Eric Herschthal

Eric Herschthal

Field: United States
Advisor: Christopher Leslie Brown
Year: 2012

I am currently completing my dissertation, "The Science of Antislavery: How Science Shaped the Early Antislavery Movement, 1770-1830.”  My project argues that science played a critical though mostly overlooked role in shaping in the early antislavery movement. It demonstrates the litany of ways American and British scientific practitioners--botanists, geologists, and chemists; physicians and explorers--crafted scientific arguments to support the early campaign's cautious antislavery agenda. I argue that collectively these arguments gave the initial transatlantic campaign much needed legitimacy; but as time wore on, I contend that the agenda these men favored—from re-colonization for freed slaves, to granting slaves freedom only after years of service—failed to have its intended effect. By the 1830s, a new more radical generation of antislavery leaders emerged, one led increasingly by free black and less elite white women and men. The new leaders rejected the earlier generation’s carefully controlled “experiments” in black freedom and demanded the immediate end to slavery. To understand why this fundamental transformation took place--from a cautious antislavery movement to a radical one--I argue we must take seriously the role of science. 

More broadly, my work offers a counterpoint to the recent revival of interest in slavery’s compatibility with the modern world. Scholars have begun to explore more deeply the links between slavery and capitalism, for instance, but have yet to study the role science—another element of modernity—played in slavery’s demise. My work ultimately suggests that the alliance between science and antislavery helped usher in the modern world as we know it: one where science came to be seen as an unalloyed good for humankind, yet also made it more difficult to see the limitations science imposed.   

My academic work has been published in the Journal of the Early Republic (Summer 2016) and Early American Studies (forthcoming, 2017). I am also a frequent contributor to mainstream publications, including Slate, The New Republic, The Atlantic, and The New York Times, among others.  My teaching interests include the history of slavery and emancipation; colonial America, the early Republic and 19th century U.S. history; the Age of Revolutions; the Black Atlantic and the history of science and empire. Grants from the Huntington Library, the American Philosophical Society, the Omohundro Institute, among others, have supported by research. I received my B.A. in history from Princeton University and a master’s degree in journalism for Columbia University.

For the 2016-17 academic year, I will be a Dissertation Fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.