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How Freedom Took Root in Slavery

One of the great conundrums of American history is how Jefferson could write the Declaration of Independence, with its insistence on the inalienable right of all men to liberty, to equality, and to the pursuit of happiness, while he was depriving two hundred slaves on his own estates of precisely those rights. Nor was Jefferson alone. George Washington—at least in his rhetoric—was equally opaque. He said that he was prepared to see America drenched with blood rather than be inhabited by slaves. By that, of course, he meant that the somewhat mild yoke of George III and his officials was worth a civil war, not, of course, that he should die in the last ditch to free the blacks. These he kept firmly in bondage, as did the rest of the Southern supporters of the Revolution. Slavery was worse than death for a white man, even when most loosely interpreted, yet it was to be a permanent condition for the blacks. How could those men be so hypocritical? Naturally there were men of the time who saw the contradiction, who hated it, and who were tempted to break away from the South because of it.

Yet in spite of this glaring contradiction, it would be absurd to accuse Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and the rest of the Virginians who fought for independence and subscribed to the Declaration, of conscious hypocrisy. They believed passionately and sincerely in the rights of men, but equally they could not conceive of a Virginia without slavery. Why was this so? Why did freedom and slavery go hand in hand?

This is the problem which Edmund Morgan has set himself to solve. As he rightly points out, it lies at the very heart of America’s experience, from the first tentative settlements to the present day. He believes, rightly, that Virginia is the crux of the problem, and, good historian that he is, he also knows that social attitudes have long roots in time. Hence he starts his investigation at Roanoke, and then moves steadily forward to the Founding Fathers. American Slavery, American Freedom is a wonderful book, learned, perceptive, convincing. The chapters on the seventeenth century are stronger than those on the eighteenth, and the weakest of all is the last—not so much in its argument as in the detailed working out of the argument, which requires, as we shall see, greater substantiation. Nevertheless, American Slavery, American Freedom is the greatest contribution so far to the history of slavery of the 1970s. One sincerely hopes that it will receive greater attention than Time on the Cross; historians ought to be sufficiently well trained to beware of books which fly in the face of human reality, no matter how festooned with arithmetic. Every page of Morgan’s book speaks of a sensitive understanding of human nature, as well as of a scrupulous attention to scholarly exactitude.

Six years ago, in this journal,* I stressed that attitudes to American slavery could only be understood in the context of poverty and of the exploitation of labor, pointing out that the Elizabethan poor, flogged, branded, forced to work, were the source from which the American attitudes to slaves were derived, not racism; that racism was an added degradation and a continuing excuse of slavery; that it was an ingredient, not a cause. And I regretted that no American historian of slavery had studied the institution in the context of labor exploitation and poverty.

That is no longer true, for one of the themes of Morgan’s book is the way the exploitation of labor changed in Virginia, the causes of that change, and the social effects of it. The white bonded servant gave way to the black slave, with remarkable consequences for Virginia and America. Let us look at Morgan’s argument more closely.

First, he argues that the founders of Virginia, and particularly the promoters of the Company in London and their propagandists, such as Hakluyt, were ambivalent toward natives. He makes much of Francis Drake’s relations with the Cimarrons and Hariot’s sympathetic account of the Indians at Roanoke. The intention of these early chapters, which seem somewhat remote from his major theme, is to portray the first English in America as freer from the racism that Winthrop Jordan argued infected the Elizabethans. And, perhaps, Morgan errs a little too much the other way. Drake was using the Cimarrons in exactly the same way that Cortez had used exploited Indian tribes to topple the Aztecs. To his allies Cortez was all kindness and courtesy. After all, he took an Indian mistress, too; not that that prevented him from torturing, killing, or enslaving the Indians, once they were subject to him.

Although one can agree for the most part with Morgan that there was a strong religious motive which masquerades as racism, it should also be remembered that to all Europeans heathens were colored. However, the role of racism is not an essential part of the argument, and I feel that Morgan could have compressed the early history of Virginia with great advantage into one chapter. The colony became viable only when John Rolfe planted West Indian tobacco seeds, and the first cargo went off to England in 1617; only then did the colony need a large supply of labor. Up to that time incentives had been few.

