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By Marcus Cunliffe

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Extra resources for Chattel Slavery and Wage Slavery, The Anglo-American Context 1830-1860

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The slavery comparison, whether meant literally or figura­ tively, became a standard feature o f reformist and radi­ cal analysis. The French theorist Lamennais argued in his De I’esclavage moderne (1839) that the modern prole­ tarian was fundamentally as much in bondage as the 12 Slavery ancient slave or medieval serf. Lamennais was echoed by the Italian nationalist, Giuseppe Mazzini: “The work­ man has no freedom o f contract: he is a slave: he has no alternative but hunger or the p ay.. ” Identical assumptions were made by the British Chartist Bronterre O’Brien.

And did their attitudes differ fundamen­ tally from those o f their many critics? The answers to these questions remain complicated, though recent scholarship, in the course o f revising older interpreta­ tions, offers fascinating insights. Yet this very complex­ ity is a key to understanding. To gain a genuine sense o f the hopes, fears, and predicaments o f antebellum Amer­ ica, we must be aware o f transatlantic elements. We must recognize too that socioeconomic issues refused to divide neatly, so to speak, into black and white.

At any rate, he saw the weakness in the tactic o f criticizing British or Northern industrial poverty, if the intention were simply to show Southern slavery in a better light. I f “white slavery” was deplorable, how could such a disclosure be used to support the contention that chattel or “black” slavery was a positive good? Whatever the inner logic o f Fitzhugh’s theorems, their profound and disquieting implications may have tempted his readers to dismiss him as an isolated and eccentric fig­ ure.

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