The amelioration of slavery in the Anglo-American imagination, 1770-1840

Dierksheide, Christa Breault, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Onuf, Peter, Department of History, University of Virginia
McInnis, Maurie, Department of History, University of Virginia

This dissertation examines how Anglo-American slaveowners defined progress and civility. Planters believed that their provincial inflection of European civilization -- amelioration -- was critical to maintaining political and economic legitimacy in a dangerous and contingent world. In their view, amelioration was the process of civilization that occurred within a slave society. Slaveowners envisioned a morally progressive landscape, one comprised of improved slaves, improved crops, and improved sensibilities.

Yet these visions of improvement were embraced differently in the American South and British West Indies. In the wake of the American Revolution, slaveholders in Virginia and South Carolina sought to reform and improve the institution of slavery, but only with an eye toward future expatriation of all African slaves. America, they decreed, could never become a legitimate political nation until all foreigners -- African slaves -- were expelled from its shores. But in the British West Indies, slaveholders sought to improve the slave trade, their bondsmen, and the sugar economy while retaining all three; they perceived slavery to be the bulwark of their legitimacy within the Empire.

Still, perceptions of what comprised a moral plantation economy changed by the end of the age of revolutions. In South Carolina and Virginia, slaves no longer seemed like incendiary, foreign Africans. So domesticated and ameliorated was slavery, that bondsmen appeared to be both Christian and loyal, possessing a history centered not in Africa, but in America. The remarkable natural increase of slaves in America, slaveowners reasoned, could only be explained by improvement and "happiness." And if, through the experiment of amelioration, both slaves and slaveowners were becoming more moral and civilized, then expatriation seemed irrelevant and unnecessary. But in the West Indies, amelioration appeared less successful. With the emergence of free labor sugar regimes in imperial outposts like Mauritius and India, British West Indians seemed comparatively regressive, their sugar economy surviving only with the aid of protective tariffs. Moreover, the rapidly declining slave population and reported incidents of the violent torture of slaves convinced many metropolitan Britons that the Caribbean was not becoming more moral; if anything, it was becoming less so.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

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