The concepts of freedom, liberty, and equality were developed by enslaved people and women, not the elite

Originally published at: The concepts of freedom, liberty, and equality were developed by enslaved people and women, not the elite | Boing Boing


It’s an interesting book, but Rediker has always been accused of reading too much into too few sources, and having some problems with accuracy. But it’s a very intriguing book, and seems to have raised some good points of argument that, ten years on, should still be taken into account.

A very harsh critique:

And a response to the critique:

To be fair, Davis’ critique is at least partially rooted in his much older historiographical outlook being challenged by younger, “modern” historians. A more “modern” historian takes on the book here:

Another review:

There is much to admire in this book; its scope, ambition, and ingenuity make it worth reading. At the same time, there are some serious problems. To take but one example, Linebaugh and Rediker’s heavy-handed treatment of slavery throughout the text is a testament to their tendency to ignore historical subtleties whenever they run against the grain of their thesis, which too often reads more like an agenda. In the first chapter they make the point that during the reign of Edward VI, vagabonds “had their chests branded with the letter V and were enslaved for two years” (p. 18). What they fail to mention, however, is that although this measure was enacted in 1547 it was rescinded two years later and no record survives of it being enforced while it was on the books. Later on, they allow the false impression to persist that “English participation in the slave trade … began in 1563,” in spite of the fact that, although there were four famous slave trading voyages during that decade and most Englishmen were by no means repulsed by the traffic in human cargoes, English merchants more often went to West Africa (before the mid-seventeenth century) in search of gold, ivory, and pepper than for human beings (p. 28).

To be sure, human bondage was a profound conceit and experience in Tudor and early Stuart England, and it appears regularly and in a number of guises in the sources. The authors are to be applauded for elevating this subject, particularly in light of the fact that many previous historians have not. Still, it would have been preferable if they had thought through two issues: first, the use of the word “slave” (or “slavery”) has to be understood in context and, second, the fact that Tudor and Stuart elites treated the lower orders callously, even brutally, does not mean that laborers and servants were in any way slaves. On the first point, Linebaugh and Rediker blur a number of issues when they determine that the Putney Debates in 1647 were a reflection on the issue of slavery. True enough. But, what we are not told is that mid-seventeenth-century political rhetoric regularly culled the language of slavery not because the commons was trying to throw off physical shackles but because a large swath of society (indeed, perhaps the vast majority) were asserting political liberty in language that was especially familiar. As Quentin Skinner has argued, classical Roman writers and, especially, the Digest of Roman law, were central to the developing “neo-Roman” discourse of slavery in early Stuart England. To us it may be paradoxical, but to seventeenth-century Englishmen, to be against slavery in the 1640s did not necessarily mean that you were in any way against holding human beings in a state of bondage in order to fulfill labor needs.

On the second point, Linebaugh and Rediker obfuscate when they use language to make a point that promotes essential misconceptions. For example, they argue that Bacon’s Rebellion was “a war against slavery, waged by servants and slaves who entered the fray after being promised their freedom by Nathaniel Bacon” (p. 136). The authors even refer to Bacon’s rebels anachronistically as “abolitionists” (p. 137). Again, there is some truth in this assertion. Bacon’s forces did include a number of African slaves and indentured servants, many of whom held out to the bitter end. But the rebellion was neither a war about or against slavery; it was about access to land and a virulent hatred of the Indians. The misuse of the term abolitionist here is simply inappropriate, as it is when they refer to “the tradition of Spanish abolitionism” in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world because Spain encouraged slaves to escape from their bondage in the Anglo-Atlantic world (p. 205).


Elites capture ideas as much as they do labor, the earth, and other fetish-commodified resources.

Just as capitalism currently co-opts counter-cultural and social justice activist themes, essentially neutering them and turning them into profit-making engines.


The concepts of freedom, liberty, and equality were developed by enslaved people and women, not the elite

I haven’t read the book, and don’t have the background to evaluate this statement, but it has a certain truthiness to it. Just as fish wouldn’t have a lexicon to describe water, elites wouldn’t have a lexicon for a privilege that to them is as unremarkable as the very air around them, or a need for one.


Elites understood very well the concepts of freedom and liberty, because they were busy denying it to all sorts of people in all sorts of gradations of depriving. And they had a lot of Greek and Roman texts, as well as all kinds of other literature, to help them understand it.

I think it’s probably true that the “many-headed hydra” of sailors and all the others they write about weer among the first in the west to begin to engage in some resistance to elites’ notions of the “proper place” for certain kinds of people.


And sin, young man, is when you treat people like things.

Terry Pratchett, Carpe Jugulum


good discussion, plan on reading it. I especially appreciate commenters that linked criticism and opposing views

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That’s a good point, and I fully own my mistake.

Of course Elites understand and understood freedom and slavery, and they had the lexicon to describe and discuss it. :person_facepalming:

But they also have and had a counter lexicon that allows them to ignore or even deny their privilege. The [non-“white”, heathen, heretic, poor, woman, etc.] “deserve” a lower station because [of their moral failure, my deity said so, they don’t work hard enough, we are civilizing them, they are too brutish to understand any better, they like it].

The elite have an incentive to ignore the suffering of others to maintain their position of power and influence, which includes co-opting counter culture and resistance movements and banning discussion of inequity. It’s the whole point behind trying to ban “CRT” and books with LGTBQ+ inclusion — see, hear, and speak no challenge to white cis male Protestant privilege.

The point I was trying to make (incredibly poorly) was that it makes sense that concepts of freedom and who it encompasses comes primarily from the oppressed, and not from the oppressors or those indirectly benefiting from oppression.


Oh, absolutely. For sure.


Horne again?

Here’s my comment from last time:


I’ve seen similar criticisms of Linebaugh’s The London Hanged; even reading that as a non-historian, I could tell I was being taken for a bit of a ride. But I also think it makes a useful point, and bring it up all the time.

If left-wing history is to exist at all, you have to give it somewhat of a pass for being looser and more novelistic, since records of the past are overwhelmingly created and preserved to serve the powerful.

As a case in point, I‘ve recently been reading Graeber and Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything, which questions the whole concept of “equality”, and claims that the philosophy of the Enlightenment was boosted, not from slaves and pirates, but rather native American cultures. I do find this well-actually approach a bit grating – it feels like replacing one pat oversimplification with another – but I think the net effect is positive.

Obviously, billions of people and events don’t naturally boil down to any single “correct” narrative. The value of contrarian history is to show that these narratives are a tool that you pick up and use consciously. If you’re a background character in the story of the powerful, it’s equally true that they’re background characters in your story, and you can choose which framing is more useful for you.

(Which is not to say all stories are equally true. You can connect material facts in different ways, but you can’t ignore them or make them up)


I’m with you on this. A bit of Rediker, a bit of Linebaugh, a bit of the Genoveses, a bit of David Brion Davis, etc etc. Pretty soon the patchwork reveals the full picture.


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