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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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Chapter 4: In Praise of Modern Mastery—and Its Invention




Clear, public pronouncements about the role of Authority, arrived early in English America. In fact, they arrived before the English themselves. Or at least before they scampered down from the Arabella and through the cold surf onto what would one day be Boston. For he was still on board when Governor John Winthrop delivered the renowned letter “A Model of Christian Charity.” It was in this letter that he makes clear that the model of subordination of man to God is to be reflected among God’s people as well. How this subordination would work was not left to anyone’s imagination. “God almighty in His most holy and wise Providence,” he writes, “has so disposed the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity, others mean and in subjection.” No room to ‘imagine a vain thing” like equality and meekness in that congress. Pity the poor fools like Anne Hathaway and Roger Williams, deluded enough to think the ← 67 | 68 → opposite. The strong arm of the Puritan law would encourage them to think better.

The England from which the Puritan reformers came already saw coerced labor as a moral necessity. As David Eltis tells us, there was real interest in getting work out of those seen as the “vagrant, the idle, the poor. For this segment of the labor market, force—not...

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