How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”
On to Liberty," Theodor Kaufmann, 1867, Metropolitan Museum of Art
(The Niskanen Center) ― This was Samuel Johnson’s bitter rhetorical question about the American revolution, and the conflict it identifies has never been far from the surface of American political and intellectual life. Compared with the societies of 18th and 19th century Europe, the United States was unusually obsessed with the idea of liberty and unusually economically dependent on slave labor. Sometimes Americans like to tell ourselves that the revolutionary idea of liberty is what finally made abolition possible two generations later, but that sidesteps the paradox that the U.S. was one of the last countries to abolish slavery, and did so only after a decades-long expansion.
The great historical sociologist Orlando Patterson provided an important answer to Johnson’s question in his landmark study Freedom in the Making of Western Culture. Across the centuries, from ancient Greece to modern America, “people came to value freedom, to construct it as a powerful shared vision of life, as a result of their experience of, and response to, slavery or its recombinant form, serfdom, in their roles as masters, slaves, and nonslaves.” It is precisely in slave societies, confronted with the reality of slavery, that people most acutely perceive the importance of freedom, most clearly articulate defenses of it, and most passionately demand it. Sometimes it is slaves or ex-slaves who do so. But often it is masters. Understanding all too well how they rule over other human beings, they identify being ruled like that as the great social evil, and they fiercely refuse to be subjected to it. Slaveowners and their neighbors can see what unfreedom is like, and they resist it for themselves. This is only partly because they come to identify their freedom as their freedom to own and rule slaves, and are desperate to protect their status as masters. In a more general way, they become very sensitive to anyone proposing to treat them as they treat slaves.
Read more: https://niskanencenter.org/blog/black-liberty-matters/