Selling Human Beings Like China: Slavery, Capitalism and Religion in the American South and British Caribbean

Jon Sensbach

Jon Sensbach is Professor of History at University of Florida.

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Jon Sensbach, "Selling Human Beings Like China: Slavery, Capitalism and Religion in the American South and British Caribbean," Journal of Southern Religion (18) (2016): jsreligion.org/vol18/sensbach2.

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No practice illustrates Christianity’s complicity in Atlantic slavery more thoroughly than the enslavement of Africans by religious institutions. Whatever the confession or region, men of God profited from their investment in captive bodies. The Anglican Church’s mission arm, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, owned a sugar plantation, Codrington, and nearly three hundred slaves in Barbados between 1710 and emancipation in 1838—more slaves than the society had missionaries in the field. The Moravian church produced sugar for world markets on its plantations in the Danish and British West Indies, as well as consumer products like leather, pottery and iron made by the enslaved congregants it owned in North Carolina and even Pennsylvania. Catholic slave ownership was widespread throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. “By 1760 the Jesuits owned more than 17,000 people in South America,” writes Travis Glasson, “and until their expulsion in 1767 they owned more slaves than any other person or organization in the Western Hemisphere.” Jesuits in Maryland owned eight estates and nearly three hundred slaves whose labor supported the Catholic college at Georgetown. “The priests sold human beings like they sold china,” reflected a modern descendant of some of the 272 enslaved people sold in 1838 to new owners in Louisiana to save the financially struggling college.

Churchmen often justified the practice of slaveholding with the circular rationale that slavery yielded the profits that supported mission work and enhanced the opportunity to evangelize among the enslaved. “If all the Slaves throughout America, and every Island in those Seas, were to continue Infidels forever, yet ours alone must needs be Christians,” was one Anglican’s explanation. However they defended it, ministers put themselves at the very heart of the braided relationship between religion, slavery and capitalism in America.[1]

Inquiries into this relationship, at least within the Anglo-American world, have focused most often on the antebellum South, where slavery and religion, specifically Protestant evangelicalism, have long been understood to be symbiotically entwined. The explosive post-revolutionary expansion of slavery to the new cotton lands of the west and southwest occurred simultaneously with the proliferation of revival meetings and evangelical churches. The link between these conjoined events points in conflicting directions. On one hand, white evangelicals enabled the growth of slavery by trading whatever ideological opposition they once had to the institution for a racialized proslavery stance and for mission access to plantation slaves. On the other, enslaved African Americans appropriated and reworked the same religion into a faith of prophetic revelation and redemption that fueled the struggle for liberation. The sacred sphere was a fundamental and desperate venue within which the bitter struggle over slavery and freedom played out.[2]

A new generation of scholarship arguing that the cotton revolution and slavery were fundamental to the growth of American and global capitalism may well inspire a reevaluation of religion’s role in those transformations.[3] While much of this recent work has little analysis of religion, it raises the question whether the intertwining of evangelicalism, slavery, and capitalism was distinctive to the South or whether it had its counterpart in other slaveholding societies, most notably the British Caribbean, the imperial region to which southern planters in the colonial and national periods compared themselves economically and philosophically most closely. In one region, Parliamentary decree abolished slavery in 1833, to take full effect in 1838; in the other, slavery ended only by revolutionary emancipationist violence. Did evangelical religion play a decisively different role in defending or undermining slavery in the two regions? And what was enslaved people’s response to the evangelicalism that staked out so many contradictory positions on their behalf? A brief survey of the literature on slavery, capitalism and religion in the British West Indies offers instructive comparisons.[4]

 The discussion, in fact, originates in the Caribbean, for it was Eric Williams’s classic Capitalism and Slavery from 1944 that first explored the connections between slavery, capitalism, and religion. True, Williams’s focus was rather different from that of more recent scholars who argue that slavery was a building block of modern capitalism. Williams took for granted that slavery generated the profits that sparked the industrial revolution, but he also sought to show that slavery in the British empire gave way to modern industrial capitalism only when it stopped being profitable. His real targets were the evangelical champions of the anti-slave trade movement, Granville Sharp, William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson and their successors, long deified as humanitarians selflessly crusading for human progress. Their religious rhetoric, Williams argued, was merely a masquerade for imperial aggrandizement under the banner of moral reform. When British planters over-produced in the wake of the Haitian Revolution, profits from slave labor fell and industrialization beckoned as the engine of British might. Abolition therefore stemmed from economic motives rather than from altruistic sentiment.[5]

