An Intellectual History of Slavery: Part 1
Introduction and Dante Alighieri
The intellectual ideas that helped shape the American South also contributed to their acceptance of slavery as a necessary and proper institution among civilized men. The philosophies of Dante, Pico della Mirandola, Grotius, and many others all argued for the enslavement of inferiors, and there was a prevailing attitude among 16th and 17th century Englishmen to preserve their superior lives and liberties at the expense of—and benefit toward—the inferior. The theories of natural rights and natural law, ancient and deeply rooted in English society, forced speculation on the absolute state of nature, from which the eminence of a nation rose the further its distance was from that primeval state. When coming into contact with “brutish” or “savage” cultures, many people naturally perceived them as inferior, naturally subject to enslavement, and even believed enslavement was for their own benefit.
While the economic origins and justifications for slavery are well known (though often too simplistically explained), the ideological, moral, intellectual, and altogether less tangible motivations and explanations are less evident. Colonial Virginia historian Warren Billings calls the emergence of slavery in Virginia a “complex puzzle,” and that despite being “shrouded by a dearth of evidence, the riddle of the Negro’s enslavement remains mysterious and controversial.” Even David Eltis’s recent work, which refutes the Marxian analysis of the slave trade, still struggles to find, outside the realm of economics and politics, answers to his fundamental question:
“Why would Europeans revive slavery at the time of the Columbian contact, when the institution had disappeared from large parts of Europe?”
Economic arguments alone cannot adequately explain the acceptance of slavery or the slave trade. If they did, then we would not be able to explain why we persist in uneconomic customs, both modern and ancient, such as burying our dead. It makes much more utilitarian sense to use corpses rather than place them in a state of disuse—but morality and ideologies thankfully prevent us from doing so. Thus it was for the Europeans’ acceptance of slavery. Surely, many benefitted economically from its practice—just as morticians and cemetery owners have benefitted from death for ages. But a widespread ideology or morality among the masses must have allowed—or demanded—this practice to be sustained.
Political and economic priorities are very often effects of a greater cause, not necessarily the cause themselves. It is easy, perhaps lazy, to focus only on economy or politics as the reason for perpetuating slavery, stopping at its profitability or the desire for power as the final explanation. But even the most draconian economic and political institutions must be rationalized and moralized in order for leadership—and the people at large—to sanction their employment: especially in a country such as England, where the constitutional tradition was deeply rooted in what we modernly call human rights.
What lies behind the economics of slavery? What lies beneath the political motives? In short, what mindset allowed slavery to perpetuate among a society that valued freedom?
It is always tempting to view the institution of American slavery from a teleological approach, identifying the atrocities of its end result in the 19th century and inscribing to its historical predecessors the same motives of absolute subjugation based on the arbitrary boundaries of color.
But is this appropriate? Is it beneficial to look at 17th-century institutions of bondage with the eyes and motives of a 19th-century southern plantation owner? Is it accurate to address a 16th-century mindset while clinging to a 21st-century understanding of social construction? It is neither appropriate nor accurate to do so, and the institution of slavery, as accepted by the English in America, had its roots in intellectual thought.
Many modern historians call it irrational or, even worse, hypocritical, for the English to have owned as property the lives of another. But these are post-Enlightenment ascriptions of rationality and moral behavior. To describe the institution of slavery as hypocritical is arrogant; to define it as irrational neglects the very different intellectual context from which politics and society operated. Each generation has its own ideas of proper reason, and this was especially true of generations before the minds of Locke, Rousseau, Voltaire, Franklin, Jefferson, and even Calhoun.
A qualification is necessary for what might be seen as an apology or justification for slavery. No intent or implication as such is meant here. The institution of slavery, especially what it became in the 19th century was an atrocity for very obvious modern reasons.
But simply because a modern generation identifies atrocities does not mean it should not venture to understand them. There must have been an intellectual precedent that enabled slavery to thrive economically and politically—a widespread acceptance that one person subjugating another was not atrocious. In order to explore the intellectual thought of pre-16th century society in such a short space, I will use the thoughts of well-preserved philosophies and polemics, treating them not as innovative or radical, but rather as the supremely articulated versions of the common thought processes of their respective times.
