American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia

Edmund Morgan’s classic work, American Freedom, American Slavery: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, tries to resolve what he calls the “American paradox,” that though slavery and freedom are irreconcilable opposites, the two developed almost in tandem.

The key to such a dual ascent was tobacco. Though the initial settlers embraced a certain democratic spirit so essential to frontier settlements (And it should be pointed out that slavery was never an inevitability in the early years,) the production of tobacco introduced social fissures in the form of class division. White indentured servants, mostly poor Englishmen thought to be indolent and given to vice, were soon shipped over to work the lands. The servants contracted their labor, agreeing to work for a set number of years, in exchange for one’s basic necessities and the promise of landownership once their terms were completed.

Problems arose, Morgan asserts, when these servants became free men. A number of factors–the lack of women in Virginia, which inhibited the formation of family units, the infertility of the lands they were given, and the overall reduction of tobacco prices among other factors–produced a poor, sometimes landless, and highly mobile class of discontented men. The source of their discontent, they charged, were the “big men” of the colony, a class of established tobacco barons and officeholders. These men determined the colony’s social structure and, so the free men claimed, maintained it in a way that preserved their power and induced the free men back into servitude. With the steady stream of new servants pouring into the colony, the fractious social structure underpinning colonial Virginia only grew larger as the voices of the free men grew louder.

Bacon’s Rebellion, a 1676 uprising, provided a solution. National Bacon, the rebellion’s leader and namesake, was hardly a leveler in any sense of the word, but he and his followers drove the colonial governor, William Berkeley, back to England, an ostensible victory for the “small men,” over not just the “big men,” but the “big man.” Yet Bacon’s rebellion possessed a dark shade of racial contempt, for the source of the Bacon-Berkely dispute devolved over a response to an  indian raid where a number of Virginia frontiersmen were killed. Berkeley balked and Bacon retaliated against the Governor’s orders, brutally massacring  the inhabitants of a neighboring Susquehannock village. Morgan argues that the teaming race hatred behind the attacks, the culmination of a series of confrontations with the indians along the frontier, provided a vital lesson for the colony’s big men: the scapegoating of a minority, particularly a minority of a different race, created a common union, an in group-out group mentality amongst the people. As Morgan puts it, “Resentment of an alien race” could prove “more powerful than resentment of an upper class” (269-270).

In the years following Bacon’s rebellion, indentured labor became less rational. England’s population plateaued, reducing the amount of potential servants, and the colony’s woefully high mortality rate decreased, making temporary indentured labor less economically expedient.  Yet labor was still in great demand, thus prompting the turn to chattel slavery–servitude that had no contractual stipulations or termination date. Morgan argues that the seemingly monumental shift was not so difficult, for slavery had already proved to be highly profitable elsewhere in the Atlantic and the slaves coming into Virginia did not have to be enslaved. The work of enslavement was the work of the contemptible traders; Virginians only had to buy them, which Morgan suggests assuaged their conscious about taking part in such a deplorable enterprise. The problem, however, was that unlike indentured servants, slaves had no incentive to work. Slaves had to be “disciplined” to work,” a particularly violent process that, in effect, re-enslaved the enslaved. Brutality was therefore inherent to the institution and no amount of rationalizing or hand washing could divorce the two.

Morgan maintains that the emergence slavery, along with a series of legal measures disassociating whites and blacks, suppressed class conflict by creating a social structure similar to what scholars in the 1960s termed a herrenvolk democracy. The slaves, representing a minority ethnic group, became the antagonists of the majority group, the white Virginians. Virginian’s both “big” and “small” thus created an “in group” identity, consolidating their individual interests into a powerful, class inclusive shared set of interests based solely on their whiteness. In effect, race replaced class as a the primary source of social strife. Morgan argues that such structure created a highly stabilized society as their was no expectations that the slaves would be freed, eliminating the prospects of a discontented class of newly fee men like there was in previous years. The system was so stable, Morgan maintains that it explains the lockstep growth of slavery and freedom. American ideas of republicanism, he argues, was born out such as system as powerful Virginians and soon to be Americans like Jefferson and Madison could preach leveling and equality without fearing the “mob.” The American underclass, unlike their volatile European counterparts, were perpetually fettered, bound to a lifetime of bondage.

Of course, while American Slavery, American Freedom has become a standard history, it is not without its flaws. The biggest flaw, at least in my mind, is his rather muddied position of whether racism produced slavery or slavery produced racism. He goes to great pains to show that the initial intent of the English was to work with the Indians and reform them so that they could be incorporated into English society. The English even played the part of liberators, freeing slaves from the cruelty of the Spanish in the early battles of European supremacy that surprisingly took place, in part, in New World locations. And, of course, he points out that the shift to slavery only occurred when it was economically viable. Ostensibly, then, it would seem as if he falls into the scholarly camp maintaining racism was a product of slavery. Yet, he maintains that the English always looked at the indians with a sense of “otherness. Why else would they need reforming? African slaves were no different. To the English both the indian and the African represented a heathen people, a people, perhaps, more brute than human. Would the English enslave another European, much less another brother in Christ? No, they would not. Morgan therefore straddles the fence, refusing to align himself to one position. Nevertheless, American Slavery, American Freedom stands as the most astute explanation of how a country so synonymous with liberty was born out of a dedication to bondage.

For more about the book, follow the link below and see what the people at the Junto Blog had say about the book’s legacy:

The American Dilemma


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