Williams’s influential “decline thesis” essentially has set the terms of the inquiry into the relationship between slavery, capitalism and religion in the Caribbean, whether scholars agree with him or not. Seymour Drescher’s Econocide (1977) disputed the extent to which slavery’s profitability was ebbing after the American Revolution, contending that the development of new markets and new plantations in underdeveloped colonies revivified slavery and generated handsome returns on investment. Abolition therefore worked against Britain’s economic interest, and for Drescher the important question was why it succeeded anyway. He agreed that the answer lay not in the parliamentary reforms pushed through by the humanitarian “saints,” identifying instead the power of radical antislavery popular politics as the key factor. Despite their differences on the economic rationale behind abolition, both scholars shared a low regard for the role of religion in the debate over slavery and the slave trade.[6]

In that respect, Williams’s Marxist disdain for religion, or at least for Christianity and its complicity in the exploitation of enslaved Africans, has cast a long shadow over the study of Caribbean slavery and abolition, as Christopher Brown observes. Since the 1970s, Brown contends, scholarship on British antislavery is driven by “an almost obsessive fear of being duped into uncritical adulation” of the evangelical reformers. Whereas historians “of British religious history still describe abolition and emancipation as Clapham Sect achievements . . . [h]istorians of antislavery, by contrast, tend now to treat the Evangelicals as of marginal interest and limited consequence.” However understandable this lack of enthusiasm might be, he notes, it has hindered a fuller understanding of the Evangelicals. Brown’s own lengthy study of Evangelical writings, thorough but unclouded by reverence for his subjects, represents a new milestone for scholarship on the interplay of religion, slavery and antislavery.[7]

Nonetheless, historians have continued to describe the antislavery movement and its relationship to capitalism and slavery in doggedly materialist terms that downplay or avoid the role of evangelicalism even as they replay the Williams-Drescher debate. David Beck Ryden argues that the antislavery crusade finally found traction in the early nineteenth century as sugar prices fell, but he makes no mention at all of religious antislavery motivation. On the other side, meanwhile, as Edward Baptist, Calvin Schermerhorn, and others have argued for the American South, historians such as Justin Roberts emphasize the continuing profitability of West Indian slavery and the function of the plantation as an analogue and precursor to industrial capitalism. In planters’ quest to control and discipline enslaved workers’ time by turning them into “depersonalized and interchangeable units of production,” the plantation resembled the factory, easily adaptable to the “ruthless rationalism” and exacting managerial practices of the Enlightenment. The ameliorationist impulse of early nineteenth-century reformers merely gave a humanitarian gloss to slavery as a highly adaptable prototype of modern capitalism. Evangelical religion was thus the willing handmaiden of a remorselessly exploitative institution.[8]

Whatever the role of the Evangelicals in the antislavery debate in Parliament and the British public, systematic exploration of the interaction between enslaved Africans and evangelical mission Christianity in the Caribbean itself is less developed than for the American South.[9] Much of this is due understandably to modern disgust for the racism, colonialism, proslavery ideology, and antagonism toward African cultures that missionaries evinced. Thus, when they are not dismissing the importance of evangelical Protestantism in the Caribbean, some historians are overtly hostile to it. In Dianne Stewart’s view, for example, “Christianities are the oppressors and African-derived religions are the oppressed and anthropologically impoverished.” Any person of African descent who accepted Christianity embraced “Afrophobia and anti-Africanness,” thereby helping to validate “Eurocentric Christianity as the standard against which all religious and theological claims are judged.” In their desire to emphasize African agency and resistance to oppression, many historians have focused on African-derived cultural transmissions and sacred traditions such as Kumina, Myal, and Obeah in former Protestant colonies or the creative layering of African and Christian idioms in a variety of formats in former Catholic colonies. By these lights, the Methodists are at best not very sexy and worst answerable for a great many sins.[10]

