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The Enlightenment’s Cynical Critics

Tribalism and slavery are as old as humanity. The very first human records are records of human bondage. Reports estimate that today 60 million people are held as slaves. While each one of these lives represents an unacceptable tragedy, not one occurs with the approval of law. And that is revolutionary. For while slavery is as old as humanity, abolitionism is a relatively recent phenomenon that did not emerge until the ideas and ideals of the Enlightenment nurtured it into existence.

In a June 5 article for Slate, Jamelle Bouie writes of the Enlightenment: “At its heart, the movement contained a paradox: Ideas of human freedom and individual rights took root in nations that held other human beings in bondage and were then in the process of exterminating native populations.” In the context of an article largely aimed at undermining a “handful of centrist and conservative writers” who have taken up the Enlightenment’s defence, this appears to be a damning indictment of hypocrisy. That is, of course, unless one considers that, until the Enlightenment, it is nearly impossible to find a human society that did not, at least at times, practice slavery and engage in barbarous acts of conquest and colonization. It is even more difficult to find a society not engaged in these practices that reached a level of wealth and stability sufficient to allow non-survival related activities like political philosophy to flourish. The emergence of the kind of prosperous, moral societies that both Bouie and I wish to see flourish only came into existence with the moral and ethical revolution brought about by the Enlightenment.

While Bouie is correct that some Enlightenment thinkers, including Locke and Kant, did indeed advance theories of scientific racism that have had harmful consequences, he is wrong to argue that it was Enlightenment thinkers who invented scientific racism. Even Matthew Sears, who is certainly not among the “centrists and conservatives” Bouie hopes to chastise, has noted that the use of pseudo-scientific justifications for ethnic, and indeed racial, animus can be traced back to Aristotle. What neither Bouie nor his respondents have bothered to notice is that it is only with the Enlightenment that a universalist abolition movement began to take shape.

The idea that some kinds of people should either not hold slaves or—more importantly—be held as slaves has ancient roots. The idea of ‘freedom for some, slavery for others’ is evident in most ancient and medieval prohibitions of slavery. These are clearly not intended as universal condemnations; they are rooted in the kind of tribalism that truly did give birth to modern racism. From the Bible to the Koran to William the Conqueror, pre-Enlightenment proclamations on the morality of slavery fell largely into four categories: prohibitions against holding some kinds of people as slaves (no Israelites, no Muslims, no Christians, etc), exhortations to treat one’s slaves kindly, a ban on the slave trade (without freedom for current slaves), or the abolition of debt slavery. No one thought to say, “No human being should own another human being as property.”

The basic moral declaration that slavery should be abolished entirely did not emerge until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when Enlightenment thinkers would apply their theories of universal human rights to the horrors to which they bore witness in the transatlantic slave trade and New World slavery. Then, and only then, would universal abolition become, not only a tenet of political theory, but also a major moral and political issue.

Alexander Crummell (1819-1898)

Bouie and others can perhaps be forgiven for focusing their criticisms predominantly on white and male Enlightenment thinkers. But in doing so, they overlook the diversity of the Enlightenment and the ways in which its central calls to universalism inspired women and people of color. They also ignore some of the most important and comprehensive critiques of slavery to come out of the movement. For example, from Olympe de Gouge, a French thinker and campaigner for abolition and women’s rights, who passionately sought to end slavery everywhere, including in colonized lands. Or the American minister Alexander Crummell, who was born free, but was also the son of a man enslaved until adulthood. This is, of course, without mentioning Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Baptiste Belle, leaders of the Haitian Revolution, both of whom were men dedicated to Enlightenment universalism. These individuals and others demonstrate the real power of Enlightenment thought and the ways in which it encouraged those who had experienced the worst of power’s abuses to claim their own civil and political liberty.

No movement, especially one as diverse as the Enlightenment (and the Enlightenment was diverse in every imaginable way), is without its questionable theories and theorists. But attempts to pin the blight of slavery upon the Enlightenment is at best ahistorical. At worst, it betrays an intellectual and political agenda designed to undo the Enlightenment—which seems an odd objective indeed for those whose stated aim is ‘liberation.’ Millennia of great moral teachers sought to come to terms with slavery and to mitigate its inhumanity, but no one—not Jesus, not Buddha, not Muhammad, not Socrates—considered the complete liberation of all slaves prior to the Enlightenment. It was that era’s emphasis on reason and its assured sense of universal humanism, expressed as an unflagging commitment to the Brotherhood of Man, that encouraged the hitherto unconsidered notion that the abolition of slavery was a moral imperative, and that even kind masters behaved unjustly. This powerful call is evidenced in the extent to which women, blacks, and others normally outside of early modern European intellectual life, responded to a movement, the values of which were then, and still remain, humanity’s best hope for a healthier, happier, and freer life.

