Publication Date


Document Type


First Advisor

Fogleman, Aaron Spencer

Degree Name

Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy)

Legacy Department

Department of History


This dissertation examines the role that British convict transportation and penal servitude in America played in the early history of humanitarianism. During the eighteenth century, Britons and American’s ideas about moral obligations and suffering changed drastically toward traditionally detested people, including transported convicts, African slaves, sailors, and the poor. Many histories of humanitarianism and human rights have glazed over the subject’s early modern roots; however, more recently scholars have challenged the unilinear and inevitably triumphal narrative of human rights cultures and launched new investigations into the historical foundations of the movement. This study argues that emerging ideas of punishment, morality, and unfreedom evoked by convict labor created new moral responsibilities, widened the plane of sympathies, and inspired novel denunciations of suffering in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Anglo-American culture. It uses legal and judicial records, public commentaries, and the papers of prominent reformers in London and the three colonies (later states) that imported the most convicts on the North American mainland, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. It traces the attitudes, ethics, and practices regarding penal servitude from 1718, following a new British law that ushered in an era of massive convict transportation, through the American Revolution and into the early Republic period. The study shows how labor systems as a whole played an unrecognized, critical role and influenced early modern abolitionist and moralist thinking and rhetoric. In the eighteenth century, transportation and penal servitude generated new critiques and initiated debates about the proper role of punishment and labor in enlightened societies. By the end of the first decade of the nineteenth century, moralists and reformers increasingly used humanitarian discourse to improve the lives of those once unquestionably despised people, like criminals and enslaved Africans. This new discursive environment helped reformers and moralists to galvanize early republicans in order to tackle new humanitarian challenges – challenges that would not fit easily into a narrative of inevitable progress – and advocate for more humane legal and cultural changes in the new nation.


297 pages




Northern Illinois University

Rights Statement

In Copyright

Rights Statement 2

NIU theses are protected by copyright. They may be viewed from Huskie Commons for any purpose, but reproduction or distribution in any format is prohibited without the written permission of the authors.

Media Type