By treating philosophy as demonstrative rather than as a catalyst, Grotius reflects Europe of the 1620s, rather than Europe of a later generation reflecting Grotius, and we can see a glimpse of rationality toward slavery beginning well before the discovery of the New World. It was not these philosophers who enabled slavery to persist; it was the people’s acceptance of philosophies as valid that did so.
This pre-Renaissance work from the birthplace of the Renaissance is a master of political discourse. Though it is definitively pro-monarchical, it does allude to certain aspects of non-monarchical subjugation and the proper role of human nature. “The proper work of the human race…is to set in action the whole capacity of that understanding which is capable of development.”
There are many examples of members of the human race during this time period who did not employ themselves to the fullness of their capable potential. Nevertheless, these members were looked down upon by the successful, and not afforded the same treatment because of their perceived sloth and lack of productivity. They were the impoverished, the “deserving poor,” and by extension, the outcasts of medieval societies, often punished for their sloth by being forced to perform productive labor.
We can see a mindset among Europeans that the proper role of humanity was to be productive; and productivity in its purest sense meant contributing to the advancement of civilization. Hunting and gathering was sport for the elite; but to do so as a means of production was mean, animalistic, and archaic.
“By living in the calm and tranquility of peace, [the human race] applies itself most freely and easily to its proper work; a work which, according to the saying, ‘Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels,’ is almost divine. Whence it is manifest that of all things that are ordered to secure blessings to men, peace is best.”
Here we see Alighieri’s vision of the natural progress of mankind: to live in peace within a civilization that secures the blessings of its citizens. An un-peaceful civilization to Alighieri is not a civilization at all, but it is an organization that strives above all else toward the “ultimate end; which is the universal peace.” A Great Chain of Being was evident, and humans were meant to strive toward order, peace, and divinity. If a society in a state of perpetual warfare or disorder were encountered, a Western European would naturally assume that it wanted peace. If there was no evidence among that society of productivity, Europeans might believe that the proper role would be to make it productive, especially toward securing its own peace.
Western Europe had largely abandoned slavery by the 14th century because there was a certain homogeneity of purpose in the realm of Christendom. But a hundred years would bring them in contact with peoples uncharted, and moral questions about what to do with these human discoveries would arise as the Portuguese ventured into Africa.
 Warren M. Billings, ed., The Old Dominion in the Seventeenth Century: A Documentary History of Virginia (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1975), 148.
 See, for example, Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (New York: Russell and Russell, 1961).
 David Eltis, The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 2.
 See Gary Nash, Red White and Black (Englewood, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1974) passim; Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States:1492-Present (New York: HarperCollins, 2003) passim.
 See Eltis, xiii, “if condemn on the basis of modern values is all we do, then we are never likely to understand the past.”
 Dante Alighieri, De Monarchia, 1.4.1: Satis igitur declaratum est quod proprium opus humani generis…est actuare semper totam potentiam intellectus possibilis [translations mine].
 See Sharon Farmer, Surviving Poverty in Medieval Paris: Gender, Ideology, and the Daily Lives of the Poor (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002), for an exploration of the lives and expectations of those who did not actively produce or contribute to their society. But just because they were forced to produce, they were not (nor could not be) legally considered slaves.
 Alighieri, 1.4.2: “…patet quod genus humanum in quiete sive tranquillitate pacis ad proprium suum opus, quod fere divinum est iuxta illud “Minuisti eum paulominus ab angelis”, liberrime atque facillime se habet. Unde manifestum est quod pax universalis est optimum eorum que ad nostram beatitudinem ordinantur.”
 Alighieri, 1.4.5: “omnia nostra opera ordinantur, quia est pax universalis, que pro principio rationum subsequentium supponatur.”
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About the author
Andrew Schwartz is a historian from Old Dominion University, where, despite his conservative arguments in liberal academia, he graduated Summa Cum Laude. His focus as a historian is on Colonial and Revolutionary American political, legal and intellectual history. His focus on politics is rational conservatism. He can also be found at AmericanThinker.com.