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Damian Pargas on his inaugural lecture "Promised Lands"

On May 25th, Prof. Damian Pargas will hold his inaugural lecture "Promised Lands".

On August 1, 2017, dr. Damian Pargas became the new Leiden University Professor of History and Culture of the United States and the Americas. On May 25, he will hold his inaugural lecture titled "Promised Lands".

Promised Lands

During the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson envisaged the future of North America as a vast “empire of liberty” dedicated to spreading freedom across the hemisphere. Initial developments indeed provided some cause for optimism, as legislators in large swaths of the continent reinforced their commitment to “liberty” and “freedom” by moving to strike against slavery. Whereas prior to the Revolution slavery was legally sanctioned and rarely questioned in every part of the hemisphere, the last quarter of the eighteenth century witnessed what Steven Hahn has called a “deepening crisis of slave regimes,” ultimately leading to the legal abolition of the transatlantic slave trade and of slavery itself in the northern US, Canada, and Mexico. Even in the American South, the revolutionary era witnessed a brief spike in individual manumissions by slaveholders, resulting in the significant growth of free black communities in urban areas.

Empire of liberty and slavery

Yet despite the temporary surge in manumissions, slavery continued to expand at a feverish pace across the American South in the early nineteenth century, and to African Americans who remained trapped in bondage, Jefferson’s empire of liberty more closely resembled an empire of slavery. As the South became more staunchly committed to slavery, freedom increasingly only seemed attainable to those who seized it, and thousands upon thousands of enslaved people did just that by running away. Refugees from slavery sought asylum in free states and countries that had abolished slavery, as well as by illegally hiding out in free black communities within the slaveholding South. In the process, they unleashed one of the most controversial and politically charged refugee crises of the nineteenth century.

How did enslaved people envision the landscape of slavery and freedom in antebellum America, and what strategies did they employ to escape and attain lives of freedom? This inaugural address will illuminate how slave refugees created and defended spaces of freedom for themselves and their loved ones in various settings throughout North America, including urban areas within the South, the northern US, and Canada and Mexico.

Damian Pargas

Prof. Damian Pargas  defended his PhD in Leiden in 2009 and has been working at the Institute for History as a university lecturer. He has published widely on slavery in the American South. He is especially interested in internal comparisons between various groups of slaves within the southern states. Prof. Pargas is the executive director of the Roosevelt Institute for American Studies in Middelburg.


The inaugural lecture will take place on May 25th at 16:00 sharp in the Academiegebouw (Rapenburg 73). Inaugural lectures at Leiden University are public. You can register for this event here.

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