In short, the Enlightenment was not the inventor of slavery, but it was the inventor of the notion that no one should be held as a slave. Enlightenment thinkers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were not without their faults. They were mere human beings, after all, and therefore subject to all humanity’s myriad flaws and imperfections. This is no reason to dismiss the Enlightenment wholesale and it is intellectually lazy and historically suspicious to lay the blame for slavery and racism at its door. Similarly, to attempt to tarnish the Enlightenment and its defenders (past and present) as racist is a whitewashing of pre-Enlightenment history. Slavery is an ancient institution; a horrible primordial scar on the human spirit. It was not carved there by the men and women who dreamed of individual rights and liberty. How cynical to pretend that it was!


Katherine Kelaidis is a writer and historian whose work focuses on early Medieval Christianity and contemporary Orthodox identity in non-traditionally Orthodox countries. You can follow her on Twitter @katiekelaidis


  1. Christianity gave rise to two important concepts–the universal brotherhood of mankind and the acceptance of guilt as the path to achieve that goal. The article focuses on the former tenet as fundmental to evolutionary progress with regard to human rights, specifically the notion that slavery is fundamentally evil and must be abolished (it violates the principle of universal brotherhood). Yet, guilt is somehow fundamental to Christian thought and philosophy as well.. A sense of guilt, an acceptance of guilt for historical crimes- seems almost like a universal “truth” in current academic thinking. However anyone familiar with cultural diversity knows that guilt is not a universal sentiment or ideal, as much as the article makes that case for enlightenment thinking being unique. One might argue that the cultural indoctrination and acceptance of guilt, which empowered human progress on slavery etc.- is also responsible for the empowerment of the current post-modernist blame and shame game. A concept I am sure someone has explored in greater depth but something I have been contemplating much of late.

    • dirk says

      True Frank, many highly civilised cultures (such as the Inca) had not even a word for guilt, to the utmost surprise of the missionaries, they did not come further than shame. Also in Africa (my own experience) shame is present everywhere, guilt much less, or not at all? Maybe, somebody here knows better and has other experiences. But be sure then that it is not due to western influence.

    • DBruce says

      Most of us have badly neglected the enlightenment and Christianity. I find myself spouting about William Wilberforce but I was barely aware of him for most of my life.
      I’m glad I found out about him though.

  2. Jim Austin says

    Leftist causes are bait and switch.

    A good chunk of the civil rights movement was leftist bait and switch.

    The bait was civil rights for racial minorities. Civil rights participants went face to face with Ku Kluxers, bigoted law enforcement and other assorted dumb, ignorant, inbred, knuckle-dragging redneck types.

    They didn’t actually actually confront them. Rather, they just let themselves get beat up by them to gain sympathy, and sympathy they did get, enough to pressure courts and Congress to pass civil rights laws to get integrated schools and enforced voting rights.

    But the leftist component of the civil rights movement considered it bait and switch. Civil rights and equality was the bait, after which the left switches 180 degrees to support the very opposite.

    It was that way with feminism, where leftists offered the bait of equality and safety, but then switched 180 degrees to ally themselves with a death cult that legitimizes and validates abuse of women, that in areas they dominate, they foster female genital mutilations, honor killings, child marriages, sexual slavery and murder of assertive women.

    In order to manage such a switch, leftists had to instill a whole lot of resentment in the movement’s subjects, and that they did. They instilled what might be called the Samson Syndrome. It was named after the Biblical figure Samson who killed off his enemies and tormentors by collapsing a building on them, and in the process, killed himself off as well. Those inflicted with the Syndrome ending up sacrificing their own interests in order to do harm.

    They were sufficiently successful that when leftists made their switch, a large number of ladies ended up embracing their oppressors.

    Same is true of racial minorities. With postmodernism’s conflating of race and culture, blacks’ resentment against whites has been channeled into resentment of Western culture, the only culture that fostered the very methodology that led to the conclusion that slavery is wrong, that racism is wrong.

