Home > Books > Joseph Miller’s Challenge to Historians Against Slavery
memorial of slavery, stonetown, zanzibar, by Andrea Moroni, on Flickr

by James Brewer Stewart

American historians have, until recently, given fairly straightforward accounts of southern slavery, its abolition and its legacies. Two widely read classroom texts published in the 1960’s set the precedent. For believers in racial progress, John Hope Franklin traced the transition From Slavery to Freedom. For pessimists August Meier and Elliot Rudwick surveyed the transit From Plantation to Ghetto. But whether hopeful or skeptical both narratives agree that the epochal moment of emancipation not only revolutionized the lives of those liberated but also put a definitive end to slavery in the United States. Nowadays, for truly grievous reasons, this history is getting a whole lot messier.

This is because of our sudden realization that there are quite likely more enslaved people in the world today than ever before and more varieties of slavery than we’ve previously imagined. These terrible facts surely reconfirm how deeply transformational the leap "from slavery to freedom" actually was and is. But at the same time they also highlight as never before the long term indeterminacy of massive emancipatory moments: the Thirteenth Amendment, the Haitian Revolution, the Cuban War for Independence and British West Indian Emancipation. Most who found themselves emancipated from slavery knew full well that revolutions could (and did) go backward. A deeply perceptive American abolitionist, Wendell Phillips, warned exactly this when commenting on the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment: "We have abolished the slave but the master remains."

As Phillips was cautioning, the "straightforward" narrative of emancipation can double back on itself. This it surely did in the late nineteenth century when white Southerners developed "slavery by another name" in the form of debt peonage and the convict lease system, even as members of various immigrant groups entering the United States fell prey to similar exploitation. The narrative becomes painfully twisted when historian Sven Beckert documents how the post-emancipation plunge in southern cotton production in the United States caused the massive expansion of state-sponsored slavery in India and Egypt as its governors rushed to capture unmet world demand. Could the Civil War have enslaved as many as it emancipated? It tangles and snarls completely in the hands of Joseph C. Miller, the distinguished Africanist, in his recently published The Problem of Slavery as History: A Global Approach (2012).

In order better to understand slavery’s march across history and into our time, Miller challenges historians to radically revise some basic assumptions. We can best comprehend how human bondage actually worked and still works today, he argues, if we abandon the noun "slavery" and our attempts to describe "the institution of slavery." These, Miller argues, are static characterizations that convey none of the dynamism of slavery’s durability, variability and evolution across the centuries. This problem arises, Miller argues, because scholars too often have constructed reified "models" of nineteenth-century slavery in the Western Hemisphere that they then apply ahistorically when attempting to understand slavery wherever it might be found.

Instead, Miller insists, the best way to describe human bondage is by using the active voice. Employ the dynamic gerund "slaving," he recommends, and dispense with the use of "slavery" with its connotations of static model building. The gerund, Miller argues, forces us to recognize that human bondage is above all a historical process carried forward by slavers in response to discrete and ever-changing historical contingencies. To reify such practices into archetypical "institutions of slavery" is descriptive sociology, Miller contends, not analytically dynamic history. Instead, Miller prefers historical accounts that highlight variability, change over time in specific locales and the evolution of slaving practices over the centuries.

Miller’s analysis invites criticism. It can be argued that plantation slavery throughout the Western hemisphere did in fact organize itself into highly articulated institutions supported by political, legal and military might, ecclesiastical organizations, white supremacy, and the workings of global capitalism. Certainly the abolitionists understood their task as the destruction of oppressive systems much more than the suppression of individuals practicing slaving. Slaveholders comprehensively defended their "peculiar institution," not simply their actions as slavers. But granting all this, Miller argues, only reinforces his objections. The terms historians employ to characterize slavery as "an institution," he points out, originate in nineteenth century moral polemics for and against human bondage, not in well-grounded historical description that reveals what was actually developing on the ground over time.

The recent historiography of antebellum slavery actually adds serious weight to Miller’s demands for focus on the particulars of slaving in differing locales at the expense of generalizations about "the peculiar institution." One thinks of the enormous variations within antebellum slavery documented by Max Grivno’s work on hostage holding by Western Maryland slavers, Tiya Miles’s studies on intersections between Indigenous American and African American slavery, Robert Starobin’s classic analysis of industrial slavery, Walter Johnson’s portrayal of the New Orleans slave market, and Adam Rothman’s account of the development of the "cotton frontier." One way or another, each of these scholars offers an opportunity to better comprehend the specific flesh and blood dynamics of slaving "back then" as well as how to analyze slaving as it is practiced today.

Miller’s own conclusions as to what was actually involved as varieties of slaving took shape over the centuries are stunningly erudite, analytically powerful and impossible to capture in this brief comment. However, his explanation of who slavers were and what has motivated them over the millennia deserves attention because it holds great import for those seeking to grapple with slavery today. "The definable and distinguishing position of slavers is their marginality," Miller explains. "It is a very precise situation in terms of historical contexts that both motivated and enabled slavers to enslave." Moving from the margins to positions of power meant acquiring people, growing rich from their labor, deriving status and patronage from their dependency and using all this to secure positions of unquestionable dominion. Slaving, Miller insists, has served as the time-honored way for ambitious outsiders to secure legitimacy and honor. "Strategic slaving" is Miller’s term of choice.

By emphasizing "marginalization" Miller invites amplification of the supremely important question of what urges of self-aggrandizement beyond simple greed have motivated enslavers over the long term and still today. Here too, current historiography gives substance to Miller"s generalization, particularly Bertram Wyatt-Brown’s profound analyses of codes of honor and humiliation, Orlando Patterson’s formulations of enslavement as the infliction of "social death," and Nell Painter’s view of enslavers as willful "soul murderers." Writing in ways that should more than satisfy Miller’s preference for active verbs each of these scholars opens rich opportunities for all of us, historians and activists alike, to assay the deeper motives of the enslavers and their grievous impact on those they have exploited in times past. Thus informed we are far better equipped to expose their crimes against humanity in our own time.

James Brewer Stewart is the James Wallace Professor of History, Emeritus, at Macalester College and the founder of Historians Against Slavery.

Image Credit: memorial of slavery, stonetown, zanzibar, by Andrea Moroni, on Flickr

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