Servants, Masters, and the Coercion of Labor

Inventing the Rhetoric of Slavery, the Verbal Sanctuaries Which Sustain It, and How It Was Used to Sanitize American Slavery’s History

by David K. O’Rourke (Author)
©2016 Monographs IX, 172 Pages


This book by David K. O’Rourke presents a study of language and linguistic forms and the roles they played in the initial imagining, developing, and maintaining of a society based on coerced labor. It focuses especially on the contexts of coercion and on the differences in the roles of masters and servants from society to society. In the interaction between colonial powers and conquered peoples, O’Rourke also describes how the European colonial nations imposed their own languages, social metaphors, and utopian views as a way to disconnect those they conquered from their historic roots and re-imagine, redefine, rename, and map them into new lands and places inhabited by inferior peoples needing control by masters who understand how they should now live.
O’Rourke begins by describing how this rewriting of history is not new. He calls on well-established classical and biblical language studies to describe how older and historic oral histories and texts were rewritten to reshape the past to fit new and more useful views. He explains how rhetoric, metaphor, and pseudo-sciences were used to change Europe’s earlier contracted and coerced labor in colonial America into the chattel slavery that became the hallmark of the new and growing United States. O’Rourke also describes how the dominant culture’s current values, foundational metaphors, and sacred notions were woven together into linguistic shelters that served to enshrine the repressive process from questioning and dissent. These same linguistic elements were then used after emancipation to maintain and sanitize the remains of the slave system by presenting it as a benign institution.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1: Words, Methods, and Contexts
  • Chapter 2: Masters and Servants: Whence the Words?
  • Chapter 3: Retro-writing History
  • Chapter 4: In Praise of Modern Mastery—and Its Invention
  • Chapter 5: The Root of Our Slavery Rhetoric: Rhetoric Voices Popular Sentiment. Rhetoric Takes Common Speech and Raises It to a Public Art
  • Chapter 6: The Arrogant Rhetoric of Repression
  • Chapter 7: The Mapping of Colonial Rhetoric
  • Chapter 8: Colonial Rhetoric and the Grand Utopian Vision
  • Chapter 9: The Coffle March
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index


I grew up in an era when linguistic distinctions grounded commonly used and clear categories: subjective and objective, normative and descriptive, historical and fictional. The lines between them were seen as solid. In our time, commentaries on words and their meanings recognize that the lines between these linguistic categories have become porous. So I begin with acknowledging my debt to the teachers, colleagues, and mentors whose words and writings have helped me grasp the limits to these categories, and to any systems of categories.

I also wish to indicate some of the distinctions that are of particular interest to this study. Logic refers to proof; rhetoric to persuasion. Psychodynamic refers to theory; psychotherapy refers to method. Normative refers to how things should be. Descriptive refers to how things are. A subjective view is seen as including the viewer’s own points of view; an objective view is seen as excluding the viewer’s preferences in favor only of what is externally verifiable. Biography is from a writer’s self and about the self; fiction is not visibly from the self, and is about a created self. This study has drawn on the contexts of each of these pairings. It has seen them as the places where discourse occurs, and the places where the conclusions of our discourse—common ← vii | viii → agreements on which we build the contracts for social and intellectual life—grow their roots.

Common and accepted tools in discourse are conventions, and conventions can be challenged. In our world they have been challenged and continue to be challenged. In my world men of letter have played major roles as the challengers. So given their influence in this study I want to recognize them here. I mention two of them at the end of this study. Poets Czesław Miłosz and William Everson. Each presented his literary offerings in uncommon ways. Each adapted rhetoric to go beyond persuasion in attempts to prove, and did so in very different ways. Everson accepted a Jungian framework as though convinced of its objective truth. But he did so within a personal worldview that did not take any expression of certainty that seriously. Miłosz saw the writer’s self reflection as “the native realm of intellect.” But no realm, native or adopted, merited total assent.

I want to add a third writer here, David Vann, a novelist from a new generation and, again, a friend. His creativity has drawn on personal history, fiction, classical imagery, and intuition, and weaves them together with a persuasive of compelling rhetoric. The different occasions, over the years, when he has discussed how he writes, in addition to being personal treasures, have challenged me to stretch the use of language far beyond what I had thought useful or possible. I mention them all because I owe them so much. I accept, but cannot easily describe, how they have influenced these studies. I suspect that my need to understand what makes a friend drive on, when joined to a masterful use of spare and effective communication, has played a key role.

This is the fourth study I have published in this series. Given that there is continuity in writing, I want to include the friends and colleagues already thanked in the earlier works. I especially want to note, once again, the work on rhetoric of Marjorie O’Rourke Boyle. She has grounded what might ← viii | ix → seem an almost arcane study in the known human contexts, for example of Luther and Erasmus. It is that emphasis on context, the human context of language that I have wanted to describe.

Classicist Paul O’Rourke has helped considerably with an earlier example. His guidance on the reshaping of Homer and Ezra gave a much needed context for the process of rewriting history. Professor Irmengard Rauch, who edits this series, has been continually gracious to work with and supportive of my contribution to it. Czesław Jan Grycz has, again, undertaken the design of this text, a noble contribution to one whose computer literacy is so limited. I continue to be grateful for my on-going standing as a visiting scholar at the Dominican School in Berkeley, which continues to give me access to the libraries at the University of California and the Graduate Theological Union.

David K. O’Rourke

Point Richmond, California

June 9, 2015

← ix | x → ← x | 1 →



This is a book about words. It is especially about two words—master and servant. Perhaps most significantly it is about words in contexts. For words in context are alive. They live in the lives of the people whom they point to, pointing sometimes with respect and deference, more often in disdain. For the living contexts of masters and servants though usually connected are very different, very far apart.


IX, 172
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (April)
Rhetoric Colonialism language Europe America social metaphor
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. IX, 172 pp.

Biographical notes

David K. O’Rourke (Author)

David K. O’Rourke writes extensively in the area of cultural history, especially on the destructive history of utopianism and social idealism. He co-wrote and produced the documentary film Red Terror on the Amber Coast, describing the KGB repression during the Soviet’s fifty-year occupation of the Baltic Republics following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. He is the author of Demons by Definition: Social Idealism, Religious Nationalism, and the Demonizing of Dissent (Lang, 1998); How America’s First Settlers Invented Chattel Slavery: Dehumanizing Native Americans and Africans with Language, Laws, Guns, and Religion (Lang, 2005); and Oikos – Domus – Household: The Many Lives of a Common Word (Lang, 2013). He is also a senior fellow at the Santa Fe Institute in Berkeley, California.


Title: Servants, Masters, and the Coercion of Labor