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Slavery: Central Paradox of American History Essay (Article)

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Updated: Sep 5th, 2021

Slavery and freedom is said to be the central paradox of American history. Since the rise of United States as a nation, historians have long thought of the emergence of slavery and freedom in our society as a great contradiction. This pushed many critics to think that how could it be possible that slavery can co-exist for so long in a nation that upholds liberty and freedom? During the early 1970s, a great historian Edmund Morgan articulated that slavery and freedom can be far from being a contradiction. Fact is that American slavery and American freedom are a paradox. This is because these two concepts may seem contradictory, but in reality they are true elements of one another. If we sift through the seventeenth and eighteenth century American history, this paradox becomes more comprehensible and clearer because we will come to know that slavery is a vital element so that Americans will come to understand the true meaning of American freedom.

In his book American Slavery, American Freedom, Morgan (1975) informed that the people who united together seek the independence of the United States had felt uncomfortable about the fact that they are “dedicated to freedom and equality” yet “they either held slaves or were willing to join hands with those who did”. However, most of these “masters” have just inherited “both their slaves and their attachment to freedom from an earlier generation, and they knew that the two were not unconnected”. Morgan (1975) thought that:

The rise of liberty and equality in America had been accompanied by the rise of slavery. That two such seemingly contradictory developments were taking place simultaneously over a long period of time, from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth, is the central paradox of American history (Morgan, 1975, p. 4).

The first impulse was to think of freedom as a contrast to slavery. Emancipation immediately released slaves from the most oppressive aspects of bondage—the whippings, the breakup of families, the sexual exploitation. Freedom also meant movement, the right to travel without a pass or white permission. Above all, freedom meant that African Americans’ labor would be for their benefit. After seeing the ultimate denial of rights, American revolutionaries knew the slavery of African Americans could lead to what the Black bondservants are experiencing. They made it clear in their pamphlets that they would fight hard not to be debased to the position of the black slave. Finally, as time went on, the concept of American freedom widened and it now focuses on the terms of community and national belonging that frowns upon the exclusion of people of color. This new concept of freedom was expected to promote cohesion among people who were, in reality, not considered as equals because they are in different class positions. As the central paradox, slavery needed to emerge before the true meaning of American freedom has been realized.

Works Cited

Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. New York: Norton, 1975.

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1. IvyPanda. "Slavery: Central Paradox of American History." September 5, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/slavery-central-paradox-of-american-history/.


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IvyPanda. 2021. "Slavery: Central Paradox of American History." September 5, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/slavery-central-paradox-of-american-history/.

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IvyPanda. (2021) 'Slavery: Central Paradox of American History'. 5 September.

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