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American Political Thought: Slavery and Freedom


One of the courses in my standard rotation is American political thought, an upper division course that’s one of three courses (along with a general historical course and a general contemporary course) that fulfills our political science major’s political theory requirement. I’ve done the course as an overview/survey kind of affair, and it felt rather too disjointed and unorganized for my taste. I’m probably going to offer it in the Spring Semester, but (unlike previous offerings) as an honors class, and a seminar with a cap of roughly 15 students.

On the research side, I’ve been reading quite a bit of historical work on American slavery lately, in conjunction with a paper I’ve been working on. The impulse behind the paper is this: political theorists, particularly republicans, theorize the concept of freedom against slavery, but the version of ‘slavery’ they work with is often quite abstract and ahistorical. How (I ask) might our understanding of freedom change if we used a more historically sensitive vision of slavery as our mirror concept?

I’ll post something more about my answer to that question in some later post, when it’s ready to be published and/or my answer is more thoroughly worked out (for any political theory readers, I’ll be presenting the latest version of this paper at the Association for Political Theory conference at CU-Boulder next month). My purpose here is to throw up a very early draft of my planned syllabus, in which I’m proposing to explore American political thought through the theme of ‘freedom and slavery,’ integrating historical and theoretical work. I’m in the planning stage–this is already probably a bit overstuffed, but I’m open to stuffing it some more before I begin the winnowing down to what I’ll actually assign. This is something of a new area of interest for me, so there’s a pretty good chance I’ve missed something obvious and important; indeed, that’s one of my motivations for posting this here at this stage.

One thing I was hoping to include is an exchange between Frederick Douglass and Stanton, Anthony, and some other suffragists on the 15th Amendment. All in the exchange were in agreement that ideally women should have been included, but there was disagreement about whether to support a 15th amendment that didn’t include women. Douglass (and, IIRC, some suffragist but not Stanton or Anthony) argued that it should be supported, as the need for voting rights as a tool of self-defense was more urgent for (male) former slaves than for women. I have a distinct memory of this exchange being reprinted in some anthology. I could have sworn it was Sue Davis’ excellent but out of print American Political Thought: Four Hundred Years of Ideas and Ideologies but the internet tells me I’m wrong about that. If anyone knows where that exchange can be found, I’d be grateful.


American Political Thought: Slavery and Freedom

University of Dayton, Spring 2016

When Samuel Johnson asked, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” he betrayed a rare failure of irony, not to mention a superficial grasp of the idea of liberty. There was nothing at all hypocritical or anomalous about the southerner’s highly developed sense of honor and freedom. Those who most dishonor and constrain others are in the best position to appreciate what a joy it is to possess what they deny.  –Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), 94.

It’s commonplace for political theorists to note that our understanding of freedom—what it entails, demands, and requires—is deeply influenced and shaped by slavery, both as an idea and a social fact. It’s probably not a coincidence that slave societies, such as ancient Athens and Rome, and of course The United States, were particularly fixated on the concept and nature of freedom. This course asks a deceptively simple question: how has the experience of being a slave society shaped the American understanding of freedom? This can be framed as a question for theorists or for historians, but we’re going to treat it as both simultaneously, reading work in both fields alongside each other. We’ll occasionally veer into comparative dimensions of slavery, but try to keep our focus primarily on the American experience, its legacy, and responses to it. We’ll strive to consider how slavery has shaped understandings of freedom (in theory and practice) for both White America and the Black America (before and after emancipation), open to the possibility that there might be significant differences there.

Week 1: Slavery, freedom and American citizenship

  • Judith Shklar, American Citizenship: The Quest for Inclusion (Harvard, 1991)
  • Edmund Morgan, “Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox,” The Journal of American History 59:1 (1972), 5-28

Week 2: The American experience: Slavery in a capitalist society

  • James Oakes: Slavery and Freedom: An Interpretation of the Old South (Norton, 1990)
  • selections from Ed Baptiste, The Other Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic, 2014)
  • Walter Johnson, “The Pedestal and the Veil: Rethinking the Capitalism/Slavery Question,” Journal of the Early Republic 24:3 (2004), 299-308.

