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.
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