- Common Bondage: Slavery as Metaphor in Revolutionary America
Slavery, Revolutionary War, Abolition
Eighteenth-century British North Americans, who benefited from some of the highest standards of living and greatest political and religious freedoms [End Page 708] in the Atlantic world, found themselves, in the 1770s, sitting in coffee houses, sipping tea infused with sugar, smoking pipes of tobacco, wearing indigo-dyed clothes—and denouncing “slavery.” By that term they did not mean the real slavery of some half-million people of African descent on the North American mainland, but rather a metaphoric slavery that, in their fevered imaginations, threatened the political liberties of people of European descent.
The spectacle has long fascinated and repelled observers. From Samuel Johnson’s famous quip in the 1770s to the great scholarship in the late 1960s and 1970s by Edmund Morgan, David Brion Davis, Winthrop Jordan, and others, these slave drivers yelping for liberty have generated penetrating commentary. The literary scholar Peter Dorsey now launches himself into the mix with a stimulating and frustrating study, the most detailed exploration to date of what he calls “the slavery metaphor” in British North America.
Dorsey makes a strong case for a venerable historical interpretation: that the Revolution undermined slavery. The slavery metaphor—by its own internal logic—pulled down the barriers between political and chattel slavery, between slavery as figure of speech and slavery as coerced labor, and led, almost inevitably, to abolition in the North and a wave of emancipation in the South. Dorsey shows how this process worked, in part, through the operation of language itself. Drawing on theories of metaphor, he recruits an array of thinkers—from Hobbes and Locke in seventeenth century to Wayne Booth, Jacques Derrida, George Lakoff, Paul Ricoeur, Toni Morrison, Richard Rorty, and Hayden White (among others) in the twentieth—to argue that metaphor can “bring about a semantic change or a redescription of reality” (24). Which is precisely what the slavery metaphor accomplished: It “altered the reality of eighteenth-century white Americans,” provoking them “to imagine themselves as slaves” (25). It thus “merged revolutionary goals and antislavery activism,” and “altered the way patriots spoke about slavery” (28, 111).
Anchored in the rhetoric of colonial resistance, the slavery metaphor made Whigs vulnerable to charges of “hypocrisy” (85, passim). Loyalists, pushing full-bore into the ideological breach, adopted an increasingly antislavery position to highlight their opponents’ liability. In response, Whigs had no choice but to embrace the cause. Abolitionists then jumped through this “rhetorical opening,” using the Whigs’ metaphoric language against the institution of slavery (156). “White abolitionists, African Americans, as well as Royalists, repeatedly and forcefully [End Page 709] challenged Whig writers to live up to their words” (108). It all resulted in “growing antislavery convictions” across the colonies (110). “Patriots,” Dorsey argues, “increasingly believed that eliminating slavery was the price they were going to have to pay for independence” (113). So far did antislavery sentiment go, it gave rise to the terrifying specter of total race war—a 180–degree turn of Fortune’s wheel—leading black writers like Phillis Wheatley to “assuage the widespread racial fears ignited by the Revolution” and its militant live-free-or-die language by emphasizing benevolent, Christian virtues that ultimately undermined the struggle for abolition itself (173). Despite this turn, however, “the patriots’ antislavery sentiments continued to shape the consciences of American,” and, in the long run, “would continue to remind white Americans that chattel slavery self-evidently conflicted with their founding ideals” (217–18).
But Dorsey is not content with a simple linear account; his book pushes in many directions along the way. The slavery metaphor was, as Dorsey shows, “ever flexible,” employed by a variety of actors to a variety of ends (72). Even as it drove white Americans toward antislavery, it also promoted “contempt” for slaves and stimulated “great racial differentiation . . . [by] suggesting that those who have already submitted to slavery were unworthy of freedom” (30). The slavery metaphor also “altered the era’s understanding of gender” by opposing...