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America’s Original Sin

The institution of slavery has had a profound and lasting effect on American history. Virtually all historians now agree that sectional differences on the slavery issue caused the Civil War. Until the eve of that conflict the slaveholding interest was so economically and politically powerful as to appear virtually impregnable. No one could reasonably have predicted in 1860 that the emancipation of more than four million African-American slaves would come within five years. Nothing short of the needs and emotions aroused by the vast bloodletting required to preserve the Union could, in so short a time, have abolished an institution that had sunk such deep roots in America. Before the war, lawyers, politicians, clergymen, even physical anthropologists had defended it against a Northern abolitionist movement that had never gained much popular support. In Challenging the Boundaries of Slavery, his brief but incisive reflections on slavery in American and world history, David Brion Davis sums up the economic basis for the slaveholders’ power in antebellum America:

There were strong economic reasons for the broad national reach of American slavery. Southern slave-grown cotton was by far the nation’s leading export. It powered textile-manufacturing revolutions in both New England and England, and it paid for American imports of everything from steel to investment capital. Moreover, since the price of slaves continued to soar through the antebellum decades, American slaves represented more capital than any other asset in the nation, with the exception of land. In 1860 the value of Southern slaves was about three times the value of the capital stock in manufacturing and railroads nationwide.

Ira Berlin, in his Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves, shows that the Northern states, despite having gradually emancipated their own slaves between the Revolution and the 1830s, were deeply implicated in the protection and preservation of slavery in the South. Northern free blacks agitated vigorously for the freedom of their brethren in bondage, but the discrimination and violence to which they were exposed in the North left them for the most part disfranchised, impoverished, and (especially after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850) unsure whether they could maintain their own freedom against slave catchers and kidnappers. Berlin goes so far as to characterize the free African-Americans of the antebellum North as living in what amounted to “maroon colonies” (analogous to the independent communities that escaped slaves were able to establish in remote regions of Jamaica, Guyana, and Brazil). Like maroons they were isolated from whites and only precariously free. There were sympathetic white abolitionists, but they were an unpopular minority, without political power and unable to develop a plausible strategy to end slavery (at least not until the attempted secession of Southern states in 1861 made it possible to advocate emancipation as a means to preserve the Union).

The Slaveholding Republic—a work left unfinished by Don E. Fehrenbacher when he died in 1997 and ably completed and edited by his one-time student Ward M. McAfee—reveals for the first time the full extent of the slaveholders’ dominance over the federal government in the period between the constitutional convention and the election of Lincoln in 1860. It is well known that a majority of US presidents and Supreme Court justices before 1860 were Southern slaveholders and that both of the national political parties of the period between the 1830s and the 1850s—the Democrats and the Whigs—deferred to a proslavery faction. But Fehrenbacher also reveals in detail the myriad ways in which the federal government acted as the direct agent of slavery and slaveholders. It did so in its governance of the District of Columbia, its conduct of foreign policy (which included seeking compensation for slaves carried off in wars or escaping into other national jurisdictions), and its role in the recapture and return of fugitives who had made it to “the free states.”

These three books, therefore, offer differing perspectives on what might be considered the original sin of America—the enslavement and brutal exploitation of millions of people of African descent over a period of almost 250 years. From whatever angle it is examined, however, slavery left deep scars that have not yet healed. Its legacy persists to this day in the failure to extend full equality to African-Americans. Slavery and its consequences, these books tell us, were not incidental or secondary aspects of American history but constitute its central theme. Rather than being an exception to the grander themes of liberty and democracy, slavery and the racism it engendered have exposed the shallowness and narrowness of the national commitment to these ideals.

The first basic question that might be asked about the history of African-American slavery is how it originated and what its antecedents were. In challenging the conventional boundaries of the subject, Davis goes back to the enslavement of black Africans resulting from Arab expansion into North and East Africa, which began in the seventh and eighth centuries. The numbers of black slaves imported into the Islamic lands of the Middle East and North Africa during a period of some twelve hundred years may have been as great, if not greater, than the number carried across the Atlantic to the Americas between the fifteenth century and the nineteenth. Neither the Koran nor Islamic law gave any sanction to racism, and Muslims always held white as well as black slaves. But in practice there was a tendency, which may have influenced southern Europeans who came in contact with Islamic slavery in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, to discriminate among the slaves on the basis of color; the most arduous and demeaning tasks were reserved for the darker-skinned.

