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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

The gradual emergence of a regime dominated by plantations in the Chesapeake colonies and its relatively sudden rise at about the same time in South Carolina provided a setting for what Berlin calls the “plantation generations” of North American slaves. By the early eighteenth century most slaves came directly from traditional African societies and were subjected to a harsher, more closed environment than their “charter generation” predecessors. (Eighteenth-century Louisiana under the French and Spanish went for a time in the other direction, evolving from a slave society to a society with slaves.) The political and social upheavals at the end of the eighteenth century gave rise to the “revo- lutionary generations,” some of whose members gained freedom through private manumissions, as in the upper South, or were gradually emancipated through public action, as in the Northern states. To the generations discussed in his early work, Berlin has now added “migration generations” to illuminate what happened to African-Americans as a result of the expansion of the plantation system from the eastern seaboard into the Cotton Kingdom of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas.

Without the support of the American legal and political system, the expansion of slavery through the migration of masters and slaves could not have taken place. In the second chapter of Challenging the Boundaries of Slavery, Davis describes the year 1819 as a decisive point for the rest of the antebellum era. The controversy over whether or not Missouri should be admitted to the Union as a slave state coincided with two other seemingly independent developments: the Supreme Court’s endorsement of an expanded role for the federal government in fostering economic development and the beginnings in New England of a reinterpretation of the Bible that offered a potential challenge to the scriptural literalism that made slavery acceptable to many Christians. Davis believes that these ideological innovations foreshadowed the clash between slavery and modern liberal capitalism that would be resolved only in the Civil War. But the Missouri Compromise of 1820 allowed for the continued expansion of slavery in a westerly direction and maintained the parity in the number of free and slave states that the South regarded as essential for the preservation of its “rights.” In 1819 the slaveholding American republic that Don Fehrenbacher has written about was still strengthening its hold on the government and the law.

In disagreement with the views of one wing of the abolitionist movement, as well as with some recent historians, Fehrenbacher does not view the Constitution itself as a proslavery document. The three-fifths clause, he contends, was a genuine compromise and not a concession to slaveholders. The fraction itself originated as a device for using population as a surrogate for wealth in allocating taxes under the Articles of Confederation. In the deliberations leading to the Constitution it served as an alternative to counting all slaves for the purpose of representation, which would have advantaged slaveholders more than a three-fifths clause. Except for slaves, representation was based on total population, not on the voting population. If women and children were included, why not slaves? Not counting them at all would be to the North’s advantage in the Electoral College and the House of Representatives, but would have clearly implied that blacks were not human beings, even inferior ones.3

Fehrenbacher does not go so far as to view the Constitution as “antislavery” (as another school of abolitionists would attempt to do), but he does consider it a genuine compromise. It allowed opponents to hope for the gradual elimination of slavery through in- dividual state action, as was beginning to occur in the North, while granting those who benefited from slavery relief from the prospect of direct federal intervention. None of the three clauses in the Constitution that mention slavery—the three-fifths clause, the prohibition of a ban on the international slave trade for twenty years, and the provision for the return of fugitives from one state to another—“recognized slavery as having any legitimacy in federal law. On the contrary, the framers were doubly careful to treat it explicitly as a state institution.”

Hence—and this is Fehrenbacher’s central argument—the United States was not founded as a slaveholding republic but only became one because of the ability of the slaveholders to impose their will through policies and legislation based on dubious or clearly erroneous interpretations of the Constitution. Fehrenbacher then describes in detail exactly how the slaveholders used their political leverage to further their interests in different activities of the federal government—the administration of the District of Columbia, the conduct of foreign policy, efforts to suppress the African slave trade, federal involvement in the return of fugitive slaves, and decisions on whether slavery would be allowed in federal territories.

Fehrenbacher thus gives new credibility to the view of Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans of the late 1850s that an aggressive slave power was thwarting the desire of the Founding Fathers to put slavery on “the path to ultimate extinction” and was in fact acting to extend and nationalize the South’s “peculiar institution.” The Republican victory in 1860 was therefore “a sharp break with the past” that had “revolutionary implications for southerners.” It is altogether fitting that Fehrenbacher, long a distinguished and sympathetic interpreter of Lincoln’s response to the sectional crisis, should have produced as his last book the most convincing vindication to date of Lincoln’s view of the Constitution and its relation to slavery.4

But the man who did so much to save the Republic from the slaveholders also took at times a very pessimistic view of the future of black–white relations in the United States. On several occasions—as late as 1862—he advocated a total separation of the races through government-subsidized colonization of African-Americans somewhere outside the United States. (The American Colonization Society had been advocating this “solution” to the problem of slavery and race since 1817.) Until late in the war, and certainly until after the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, Lincoln seemed settled in his belief that the prejudice of whites against blacks was so deep-seated that it would forever prevent the two races from living together in equality.5

Did Lincoln’s longstanding racial pessimism make him a white supremacist or simply a political realist responding pragmatically to the intense racism of the time? In the third and final chapter of his book Davis discusses the antislavery movement and faults the abolitionists for their lack of realism in an era when the color line was hardening: “However much we deplore the racism of many colonizationists, we cannot deny that their vision of the future was more realistic than that of the later abolitionists.” The North’s ultimate turn against slavery was not, he suggests, a result of the abolitionists’ appeal to conscience and human solidarity. “By continually overreacting to a somewhat neutral, complacent, and racist North, Southern militants created an antislavery North in the sense that many Northerners felt personally and justifiably threatened by an undemocratic Slave Power.” This of course was precisely the sentiment to which Lincoln appealed, setting in motion a process that would result in the abolition of slavery in a nation that remained strongly committed to white supremacy.

