Often social change is imperceptible to those living in its midst. It is like water oozing through a dam—at first a faint dampness, a trickle, a spurt, the cracks multiply and either the dam crumbles or the pushing waters are sufficiently eased to create a new, if unstable, equilibrium. To the Black Panthers and other groups of activists the change in social attitudes in America toward the Negro is derisory, and when not derisory a conscience-easing fake. To WASPS, conscious or unconscious, or to ethnic groups living near black ghettos or in competition with blacks for jobs, the rushing of the waters is so deafening that they are driven toward panic and hysteria. To the uneasy liberal, the situation borders on the grotesque. He wants to be fair, to make retribution, and yet he cannot easily accept the new black contempt toward the white, and he is also conscious, perhaps over-conscious, of a hatred of white democracy, a growing insistence on authoritarian, almost totalitarian, attitudes within the black community.

The situation of the historian is equally acute. What has been the role of the Negro in American history? What have been the long-term results of slavery and deprivation of civil rights? Indeed, what was the true nature of American slavery—was it the most evil type the world has known or no better and no worse than the rest of the New World experienced? These problems have never been easy to answer, but in the context of the present time they are much more difficult, for now the question has to be posed: how far was racism itself responsible for the wretchedness of the Negro slave? Did it give a peculiarly vicious twist to slavery? Indeed what are the connections between racism and slavery? Of course this raises the question of the nature of slavery—unbridled racism combined with absolute, or near absolute, authority of the racist master was unlikely to lead to anything but social brutality, to treating the slave more as a chattel than as a person.

At the present time the problem of racism and slavery is possibly the most insistent, for obvious reasons. For the professional historian there are other questions relating to slavery that are equally difficult but intellectually perhaps more exciting. There is Stanley M. Elkins’s brilliant and disturbing investigation of slavery and the Negro personality, examining the reasons for the development of the “Sambo” response of the Negro slave to his environment which help to explain the paucity of slave revolts in America. (No amount of black protest or black re-writing of history can overcome that fact. The American Negro slave protested less in his society than the free peasant class of Europe, or of England for that matter, and this needs explanation.) Less original, but more deeply and professionally argued is Eugene Genovese’s memorable book, The Political Economy of Slavery (1965), which attempts to relate all aspects of Southern life to its peculiar means of economic exploitation. Indeed, Genovese analyzes the social system based on slavery from its basic economic structure, through its institutionalization of power, to its self-justification, and sense of pride in itself. Slave society, Genovese has shown, was far more complex than most historians have allowed.

Apart from Elkins and Genovese many historians have recently made contributions of great value to the study of slavery and the South. Indeed the richness of historical writing is well brought out in the two anthologies under review. This type of book is stupidly despised by academicians with lunatic standards of scholarly endeavor, usually not for themselves, but for their pupils. Yet how could the modern undergraduate cope with the swelling bibliographies on any major theme without such assistance? Both American Negro Slavery: A Modern Reader, by Allen Weinstein and Frank Otto Gatell, and Black History: A Reappraisal provide an admirable selection of the best contemporary writers on the Negro question and will give the moderately diligent student an insight into some of the difficulties, arguments, and material of the problem.

Here he can read in fascinating apposition the bland apologetics of Ulrich B. Phillips, the moral incisiveness of Kenneth Stampp, the sophisticated approaches of David Brion Davis or Winthrop Jordan, and the valuable and all too rare local studies of Edward W. Phifer, whose account of slavery in Burke County ought to have many imitators, since even the best analyses of slavery often rely far too heavily on the great plantations of the Tidewater or the accounts of foreign travelers who kept to a well-worn track. Slaves, like the industrial proletariat, were exploited in many different ways, and, like the proletariat too, in varying degrees of inhumanity. It is as important not to concentrate on the worst as to forget it.

Yet in all this wide range of work on slavery, as exciting and original as any going forward on any other aspect of American social history, there is one omission. There is no comparative study of slavery and poverty. By this I do not mean a study of the economic condition of slaves compared with free Negroes in the slums of Southern cities such as New Orleans, which in fact has been examined by Richard C. Wade, but of the attitude of slaveowners toward slaves, compared with the attitude, not only of industrial, but of pre-industrial owners of wealth toward the poor, especially in the period 1540-1750 in Europe—for in a sense America had very few poor in the early centuries.


