The Science of Abolition: How Slaveholders Became the Enemies of Progress , by Eric Herschthal

In: New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids
M. Scott Heerman University of Miami Department of History Coral Gables FL U.S.A.

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Eric Herschthal, The Science of Abolition: How Slaveholders Became the Enemies of Progress. New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2021. 320 pp. (Cloth US$ 32.50)

In this well-written and well-researched book, Eric Herschthal, assistant professor of history at the University of Utah, makes a major contribution to the literature on abolitionism in the Anglo-Atlantic world. In six chapters, he unpacks the robust scientific arguments against slavery that comprised what he terms the “science of abolition” (p. 2). Elite men of science take a leading role in the pages of this book, but figures like Benjamin Banneker, Frances Wright, or Maria Stewart are also important agents. In clear, polished prose, Herschthal unpacks the science of abolition as an ideology that had broad acceptance on both the sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

The idea that science, and in particular science that undergirded industrialism, was modern and progressive, was at the bedrock of this ideology. Chapter 1 looks at late eighteenth-century figures in the United States like Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Banneker, and Benjamin Franklin to illustrate how each used science, and scientific authority, to challenge the supposed legitimacy of slavery. Chapter 2 considers how turning science to political ends was a commitment that industrialists in Great Britain shared. In a keen reading of the Industrial Revolution, Herschthal helps us understand how scientific thinkers made themselves into antislavery thinkers. While “there was nothing inherent in science that led these men to their antislavery views,” nevertheless the respect for empiricism, trust in the march of progress, and respect for physical labor all helped the chemists and biologists, men like Josiah Wedgwood or Erasmus Darwin, embrace antislavery (p. 64). Chapter 3, on Sierra Leone, reveals how natural history helped create ideas about race that both supported antislavery and pushed people to accept colonization. In relying on African-descended people to do the work of science by gathering specimens and reporting on conditions, scientists created ideas that supported the politics of resettling people after their manumission.

Herschel shows throughout the second half of the book that the science of abolition only rarely supported racial equality. In a chapter on colonization he discusses the Nashoba plantation settlement in Tennessee which used scientific ideas about agriculture, labor management, and education to prepare enslaved people for freedom, a freedom they would have to enjoy beyond the borders of the United States. Its manager, Frances Wright, “saw colonization as the only means by which emancipation could be achieved” (p. 146). No exact counterpart existed in the United Kingdom, but Herschthal devotes a chapter to the attempt to use scientific management during the period of amelioration, continuing the themes of the previous chapter. Both chapters are vitally important to one of the book’s major contributions: the reasons why people thought free labor was modern and forward looking, and slavery archaic and frozen in time. An avalanche of recent scholarship has dismantled this facile equation, but Herschthal shows where it came from in the first place, by stressing how scientific thinking which got applied to free labor arrangements, from soil management and agriculture reform to industrial production, created the notion of slavery’s anti-modernity. He makes clear how a long roster of thinkers believed that a technological solution would lead to the demise of slavery, therefore pitting progress and modernity against human bondage.

Herschthal’s most provocative contribution is to demonstrate how racial thinking and racial science supported antislavery, not proslavery, politics. Inverting the traditional relationship between the two concepts, he reveals how men of science could use polygenesis to advance arguments for abolition, the subject of the final portion of the book. Rather than using the idea of separate origins of the races to support human bondage, these men of science argued the opposite—that African-descended people should be freed and resettled out of the United States. This was “a scientific rationale that could simultaneously justify emancipation and segregation” (p. 205). Thus the shortcomings of scientific thinking are on full display. As Herschthal notes, few scientific thinkers ever became radical abolitionists, because they believed in a worldview that upheld incremental developments and held onto a belief that slavery would eventually fade away. The failure and limits of science, then, are as important and interesting as its contribution to the antislavery movement.

The Science of Abolition is a timely book that would work well for advanced undergraduates or graduate students, and the polished writing means it would have appeal to a general reading audience. In being fully transatlantic, and in adding a whole new set of questions to that literature, it will stand as an important contribution to scholarship on antislavery and abolition.

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