Nicole Dressler


Nicole Dressler, Northern Illinois University

Advisory Council Fellow

“The ‘Vile Commodity’: Criminal Servitude, Authority, and the Rise of Humanitarianism in the Anglo-American World, 1718-1820”

My dissertation explores the role that British convict transportation and penal servitude in America played in the early history of humanitarianism. I argue that emerging ideas of punishment, morality, and unfreedom evoked by convict labor created new moral responsibilities and inspired novel denunciations of suffering in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Anglo-American culture. In the eighteenth century, British courts banished over 50,000 convicted men, women, and children to the American colonies, many of whom were sold as servants. The colonies and later states also practiced domestic penal servitude, punishing offenders and undesirable people already living in North America. These lawbreakers, including women convicted of bastardy, vagrants, and runaway slaves and servants, were also worked, banished, or sold as penal laborers. Drawing on American and British sources, I trace the changing sentiments and practices regarding penal servitude from 1718 (the year Britain institutionalized the transportation of criminals) through the American Revolution and into the Early Republic. Contributing to the growing interest in the history of humanitarianism and human rights, my dissertation shows the unrecognized and important ways penal servitude influenced early moralist thinking and rhetoric in Anglo-American culture.


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