During the late medieval period, southern Europeans, especially Italians, were heavily involved in the slave trade that transported Caucasians from the Dalmatian coast and regions north of the Black Sea to Egypt and Syria, where they were sometimes used to produce sugar. (The word “slave” in English, as well as its homophones in other European languages, has the same root as “Slav.”) As Europeans developed a taste for sugar and tried to grow their own on Mediterranean islands, they initially employed such white captives. But two almost simultaneous events—the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 and the beginnings of a slave trade involving Portugal and sub-Saharan West Africa—changed the source of slavery and gave new impetus to the development of plantation agriculture. The Turkish conquests cut off ready access to Europe’s previous sources of both sugar and slaves, encouraging the Portuguese to develop plantation colonies on the eastern Atlantic islands of Madeira, Cape Verde, and São Tomé in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. By the time Columbus arrived in America, Madeira was a thriving prototype for the use of enslaved Africans to grow sugar and other commercial crops in the New World.

During the next three centuries there occurred the largest shift of population that the world had ever seen, and most of it was from Africa to the Americas by means of the Atlantic slave trade. “By 1820,” Davis writes, “…at least ten million African slaves had arrived in the New World, as opposed to a grand total of two million Europeans.” But the shocking fact is that by 1820 the two million Europeans had become twelve million, whereas the ten million Africans had left only six million descendants. No other set of figures so graphically illustrates the inhumanity of slavery and the slave trade.

What was new about New World slavery was not only the sheer numbers involved, but also “its specifically racial character.” Davis points out that “degrading stereotypes of the slave” had long existed but were now for the first time associated exclusively with people of African ancestry. The linkage of Africans with slavery and servility was, he concludes, “at the heart of white racism.” There is a perennial debate among historians about the causal connection between New World slavery and white racism. Did racism emerge primarily as a rationale for slavery or did the Africans’ physical characteristics and the stereotypes associated with them make them seem uni- quely eligible for enslavement? From Davis’s account and from what I know of the sources he uses, I would conclude that blacks originally became prime candidates for lifetime servitude not so much because of their race or color as because they were readily available at a time when access to slaves of any other color was severely limited and certainly incapable of meeting the demand for plantation laborers in the New World. But once the assoc-iation was made between servitude and pigmentation, it would take more than the abolition of slavery itself to remove the stigma associated with blackness.

While Davis provides a worldwide perspective and covers more than a millennium of servitude, Ira Berlin concentrates on what would become the United States between the early seventeenth century and the era of emancipation and reconstruction. His Generations of Captivity is a sequel to an earlier book, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America, published in 1998.1 The first three chapters of the new work summarize the earlier study, and the fourth carries the story forward from the 1820s to the 1860s. Because so much of the book is not really new, readers may underestimate the importance of what has been added. The subtitle—“A History of African-American Slaves”—suggests that the book is not so much a study of slavery in all of its aspects as an effort to convey the everyday life and typical experiences of the slaves themselves. As a practitioner of social history “from the bottom up” Berlin pays relatively little attention to how the masters viewed themselves or to the political and ideological controversies to which the existence of slavery eventually gave rise.

The kind of world that the slaves could make for themselves, he continues to argue here, as he did in his earlier work, depended to a considerable extent on whether they lived in “a society with slaves” or in “a slave society.” In the former the labor force was only marginally composed of black people who were owned by whites. Before the end of the seventeenth century the Chesapeake colonies of Virginia and Maryland were such societies, because white indentured servants rather than black slaves did most of the work on the plantations. In a “slave society” slavery was the dominant labor system, and there was a sharp and deep divide between the caste or status group that included the masters and that to which the slaves belonged.

The first or “charter” generations of North American slaves, Berlin contends, were mostly “Atlantic Creoles” who did not come directly from traditional African societies but rather from the cosmopolitan enclaves on the Atlantic rim that served as depots for the seventeenth-century slave trade to Brazil and the sugar islands of the West Indies. They tended to have Spanish or Portuguese surnames, some knowledge of a European language, and a previous exposure to Christianity. In a society not yet committed to a heavy reliance on slavery, these pioneer African- Americans were often able to become free, develop skills, and even acquire land and servants of their own. It was not until the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries that Virginia and Maryland evolved into true slave societies. As white indentured servants became harder to recruit and as African slaves became available in large numbers and at affordable prices, a class of large slaveholding planters emerged and seized social and political control of the two colonies.2

  1. 1

    Belknap Press/Harvard University Press.

  2. 2

    See Anthony S. Parent, Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society in Virginia, 1660–1740 (University of North Carolina Press, 2003) for a thorough discussion of this transition.

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