    Having succumbed to the Samson Syndrome, they have followed leftists into an alliance with the same death cult that started the African slave trade and where they reportedly continue that tradition to this day. They spurn the most racially tolerant nation in the world to side with a death cult that sided with the Nazis in World War II, Nazis, the most virulently racist political faction ever to infest this planet. Leftists eagerly embrace the likes of Louis “Hitler was a very great man” Farrakhan.

    (Does Farrakhan actually think that if there were a significant African population in Europe before World War II, there would be one after the war?)

    The left started as a reaction to the Western Age of Enlightenment with the likes of Jean Jacques Rousseau preaching that science is bad, that technology is bad, that civilization is corrupt and that innocence is to found in primitive existence. The leftist goal is to undo the Enlightenment to bring back primitive existence. All other leftist causes are bait to bring people in and then switch them to embrace the primitive.

    • Progression vs Conservatism in one shape or other have always gone together. Equality, civil rights are simply two success of Progression.

      “the only culture that fostered the very methodology that led to the conclusion that slavery is wrong, that racism is wrong.”

      That is in modern terms with the spread of British Empire and rule. Else there is ample evidence of anti-slavery in Chinese, Indian and Persian thought.

      “With postmodernism’s conflating of race and culture, blacks’ resentment against whites has been channeled into resentment of Western culture”

      That is to large extent then fault of Conservatism. It should have made space for others at a far faster rate.

      “they have followed leftists into an alliance with the same death cult that started the African slave trade ”

      Arab Muslims did not start the African Slave Trade. This is patently false. Although they certainly continued it and introduced it into India.

      “They spurn the most racially tolerant nation in the world to side with a death cult that sided with the Nazis in World War II”

      That is again outright false. overwhelmingly most Muslims sided with the allies.

      “The left started as a reaction to the Western Age of Enlightenment with the likes of Jean Jacques Rousseau preaching that science is bad”

      It didn’t. He is certainly controversial, but to state that Rousseau preached science is bad is nonsense.

      • sjj530 says

        “Arab Muslims did not start the African Slave Trade” This is certainly true. Slavery goes far back into prehistory. The slave “trade”, OTOH, outside of purely local affairs, requires a fairly sophisticated trading network with a military superiority on one side, e.g. Romans and Slavs.

        However, over the last 1500 years or so, Arab Muslims did the lion’s share of slavery. They enslaved millions of Africans AND Europeans. For that matter, the majority of modern slavery persists in Muslim countries.

    • D.B. Cooper says

      @ Asdf
      “Scientific racism is just science.”

      I’m not sure that’s true, by definition. Still, I’m willing to give you points for being the most shameless guy in the room. There’s something uniquely contemptable about people who – while in the process of taking the moral high ground – feel it necessary to underwrite any statement that could be construed as bigoted with an insurance policy of qualified assertions, euphemistic utterances, and excessively quixotic platitudes, e.g., my best friend is black; I don’t beat my women.
      You don’t seem to suffer from this problem at all. You can’t reason with unreasonable people, so why try?

      • Bill says

        It’s a kafka trap. Get accused of being a racist, make any comment like “i’m not racist, I have hung out with black people for…” and that denial is PROOF you are racist. I’m not homophobic, I have LGBTQRSTUV friends I hang with…ah HA! That you have to use that denial means…you are homophobic! Did you beat your wife today?

  3. If I understand modern usage correctly, “science” is rigorous, empirically-based findings that support my ideological agenda, “pseudo-science” is rigorous, empirically-based findings that conflict with my ideological agenda. [For example, Galileo was rightly punished by the Church for circulating “pseudo-science” in his day.]

    However, I’m not sure what I am supposed to call things like Astrology, critical studies, and post-modernism. Are they superstition? Priestcraft? How do we distinguish between something like racial differences in IQ, an empirical finding that has been consistently replicated over 100 years (ergo “pseudo-science”), and Judith Butler’s corpus or Freudian psychology or Intelligent Design?

  4. This article does a fine job in making the case that critics who blame the Enlightenment for slavery and racism are, in effect, sawing off the branch on which they sit. But I think the author may, unintentionally perhaps, downplay the role that evangelical Christianity played in the American abolitionist movement. And this was not a particularly Enlightenment-inspired strain of religion (like Unitarianism, for example). That fact doesn’t undercut the article’s main thesis, but it does provide a fuller picture. John Brown was no Voltaire.