New World slavery raises two very serious questions. Why was it so easily accepted by all Western European nations at a time when slavery had ceased to be socially important? And, secondly, why did abolitionists become socially and politically effective from the last third of the eighteenth century onward? The answers to these questions will obviously illuminate the whole notion of slavery, but it is my conviction that these answers can be found only within the non-servile context of the exploitation of labor, and the ideology that goes with it. This brings one to Winthrop D. Jordan’s outstanding book, a volume to be placed alongside Stampp, Elkins, Davis, and Genovese. Jordan’s thesis is straightforward. The Elizabethan Englishmen coming across primitive black men for the first time were repelled. To them black men were associated with beastliness; their inferiority made them the lowest link in the Great Chain of Being. Blackness stimulated the Englishman’s sense of guilt and horror. His Devil was, after all, black, and he always put a high price upon fairness of skin. The primitive societies of West Africa, with their strange and divergent customs, strengthened the Elizabethan’s belief in the eternal, God-given inferiority of the Negro—a little higher, maybe, than the apes, but infinitely lower than the white Englishman. Negroes naturally were “addicted unto Treason, Treacherie, Murther, Theft and Robberie” as well as idleness and lechery.

Hence the proper status of Negroes was slavery. Slavery fitted their natures whose outward sign was the blackness of their skin. And it was because they were black that it became easy to justify slavery and maintain it. This racism can be further illustrated by the treatment of free or freed Negroes, whose rights were subject to strict limitation; even the onus of proof that he was free rested with the Negro, for society expected, because of his color, that he would necessarily be a slave. From the earliest days of slavery this element of racism—for example the detestation of miscegenation—was dominant and it became more and more powerful as Negroes grew in number and slavery became the dominant social system of the South. This, in essence, is Jordan’s argument and it is based on material which ranges from the sermons of sixteenth-century English bishops, obscure travelers’ reports from Africa, Court session records of the slave states, newspaper files throughout the South, the meditations of philosophers in the eighteenth century, and the voluminous correspondences of the Founding Fathers and many other sources. Indeed, the range of Jordan’s reading is prodigious.

That racism gave an added dimension to slavery cannot be doubted; but it is difficult to decide how extensive this dimension was. Jordan contends, with much quotation from Elizabethan literature and from African travelers’ tales, that the sixteenth-century Englishman regarded the Negro as not only savage, heathen, biologically close to the ape, but also as theologically damned; for the Negro was descended from Ham, Noah’s disinherited son, who was cursed by having black offspring. What was more, the Englishman’s Devil was always portrayed as black, so Negroes were associated with evil and linked ever more firmly to God’s curse. Furthermore, they proved helpless against the “angel-like” English, whose whiteness proclaimed them to be beloved of God: so, rightly, good was triumphing over evil.

These attitudes toward the Negroes made the enslavement of them by the English both natural and ferocious. Unlike Catholic Europeans, the English had no interest in conversion, and so long as the black remained a heathen savage in a Christian society the Negro slave could have no rights. Hence the slave possessed fewer human rights in English slave-holding societies than in others ancient or modern. From start to finish American slavery had an extensive racial quality: indeed Jordan calls it racial slavery. In one essential Jordan is correct. Negroes were considered born inferiors, born slaves if you will, to a degree that was never applied to many other groups of slaves. The Roman slave was treated just as brutally, at times far more brutally, than the Southern Negro. He certainly possessed no more rights. But, once freed, the world was open to him. He and his family could rise or fall like any other man in the Roman state, so long as he had either ability or money or both. Not so the Negro. The freed Negro entered a caste which was excluded from most of the benefits and all of the power in the society to which it belonged. And the basis of this exclusion was racial. This far one can go with Jordan.


But it could also be argued that racism went far beyond slavery so that it cannot be viewed simply as the major cause of slavery. Racism was not, of course, confined to the Southern slave masters or to Southern slave society in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was just as rampant in the Portuguese Empire. Franciscans in the seventeenth century in Goa attempted to prevent Portuguese born of pure white parents from entering their order on the grounds that having been suckled by Indian wet-nurses, their blood was contaminated for life (ex. inf. Professor C. R. Boxer). This surely is racism as extravagant as any to be found in the Southern states.

Again, Jordan makes a great deal of the deliberate exclusion of the Negro from the Anglican Church, but Catholic slaveowners were no more eager for their blacks to be a part of their Church. As one Portuguese slaveowner exclaimed indignantly, “Should my Kaffirs receive communion? God forbid that I should ever allow them.” Indeed the literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is full of savagely expressed racism directed not only to the Negro but to the Hindu, the Hottentot, the Welsh, Scots, Irish, French against English, English against the Dutch.

