slavery in the modern world

Foner_slaverinthemodernworld_ba_img_0Eric Foner at The Nation:

The abolition of slavery appears, in retrospect, so inevitable a part of the story of human progress that it may seem jarring when Davis emphasizes that there was nothing predetermined about it. He endorses the view advanced by recent scholars that, far from being retrograde or economically backward, slavery in the mid-nineteenth century was a dynamic, expanding institution, with powerful support everywhere it existed. “Never was the prospect of emancipation more distant than now,” the Times of London observed in 1857. Despite abolition in the British Caribbean and Spanish America, there were more slaves in the Western Hemisphere on the eve of the Civil War than at any point in history. Had the Confederacy emerged victorious, which was entirely possible, “it is clear that slavery would have continued well into the twentieth century.” Contingency, even accident, produced the end of slavery in the Old South, the greatest slave society the modern world has known.

Davis is well aware, of course, that emancipation did not usher in the abolitionist dream of a society of equals. The end of slavery in the Caribbean was succeeded by new forms of unfreedom, as planters brought in indentured workers from Asia to replace the blacks who had abandoned the plantations. Davis notes that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments, adopted in the United States immediately after the Civil War to guarantee the civil and political equality of the former slaves, are virtually without precedent in other post-emancipation societies. Yet Reconstruction was soon succeeded by a new system of racial inequality. Did emancipation, then, make any difference in the United States?

more here.