In the early nineteenth century, European naturalists wrote about certain species of ants that enslaved ants of other species. This essay traces the movement of this knowledge of enslaved ants from natural history texts to the heated discourse surrounding slavery in the antebellum United States. For both proslavery and antislavery figures, the enslaved ants prompted reflection on the nature of evidence and human reason. Although proslavery ideologues included the enslaved ants in their writings as evidence for the natural basis of slavery, they used this knowledge sparingly because of the dubious legitimacy of an analogy drawn between the animal and human worlds. The Enlightenment philosophy of mind stressed the fragility of arguments by analogy in general, and the sharp divide between animal instinct and human reason further weakened the analogy between ant and human slavery. Antislavery writers attempted to goad their proslavery opponents into drawing this analogy, without much success. Examining this strange episode enhances the understanding of the place of science in American cultural history by showing how scientific knowledge moved across various venues and discourses.


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pp. 256-280
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