But by the early nineteenth century the Methodists were all over the Caribbean, as were the Baptists and Moravians, and like them or not, their attempts to Christianize Africans left a vast and underused archive documenting spiritual encounters between evangelical Protestantism and African traditions. The best overview of this crossfire remains Sylvia Frey and Betty Wood’s Come Shouting to Zion, which is distinguished by its attention to the practices and beliefs that enslaved Africans brought with them to the Caribbean and that shaped their vigorous intellectual and social engagement with Christianity. Potent African-Christian theological alloys inspired daily survival, resistance to racism, a sense of divine justice, and armed uprisings. But the sacred battleground remained a proxy for the larger struggle over slavery and freedom. The desperate intensity of this contest is vividly illustrated by the exclusion records from a Moravian disciplinary council in early nineteenth-century Antigua. The Moravians had started mission work there and in Jamaica, Barbados and elsewhere in the mid-eighteenth century, but it took a long time to get going in the face of opposition from planters and Africans alike. By the end of the century, however, they had registered thousands of baptized adherents in Antigua, as did the Methodists—so many, in fact, that white evangelicals considered the colony the “favorite of heaven.” And yet, though they might nominally count themselves as members of the Christian community, enslaved parishioners consistently sought out supplementary sources of spiritual strength that drew on African traditions. White missionaries banished congregants “for conjurer Work,” for having “consulted a fortune teller and neglected to come to church,” and for “consulting a conjurer to make her husband return to her.” Religion was an arena of struggle for control over enslaved bodies and souls. Missionaries banished one man for having “cut off his fingers on purpose.” Through self-mutilation, we may presume, the congregant waged a private rebellion by depriving planters of an able worker; in disciplining him, the missionaries showed disapproval of his self-defilement in the eyes of God and thus a punishable rebellion against slavery. Their vigorous support for the capitalist underpinnings of the plantation system in turn caused other congregants to repudiate evangelical teaching with derision. One woman, Martha, was expelled after she “abused Faith in the Field and exposed her own nakedness, saying she would show she had no sickness like Faith.” Weaponizing her own body as an instrument of scorn, Martha revealed the depth of enslaved workers’ resentment against the collusion between Christianity and slavery.[11]

Compared to the literature on African-Christian religions in the colonial and antebellum South, studies of Caribbean evangelical missions as intimate settings of struggle, negotiation, and resistance are surprisingly few, but their numbers are increasing. Richard Dunn’s comparison of Mesopotamia, a plantation in Jamaica, and Mount Airy, a plantation in Virginia, includes a discussion of the Moravian mission at Mesopotamia between 1758 and 1831. Moravian records show enslaved people engaging Christianity with deep theological interest, adjusting to the missionaries’ strict moral expectations, stepping forward as lay community leaders, or rejecting Christianity outright. “The Mesopotamia people,” Dunn concludes, “never fully embraced the Moravian adoration of the blood and wounds of Jesus Christ, while the missionaries were continually frustrated by their black converts’ lack of Christian zeal, their polygamous way of life, and their devotion to ‘noisy play’ at holiday time.” Maureen Warner-Lewis, meanwhile, documents the case of Anasio, an enslaved Ibo who arrived as a child in Jamaica in the late eighteenth century, eventually joined the Moravian congregation at New Carmel, took the baptized name Archibald Monteath and became a helper, or assistant to the missionaries. The opportunity for leadership, as well as the parallels between certain aspects of the Ibo religion and Moravian Christianity, Warner-Lewis argues, proved appealing for Monteath, whose life illustrates the ways some enslaved people might perceive religious and secular advantages to associating themselves with mission Christianity. As John Catron shows, Antigua even became a central node in an Atlantic mission network for black evangelicals who took to the seas to preach in the Caribbean and American South.[12]

Disparities in the literature notwithstanding between the Caribbean and the American South, some general comparisons between the two regions stand out. First, sharp demographic differences shaped the trajectory of evangelical religion in quite distinctive ways. In the South, evangelicalism became the vernacular of popular religion early in the eighteenth century. South Carolina’s policy of religious toleration for Protestant dissenters, for example, as Thomas Little has recently argued, gave the colony a character of religious experimentation, nonconformism and spiritual seeking, sparking an early period of revivalism even within the Anglican establishment that long predated the arrival of George Whitefield in the late 1730s. While much the same thing might be said of colonies like Barbados and Jamaica which contained significant Quaker communities, Quakers throughout the southern and West Indian colonies faced a legislative and social backlash against their perceived opposition to political authority and their practice of preaching to slaves, particularly in Barbados, where Quaker influence receded. But in the South many other varieties of religion that could be called evangelical became entrenched, brought by Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian missionaries and migrants from northern colonies and the British Isles and by several strains of German Pietists. Most of these evangelicals, whether newcomers or converts, were plain folk, and though it might be debated how much their religion threatened elite slaveholders, white and black southerners adopted and indigenized these faiths, embracing the culture of personal revelation, sensory experience, emotional release, and regeneration through revival that left a heavy imprint on the region by the early nineteenth century. After white evangelicals swapped nonconformity and antislavery for respectability, they became much more acceptable to the planters, and evangelical religion spread widely through all social classes of white southerners. During the second half of the nineteenth century, evangelical spokesmen emerged as increasingly outspoken and powerful defenders of slavery and the capitalist order it supported. Indefatigable advocates of southern nationalism and secession, denouncers of their evangelical brethren in the North, they were an ideological arm of the state.[13]

