Slavery and democracy

It doesn’t go together – or does it? A look at history shows that the great promoters of American democracy were also slave drivers.

The history of slavery and democracy are closely interwoven: a lithograph shows the arrival of the first black slaves in Virginia at the beginning of the 17th century.

Dhe cradle of democracy is in Athens. But it is also in North America. The cradle of slavery is ancient. But it is also in North America, where British settlers subjugated cheap labor from Africa, who they deprived of the freedoms they had fought for themselves. How do the two go together? A look at the economy helps more than a general reference to racist immorality. Slavery has economic reasons. Paradoxically, it is the same reasons that led to democracy. But one after anonther.

In 1607 the Virginia Company of London established a small settlement called Jamestown. It was quite common for private corporations to colonize the New World. All they needed was a certificate from the English king, who gave them the right to settle. However, the leading shareholders could not switch and act as they wanted. They quickly understood that the best way to achieve social consensus was through participation rights for all settlers. Democracy is kind of a fix-it-all when autocracy is unenforceable.

Thus, between July 30th and August 4th, 1619, the first democratic people’s assembly in Virginia took place. It was composed of the governor and a six-member council determined by the joint-stock company. There were also twenty-two elected MPs, two from each of the eleven Virginia settlements. They couldn’t stand it together for long, it must have been unbearably hot and humid. But it was regulated that a decisive right should henceforth pass from the settlement enterprise to the parliament: the right to raise taxes. Since then, budget law has been the supreme discipline of a democratic parliament. The citizens want to decide for themselves what part of their economic success they are willing to give to the state protecting them. Parliamentary control prevents their money from being messed about. In English: “No taxation without representation.”

Long before American independence was declared in 1776, there was already a lot of democracy in the states of the New World: While three-quarters of the male population were allowed to vote in Massachusetts, it was at the same time in the 17th century in England (also a motherland of democracy ) just 3 percent. This freedom was a powerful incentive for many to venture into the colonies under difficult conditions. The introduction of democracy for larger population groups, one could say pointedly, arose less from a moral-philosophical conviction than from the need to otherwise not find enough subjects in a vast country. Citizens were attracted by offering them the right to vote.

But why were British immigrants promised freedom and democracy while the fate of African immigrants was slavery? “The factors that led to the establishment of democracy are the same as those that led to the invention of American slavery,” says a new book by political scientist David Stasavage on “The Decline and Rise of Democracy” (Princeton University Press). Both are economic reasons.