Bernard E. Harcourt | Introduction to Abolition Democracy 2/13

By Bernard E. Harcourt

“Abolition-democracy demands for Negroes physical freedom, civil rights, economic opportunity and education and the right to vote, as a matter of sheer human justice and right.”

— Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America (1935)

W.E.B. Du Bois coined the term “abolition democracy” in his study Black Reconstruction in America (1935) to denote the ambition necessary to achieve a racially just society. Du Bois argued that the reconstructive work begun in 1867 and necessary to achieve that ambition was aborted with the end of Reconstruction in 1877. The result was that the abolition of slavery was only accomplished in the narrow sense that chattel slavery was ended. But the true ambition of abolition democracy, namely the creation of a racially just society, was never realized.

The ambition of abolition democracy required the construction of new institutions, new practices, new social relations that would have afforded freed Black persons the economic, political, and social capital to live as equal members of society. That vision of a full and uncompromising reconstruction of American society, as Du Bois documents in Black Reconstruction, was thwarted by White resistance during the decade following the end of the Civil War and ultimately abandoned with the political compromise of 1876 that resulted in the negotiated election of President Rutherford B. Hayes and the withdrawal of federal troops from the South.

Du Bois demonstrates that the mere abolition of chattel slavery and the eclipse of the broader ambition of abolition democracy facilitated the reproduction of a slave-like society. With the demise of Reconstruction, the criminal law and its enforcement replaced property law as the key to confine freed Black persons to a condition of quasi-slavery through the implementation of Black Codes that imposed severe punishments and labor restrictions on African-American men and women. Plantation prisons and convict leasing gave birth to new forms of slavery, protected by the exceptions clause to the Thirteenth Amendment—illegitimately, as Dorothy Roberts demonstrates well.[1] “The whole criminal system came to be used as a method of keeping Negroes at work and intimidating them,” Du Bois wrote.[2] Du Bois continued:

In no part of the modern world has there been so open and conscious a traffic in crime for deliberate social degradation and private profit as in the South since slavery. […] Since 1876 Negroes have been arrested on the slightest provocation and given long sentences or fines which they were compelled to work out. The resulting peonage of criminals extended into every Southern state and led to the most revolting situations.[3]

The criminal law served to transform American slavery into a system of peonage that, in many cases, exceeded the horrors of the Antebellum period. The enforcement of the criminal law reproduced a system of racial apartheid and injustice in America that continues to the present. As brilliant critical thinkers have demonstrated since Du Bois’s book in 1935—Angela Davis, Michelle Alexander, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Dorothy Roberts, and Bryan Stevenson, among others—we live today in the continuing legacy of slavery.

But although the ambition of abolition democracy was not realized then, the promise of abolition democracy still guides us today. It is that promise we will explore today with four brilliant critical thinkers: Gayatri Chakravorty SpivakIvan CalaffRobert Gooding-Williams, and Kendall Thomas.

Welcome to Abolition Democracy 2/13!


[1] Dorothy Roberts, “Abolition Constitutionalism,” Harvard Law Review (2019)

[2] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 506.

[3] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 698.

Bernard Harcourt