One might conclude from the impressions that Fehrenbacher and Davis convey of white racial attitudes and actions that African-American slaves would have been so brutally treated that they would have had little chance to make a life for themselves that provided a measure of dignity and self-respect. But Berlin’s account of how the slaves themselves survived the decades just before the Civil War makes them appear self-reliant and creative to an almost superhuman extent when we consider what they were up against. He makes no claims about the paternalistic benevolence of the masters—quite the contrary—but he nevertheless finds that the slaves for the most part managed to avoid the despair and degradation that their circumstances might have warranted.

The key distinguishing feature of slave experience during this period, according to Berlin, was the forced migration of more than a million African- Americans from the older slave states to the newer ones, an uprooting that made being a slave temporarily even more demoralizing than it had been in more stable plantation communities. The huge shift of black people from the seaboard slave states to the Cotton Kingdom of the southwest qualifies in his view as a “second middle passage,” recalling the trauma of the earlier Atlantic crossing. The internal slave trade that accounted for most of this movement made the economies of the upper or non-cotton-growing South more dependent on the raising of slaves for the interstate market than on the production of agricultural commodities.

Throughout his book, Berlin emphasizes family and kinship as the basic mechanism for slave survival. His work thus follows in the tradition of the late Herbert Gutman, whose book on the slave family I reviewed in these pages more than twenty-five years ago.6 Although he endorses recent studies showing that family breakup was a common feature of the interstate trade, Berlin contends that black families of a cohesive and emotionally fulfilling kind survived the disruption of previously established relationships. Against the odds and after much suffering, the migrating slaves managed to reestablish a sense of community based on family and kinship. While fully acknowledging the brutality of the slave trade and the plantation regime, he contends that circumstances could not deprive the slaves of “agency”—the ability to take action in their own interest—and community.

One might expect that an interpretation stressing the slaves’ ability to act independently of their masters would make much of the occasions when they directly resisted white authority. But there is very little in Generations of Captivity about open rebelliousness or defiance. Much recent scholarship on the lives that the slaves made for themselves finds that “slave resistance” was almost exclusively a matter of slaves struggling to maintain their own culture and has little to say about rebellion, sabotage, purposeful malingering, or running away. If earlier liberal or leftist historians made too much of open rebelliousness or “day-to-day resistance,” it may be that the newer emphasis on culture and community, of which Berlin is a leading proponent, does not pay enough attention to more desperate and violent responses to being held in bondage. The basic dilemma of slavery studies “from the bottom up” has always been that too much emphasis on oppression makes African-Americans simply victims and thereby denies them a usable past, while too much stress on their ability to act on their own behalf and on their cultural creativity tends to obscure the extreme brutality of the system, making it seem almost benign. The pendulum has swung so far in the direction of creative action by slaves that a corrective may be impending, as some recent studies suggest.7

Berlin’s concluding point is that two distinctive black cultural traditions were carried over from the era of slavery into that of Reconstruction. One, deriving primarily from Northern free blacks, stressed individualism and self-help; the other, coming directly from the slave plantation experience, was a kind of communalism that valued family solidarity over the individual acquisition of wealth and status. Berlin does not explicitly take sides in his evaluation of these two traditions, but I detect here and in some other recent works of African-American history an image of the slave community that seems designed to serve as the basis for a cultural critique of the dominant American ethos of liberal capitalism.8 Whatever its ethical or philosophical merits, such an approach risks obscuring the realities of slavery by romanticizing an experience that entailed enormous suffering and was in many ways disabling. The right balance between slavery as a source of African-American culture and community and slavery as debilitating oppression has yet to be struck.

















  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.

  3. 3

    Here I find myself in some disagreement with Garry Wills’s new book Negro President: Jefferson and the Slave Power (Houghton Mifflin, 2003). Unlike Fehrenbacher, Wills views the three-fifths clause as a Southern power grab rather than as a genuine compromise.

  4. 4

    Fehrenbacher’s Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s (Stanford University Press, 1962) remains the classic study of Lincoln’s emergence as national political figure and his influence on the ideological development of the Republican Party.

  5. 5

    See my essay “A Man but Not a Brother: Abraham Lincoln and Racial Equality,” in The Arrogance of Race: Historical Perspective on Slavery, Racism and Social Inequality (Wesleyan University Press, 1988), pp. 54–72. I now believe that in this essay, originally published in 1975, I overstated somewhat the consistency and durability of Lincoln’s racial views; they changed significantly during the last two years of the war. By then the military contribution of black troops to the Union cause and the public response that it evoked made him more hopeful that racial equality could be achieved.

  6. 6

    See my review of The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750–1925 (Pantheon, 1976), The New York Review, September 30, 1976. Another new work that follows in this tradition and enlarges upon it by showing the relationship between the familialism of African-Americans and their conceptions of property is Dylan C. Penningroth, The Claims of Kinfolk: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South (University of North Carolina Press, 2003).

  7. 7

    A critique of the dominant conception or “paradigm” of the black family, and the emphasis on “agency” to which it has given rise, can be found in a new book by a sociologist who specializes in the demographic history of Appalachia. See Wilma A. Dunaway, The African-American Family in Slavery and Emancipation (Cambridge University Press, 2003), especially pp. 4–5, 268–274, 285. An earlier effort to redress the balance between agency and coerciveness was Norrece T. Jones, Born a Child of Freedom Yet a Slave: Mechanisms of Control and Strategies of Resistance in Antebllum South Carolina (Wesleyan University Press, 1990).

  8. 8

    For a good example of this tendency, see the monumental and in many ways very impressive new book by Steven Hahn—A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2003).

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