The Violent Backbone of Slavery

In 'Stolen,' Five Boys Are Caught In A Reverse Underground Railroad Toward Slavery
Ilana Masad, October 16, 2019, National Public Radio

In the second episode of 1619, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’ New York Times-produced podcast, she interviews sociologist Matthew Desmond about the ways in which the institution of slavery in the United States both drove and was driven by economic concerns.

"[M]any of our depictions of the cotton plantation are bucolic and small," Desmond says at one point. "[Y]ou might see a handful of enslaved workers in the fields, and an overseer on a horse, and then the owner in a big house. That's not how it was. It was incredibly complex... [C]omplex hierarchies with mid-level managers... Complicated workforce supervision techniques were developed... Professional manuals and credentials were developed... But behind all the sophistication, behind all this capitalistic rationality, was violence."

Indeed, slavery wasn't an institution driven solely by cruelty — although it was unendingly cruel and surely some of its enforcers relished its violent backbone — but by money. The sophistication Desmond speaks of was made possible, of course, by the law, which until the Thirteenth Amendment, allowed for the trade in human beings. The legal aspects of the institution, as well as the mental gymnastics surrounding what was illegal under the same laws, create a deeply unnerving undercurrent throughout early American history scholar Richard Bell's new book, Stolen: Five Free Boys Kidnapped into Slavery and Their Astonishing Odyssey Home.


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