Nor was Negro slavery the only kind of slavery justified on racist grounds, nor was the Englishman’s attitude unique, as Jordan implies. If one glances at the reaction of the mandarins of the T’ang dynasty to the primitive peoples of Nam Viet (the tropical South), the response is the same: a combination of curiosity, superiority, and utter loathing. “Both conscience and law permitted the enslavement of these subject peoples all the more readily because of two persistent views of them,” writes Edward Schafer in The Vermilion Bird, his remarkable study of the T’ang mandarins’ attitude to the South, “an older one, that they were not really human, and a younger one derived from the first, that they were not really civilized.” These are arguments frequently used about the Negro; yet the enslavement of the primitive people of the Nam Viet never developed into the equivalent of Negro slavery, for the Chinese economy did not require slaves on such a scale.

Racism does not create slavery. It is an excuse for it. Racism was a rampant feature of the centuries when slavery was being established in America and it was, therefore, easy to make it one of the justifications for the institution. But racism could be intense and not lead to slavery—and racism does not explain why the European nations found so little difficulty in adopting slavery in their colonies long after the institution had become insignificant in Europe’s economic structure.

Although the institution had no economic relevance in contemporary Europe, the idea of slavery was both potent and entirely acceptable to Englishmen on stronger grounds than those of race. The House of Commons did not even turn a hair at the suggestion that persistent English vagabonds should be enslaved by their countrymen, and they passed an Act in 1547 for this purpose, along, of course, with branding the victims with a large S. It failed and was repealed, not on humanitarian grounds. No one wanted slaves—there was enough cheap labor without them, requiring no more food and less supervision. But the idea of white slavery was in no way repellent to the Tudors, or limited by them to savages and heathens. Indeed the condition of slavery had been accepted by the Church and by society from time out of mind; a part of that great law of subordination without which the whole edifice of society might crash to the ground. Without slave status, what would happen to bonded servants, to children sold as apprentices, to the indigent poor who had no rights in society except to labor? Slavery was only the most extreme of all servile conditions. Servant and slave were more than semantically linked.

The type of abuse that was hurled at the slave was hurled at the poor: particularly in English society, from which many Southern slave masters were drawn. Take these remarks of William Perkins, the popular puritan preacher of the early seventeenth century:

Rogues, beggars, vagabonds…commonly are of no civil society or corporation nor of any particular Church: and are as rotten legs and arms that drop from the body…. To wander up and down from year to year to this end, to seek and procure bodily maintenance is no calling, but the life of a beast.

or this, from his colleague Sibbes:

They are the refuse of mankind: as they are in condition so they are in disposition.

These puritan divines were more charitable than many. The rogues and vagabonds were, of course, the wandering poor desperate for food. Their lot was bloody whippings, frequent branding, and enforced labor. The early slave codes were very similar to the legislation designed to control the Elizabethan unemployed poor. Again, the poor were, it is now thought, expected neither to go to Church nor to be welcomed there. As for cruelty, treatment of apprentices could be vicious, the floggings and brandings meted out to the “dregs of society” of Elizabethan and Stuart England almost as savage as anything the Negro knew; perhaps at times more so, for the poor were no man’s property, hence valueless if sick, weak, or contumacious.

Again, miscegenation: the taboos against marrying the poor were formidable; for a woman it usually meant total ostracism. Yet, of course, the young servant women, like slave negresses, could be and were fair game for their masters. Even the Sambo mentality can be found in the deliberately stupid country yokel or the cockney clown of later centuries. So, too, the belief, as with Negroes, that they were abandoned sexually, given to both promiscuity and over-indulgence. Slave, servant, worker were the objects of exploitation, the sources of labor, therefore wealth. Hence we should not be surprised to find similar attitudes, similar social oppressions operating against the poor as against the slave. Slavery and poverty in these centuries are not different in kind but different in degree, and the disadvantage was not always the slave’s, for, as property, he might be treated with greater consideration in sickness or in age than the wage-slave.

Because America did not know poverty, rural or urban, as Europe did in those early formative years, historians tend to attribute to slavery conditions that spring from the intensive exploitation of labor, whether “free” or servile. I do not doubt that racism gave an added intensity, a further degree of hopelessness and degradation to slavery and the slave’s lot, and Jordan’s book is of immense value in driving this home. But it is important to see the similarities in the treatment of slaves and the poor: otherwise one cannot realize how natural slavery was to the majority of men who practiced it or accepted it. To underline this, if underlining be needed, slavery was often—not always, but often—at its cruellest where intensive economic exploitation was at its highest, namely on the great plantations. The comparatively mild slavery of Cuba became far more vicious and disciplined with the rise of the large sugar plantations, as Michael Banton points out in his admirable Race Relations, a book which really deserves far more extensive treatment than can be given it here.

Just as a discussion of slavery without a consideration of the exploitation of other laborers tends to obscure fundamental issues, so too can racism and questions of civil rights obscure the deeper issues. No amount of civil rights can alleviate the Negro’s lot, for much of the hatred of the blacks springs from the rich’s fear of the poor and dispossessed. The basis of the problem is exploitation: the gross injustice which acquisitive society always inflicts on those who have nothing to offer but their body’s labor. Hence an absence of an extended consideration of other laboring poor weakens to some extent the force of Jordan’s book.