Tobacco created a gold rush society in Virginia, rather than a settled community looking toward a future of steady growth. Men wanted to get rich as fast as possible, and often their dreams were of becoming country gentlemen back in England. They did not build substantial houses, for they did not believe in permanence. They went bull-headed for tobacco and profit. Food supplies came a very poor second—the Indians, if need be, could always be plundered for corn. And they imported servants, bonded servants, people who were their property for a term of years. These were overwhelmingly male, young, often very young, and their servitude was far more arduous than a servant’s life in England, bad as that might be. They lived in hovels; they had a poor diet; and they were subject to ferocious discipline. They often died before they completed their years of servitude; if they ran away or transgressed, not only could they be mercilessly flogged but also they could have their servitude increased. Nevertheless, if they lived, they finally got their own land, their own small chance to grow tobacco and maybe to struggle up the ladder of profit. Among them, probably from the earliest times, there were some slaves, a number of Indians, a few Negroes.

Morgan makes the telling point that there was some comradeship between the slaves and the bonded servants. They escaped together, lived together in the woods killing their master’s hogs. There is evidence of mixed marriages, of blacks and whites fornicating—evidence, indeed, that poverty bound them together and racism did not yet divide them. Moreover, their masters had not yet defined their own attitudes to race, slaves being too few to make it necessary for them to do so. Their main problem was the bonded servants, and how to control them. As the century progressed, the masters did all they could to extend the years of servitude which became the usual punishment for crimes great and trivial; by buying up land they forced many freed men to a lifetime’s dependence as hired hands. But as the great mortality of the early decades passed, more and more bonded servants lived to receive their freedom. A disgruntled proletariat began to develop in Virginia, one desperate enough to threaten the oligarchy in Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676.

And so the institutional change in the exploitation of labor took place—not deliberately, for social changes rarely result from deliberation. More and more slaves were imported. They were more expensive than bonded servants, but they never secured freedom, and, better still, they bred slaves. As the slave population grew, racism naturally followed; so, too, did the specter of slave rebellion. Racism and fear tied the small men to the greater. The class divisions between whites closed. As they did, the prospect of an unruly, dangerous, radically minded white mob, which haunted Europe and strengthened its need for hierarchy, vanished in Virginia. Tension eased, the animosity of the whites could be directed against royal officials and the grievous burden of royal taxation. Oppression no longer existed within the white Virginian community; it was imposed only from without by a Britain that reveled in aristocratic social inequality.

Hence the fight for equality and freedom became external to Virginia; such words had no relevance within its white community, where freedom and equality reigned. Slavery had placed the work force firmly and totally under control; unlike the work force of England or Europe, it could not mob, it could not riot, it could not hold Richmond to ransom, as it had London at the time of the Gordon Riots. Moreover, the poor were deprived of their natural leaders—the skilled artisans—by racism, by the color of the poor. Again, once plantation slavery was established, the investment in labor became large and immovable, so the big planters ceased to be Englishmen in Virginia, but Virginians, and the flimsy wood houses gave way to the brick mansions of an established gentry. Free from social and political tension, rooted now in their own land, free as few societies have been from unrest and class hatred, the patriarchs of Virginia could, thanks to slavery, become the American freedom fighters. This, in essence, is Morgan’s very subtle thesis. Naturally it is argued in greater detail and with a wealth of factual support.

The most brilliant part of the book, I think, is the description of how slavery grew and servitude decayed in Virginia, not through any political decision, but because of the pressure of social and economic necessities on the ruling class. Only minor criticisms can, I think, be leveled at the chapters on the seventeenth century. The beginning is too long, but that is a matter of structure, not of content. In his desire to demonstrate that racism is not the major cause of slavery, Morgan sometimes gives a religious interpretation to evidence which, to others, would seem to be howling with racist overtones. But, in essence, he is right. There was no social need for racism until there was a vast army of black slaves. One point, I think, he misses in these chapters. Bacon’s Rebellion excepted, brief and fatuous as that was, the bonded servant in Virginia behaved with a docility which his English counterpart never displayed. Morgan thinks the English poor were passive (p. 326). Quite wrong: they were continuously rebellious, very violent in food riots, enclosure riots, turnpike riots; they often threatened arson and mayhem, and committed them.

