- Polemical Pain: Slavery, Cruelty, and the Rise of Humanitarianism
“Moral ideas,” Abruzzo observes in her compelling history of humanitarian ideas and agendas in the eighteenth-and nineteenth-century United States, “cannot force individuals to change their behavior, but they can force individuals to find new ways of thinking about that behavior.” Indeed, new and fluid ways of thinking about society, difference, and the moral dimensions of pain and cruelty defined the necessarily unstable terrain within which debates about slavery, and about the culture that slavery wrought, took shape. In the eighteenth century, if Quakers called into question the compatibility of the institution of slavery and their own salvation, their concerns were “self-referential” and defined by the implications of “distant cruelties” produced in a transatlantic commercial economy underwritten by the slave trade. Engagement with moral philosophy, in turn, yielded broad and divergent understandings of cruelty and its contexts. In the nineteenth century, in response to antislavery activists’ denunciations of the cruelties of slavery (manifest in physical and spiritual violence), defenders of slavery countered by pointing to African barbarism and inferiority and to theories of natural slavery and hierarchy to insist that slavery was humane. It was emancipation and working-class poverty, they argued, that were cruel. Only slave narratives of captivity and freedom destabilized the conflicting conclusions reached [End Page 142] by abolitionists and slave owners over the meanings of cruelty by illuminating black agency in the context of bondage. Yet, as Abruzzo also observes, throughout the early history of humanitarianism, mobilization to address pain and suffering precluded debates about equality and rights. For those who invoked the ideal of the humane, it was easier to pity the enslaved and the freed than to share power with them.
Kirsten Schultz teaches history at Seton Hall University and is the author of Tropical Versailles: Empire, Monarchy, and the Portuguese Royal Court in Rio de Janeiro, 1808–1821.