This process was not replicated in the Caribbean. The Anglo population, dominated by slaveholders and heavily outnumbered by enslaved Africans, adhered widely to the established church and seldom defected to the dissenters, whom they often regarded as troublemakers. As a result, evangelicals remained outsiders in the West Indies. Evangelical religion never became a marker of regional or nationalist identity among Anglo West Indians, a fulcrum for political rebellion or separatism, as in the South. Indeed, the greatest difference with the South is that the overwhelming majority of evangelical or nonconformist adherents in the Caribbean were enslaved. In Jamaica, Baptist teachings introduced by George Liele, an African-American preacher who evacuated the Deep South with British Loyalists after the American Revolution, mixed with African practices to form the hybrid Native Baptist religion which, with its millennialist outlook, stoked planter suspicion even more. After the abolition of the trade in 1807, evangelicals continued to have an ambiguous relationship to the West Indies societies where they hoped to make their mark. The Moravians never condemned slavery publicly, but other missionaries came from overtly antislavery Baptist, Methodist and Quaker constituencies in England. They toned down their rhetoric in the mission field, but the amelioration campaign they served, ostensibly to make better, more obedient workers of enslaved people through Christianity, wove in and out of abolitionist politics, especially after 1823 with the reinvigoration of metropolitan antislavery.

The missionaries miscalculated one important issue, arguing that Sunday markets should be banned to allow more time for prayer, which worked against the interest of the great majority of slaves whose only free time for marketing and gardening was on Sunday. Still, many preachers were explicitly sympathetic to the slaves’ cause, and the slaveholders were right to be wary of them. The organizing and leadership of enslaved Christians in major rebellions in Barbados in 1816, Demerara in 1823, and especially Jamaica in 1831 confirmed the planters’ fears that the missions were to blame. They took a fearsome vengeance, executing hundreds of rebels, burning mission chapels, and arresting nonconformist missionaries. But in England, evangelical religion fueled the movement that cast rebels such as Samuel Sharpe as Christian martyrs, the missionaries as victims, and the planters as brutes. True, religion also served the interests of capitalism and imperialism: abolition would morally cleanse the empire, spur global expansion and promote evangelical missions to civilize colonized people. In any case, slaveowners could no longer defend the indefensible, and they bitterly surrendered to emancipation, though for handsome compensation. Whatever the large role religion played in helping construct and defend the slave regime, it played a large part in undoing it.[14]

For southern planters, the British case was instructive and they had no intention of letting that happen to them. They had three powerful weapons the British slaveholders did not—a Constitution that protected slavery, an electoral politics that awarded them control of Congress, and a friendly and enthusiastic evangelical voice in their backyard that countered the condemnation of northern religious activists. All these advantages helped them craft a tenacious strategy of resistance that cast slavery as both religiously pure and economically modern and that gave them supreme confidence not only that their cause was right but that their secession gambit would succeed. Small wonder, then, that of all the state-imposed emancipations of the nineteenth century, only in the U.S. did it require a genocidal civil war to effect.[15]

Though evangelicalism was certainly an Atlantic, and even a global, movement in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it produced unique local and regional iterations. To the very great extent that southern evangelicalism was a cornerblock of the architecture of slavery’s defense and of white racial and regional identity as nowhere else, it was perhaps the most distinctive of all—particularly since it simultaneously produced enormous numbers of enslaved evangelicals who believed precisely the opposite. To the end, their white brothers and sisters in Christ supported the practice of selling them like china.


[1] Travis Glasson, Mastering Christianity: Missionary Anglicanism and Slavery in the Atlantic World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 144–145 and 277–278 for corresponding literature; Rachel L. Swarns, “272 Slaves Were Sold to Save Georgetown. What Does It Owe Their Descendants?” New York Times, April 16, 2016, and the followup story by Rachel L. Swarns and Sona Patel, “‘A Million Questions’ From Descendants of Slaves Sold to Aid Georgetown,” New York Times, May 20, 2016, quote from interviewee Rochell Sanders Prater.

[2] From a large literature, see Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Pantheon, 1975); Sylvia Frey and Betty Wood, Come Shouting to Zion: African American Protestantism in the American South and British Caribbean to 1830 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998); Christine Leigh Heyrman, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998); Charles F. Irons, The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008); Monica Najar, Evangelizing the South: A Social History of Church and State in Early America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008); Robert Elder, The Sacred Mirror: Evangelicalism, Honor, and Identity in the Deep South, 1790–1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016); and Randolph F. Scully, Religion and the Making of Nat Turner’s Virginia: Baptist Community and Conflict, 1740–1840 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008).

