It might be tempting for some 21st century Americans to view slavery as something of a historical aberration. Americans who today look to the “Founding Fathers” for historical guidance to modern problems frequently ignore the specter of slavery. It is just easier to ignore, rather than account for, the fact that Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, and many other revolutionary individuals who likewise espoused the republican ideals of freedom and equality still owned slaves, thereby depriving other men of the freedom they held in such high esteem. There’s a certain quality – prehaps best described as squeamishness – that often accompanies discussion of American slavery. In fact, some people would just as soon not talk about it, like it’s a dirty little secret or something. Rather backing away from the “American Paradox,” historian Edmund S. Morgan uses it for inspiration and the product is one of the most profound books that I’ve ever read. Morgan bluntly states that “[t]he rise of liberty and equality in America…[were] accompanied by the rise of slavery.” He goes on to suggest that “[t]o a large degree it may be said that Americans bought their independence with slave labor.” And furthermore, Morgan has no patience for people who would prefer to ignore this inconvenient reality of American history, “This paradox is American, and it behooves Americans to understand it if they would understand themselves.”
Morgan contends that people need to look no further than the state of Virginia to find resolution to this burning paradox and perhaps learn a little bit more about the spine-chillingly insidious origins of the most cherished of American values – freedom.
Virginia was the largest of the United States, in territory, in population, in influence – and also in slaveholding. Virginians owned more than 40 percent of the all the slaves in the new nation. It was Virginia slaves who grew most of the tobacco that helped to buy American independence. And Virginia furnished the country’s most eloquent spokesmen for freedom and equality. Virginia adopted the first state constitution with a bill of rights. A Virginian commanded the Continental Army that won independence. Virginians drafted not only the Declaration of Independence but also the United States Constitution of 1787 and the first ten amendments to it. And Americans elected Virginians to the presidency of the United States under that constitution for thirty-two out of the first thirty-six years of its existence. They were all slaveholders.
These historical truths are right there in black and white for all to see and will make every freedom-loving American cringe. But if you think these facts about early United States history hurt, Morgan’s ultimate conclusions will probably leave you a bit sick to your stomach.
In order to accept Morgan’s thesis – that the rise of freedom in the United States ultimately rested on the institution of slavery – you have to accept the postulate that because Virginia had so many slaves and simultaneously produced so many great early American leaders that a study of the origins of that state will lead you to an understanding of the American Paradox. Many studies of colonial America fall into two categories: New England or Chesapeake (some books combine the two). Morgan is clearly in the Chesapeake category, but there are a number of fine studies on New England that are just as important as American Slavery, American Freedom. Both regions took very different but important paths, and I think it’s safe to argue that both helped form what eventually became known as American freedom. But thankfully for Morgan, a carefully worded introduction and a strong conclusion help him overcome any weaknesses he suffers by making sweeping arguments about the United States by focusing on Virginia and essentially ignoring the other twelve colonies. If you decide to give this book a shot, put aside any reservations you have concerning the Virginia postulate and just enjoy the book.
This is a book that is not easily or succinctly summarized becauseit is very subtle at times and it relies heavily on narrative – I’ll try to do it in around 2,500 words. (If you are reading this book for a college course, I urge you not to plagiarize my review. If you do, I swear I’ll find out, hunt you down, and punch you in the face.) Overall, the book reads as a history of early Virginia. In fact, the first few chapters deals with the era of exploration, English thought on the merits and purposes of colonization, and some of the first efforts to establish a colony in North America. Aside needing a place to send dissenters, many English philosophers felt that colonization would mostly benefit the poor. It would eliminate those individuals who did not work from England and allow them to have land and work in America. With fewer poor in England, there would be less pressure on the government to deal with poverty. Furthermore, the English felt that a benevolent approach towards peaceful Indians would allow them to Christianize the native population. Investors felt sure that British North America would produce the kind of immediate influx wealth that the Spanish enjoyed from Central and South America. With the labor of the English poor and the Indians, and investors footing the bill in hopes of finding riches, colonizers had a blueprint for Utopia.
