Progressing into Slavery

Several pages in to Harriet Martineau’s chapter “Morals of Slavery” in Society in America, I couldn’t help but sardonically smile at her prediction for slavery in the United States: “Desperate as the state of society is, it [slavery] will be rectified, probably, without bloodshed” (2.5.1). Martineau’s hopeful, albeit unfulfilled, prediction seems blithely naïve in light of the ensuing long years of bloodshed and enslavement that African Americans endured before the illegalization of slavery. Even after the institution of the Thirteenth Amendment, African Americans continued to be oppressed, and recent films like Selma, commemorating the life and work of Martin Luther King, jr., reminds me that societal progress is not as linear as Martineau seems to suppose.

She claims in How to Observe Morals and Manners that “The ideas of equal rights, of representation of person as well as property, and all other democratic notions, originate in towns, and chiefly in manufacturing towns” (2.3.90). Because the United States, as well as England, have firmly progressed into a manufacturing-based economy, they are “rescued, by the full establishment of their manufacturers, from all danger of a retrogradation towards feudalism” (2.3.91). Martineau acknowledges the exception of some markets like the Charleston market where the masters pocket all profits, echoing the feudal system, but she does not sufficiently account for the simultaneous existence of ideals of liberty and perversities of slavery. How can a nation that champions a person’s right to pursue life, liberty, and happiness condone the systematic oppression of an entire race?

Martineau declares the mutual exclusiveness of liberty and slavery in How to Observe, stating, “In like manner, whatever a nation may tell him of its love of liberty should go for little if he sees a virtuous man’s children taken from him on the ground of his holding an unusual religious belief; or citizens mobbed for asserting the rights of negroes . . .” (2.4.123). Yet, the South is part of the same United States as the North, which professed at its founding to believe in liberty for all humankind. In “Morals of Slavery,” Martineau attempts to reconcile this contradiction by falling back on probabilities: “Probably the southern gentry, who declare that the presence of slavery enhances the love of freedom . . . are sincere enough in such declarations; and if so, it follows that they do not know what freedom is” (2.5.1). But moral ignorance seems a frail excuse to fall back upon in the face of the systematic persecution of thousands.

While I commend Martineau for her sociological work and am inspired by her courage to literally and figuratively cross boundaries, her explanation of slavery in the South oversimplifies the complex moral, economic, geographical, and social conditions that perpetuated African American oppression. The theories she proposes in How to Observe are not adhered to in “Morals of Slavery.” I do not think this indicates any lack in sociological or rhetorical skill, but rather testifies to the nearly incomprehensible motives and conditions undergirding slavery in the United States.

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