In “Freedom, Slavery, and Homo Economicus,” Amy Dru Stanley explores two provocative claims advanced by Melvin Patrick Ely in Israel on the Appomattox—first, that the very existence of slavery allowed for the freedoms asserted by black persons who were not chattel and, second, that the worldview of Israel Hill's free blacks had much in common with that of other propertied persons in antebellum America. Focusing on the latter point, Stanley argues that Ely's work disrupts assumptions about the stark dualities of the Old South and the Yankee North. Accordingly, she suggests that questions raised regarding Northern white freeholders might fruitfully apply to Southern black freeholders: were the Israelites acquisitive, individualistic economic actors? At stake, Stanley writes, is ultimately the nature of sovereignty—the lived relations of personal dominion in Israel Hill. Invoking a recent debate between Douglas Egerton and Walter Johnson about the libratory power of money in the slave South, Stanley sketches the clashing worldviews that might have existed on Israel Hill—a possessive subjectivity animated by acquisitive individualism or a collective subjectivity rooted in racial kinship. Stanley claims that regardless of whether Israelites conceived of themselves as the “we” of the racial subject, the “I” of the bourgeois subject, or some fusion of the two, their market pursuits disrupted the Southern system of racial sovereignty and confused the relationship between bondage and freedom, rendering still more provocative Ely's argument that slavery itself enabled the freedom of black people not owned as chattel property.
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Amy Dru Stanley; Freedom, Slavery, and Homo Economicus. Labor 1 May 2009; 6 (2): 13–17. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/15476715-2008-052
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