We all know that this did not happen. “Misunderstandings” with the Indians led to war, aristocrats refused to work, people starved, and investors lost money while searching for natural resources to make them rich. Eventually, and against the wishes of the crown and colonization advocates, tobacco took hold and became a valuable staple crop. Over the course of the 17th century, rich Englishmen bought up tidewater land and began cultivating tobacco, despite the staggeringly high death rate. Planters needed labor and there were two pools of available labor. African slaves, who were enslaved for live, were very expensive investments. Indentured servants from England, usually poor men, were much more affordable although their terms of service (which also paid for their passage) typically lasted seven years. After their service was complete, they were free and could purchase land of their own. With the death rate so high, it made sense to bring more indentured servants to Virginia than slaves. Who would want to purchase an expensive slave who was probably going to die in the first year anyway? In the first few years of the tobacco boom, fortunes were made. While the price soon dropped, it was still possible for a planter to make a great deal of money from the tobacco trade. Because the death rate was high and time was money, labor became the most valuable resource in the young colony. And it soon became exploited – planters had no choice but to push their workers extremely hard in order to get their crops in the ground before their servants dropped dead of disease. Moreover, with such a high death rate (it’s hard to put numbers on exactly what the rate was, but it was well over half), life was cheapened in Virginia. Cheap life and exploited labor certainly laid some groundwork for the system that eventually typified America slavery, once such an institution became viable.
Eventually, the death rate levelled off and Virginia settled down. Tobacco prices generally stabilized. While it was no longer possible to get rich quick, the crop was still enormously profitable. And not just for the planters. Taxes on the plant were relatively high and government officials benefits from this fleecing, with the king getting his fair share. Now that indentured servants were not dying off and were living long enough to become freemen, these Virginians, especially those who did not want to face the Indians on the frontier, found that the best lands were already taken. Some rented farms, while others roamed the countryside. With a heavy tax burden and a rapidly increasing number of unemployed, homeless, and armed young men, Virginia found itself on the brink of a demographic crisis. What to do about these discontented lowlifes who drank too much, did not work, and stole from their neighbors? Eventually, a man named Nathaniel Bacon decided to use this homeless rabble to wage war on Native Americans who lingered on the fringe of the tidewater region. Problem was that the governor, William Berkeley, would not grant Bacon a military commission. To make a long story short, Bacon became the leader of these discontented men who not only raided Indians but also waged a civil war in Virginia and the rebels burned Jamestown to the ground. Eventually Bacon died of dysentery and the rebellion lost steam.
Rather than being a footnote of colonial history (as it typically is portrayed in textbooks), Bacon’s Rebellion is the centerpiece of Morgan’s story. While Morgan does not argue that Bacon’s Rebellion caused planters to consciously begin importing slaves so that there will be fewer poor whites roaming the countryside looking for trouble, he does insist that this happened unconsciously in the years following the Rebellion. The primary reason for the rise of slavery was economic. After the death rate stabilized, it made financial sense to just buy a person for life rather than for seven years. Fewer indentured servants meant that there were fewer poor whites who had completed their terms of services but could not afford to buy land. There were certainly vast numbers of white families that were not fabulously wealthy, but the numbers of desperately poor whites dropped precipitously. This eased the demographic crisis in Virginia and helped society stabilize more than any single factor.
Morgan also reminds us that racism should not be taken for granted as something that people just do. Racism has to be learned. Morgan believes that racism in Virginia can first be found directed against Indians, but it fully flowered against African slaves. Slavery demanded labor to coerced, and so the brutality of extracting labor – which had always been difficult in Virginia to begin with – increased. It seemed easier for Virginians to extract labor more harshly from an alien race. Eventually, the House of Burgesses lumped all non-whites together and outlawed certain racial mixing (particularly sexual) and thus codified racism. Racial animosity put up a wall between poor whites and black slaves and thus unified all whites together in their supposed superiority – what historians, scholars, and writers have term the Proto-Dorian Convention, an insidious concept that lingered far too long into the 20th century.
While race was unifying white Virginians, a new populist strain arose in Virginia society and politics. There are many reasons for this shift and Morgan found that the colony opened its suffrage laws to include most whites, the yeomanry increased in size and prosperity, and whites of all social classes began to believe that they all had the same best interests. Land ownership proved to be a great unifier. Moreover, by the 18th century, people in Virginia accepted that place as their home, rather than England. While they still considered themselves Englishmen, they had no intentions of returning to England with the spoils they had earned as planters in Virginia. Wealthy men began building fine homes, a sign of a permanent ruling class. To be sure, the ultrawealthy still governed Virginia, but they could not do so without the support of the small men. It helped that they all depended on a single staple crop for their financial success- whatever was best for tobacco prices was best for the colony as a whole.
