illustrated portrait of main character Linda Brent

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

by Harriet Jacobs

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What possible impact did Rousseau have on Jacobs in "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl"?

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Jacobs might have used Rousseau’s theories on morality to explain why slaves were not inferior.

Rousseau believed that people were born equal, and it was their decisions and actions that made them superior or inferior, not the circumstances of their birth.

Although there is no direct reference to Rousseau, Jacobs makes a strong case against the abuses of slavery.  One of the main arguments for slaves being inferior was that they were born black and born lesser human beings.

The slave child had no thought for the morrow; but there came that blight, which too surely waits on every human being born to be a chattel. (ch 1, etext p. 9)

Jacobs comments that she did not even know she was a slave until her kind mistress died when she was six years old.  The concept of being born inferior was naturally not something she agreed with.

Rousseau’s contemporary Thomas Jefferson would have liked to see the American republic abolish all inheritance in order to avoid the inequality of citizens based upon accidents of birth. (enotes Rousseau)

As with most slave narratives, Jacobs gives a detailed account of the abuses of slavery.  However, she also is clearly educated and articulate, and demonstrates that she is not unequal to any white person.  She seems to make the case for Rousseau’s argument that how you are born should not dictate your station in life.

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