Scientists and Slaveholders: Proslavery Orthodoxy and Proslavery Science, 1830 - 1860
42 Pages Posted: 22 Feb 2011 Last revised: 20 Apr 2011
Date Written: April 18, 2011
Citizens can benefit from expert testimony, but giving epistemic authority to experts privileges particular individuals and runs the risk of devolving into undemocratic rule by experts. Science, as a presumed realm of the universal not the particular, has been proposed as a remedy to reconcile democracy with central action, because science relies, like liberal democracy, on reasons that all could accept. In addition, science can widen the space for democratic action by providing citizens with reasonable sources of knowledge to solve political disputes. However, I argue that science was unable to fulfill this role before the Civil War, because it was, itself, part of the political process. Before 1868 naturalists, ethnologists, anthropologists, and theologians debated the place of the races within the natural hierarchy in places like Mobile, Charleston, and Richmond, as well as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. Their debates over race and the unity of the human species were intimately tied to the political controversy over slavery. Proslavery politicians adopted the scientific argument for the permanent fixity of race to defend slavery, and southern scientists felt directed by politics to turn to the natural world to clarify the naturalness of slavery. Science was unable to act as an independent arbiter between abolitionists and slave-owners, who had to settle their disputes, instead, by an appeal to political authority and force.
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