Week 3: Jefferson, slavery and freedom in colonial Virginia

  • Selections from Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom, book I (Norton, 1975)
  • Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia
  • Thomas Jefferson, “Letter to Bishop Henri Gregoire” (1808) and “Letter to Joel Barlow” (1809)
  • Paul Finkelman, “Thomas Jefferson and Antislavery: The Myth Goes On,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 102 (1994), 193-228.

Week 4: Slavery, the framers, and the constitution

  • Mark Graber, “The Constitutional Politics of Slavery,” pp. 91-125 in Dred Scott and the Politics of Constitutional Evil (Cambridge, 2006)
  • Paul Finkelman, “Making a Covenant With Death: Slavery and the Constitutional Convention,” pp. 3-35 in Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson (ME Sharpe, 2001)
  • Publius, Federalist Papers #54
  • U.S. Constitution, Slavery Clauses: Art. I, sec. 2, cl. 3; Art. 1, sec. 8, cl. 15; Art. I, sec. 9, cl. 1; Art. IV, sec. 2, cls. 1, 3
  • James Madison, “Memorandum on an African Colony for Freed Slaves” (1789)
  • Consider Arms, Malachi Maynard, and Samuel Field, “Reasons for Dissent” (1788)
  • Donald Hickey, “America’s Response to the Slave Revolt in Haiti, 1791-1806,” Journal of the Early Republic 2:4 (1982), 361-379

Week 5: Varieties of White Abolitionism

  • Samuel Sewall, “The Selling of Joseph” (1701)
  • Selections from James Otis, The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved (1764)
  • William Lloyd Garrison, selected columns from The Liberator
  • Angelina Grimke, excerpt from “Appeal to the Christian Women of the South” (1836)

Week 6: In defense of slavery

  • Selections from Dew, Simms, Hammond, and Harper, The Pro-Slavery Argument (as maintained by the most distinguished writers of the Southern States) (1853)
  • Selections from George Fitzhugh, Cannibals All!, or Slaves without Masters (1852)
  • John Calhoun, Speech to the Senate (1837)

Week 7: The question of wage slavery

Week 8: Slaves Seeking Freedom (I) Narrating slavery, freedom, and the transition: Frederick Douglass

  • Douglass, My Freedom and My Bondage
  • Douglass, “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?”

Week 9: Slaves seeking freedom (II): Marronage

  • Selections from Neil Roberts, Freedom as Marronage (Chicago, 2015)
  • Selections from Slyvia Diouf, Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of America’s Maroons (NYU, 2014)
  • John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, “The Quest for Freedom: Runaway Slaves and the Plantation South,” in Slavery, Resistance, and Freedom, edited by Gabor Boritt and Scott Hancock (Oxford 2008), 21-39
  • Daniel Sayers et al, “The Political Economy of Exile in the Great Dismal Swamp,” International Journal of Historical Archeology 11:1 (2007), 60-97

Week 10: Slaves seeking freedom (III) economy and culture

  • Selections from George Rawick, From Sun-down to Sun-up: The Making of Black Community (Greenwood, 1972)
  • Selections from Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in 19th Century America (Oxford, 1997)
  • Alex Lichtenstein, “‘That Disposition to Theft, With Which They Have Been Branded’: Moral Economy, Slave Management and the Law,” Journal of Social History 21:3 (1988): 413-440.

Week 11: The aftermath of emancipation/reconstruction

  • Booker T Washington, “Atlanta Exposition Speech” (1895)
  • Selections from Dubois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903)
  • Selections from Dubois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880
  • Selections from Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution

Week 12: The aftermath of emancipation/reconstruction, cont.

  • Selections from Eric Foner, Nothing But Freedom: Emancipation and its Legacy (LSU, 1983)
  • Selections from William Blackmon, Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (Anchor 2009)

Week 13: The legacies of slavery, freedom and white supremacy in the 21st century

Week 14: Conclusion, new directions, etc

  • Sharon Krause, “What is Freedom?” and “Plural Freedom”, chapters 4-5 of Freedom Beyond Sovereignty: Reconstructing Liberal Individualism (Chicago, 2015)
  • Jack Balkin and Sanford Levinson, “The Dangerous Thirteenth Amendment,” Columbia Law Review 112:7 (2012), 1459-1499
  • David Watkins, “Freedom and Slavery in Theory and Practice”


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