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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


David K. O’Rourke

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.
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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...

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