    • That’s a really good point. That was a central thesis of my first book – which is that you can’t undestand abolitionism and the civil rights movement without seeing the influence (sometimes conversant often divergent) of both enlightenment rationalism and Christianity: Democratic Religion From Locke to Obama: tinyurl.com/y8jxug7v

  5. Shenme Shihou says

    This defense of the Enlightenment only works if you don’t consider Marxism, and the various revisions thereof as part of the Enlightenment. I do, which makes me agree with the premise of the critique of the Enlightenment, but for a different reason.

    Yes, the Enlightenment was a praradox in that those espousing the philosophy were aubjugating other men. However, Marxism was the critique of such activies. It was supposed to be the liberation of not only all of the slaves, but the working class in general.

    Well, we all know how that story played out. Communist regimes eneded up employing vast sums of slave labor to fuel their economy and many of the “liberated” workers ended up starving to death. That is to say, the extention of the Enlightenment was also full of men saying one thing and then doing the opposite. Except, for the better part of a century the same types that work at Slate who are all too eager to deploy critique of the narrative of the Enlightenment are also quick to defend (or at least fail to mention) the 20th century Enlightenment spill over. The post modernist who love the critique of narratives never seem to get around to critiqing their own narratives.

    • ga gamba says

      Marx is a shifty character because he took both from the Enlightenment and German Romantics, primarily Hegel. A crucial way Marx differed from the Enlightenment philosophers was regarding individualism. It wasn’t that he was an opponent of it, though he found it was expressed by the bourgeoisie who he found to be the oppressors. Rather he sought to transcend it (like in the way the Maharishi’s yogic fliers transcend gravity, I suppose). Those were his words. In practice (by those who didn’t implement Marxism correctly, haha) the emphasis on collectivism trampled all over individualism. Was making hell on earth for the individual transcendental? Perhaps, but certainly not in the way Marx envisioned. He thought individualism would be sublated by his higher society.

  6. Bailey says

    I would argue that it’s wrong to “blame” the Enlightenment for Marxism.
    Rather, Marxism should be seen as an early manifestation of Modernism, and the critique it represented to Enlightenment thinking.

    • Shenme Shihou says

      I place no blame on the Enlightenment for Marxism. It is what it is. Marxism is a critique of Enlightenment- the critique is that the equality the Enlightenment says is right and moral doesnt go for enough. Marx is a reasonable extension of the Enlightenment.

      I place blame on the Enlightenment thinkers for believing it would work.

  7. “Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood”, Jacobin execution squads, and despotism has been the consistent result of Enlightenment philosophy from Paris in 1789 to Moscow in 1917.

    Replace it with “Liberty, Equality and Sisterhood”, and you are an SJW Robespierre in good standing. The only reason anything like the Enlightenment worked in the Anglosphere is the English (and their descendants) formerly had a healthy dose of conservative Burkean prejudice to act as a counterweight.

  8. markbul says

    While Enlightenment thinker were supporting slavery – to some degree – Muslim corsairs were raiding European coasts from southern Italy to Iceland for slaves. European slaves did much of the public works projects in North Africa – and were beaten to death if they tried to escape, or merely did less work than was demanded of them And slavery was legal and religiously sanctioned in Islam right up to our times – thus the Arab diplomats repeatedly caught enslaving servants in this country. Arab countries would STILL be slave states if not for Western imperialism.

    • Shenme Shihou says

      Yes, the difference is that the Muslim world had no qualms about it. They wanted slaves, they went and got slaves. You cant fault them for doing exactly what they said they were going to do.

      Enlightenment thinkers were promising liberty and equality while owning people (and later killing native peoples for natural reasources).

      • Kessler says

        But in the end, they have delivered. Slavery got abolished, not only in the West, but through western Imperialism, also across the world.

  9. Andrew Roddy says

    No the Enlightenment was not the progenitor of slavery. And neither was it Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

  10. ETG says

    Bouie – at least in the linked piece – doesn’t seem to be arguing that we should throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. In other words, I don’t think he is attacking every facet of the Enlightenment.

    His more contentious position is that racism grew out of the Enlightenment rather than being a weed that grew along side it. And we could probably argue forever about what was and was not really part of the Enlightenment and thus argue forever about its role in producing racism. But this is a waste of time. We are free to embrace whatever ideas help people flourish and reject those that don’t – all regardless of their taxonomy.