[3] Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic, 2014); Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013); Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Vintage, 2014); Robert Gudmestad, Steamboats and the Rise of the Cotton Kingdom (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2011); Calvin Schermerhorn, The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815–1860 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015); Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman, eds., Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

[4] Recent work on the British Caribbean and the American South as nodes within a greater interconnected region include Trevor Burnard, Planters, Merchants, and Slaves: Plantation Societies in British America, 1650–1820 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015): Justin Roberts, Slavery and the Enlightenment in the British Atlantic, 1750–1807 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Matthew Mulcahy, Hubs of Empire: The Southeastern Lowcountry and British Caribbean (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014); Paul M. Pressly, On the Rim of the Caribbean: Colonial Georgia and the British Atlantic World (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2013); Edward Rugemer, The Problem of Emancipation: The Caribbean Roots of the American Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009).

[5] Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944); and Seymour Drescher, “Capitalism and Slavery after Fifty Years,” Slavery and Abolition 18 (1997): 212–227.

[6] Seymour Drescher, Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977; 2nd ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010); and the excellent review essay by James Walvin, “Why Did the British Abolish the Slave Trade? Econocide Revisited,” Slavery and Abolition 32 (2011): 583–588.

[7] Christopher Leslie Brown, Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 377–379.

[8] David Beck Ryden, West Indian Slavery and British Abolition, 1783–1807 (New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Roberts, Slavery and the Enlightenment in the British Atlantic, 5–6. Somewhat better in this regard is Claudius Fergus, Revolutionary Emancipation: Slavery and Abolitionism in the British West Indies (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013).

[9] Some basic overviews include Arthur C. Dayfoot, The Shaping of the West Indian Church, 1492–1962 (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998); Keith Hunte, “Protestantism and Slavery in the British Caribbean,” in Armando Lampe, ed., Christianity in the Caribbean: Essays in Church History (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2000); Ennis B. Edmonds and Michelle Gonzalez, Caribbean Religious History: An Introduction (New York: New York University Press, 2010).

[10] Dianne M. Stewart, Three Eyes for the Journey: African Dimensions of the Jamaican Religious Experience (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 5, 127. A short list of recent scholarship on African-derived West Indian sacred traditions includes Randy M. Browne, “The ‘Bad Business’ of Obeah: Power, Authority, and the Politics of Slave Culture in the British Caribbean,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser. 68 (July 2011): 451–480; Margarite Fernandez Olmos and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, Creole Religions of the Caribbean: An Introduction from Vodou and Santeria to Obeah and Espiritismo (New York: New York University Press, 2011); idem., Sacred Possessions: Vodou, Santeria, Obeah, and the Caribbean (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997); Diane Paton and Maarit Forde, eds., Obeah and Other Powers: The Politics of Caribbean Religion and Healing (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012); Diana Paton, The Cultural Politics of Obeah: Religion, Colonialism and Modernity in the Caribbean World (New York and London: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Nathaniel Samuel Murrell, Afro-Caribbean Religions: An Introduction to Their Historical, Cultural, and Sacred Traditions (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010).

[11] Frey and Wood, Come Shouting to Zion; “Exclusions 1795–1806,” Box A11.1, East West Indies Papers, Moravian Archives, Northern Province, Bethlehem, PA.

[12] Richard S. Dunn, A Tale of Two Plantations: Slave Life and Labor in Jamaica and Virginia (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2014), 224–270, quote on 268; Maureen Warner-Lewis, Archibald Monteath: Igbo, Jamaican, Moravian (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2007); John W. Catron, Embracing Protestantism: Black Identities in the Atlantic World (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2016).

[13] Thomas J. Little, The Origins of Southern Evangelicalism: Religious Revivalism in the South Carolina Lowcountry, 1670–1760 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2013); Marjoleine Kars, Breaking Loose Together: The Regulator Rebellion in Pre-Revolutionary North Carolina (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000); Heyrman, Southern Cross; Mitchell Snay, Gospel of Disunion: Religion and Separatism in the Antebellum South (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

[14] Mary Turner, Slaves and Missionaries: The Disintegration of Jamaican Slave Society, 1787–1834 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press,1982); Michael Craton, Testing the Chains: Resistance to Slavery in the British West Indies (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982); Clare Midgley, Women Against Slavery: The British Campaigns, 1780–1870 (New York and Routledge: London, 1982); Catherine Hall, Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination, 1830–1867 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).

[15] Rugemer, The Problem of Emancipation.

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