Slavery has long stood as a mirror image to the conception of a free person in republican theory. This essay contends that slavery deserves this central status in a theory of freedom, but a more thorough examination of slavery in theory and in practice will reveal additional insights about freedom previously unacknowledged by republicans. Slavery combines imperium (state domination) and dominium (private domination) in a way that both destroys freedom today and diminishes opportunities to achieve freedom tomorrow. Dominium and imperium working together are a greater affront to freedom than either working alone. However, an examination of slavery in practice, focusing on the experiences of American slaves, demonstrates that republicanisms’ acknowledged strategies for freedom-seeking, acquiring insulation from domination through law and through norms, do not encompass the full range of options. Slaves also seek freedom through physical absence, economic activity, and culture. The account of slavery and freedom developed here suggests republican accounts of freedom should either give up their focus on thresholds of freedom, or consider the possibility of a plural conception of freedom that extends beyond just freedom as non-domination to include freedom as collective world-making, or both.
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