If there is a concept that has been widely contested the world over, then it is freedom. The contestable nature of the concept or word ‘freedom’ is on the other hand underpinned by the fact that its definition has in the time past been colored with the interests and ambitions of those in political power. Nevertheless, it is important to note that as far as slavery is concerned, freedom and its definition were either described along races and social classes or different from the reality that existed in the ground, as shall be seen in the study, forthwith.
It is easy to agree with the standpoint advanced by Francis Hargrave that the difficulty in defining slavery and its antonym freedom is based on the fact that slavery has been a common phenomenon in different countries and that these different countries were underpinned by the various circumstances therein. This made the rendering of fixed or general description an impossible feat to achieve. Nevertheless, Hargrave admits that there are certain properties which cut across different cultures and societies, so that it is possible to differentiate domestic service from slavery in any country.
As the opposite of freedom, slavery is always shown to be amenable to the importation of obligations of services, with the master’s consent being the only factor which can facilitate the dissolution of this obligation. The absence of freedom is seen in the fact that slavery accords the master, with the arbitrary power and privilege of administering sundry and all forms of correction. The humanness of the correctional measures or the welfare of the slave together with the limbs of the slave remained subject to the arbitrary will of the master. Thus, it is rightful to say that slavery in England and the US by far much allowed the master to alienate the person of the slave in the like manner the master would dispense off his property. Ultimately, slavery is known to lack even the basest aspect of humanity and freedom, due to its generational nature: slavery and its inhumanity descend from parent to the child.
At the same time, in an interesting twist, the ignominious nature of slavery renders even the freedom of the master mythical and impractical. This is because, through slavery, even the morals of the master are corrupted. This is due to the fact that slavery invokes serious and implacable hatred in the heart of the slave, towards his master. Thus, seeing freedom in an element which sets one against is a fellow is to tantamount to living in a fool’s paradise.
The fact that there is no freedom in slavery is also underscored by its penchant for stirring up discord against different races. Historically, because of concentration of capital in the hands of Caucasians, it is the white race which usually owned slaves in Europe, the United Kingdom and in the United States. This made the black race harbor resentment towards the white race, with the ensuing of inimical relationship between the two being perceptible upto the 21st century. There can be no freedom in a development or element which fans such a divisive situation which has always threatened the realization of national cohesion and integration.
In another vein, it is important to take note that the evil nature of slavery does not merely rest in the fact that it makes abnegations on the rights and freedom of the slave, but rather, in the fact that it systematically stifles these freedoms. This is seen in the selective and relative acknowledgement of the freedoms of the slaves. Although this is a phenomenon which was exhibited in all the slaveholdings and in all countries which had toyed with slavery as a mode of production, yet America makes a perfect case for this scenario.
In spite of the amendments which had been made to the United States Constitution, slavery remained alive and well in the Southern states such as Alabama, North Carolina, Florida and Mississippi. The best these states did concerning slavery and freedom was to pass laws on vagrancy, contract enforcement laws, and enticement laws which only limited the freedoms of the former slaves in the US to pursue work under different conditions. The rendering of the slaves as free as was spelt out in the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1864 was totally inadequate. This is because, while proclaiming freedom for the slaves on one hand, the passing of the Black Codes ensured that systematically and through socioeconomic stratification, the African American remained a slave. Because of the Black Codes, the African American was not able to access jobs and to negotiate his terms. Working conditions were deplorable and showed almost no discrepancy between slavery and employment.
In respect to the above situation, in North Carolina for instance, the African American worked with very minimal wages, no housing allowance, insurance cover or any occupational health services (OSHA) provision at one end. At the other end, his white counterpart was accorded all these as part of his emoluments. At this juncture, the capitalists in North Carolina and in the rest of the Southern states killed two birds with one stone: the white capitalists who was mainly a former slaveholder or a slave master was able to accrue a lot of surplus capital; while the African Americans were systematically kept subservient to the conditions of slavery. As far as the latter is concerned, it seemed better for the African American to work in slaveholdings as a slave since he was provided with a morsel of bread and shelter by his master than to walk away into ‘freedom’ and suffer the unrelenting pangs of hunger and the vagaries of weather, having no shelter. Thus, it is easy to see that the rendering of freedom in the slaveholdings was not enough.
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The crux of the above situation underscores the fact that the description of freedom as merely “the withdrawal of the punitive or oppressive conditions”, is neither sufficient to secure freedom, nor instrumental in bringing into effect, the actual emancipation of a people.
The gravity of the above development is that many slaves in the Southern states receded back to slaveholdings. At the helm were reformist legislators who turned a blind eye to these Black Codes at the time of the Reconstruction (1865-1876). The flipside of this feigned or selective ignorance is that later on, the Southern legislatures were able to use the status quo provided through the existence of the Black Codes to resuscitate a racialised labor system even in the post- Reconstruction period.
It is against the backdrop of the above development that a system of sharecropping and peonage came into emergence at the close of the 19th century and the start of the 20th century. These two systems held many former slaves together with their descendents within the manacles of involuntary servitude upto the time of the civil rights era, in the 1950s. That the declaration of the freedom is insufficient is a matter which is elucidated by the fact that this involuntary servitude as imposed over the former slaves and their descendents existed and was in force even after the passing of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments on April 8th, 1864 and July 9th, 1868, respectively.
Conversely, the selective description of freedom as being different from one state to another is known to have promoted the cause of slavery and the interests of the slave masters, by discouraging civil rights movements and activism. This is a matter well seen in the Section 9, Chapter IV of these Black Codes. The section basically proscribes any attempt to free a slave or an employee who had been a former slave, through the stipulation of a penalty. The activities which translate to aiding a slave to escape include: persuasion, direct intervention or involvement, employing a runaway slave, or helping the runaway with victuals, vestment, shelter, or any other form of material help. Falling within the description of the slave was: the Negro and the Mulatto. The penalty to be exacted range from a judicial conviction for misdemeanor, a fine not any lower than two hundred dollars or two months imprisonment in a county jail.
The accused may also be made liable to reparations to the party which had been shortchanged as a result of his actions. That this discouraged civil rights movements is seen in the fact that since civil rights movement vouched for the recognition of the African American as a coequal of the white American so that the African American and other minorities should be treated with dignity socioeconomically. This was tantamount to not only speaking out against the involuntary servitude which existed upto the first half of the 20th century, but to the incitation of the Mulattoes and the Negro against involuntary service. This amounted to incitement as the civil rights message was clear that the minorities were coequal to the Caucasians in America, and that in the same respect, they were to shun elements of oppression, involuntary service included.