Let’s Remember the Difference Between Slavery and Race

bed14-raelSome of you may recall our July 2015 Author’s Corner interview with Bowdoin College history professor Patrick Rael on his book Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777-1865.

Last week Rael published an excellent piece on the difference between race and slavery at the blog of the African American Intellectual History Society.

…the political conflicts surrounding race at the time of the founding had little to do with debating African-descended peoples’ claim to humanity, let alone equality. It is true that many of the Founders worried about the persistence of slavery in a nation supposedly dedicated to universal human liberty.  After all, it was difficult to argue that natural rights justified treason against a king without acknowledging slaves’ even stronger claim to freedom. Thomas Jefferson himself famously worried that in the event of slave rebellion, a just deity would side with the enslaved.

But the Framers never got to the point of debating black freedom and equality in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787. They were too busy arguing over how much extra power slaveholders would have in the new form of government. As James Madison noted, of all the divides between the states, the one that came to drive debates most was that between slave states and those becoming free. But these debates were over slavery–not race.  They were about the political power of slaveholders, not the rights of those enslaved or degraded by the racial identity ascribed to them.

Slavery divided the nation; race, not so much. At the Founding, the argument over slavery was an argument between powerful elites, some of whom depended completely on slavery for their profits and some who did not. While the issue of slaveholder power eventually came to dominate the national political agenda, the question of race — and particularly the racial equality of non-Europeans — did not. Widespread consensus consigned nearly all blacks to sub-citizen status, even when they were not legal property.

Read the entire piece here.

2 thoughts on “Let’s Remember the Difference Between Slavery and Race

  1. I agree that Professor Rael’s “Lesson #1” stands: “we must end any notion of the free states as morally superior to the slave states.” The painfully gradual abolition of slavery in the eight states north of Maryland from 1777 – 1804 stemmed from the increasingly peripheral nature of slavery in the northern economy, rather than by any “liberal” views on race or racial equality. But a couple of rejoinders are in order. First, even if their motives were not “enlightened,” it was the first time in history that legislatures eradicated slavery by law. Second, northern abolition after the American Revolution (e.g., 1776 – < 10,000 free blacks; 1790 – 60,000 free blacks; 1810 – = 200,000 free blacks) resulted in the creation of “free” African American communities with their own schools, churches and leaders. As for black voting rights, while they were rather quickly undermined and eliminated between 1801 – 1838 (as Tom noted in NJ, plus every state added to the union after 1819 prohibited blacks from voting), we should acknowledge that at the nation’s founding, the number of states that formally excluded free African Americans from voting was rather small (in all states but VA, SC & GA “citizens of color” who met taxpaying or property holding qualifications had the right to vote under new state constitutions), according to Alexander Keyssar’s book, “The Right to Vote,” Table A.4 and A.5.


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