    • Andy H. says

      “Racism” is the idea that humanity comprises multiple races, and some are races superior and/or inferior to others. That idea wasn’t born with The Enlightenment. Moreover, the word and the idea of “racism” were rendered obsolete, fell to pieces, and became unintelligible with the advent of the idea that humanity comprises just one race: the human race.

      However, people–including those who most loudly and (in my opinion) sanctimoniously decry “racism”–still look down on others different from themselves, consider them inferior, and consider that sound justification for hating and mistreating them.

      Ultimately, the real problem seems (conveniently?) concealed behind obsolete terminology. We all believe that “our side” (however that might be defined) is “superior,” and “the other side” (however that might be defined) is “inferior,” and we accordingly discriminate in thought, word, and deed.

      Along the same lines, I’ve a couple of questions.

      First, how do I sign up for the tribe that decries “tribalism”?

      Second, now that post-post-modernists have supplanted post-modernists (for the same reason that the post-modernists supplanted the modernists), when will the post-post-post-modernists supplant the post-post-modernists (for the same reason that the post-post-modernists supplanted the post-modernists, who supplanted the . . .)?

    • Pre-Enlightenment, religion was the foundation of social order, and battles of religion were political battles over social order. Post-Enlightenment, religion became some kind of private sentiment and the battle for social order became wrapped up on secular ideologies.

      Pre-Reformation, you have basically a homogeneous Christendom. Post-Reformation, you have churches identified with the Nation-State. As the Enlightenment unfolds, the role of the Church is increasingly ancillary to the Nation-State and at best serves as a mark of National Identity.

      Democracy, per Enlightenment values, is rule by the People, popular sovereignty. Within Democracy, ideologically, is the notion that the People are one, a collective We. This is in contrast to the Divine Right of Kings where God (perhaps a collective We), places the Monarch (an “I”) on the throne.

      If you combine Democracy + Secularism + Nation-State, then the question becomes “Who are we?” In other words, in France, “Who are the real Frenchmen?”, and slogans like “France for the French” make perfect sense. Moreover, the problem of who is not (really) French or German or American emerges, which is not very different from questions of race, nationality or religious affiliation (here serving more like a gang insignia than a living theological tradition).

      In sum, I don’t see how you can have democracy + secularism with sovereignty exercised by a national state without inevitably straying out into the deep end of what the current Left would term “racism”. In fact, multiculturalism has only served to heighten the contradictions, and as we are seeing in Europe, a really nasty backlash seems to be breaking.

      In other words, I don’t see how democracy and secularism are viable except with “racism” (granted, in Left parlance, “racism” is limited to ethnocentric nepotism by some groups, and “anti-racism” refers to ethnocentric nepotism by other groups, so my statement could be changed to “anti-racism”, e.g. a system of political order based on ethnic nepotism by the pure races as defined intersectionally by the Left–but you are still talking about imposing a racially and ethnically defined political hierarchy which would be unacceptable to your average “classical liberal”).

      Perhaps the “Enlightenment” is too broad, but definitely secularism and democracy mean racism and political struggle on racial and ethnic lines (as any review of European and American history will quickly reveal).

    • dirk says

      I don’t know Bouie’s background, but French enlightenment hero (end 19th C.), msr. Raynal, fought for eradication of racism against blacks, and voted (with backing of revolutionary government) for civil rights for blacks in what’s now Haiti. The slaves who threw out the white slave owners did not want independence, they fought for the French Government’, Vive la France!!. But after victory of the black Napoleon, all the remaining whites (men, women and children) were killed (except some Polish and German settlers who fought at the side of the slaves). Descendants of those non-french whites still live in Haïti, in miserable conditions. They are exempted form a constitutional rule that whites cannot posses or buy land (are self supporting peasants).

      • dirk says

        Mistake again, not 19th but 18th century of course, Guillaume F.T. Raynal lived from 1703-96. Furtheron, Napoleon reinstated slavery in 1803 (to be abolished only in 1848 again). Slavery is a tragedy, of course, but also a comedy, a downright farce, only possible because we live in a human world.

      • @ dirk

        “The slaves who threw out the white slave owners did not want independence, they fought for the French Government”

        Um, no. It was mostly free people of colour that fought for the French. The ex-slaves mostly fought for Louverture. But at various times he did fight for France and then eventually against Napoleonic France for Independence.

        As per usual, you mix elements of history with your own fiction that largely the colonies did not seek Independence.

