Theses Doctoral

The Science of Antislavery: Scientists, Abolitionism, and the Myth of Slavery's Backwardness

Herschthal, Eric

"The Science of Antislavery" explores the critical though rarely studied role scientists played in the early antislavery movement. It argues that scientists not only helped legitimize abolitionism but also helped create the myth that slavery was a backward institution. During the Age of Revolution (1770-1830), when antislavery societies first took root, abolitionism attracted many scientific supporters. Though their refutations of scientific racism are perhaps better known, they also made many arguments that went beyond race. Chemists argued that new chemical techniques would fertilize the soil more effectively, which would in turn reduce the need for slave labor. Botanists touted the natural environments of new British colonies in Africa and Southeast Asia, contending that they would make ideal free labor alternatives to Caribbean plantations. Geologists argued that the western American frontier, with its unique mineral deposits, was best suited to free white agricultural settlements rather than slavery’s expansion. Even by the 1830s, when the movement was taken over by a more radical, less elite multiracial coalition, scientific arguments continued to influence antislavery arguments. From the 1830s until the Civil War, antislavery supporters on both sides of the Atlantic argued that slaveholders’ alleged refusal to adopt new machinery was evidence of their backwardness. Today, as a new generation of historians demonstrate how modern slavery in fact was, The Science of Antislavery shows how the idea that it was somehow never modern came into being.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Brown, Christopher L.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 17, 2017