Different, but How Different?

Published:June 28, 2018 by Brendan Wolfe

We received a comment from Robert Glisson today on an old blog post about slavery.

This comment calls to mind a whole “debate” over whether Irish indentured servants were, in fact, America’s “first slaves.” I put “debate” in quotation marks because it is not occurring within the established lines of historical scholarship; rather, it is driven by non-historians treating sources ahistorically in order to advance some unrelated position. Whether that is what’s going on with this comment I don’t know, but I thought it worth answering.

Thanks for your comment, Mr. Glisson, but you are the one who is incorrect here. The idea that indentured servitude is a form of slavery might be true if, by slavery, you simply mean labor. You can labor under really terrible conditions for a set time (indentured servitude) or for a lifetime (chattel slavery) or even for pay (some pro-slavery southerners argued that northern factory workers were the real slaves).

According to the UN definition, slavery involves “an element of ownership or control over another’s life, coercion and the restriction of movement and by the fact that someone is not free to leave or change an employer.” Indentured servants in Virginia were not owned nor were they bondage through coercion. They were under contract. That seems like a crucial distinction. That contract gave them rights that could be adjudicated by courts. See our entry on indentured servants.

That doesn’t mean they weren’t mistreated. In 1649, a woman thrashed her servant “more Liken a dogge then a Christian,” so that her head was “as soft as a sponge.” But that case went to court. That case was deemed potentially criminal. The 1705 slave law in Virginia made it illegal to “whip a christian white servant naked, without an order from a justice of the peace.”

No such law protected black bodies. In fact, the same law state that should “any slave resist his master … correcting such slave, and shall happen to be killed in such correction, it shall not be accounted felony.” This was a license to kill. And of course even if said slave were not dead, he or she could not sue because he or she was not legally allowed to provide testimony in court.

Indentured servitude was not a form of slavery. These are not differences in degree. They are differences in kind.

Historians and philosophers have grappled with what that difference entails. Orlando Patterson wrote that slavery is “the permanent, violent, and personal domination of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons.”

Indentured servitude was not permanent. It was violent, but only up to a point. And servants were not natally alienated, which is to say excommunicated from family and society. Dehumanized. Turned into animals. Not only was this not a feature of indentured servitude, but these servants were welcomed into society at the fulfillment of their indenture. Their contracts often provided for assistance so that they might better contribute to that society after their years of labor.

The scholar David Brion Davis expands on the “radical uncertainty and unpredictability” that comes with an existence that is almost totally at the whim of one’s owner, unprotected by the law or civil society:

“It is also important to remember that in most societies, even the most privileged slave—the wealthy farm agent in Babylon, the Greek poet or teacher in Rome, the black driver, musician, blacksmith, or boat captain in Mississippi—could be quickly sold, or stripped and whipped, or raped, or sometimes even killed at the whim of an owner. All slave systems shared this radical uncertainty and unpredictability. The slave, even the Mamluk army officer or powerful eunuch issuing orders in the emperor’s name, was deprived of any supportive family or clan, any continuity with a genuine history. Whatever privileges she or he may have gained could be taken away in a flash—leaving the slave naked as an animal at an auction. This absence of a past and a future, of a place in history and society from which to grow in small increments, made each slave totally vulnerable. This may be the very essence of dehumanization.”

These definitions are more specific than the UN’s but are generally how scholars think of slavery in America. They get at the difference between slavery and indentured servitude. To equate them, even in a general way, is to turn a blind eye to the horror of slavery—and at what cost? One cost is that we forget what it meant to subject an entire class of people to that particular domination, and we forget the lengths that white society went to preserve that domination. See for instance lynching in Virginia or the Danville Riot.

And to forget (or simply ignore) that history disadvantages anyone trying to navigate the difficult issues we all face today. To that end, definitions are worth debating. Thanks again for your comment.

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