        • dirk says

          The slaves and the mulattoes (free blacks) both sang the Marseillaise during the many fights, because expected much from the new Assembly in Paris, so that many French soldiers thought, what hell are we doing here? So were the Polish, who fought for the French, because they thought Napoleon would grant Poland independence, as thanks, but many went over to serve the locals. These Polish (descendants) live still in Haïti, an Italian journalist wrote a very nice booklet about them, that you should read. I thought already, where is Nomad? He can appear any moment, and yes!

          • @ dirk

            So why do you apply your own political shades which are clearly wrong?

            “mulattoes (free blacks)” Er no. Mainly mixed race.

            The Haitians becoming free from slavery might not have thought that far ahead. But quite quickly turned to Independence. So it is false to claim that they did not want independence.

            Ironically Louverture adopted the new values of freedom coming from the French Revolution. Yet initially he did start off being very Royalist.

  11. Andrew_W says

    It’s nice to see that the weight of commenters over at that Slate article are critical of Bouie’s arguments, most are seeing The Enlightenment as the start of a process towards greater freedom for all that didn’t exist before then.

  12. Andrew Roddy says

    I get the impression of this fondness for the Enlightenment as some kind of erotic fetish. Or a fanzine or a crush on an English soccer team. These things are attractive when they are mitigated by some healthy self-awareness.

  13. Steve says

    Abolitionism is a natural flowering of ideas that were originally introduced by that ultimate revolutionary, Jesus. There is a widespread tendency to assume “The Enlightenment” represents some sort of ex nihilo spontaneous awakening of mankind based on newly discovered “pure reason”. In fact it is the natural evolution of Judeo-Christian thinking. (Science did not take root anywhere else because Judeo-Christianity uniquely postulates a coherent, intelligible and rationally knowable cosmos — compare with Eastern concepts such as “maya”, or the animism almost everywhere).

    The “Enlightenment” when unmoored from the moral teachings of Christianity produced the Holocaust (provocative statement, I know, but defensible nonetheless). We should celebrate and defend the so-called Enlightenment, however there is no surer way to destroy it than to amputate it from all of the centuries of formative Judeo-Christian thought that produced it.

  14. For the whole of 2018 the only time I’ve read a Quillette article is when someone has read it for me, and rebutted it on Twitter.

    In this case, HBDChick’s twitter is pointing to an actual book one David Anthony Edgell Pelteret wrote on the topic: “Slavery in Early Mediaeval England: From the Reign of Alfred Until the Twelfth Century”. In it you will find that Wessex (the core of the English revival) phased out slavery, or “thralldom” to give it its Germanic name. The Church viewed thralldom as an evil and encouraged manumission: manumission was an atonement for sin. (It was similar in Islam – except if the slaves were unbelievers, who “deserved” it.)

    As a result, slavery was always marginal in Catholic and, later, Protestant Europe. It is telling that when slavery started up again it started up in the recently-Muslim states Portugal and Spain. And was practiced mainly across the Atlantic, where the locals wouldn’t see it. And even there the Church excoriated the abuses, such that the slavers had to excuse the practice by inventing a Biblical rationale for blacks being cursed – a spurious one never endorsed by the Popes.

    Quillette’s articles are always liberal self-congratulation these days, full of errors, and sneering down at the Church, the traditional Right, and the increasingly-disenfranchised European peoples.

    • Aron T says

      How is this a criticism of the article which explicitely states that slavery was always condemned by the Church with exceptions. It is true that Catholic priests, unlike their Protestant counterparts, were much less on board w/the excesses of the conquistadores (but they justified their desire for mercy by claiming the natives were part of the Lost Tribes of Israel cf. Las Casas) and slavery but they didn’t have a universal, convincing and/or effective ideology for abolition.

      Tl:dr your critique seems to show you did NOT read the article just the criticism on Teitter

  15. dirk says

    One thing is for sure. The French enlightenment was the first serious assault on ethnocentrism, one to zero for enlightenment.

  16. This is a horribly shallow effort. It is so shallow that it is hard to respond to. Bouie, a racist, hack propagandist, mumbles something about slavery and the 17th -18th C. Enlightenment and Kalaidis, dabbling in elitist, neoliberal and globalist propaganda herself, is no more specific.

    Most of us take the Enlightenment to have begun at some time in 17th C.; perhaps in the Third Parliament of James I when Coke and the Puritans began directly challenging the Crown, perhaps in 1649 when the Independents abolished the House of Lords and executed Charles I, perhaps when Newton read Descartes and perhaps when Locke, Sidney and an assortment of old Levellers and Grandees were associated with the Rye House Plot but certainly no later than the founding of the Bank of England in 1694.

