The Science of Abolition

How Slaveholders Became the Enemies of Progress

Eric Herschthal

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A revealing look at how antislavery scientists and Black and white abolitionists used scientific ideas to discredit slaveholders

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. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Republic, the New York Review of Books, and other publications. He lives in Salt Lake City, UT.

“A smart, wide-ranging and learned book which will reshape our understanding of science’s role in the international movement against slavery.”—Nicholas Guyatt, University of Cambridge

“While recent historical literature has shown the complicity of the early science of man in the defense of slavery, Herschthal unearths an equally long intellectual tradition of antislavery science. This innovative book is timely, when science itself is under assault.”—Manisha Sinha, author of The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition

"A brilliantly written and engaging text that succeeds in complicating how prominently science was featured in the writings and lives of both abolitionists and pro-slavery advocates. Herschthal deftly centers black thinkers and leaders as they engaged with how science and scientific thinking could be utilized radically to help dismantle slavery."—Deirdre Cooper Owens, author of Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology
ISBN: 9780300236804
Publication Date: May 25, 2021
344 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
10 b/w illus.