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Amelioration and Empire

Progress and Slavery in the Plantation Americas
Christa Dierksheide

BUY Cloth · 296 pp. · 6.125 × 9.25 · ISBN 9780813936215 · $45.00 · Oct 2014
BUY Ebook · 296 pp. · ISBN 9780813936222 · $45.00 · Oct 2014

Christa Dierksheide argues that "enlightened" slaveowners in the British Caribbean and the American South, neither backward reactionaries nor freedom-loving hypocrites, thought of themselves as modern, cosmopolitan men with a powerful alternative vision of progress in the Atlantic world. Instead of radical revolution and liberty, they believed that amelioration—defined by them as gradual progress through the mitigation of social or political evils such as slavery—was the best means of driving the development and expansion of New World societies.

Interrogating amelioration as an intellectual concept among slaveowners, Dierksheide uses a transnational approach that focuses on provincial planters rather than metropolitan abolitionists, shedding new light on the practice of slavery in the Anglophone Atlantic world. She argues that amelioration—of slavery and provincial society more generally—was a dominant concept shared by enlightened planters who sought to "improve" slavery toward its abolition, as well as by those who sought to ameliorate the institution in order to expand the system. By illuminating the common ground shared between supposedly anti- and pro-slavery provincials, she provides a powerful alternative to the usual story of liberal progress in the plantation Americas. Amelioration, she demonstrates, went well beyond the master-slave relationship, underpinning Anglo-American imperial expansion throughout the Atlantic world.


Christa Dierksheide recasts our understanding of the relationship between pro- and anti-slavery thought, as well as between what used to be called the ‘necessary evil’ defense of slavery during the Revolutionary era and the ‘positive good’ defense of slavery during the antebellum era. Well written, clearly argued, and convincing—a fine book.

James Sidbury, Rice University, author of Becoming African in America: Race and Nation in the Early Black Atlantic

Amelioration and Empire is the study of an idea that dominated and shaped the transatlantic debate on slavery -- the belief that the evils of the institution could be 'ameliorated' and the lives of those enslaved improved. By the 1850s, this idea had become such an unquestioned pillar of proslavery apologia that the historiography of slavery has treated it as merely a smokescreen for more cynical motives. Christa Dierksheide’s brilliant new study opens a new chapter in the historiography of slavery by reexamining the idea as an evolving one in a context of greater breadth and depth. 'Amelioration,' she shows, was born in an age of revolution and empire building that simultaneously spawned two competing versions that energized the efforts of antislavery and proslavery advocates alike. In each vision, "amelioration" was a necessary step toward modernity and civilization, but where opponents of slavery saw it as a precursor to abolition in an empire of free labor, those committed to perpetuating slavery saw it as a civilizing foundation for an empire built on the labor of human chattel. Amelioration and Empire is the history of an idea in the best tradition of historical writing, demonstrating the ironic outcome of good intentions, the protean nature of discourse, and the unpredictable impact of economic and social change.

David Konig, ashington University in St. Louis, coeditor of The Dred Scott Case: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Race and Law

About the Author(s): 

Christa Dierksheide is Historian at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello.

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