By the final chapter, Morgan has painted a picture of a colony that was socially stable, profitable, and racially unified. But he asks how these same people who owned slaves came to espouse the republican virtues of freedom and equality. He offers a few partial explanations, some of which are more convincing than others. But his big argument lies not so much in Virginia, but in European political theory. Most of 17th and 18th century political philosophers who espoused republicanism felt that a republican government could only be successful if the poor were dealt with. You couldn’t simply give power to the mass of humanity at the bottom of the social scale because they would reduce society to depravity. Some suggested mandatory workhouses and most agreed that making the poor work was the best way to deal with this unsavory group of society. Some political philosophers – “not so much royalists as…the men who drew their inspiration out of Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth and out of the revolution that sent James II packing” – stopped short of suggesting that England’s poor simply be enslaved, but some prominent thinkers in England did, in fact, suggest outright enslavement of the poor to safeguard society. If those who were capable of destroying a republic were simply made to work, than freedom could flourish for those responsible enough to handle it.
This leads us to Morgan’s knock-out punch (or finishing move, for all you wrestling fans). The popularity of republicanism in Virginia – and thus the foundations of equality that the United States Constitution rests upon – can be traced directly to the institution of slavery. You see, in Virginia the poor were already slaves. Morgan writes, “It did not necessarily follow that because of those dangers [of giving the poor political power] the poor must be enslaved. But it did follow that the keepers of republican liberty must be wary of extending a share of it to men who were incapable of defending it and might become a means for destroying it. If the poor were already enslaved, would it not be wise to keep them so? Virginia, in spite of her abundant lands, had already encountered a rebellion of the unenslaved poor in 1676 [Bacon’s Rebellion]. Since then she had gradually replaced her free labor force with slaves and by 1776 she enjoyed the situation that…[leading political philosophers] had wished to achieve…”
And so, there it was. Slavery begat freedom in America. Morgan pushes the reader to understand:
The most ardent American republicans were Virginians, and their ardor was not unrelated to their power over the men and women they held in bondage. In the republican way of thinking as Americans inherited it from England, slavery occupied a critical, if ambiguous, position: it was the primary evil that men sought to avoid for a society as a whole by curbing monarchs and establishing republics. But it was a solution to one of society’s most serious problems, the problem of the poor. Virginians could outdo English republicans as well as New England ones, partly because they had solved the problem: they had achieved a society in which most of the poor were enslaved.
Virginians understood that this presented a paradox. But there were far more comfortable holding the slaves in bondage than emancipating them and threatening the new American republic. And then Morgan, throws out the last, and perhaps most cringe inducing explanation.
One wonders if it [this paradox] might not have been taken more seriously if Virginia’s slaves had belonged to the same race as their masters. The fact that they did not made it easier for Virginians to use slavery as a flying buttress for freedom. The English had come to view their poor almost as an alien race, with inbred traits of character that justified plans for their enslavement or incarceration in workhouses. Almost, but not quite…Anyone could tell black from white, even if black was actually brown or red. And as the number of poor white Virginians diminished, the vicious traits of the of character attributed by Englishmen to their poor could in Virginia appear to be the exclusive heritage of blacks. They were ungrateful, irresponsible, lazy, and dishonest. “A Negroe can’t be honest,” said Landon Carter and filled his diary with complaints of the congential laziness and ingratitude of black men.
Could it be that the racist stereotypes of our society find their origins in American freedom? Is this possible? If you read Morgan’s book, you’ll be convinced that this is indeed the case. And if you aren’t sick to the your stomach and if you don’t question everything you thought you knew about America, then you might fall into the category of those Americans who would just as soon ignore the horrifying ghost slavery in American history than accept the grim reality of the American past. Morgan closes with unsettling questions: “Was the vision of a nation of equals flawed at the source by contempt for both the poor and the black? Is America still colonial Virginia writ large?”
It is unpopular in today’s political climate to insist that the America has such a weak moral foundation. But ignoring these upsetting questions won’t make them go away or make them less relevant to the inequalities of the 21st century.