    But if we are talking about the British and Scottish manifestations of the so called Enlightenment I think we can say the Enlightenment in the anglophone sphere began in 1689. If so, Bouie is right and Kalaidis has not a leg to stand on.

    Kalaidis offers no definition for slavery. Were indentured servants slaves? Were peasants bound to the land slaves? Is there such a thing as wage slaves? What are we to make of convicted prisoners, prisoners of war, draftees or cake bakers who come the attention civil rights commissions from Northern Ireland to Colorado?

    Leaving all that aside, the stark facts are that slavery in the Western Hemisphere gained a new statutory legitimacy immediately after the Restoration when, in 1662, Charles II (Hobbes’ pupil in exile) altered the English common law at the request of the planters in the English American colonies to provide that in the case of Africans, the common law civil status of “bond slave” (clearly Kalaidis’ delicate soul is being tortured by the very idea that bond slavery could ever have existed) would be inherited from the mother, not the father.

    Following the Act of Union in 1707, classically liberal Whigs gained control of both Parliament and the succession. In 1713, the Whig controlled government of Great Britain also acquired the Asciento from Spain and for the next 125 years the classically liberal English and Scottish Whigs who ran Great Britain flooded the New World with bond slaves on a scale that had not been seen since the days of Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. Under the various Navigation Acts, no colonial legislature could then ban slavery in their province as it would be inconsistent with the laws of Great Britain.

    [As an aside: What if the Americans lost the Revolution? GB had little interest in the East before 1774, the East India Company was failing and the vast territory south of Virginia and east of the Mississippi River was prime land for slave based exploitation by way of plantation economies similar to the fabulously profitable Jamaica and Santa Domingo.]

    Finally, abolition of slavery in the Anglosphere began about 1534 when the monasteries were being dissolved. I recently read an author who made the argument that the apparent popularity of common law actions to try title in the 16th C. reflected a large number of collusive law suits used by peasant land owners to extinguish any hint that they might be descendants of slaves who could not be freeholders under the common law. In the 1630s, the English Independent settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony abolished bond slavery in the colony and in 1646, the Great and General Court of the colony seized six Africans whom the Dutch had landed on the dock in Boston and offered for sale with a note of apology and the explanation that good reformed Christians do not countenance man stealing (i.e.; kidnapping).

    • In the last paragraph I need to add that the Bay Colony returned them to Africa with the note of apology.

    • Andrew Roddy says

      Cake bakers? Really? When you playing such a blinded! Still, if that’s your style then fair enough.

    • justme says

      “Kalaidis offers no definition for slavery. Were indentured servants slaves? Were peasants bound to the land slaves? Is there such a thing as wage slaves? What are we to make of convicted prisoners, prisoners of war, draftees or cake bakers who come the attention civil rights commissions from Northern Ireland to Colorado?”

      Slaves were called slaves because there was an *institutionalised* relationship universally recognised as slavery, with specific rights and duties for slave and owner.

      Your other examples are only “slavery” in the sense that some are in some ways similar, others are only metaphorically “slavery”. Is being a “slave” to fashion, to one’s impulses, etc., “slavery”? Wage slave, prisoners, draftees, cake bakers? Calling all of those “slavery” is insulting to those who were actual slaves, and makes the term useless by erasing the unique features that made it morally horrifying enough to inspire a social movement to abolish it.

      The term is commonly used today in equally misleading ways, for example to describe people held in economic dependency and by force, but not legally. What made slavery slavery was that it was institutionally recognized, and trying to escape was punished by law.

      Indentured servants and peasants bound to the land are also horrible states to be in, but the differences with actual slavery are significant enough that they have a different name.

      • Under the English common law “slave” was a civil status, like married, single, gentleman, freeholder and noble. Slaves in England and the colonies before 1662 had common law rights; they could sue their masters for ill treatment, they could petition the town, the county assizes or legislature for relief and their lives were not dependent upon the will of their owner. The bond slaves created by Charles II for Africans in the American colonies had no such rights, they were strictly property, like an ox or horse.

        My point is that classical liberals endorsed all that by their actions although they were adept at denying it with their words.

        At the time of the American Revolution, the revolutionaries uniformly insisted that if an unrepresentative government could use the general police power to compel you to do something, you were a slave. This was the same position the republican Levellers uniformly adopted in England after 1640.

