What We Didn’t Know About Slavery

Neither Black Nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States

by Carl Degler
Macmillan, 302 pp., $3.25 (paper)

Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713

by Richard S. Dunn
Norton, 379 pp., $2.45 (paper)

White, Red, and Black: The Seventeenth-Century Virginians

by Wesley Frank Craven
University of Virginia, 114 pp., $5.75

Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion

by Peter H. Wood
Knopf, 326 pp., $10.00

Flight and Rebellion: Slave Resistance in Eighteenth-Century Virginia

by Gerald W. Mullin
Oxford University Press, 219 pp., $2.50 (paper)

For six or eight generations writers have been pegging slavery up and down on a moral scale that buckles alarmingly with the temperature of the social issue that slavery entailed. So long as the peculiar institution was a contemporary reality the question was absolute. Was slavery a moral institution, or was it not? Abolitionists saw in it “the sum of all villainies” because it encouraged every other sin. But defenders of slavery pointed to Holy Writ, where they found ample precedent but no condemnation, and widely advertised their conclusion that God had His purposes: slavery was a positive good.

But once slavery became history, the question attained a degree of sophistication. The question of the morality of slavery, being settled in the negative, gave way to another: how repressive was slavery in practice in the United States? The ramifications of the question in this form were intensely political and contemporary. A suitably negative answer could be used to explain the quality of contemporary family life in the black community (judged to be bad), the survival of racial hostility (judged to be unchanging), and as a check on our progress (or lack thereof) in approaching a healthy biracial society. In this form the question automatically introduced a comparative dimension. Slavery in the United States was more or less repressive, more or less benign, in comparison to what?

Brazil has been, for twenty-five years, the main target of reference. Since the simultaneous appearance in 1946 of an English translation of Gilberto Freyre’s powerful work, The Masters and the Slaves, and a short book by Frank Tannenbaum entitled Slave and Citizen, slavery in this country has been contrasted, usually to its disadvantage, with Latin American slavery in general, and Brazilian slavery in particular.

The Tannenbaum-Freyre argument, simply put, is that the institutions of the Portuguese settlers, especially the Roman Catholic Church and Roman civil law, were favorable to the recognition of the basic humanity of the slave. The English colonists, on the other hand, built their slavery out of the whole cloth, there being no legal precedents in English common law, pro or con, to hamper them, and they built it to suit a young, bustling, and extractive capitalist economy. Because of the separation of church and state, the Protestants, of however good will, could do little to hinder the inevitable pressures to debase the slave and his family and to strip them of every human right. The idea was persuasive, because it seemed to explain so much about contemporary differences in the two worlds: there was Brazil with a fluid racial pattern based as much on economic status as on color, while the United States retained well into the twentieth century a rigid caste system based on race.

The Tannenbaum-Freyre thesis has had its advocates and attackers on both sides of the border from the start, and Carl Degler’s Neither Black Nor White is but the latest recruit. It is likely to be the last for some time, however, because…

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