From Natural Equality to Frankpledge: The State of Nature, Ancient Constitutionalism, and the Rupture of the Social Contract in Eighteenth-Century Antislavery Writings
Sarah Winter

September 13, 2022, 8:00am - 9:00am
Faculty of Arts, Monash University



Monash University

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Antislavery writers Anthony Benezet, Granville Sharp, Thomas Clarkson, Ottobah Cugoano, and Olaudah Equiano employ theories of the state of nature to demonstrate how slavery and the slave trade rupture the social contract in both African polities and the British colonies, thus undermining the legitimacy of the British imperial constitution. Describing African societies as civilized and self-governing, Benezet’s approach launches abolitionism’s appeals to humanitarian sentiments. Clarkson theorizes that enslavement situates Africans in a state of nature where they are “perfectly free and equal” in relation to Europeans who attack them, while Sharp offers legalistic reasons for abolition based in common law, ancient constitutionalism, and radical democratic thought. Their alternative state of nature approaches to abolitionism envision the regeneration of Britons’ moral sentiments through collective political action and forge representative notions of “human rights” as legal rights distinct from natural law. Evoking the state of nature as the innocence of childhood destroyed when they were kidnapped by slave merchants from their homes, Equiano’s and Cugoano’s texts demonstrate a more sceptical, antiracist strand of reasoning that questions whether the economic interests underpinning Atlantic slavery are amenable to political or moral reform.

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September 13, 2022, 8:00am +10:00

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