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 …

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Letters

Prejudice & Slavery January 22, 1976