The Science of Abolition: How Slaveholders Became the Enemy of Progress

Eric Herschthal

Library Company of Philadelphia

Friday, January 14, 2022 5:30 pm EST

In the context of slavery, science is usually associated with slaveholders’ scientific justifications of racism. But abolitionists were equally adept at using scientific ideas to discredit slaveholders. Looking beyond the science of race, The Science of Abolition shows how Black and white scientists and abolitionists drew upon a host of scientific disciplines—from chemistry, botany, and geology, to medicine and technology—to portray slaveholders as the enemies of progress. From the 1770s through the 1860s, scientists and abolitionists in Britain and the United States argued that slavery stood in the way of scientific progress, blinded slaveholders to scientific evidence, and prevented enslavers from adopting labor‑saving technologies that might eradicate enslaved labor.
While historians increasingly highlight slavery’s centrality to the modern world, fueling the rise of capitalism, science, and technology, few have asked where the myth of slavery’s backwardness comes from in the first place. This book contends that by routinely portraying slaveholders as the enemies of science, abolitionists and scientists helped generate that myth.
Eric Herschthal is an assistant professor of history at the University of Utah. He is the author of The Science of Abolition: How Slaveholders Became the Enemies of Progress (Yale University Press), and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Republic, the Washington Post, and the New York Review of Books, among other publications.
Sponsored by the Program in African American History
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