Surely the reason for the passivity of Virginian bonded servants in the seventeenth century was their youth. The median age in Norfolk County between 1662-1680, according to Morgan, was between fifteen and sixteen; with the slower maturity of the seventeenth century, these were scarcely more than children, and seventeenth-century children were used to harsh discipline and frequent punishment. And in the earlier decades, when male mortality was so high, many, if not most, would have perished as young adolescents. Probably the freed men became more rebellious not only because they felt frustrated by a lack of land but also because they were an increasingly large group of mature men.

One would like to know far more about the age structure of immigrants, both male and female. Morgan does what he can with the scant evidence. One can only hope that lists or registers will still turn up. If the average age of servant and landless worker steadily increased, and the work force depended less on children and adolescents, who were so easy to discipline, this, too, would be an added incentive to slavery.

However, the major difficulty in Morgan’s book arises at the point where, slavery established, freedom begins to wave her flag. As if uneasy himself, Morgan almost rushes his book to a close. He has spent long and fascinating chapters on Roanoke and on early Jamestown, but the central core of his thesis is covered in three chapters. One deals with the role of racism in creating a gulf between the slaves and white poor; another presents the intricate argument of the oligarchy’s shift toward populism; and the last explains its addiction to freedom. All these chapters are fascinating, but the last is the weakest. Morgan maintains that the absence of any threat of continuing social turmoil between the white rich and not so rich, owing to the fact of the enslaved black labor force, enabled the white ruling class to accept, quite wholeheartedly, concepts of individual freedom and liberty. That is, black slavery obliterated white class struggle. Clever, very clever, but perhaps a little too mechanistic. There is not enough here on the diffusion of ideas about freedom and liberty; one would wish to know more and in exact detail about the education of the Virginian elite, how they acquired their attitudes to slavery as well as freedom—not merely Jefferson, but the average planter.

There is a far more haunting doubt in my mind about this final chapter. The Virginian planters were not the only society to solve the problem of the unruly poor by adopting wholesale slavery. Yet did other societies become, in similar circumstances, addicted to freedom—Jamaica, Barbados, and the rest? And the planters of Martinique were not notable for their support of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. If Virginia is unique, then why? To me Morgan’s final argument is remarkable, suggestive, and may be true, yet with the evidence that he presents it is far from completely proven.

I would suggest that some of the Virginian attitudes to freedom, to liberty, and to equality derive from aspects of British society in the seventeenth century, which had never been so deferential as some British historians would maintain. Also, its democratic experience was wider; its belief in the small freeholder as the purest form of political man was deeper than is commonly realized. These strands of belief or social attitudes, call them what you will, were woven into the life of colonial society before Virginia was committed wholeheartedly to slavery.

Morgan has some admirable and perceptive pages on Trenchard and Gordon, on Burgh, and on Fletcher of Saltoun, but one would wish to know more of what sermons were preached or read, what pamphlets from England or New England or Philadelphia were circulating in the early decades of the eighteenth century. Only then will we be able to tell how far attitudes to freedom, which were a commonplace part of the general structure of opposition to English oligarchy and corruption, had acquired special strength in Virginia because of the factors so brilliantly analyzed by Morgan. We may find that attitudes to freedom were as easy to inherit as attitudes to poverty. The further from London, the more powerful do we find these attitudes to freedom in England itself. And Virginia was very far, like Philadelphia or New England, where the same views were to be found.

The great merit of this profoundly important book is to put slavery back in the context of poverty and the exploitation of labor; here Morgan insists, rightly, on seeing this as a part, too, of Englishmen’s experience and attitudes. The second half of Morgan’s thesis, that the cause of “American Freedom” depended on the advantages conferred by the slave system, is striking and original; but it also needs further examination in the light of British and particularly English experience.


Prejudice & Slavery January 22, 1976

  1. *

    Slavery, Race and the Poor,” March 13, 1969, reprinted in In the Light of History (Houghton Mifflin, 1973).

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