few others -- and the American South. 

Now, there were other localized slave societies, surely; certainly within Africa, to a certain degree even before Europeans arrived and certainly after Europeans arrived, particularly after the regularization of the Atlantic slave trade. There were certain localized slave societies in East Africa, out of Zanzibar by the eighteenth and nineteenth century. 

There were certain localized slave societies in the vast Arab world, in the Muslim world, well before there was even an Atlantic slave trade to the Americas. But the five great slave societies were those five. All were highly profitable in their primes. All tended to hinder technological innovation in those societies. All tended to have a high slave-to-free ratio of population. All of those slave societies had a population of slaves that was from one-quarter to one-half, and sometimes more, of the total population. In those slave societies, slaves -- as an interest, as an interest -- were both a political and a great economic institution that defined ways of life.

I think this is pretty solid working definition--though I would invite the practicing historians among the Horde, to expand or dispute. But the basic point is that you can't think of slavery in the antebellum South as simply something people did. Slavery defined people--slaves, slave-owners, non-slave holding whites, free blacks and native Americans. Politically, the slave society impacted everything from Henry Clay's push for the American System to the Nullification Crisis to the Mexican War. Slavery is the cancer that can not be isolated. It's part of us.

With that said it's also worth noting--as Blight does--the difference that American slavery was significantly older, than the Antebellum American Slave Society. Slavery existed in the colonies from the 17th century. But we didn't morph into a slave society until the the early 19th century. Apparently the reasons for that morphing are still up for debate. Blight (and others) don't give to much truck to the cotton gin theory. I think the Louisiana Purchase has to be in there somewhere. Still, I don't think there's a real historical consensus on what exactly happened that set us on the path to war. 

You could point to the failure to end slavery on the country's founding. But there's a good argument that without slavery, the thirteen states would never would have united under the Constitution.

MORE: Changed the last line for clarity.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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