Eric Herschthal, Columbia University
Friends of MCEAS Fellow
“The Science of Antislavery: How Science Shaped the Early Antislavery Movement, 1770-1830”
My dissertation, “The Science of Antislavery: How Science Shaped the Early Antislavery Movement, 1770-1830,” explores the critical though overlooked role science played in the early transatlantic antislavery movement. Between the 1770s and 1820s, antislavery scientists like Benjamin Franklin and Erasmus Darwin, among many others, argued that new advancements in chemistry, medicine, and technology would obviate the need for slave labor; in addition, British explorers, American geologists, and countless European and American botanists touted Africa and the western American frontier as agricultural Edens, perfectly suited to free labor plantations that would out-compete slave labor. Yet as the decades wore on and the heady projections of these scientists failed to materialize, the gradual emancipation process and colonization projects these men favored began to lose their appeal. In the late-1820s, a new, more radical generation of antislavery leaders emerged; led increasingly by free black and less elite white women and men emerged, they rejected colonization, called for the immediate rather than gradual end to slavery, and shunned the early generation’s appeals to carefully controlled “experiments” in black freedom. To understand why this fundamental shift took place—from a cautious to a radical movement—I argue we must take seriously the prominent role scientists played in the early movement.
My work engages the broader question of slavery’s relationship to modernity. Scholars no longer view slavery as part of an antiquated, pre-modern past, but instead see it as deeply bound up in the making of the modern world. Slavery helped fuel capitalism and imperial expansion, they argue, while also giving rise to new racial theories. My research offers a counterpoint to this historiography, demonstrating that science, another dimension of modernity, also helped lay the foundation for slavery’s eradication. Yet science proved a double-edged sword. By exploring science as it was understood in its own time—a broad field of inquiry that included chemistry and geology, botany, medicine and natural history—I demonstrate the ways science ultimately helped stall the early movement’s momentum. Scientific discoveries fed a false sense of hope in the gradualist agenda, while scientists’ penchant for careful experimentation bred a cautiousness that eventually shaded into conservatism, if not downright complicity with slave regimes.