Nineteenth-century exslave narratives allow us to understand the way in
which freedmen, freedwomen, and runaways experienced and enjoyed
liberty. In such narratives, liberty, naturally enough, it seems, is the
opposite of slavery. Once free, one was no longer a slave. Yet we should
view this understanding of slavery and freedom as a problem in itself, as
a rhetorical and time-bound use of the notions of enslavement and liberty.
This article argues that an early exslave narrativist, John Jea, articulated
a dichotomous, unrealistic, yet characteristically American, notion of the
relationship between slavery and freedom: that anyone who is not a slave
is free. Expressed in evangelical Protestantism, liberal individualism, and
laissez-faire economics, this notion was a staple of nineteenth-century
American ideology. It is no longer a convincing notion, since it obscures
not only the variety of the experience of slaves, freemen, and freewomen,
but also the forms of bondage that accompanied slavery and survived it.
As a man of the nineteenth century, Jea seems never to have
comprehended the ways that he remained unfree once he was manumitted.
As a black man and exslave, Jea might have been one of those most
sensitive to the persistence of bondage after slavery, but he was not.
Surely this suggests how convincing, yet how false, was new thought
about slavery and freedom in the early nineteenth century.