        I know the word “slave” is a scare word to you people but try get beyond that.

    • justme says

      Not sure what your point is about the Enllightenment…

      • Racism, slavery and the Enlightenment was the topic of Kalaidis’ article. As usual, Bouie said the Enlightenment was racist because of slavery and Kalaidis said no, the Enlightenment ended slavery.

        I think Bouie was right on this particular point although I think that slavery in the American colonies had more to do with economics than racism when it began.

        • dirk says

          There is only one reason that England could enforce their enlightened will of ending slave trade worldwide, they were virtually a world empire. In the current time of UN, with so many small countries with quite varying norms and law systems, this is no longer possible (in another case, such as, e.g., female circumcision). Now, nations are sovereign.

          • @ dirk

            So if England was virtually a world empire so why didn’t it stamp out FGM? And why didn’t it put to end a whole host of other things? In other words, it is more likely British Empire didn’t have all that much to do with it.

    • B loughlin says

      Slavery was legal in Massachusetts until well into the 1700s. The losers of King Philip’s War (1670s) were enslaved. Abigail Adams’ father offered the newlyweds a slave as part of her dowry (which was refused).

  17. dirk says

    It would be interesting to know the fate of those slaves returned to Africa. Quite possible that they were immediately enslaved again by their former black owners, and had to work or fight hard for those old masters, whereas in Massachusetts they most likely would have had a much better life as house slaves for some emigrant. I don’t think slavery was something intrinsically bad, as is stealing, adultery and gossiping. In its timely context, it might often even have been the better one of two intricacies.

    • @dirk

      ” I don’t think slavery was something intrinsically bad, as is stealing, adultery and gossiping.”

      Eh? I am not sure even you have the full grasp of what you come out with.

      • dirk says

        Don’t leave out the second sentence on context, I think slavery in history was a great leap forward, e.g. in war fare. Even in Napoleon’s army, prisoners of war were sometimes simply shot. Of course, strategically most effective maybe, but not very humane. But if you take them prisoner, you have to feed and cloth and house them, but can use their labour in kind.
        Even in Biblical times, officers were punished (sometimes even by prohets of JHW) for not killing prisoners of war. The mistake here on Quillette often is one of “presentism”, comparing situations of once with the norms and laws we have now.
        Not only slaves were a property of superiors, also women and kids were once (of the husband, father or brother), also that has now been improved a lot. But don’t take that evil in people that lived long ago. Another thing is to discuss who started with which new ideal or effort, and when, to what extent, and with which impact . No problem with that.

        • @ dirk

          “I think slavery in history was a great leap forward”

          You just make it worse. Slavery was something that held humanity back and it was no leap forward.

          “e.g. in war fare. Even in Napoleon’s army, prisoners of war were sometimes simply shot.”

          You beat your own argument. Clearly slavery did not happen to “liberate” people from being killed after war. And this is no benefit to “humanity” in any way shape or form. False equivalence.


          Not in case of slavery. Especially how long it lasted.

        • Regarding prisoners of war, the preferred practice was not to shoot them but to conscript them into the army that captured them. The second choice was to use them as general laborers.

          As a practical matter, no one wanted to be associated with an army that had a reputation for killing prisoners; they all knew the shoe could well be on the other foot tomorrow.

  18. Lark says

    “Bouie and others can perhaps be forgiven for focusing their criticisms predominantly on white and male Enlightenment thinkers.”

    Well, then, perhaps I can be forgiven to jumping to conclusions on noticing that he’s attacking the people who, as a group, ended slavery where their ideas prevailed.

    • dirk says

      I can forgive Bouie, because it gives him strength, a foothold; imagine, that whole thing where the whites are so proud of, just one more philosophy to strengthen racism and hierarchy. Something like Sartre admiring the Sovjets, and Badiou Pol Pot.

      • dirk says

        Read: just one more philosophy to rationalize and foster criticism of racism and hierarchy

  19. Muslim Skpetic says

    It is spelled as Qur’an and not Koran.

    Much like how your name is spelled as Katherine and not Katerina.

    • dirk says

      Katherine and Katerina (and Katrien) is all correct, Koran is also correct, just like Rome and Roma, The Hague and Den Haag, with names of women, cities and books it’s like that.

  20. Pingback: “The Enlightenment Was Fine… But Give Radical Protestants Some Credit for Fighting Slavery and Preserving Liberty” | The Muted Trumpet

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