Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

Tracking “Slavery in Motion”

· June 18th, 2020 · No Comments

by M. Scott Heerman

In this post, WMQ author M. Scott Heerman discusses what he would have done with a larger word limit for his article, “Abolishing Slavery in Motion: Foreign Captivity and International Abolitionism in the Early United States,” in the April 2020 issue.


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My most recent article, “Abolishing Slavery in Motion: Foreign Captivity and International Abolitionism in the Early United States” (William and Mary Quarterly, April 2020), is a first piece published from a larger book project I am currently researching. Spanning the 1760s to the 1860s, the wider project looks at Afro-descended people who were kidnapped and enslaved in foreign lands: freed slaves taken from Barbados to Texas, from Antigua to Puerto Rico, or from Jamaica to Cuba.

In this instance, I was interested in the hundreds of people who were carried away from Philadelphia and made slaves abroad. This article focuses on the earlier period (roughly the 1780s and 1790s) to explore the many free people as well as servants and apprentices who were held hostage in foreign lands. These cases are generally very complicated, and their timing, amid the warfare of the Age of Revolutions (1776-1804), add more dimensions of uncertainty to them. To deal with these cases requires many contexts, and many conflicting developments, both of which lead to a lengthy word count. As a result, there are fascinating elements of these cases I could not address in the article, but I hope to take up in the book. Instead of talking about more cases that I found, instead I would address the evidence that I did not find. My research began working in various manuscript collections in the United States, Jamaica, and in London. I found many more instances of what I dubbed “slavery in motion” than I anticipated. Yet to my initial surprise, I found relatively limited discussions in printed sources, including newspapers. Given how easy it is to search such a wide array of printed material, I expected to get many more hits.

At first, I imagined that I was simply using the wrong terms, or that captives had names changed or used alternate spellings. However, revising search terms and spellings yielded the same few results. Yet these cases were so well documented in manuscript sources, I could not understand the paucity of printed sources. Late eighteenth century Philadelphia had no lack of printers, papers, or pamphlets. So I decided to dive deeper still. At the Library Company of Philadelphia, I paged newspapers in hard copy, and I decided to sift through them page by page, hoping to find the cases disguised under a vocabulary I had yet to think of. Yet after searching several papers for one critical year, I was left with the same conclusion: the press simply did not carry many accounts of these cases. To be sure some existed, but not nearly in the quantity I anticipated.

Silences in the archives can at times tell us as much as the sources that exist. Historians of slavery reckon with this reality on a daily basis. It can be a challenge to incorporate omissions into a historical narrative, or to cite them as evidence. To cite the few articles I found would have required deep contextualization, running to a few thousand words. Space I simply did not have. However, this experience working with printed materials shaped my thinking about “abolishing slavery in motion” in a few critical ways. Some of my early, tentative explanations for this gap in the records came when I took stock of the work the press did in the late-eighteenth century United States. Of course, the press played important economic roles. But more than that, a very large literature has shown the press in the early United States, and print more generally, played an important role in making the culture, and political culture, of the young nation. Newspapers and pamphlets served as critical venues for articulating and defining an emerging national identity. Notably, literacy and reading performed important political work within the context of republicanism in the early United States. Finally, printed sources helped organize the inchoate political divisions in the nation. Ultimately, the press helped inculcate a burgeoning nationalism among readers, and helped organize the politics of the young republic.

In light of this context, it is certainly plausible that “slavery in motion” simply was not a critical issue in national politics, nor did it strike a chord with the developing nationalism in the late eighteenth century. The political divisions in the early United States did not divide over abolitionism to the degree they later would, nor did politicians reckon with the politics of free soil as a central political issue at the national level. Those conflicts came later, in the nineteenth century. As a result, publishing about captivity and foreign enslavement would have made little sense, given the role print played in the early U.S. Appreciating these silences helped me come to terms with the political dimensions of “abolishing slavery in motion” in these early days of the nation.

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