Once Jordan moves into the eighteenth century there is a greater sense of mastery and he is particularly skillful in tracing the evasions of the Founding Fathers and the reasons why they could not face the question of abolition. Jordan analyzes very subtly the conflict between the insistence on natural rights and the Lockeian concept of the holiness of property. The easiest escape was to defend natural rights negatively, and, after the first flush of idealism, Revolutionary America had little difficulty in pushing the question of slavery to the sidelines. But that was as far as it could be pushed; for by 1800 white America’s dilemma became both clearer and more devastating to its conscience. How could they retain the purity of white America from black contamination? How could they preserve all that they thought was best in American society, even the inviolability of family life, if they allowed Negroes to be emancipated?

Yet their Revolutionary cultural heritage, their growing sense that Destiny had placed the moral future of the world in their hands “prohibited extreme, overt manifestations of aggression against them.” Here were the roots both of a crisis of conscience and of its solution. Slavery was destroyed, yet racism preserved. How this was achieved has been little understood. Presumably there will be a second volume which will deal with the complex issues of abolition, for only the early stages are touched on here.

The story of abolition, the reasons why the whole of Europe in the last third of the eighteenth century began to acquire a strong distaste first for the slave trade and then even for slavery itself is a vast question which none of the great historians of slavery—Davis, Jordan, Stampp, Genovese, Elkins—has attempted. It is a highly complex issue. The important factor is not the conversion of Quakers to anti-slavery attitudes, nor the convictions of a few intellectuals (voices, some weak, some powerful, had always been raised against slavery). The real question is why did abolition acquire a strong social basis, why did it become a passionate political issue? Again, I believe that this cannot be understood in isolation from the working class and the different attitude which was developing toward it. The most fertile ground for conversion to anti-slavery agitation, besides the Quakers, was in England among the entrepreneurs of the industrial revolution. The manufacturing districts (as against the commercial) were inclined to produce the subscribers, the speakers, and the supporters of the anti-slavery movement: not all, of course, but it was an area of marked sympathy.

From the middle of the eighteenth century, and indeed far earlier among the Quaker industrialists, one can find a changing attitude to the poor laboring man, the attitude that he turned into a better, more profitable tool if he were given incentives, that is, if he were encouraged to feel that his work possessed opportunities for self-advancement and better conditions, no matter how rudimentary. Furthermore, the new industrial methods required more self-disciplined, skillful, better educated, literate laborers. The more imaginative, speculative manufacturers, such as Josiah Wedgwood, Jedediah Strutt, and Robert Owen, experimented with bonus schemes, better housing, workers’ canteens, schools, and the like. Instead of laboring men, exploiters now wanted tools, and far more tools than the old craftsman methods of industrial organizations permitted; also their new tools needed to be more specialized. Master craftsmen were not wanted. Tools or “hands” were wanted, and they could be created from the laboring masses. Moreover, a pool of laboring men, skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled, selling their labor on a free market, was invaluable for keeping down wages. In a world of violent business cycles, “free” labor obviously had great advantages over unfree. Manufacturers’ attitudes were rarely as crudely materialistic as this, any more than were those of the slaveowners. Many were devoted to their workers, helped them in harsh times, and developed a patriarchal attitude, but this does not change the basic situation.

So the whole attitude toward exploitation began to change, very slowly but with gathering momentum, and the poor began to turn into the working class. But this working class, of course, was sharply differentiated internally and, needing a mass base of free wage-slaves, was treated often with a callousness which was no less evil than that of slavery, and which was often justified by the same bogus scientific arguments that were used to justify racism. Of course, racism did not die. Indeed, given the right conditions, as with the influx of East European Jews into London’s East End in the late nineteenth century, it intensified. The same is true with Negroes in America.

The flourishing state of racism throughout the world, post abolition, should make us chary of explaining slavery in its terms. Still, slavery was abolished and the most powerful world leaders, for the first time in recorded history, deliberately set out to get both the slave trade and slavery abolished. It became politically and socially useful for them to pursue such a policy. Slavery began to appear as archaic and its personal brutalities and restrictions were anathematized. Slavery became the antithesis of modernity. It cannot be an accident that the leadership of the anti-slavery agitation on a world-wide scale was conducted by Great Britain, the most industrialized nation in the world. However, that is another and a longer story. The point that I wish to emphasize is that the study of slavery, disengaged from the general history of the exploitation of labor, has inherent dangers, leading to a false emphasis and to a too simplified causation. It is even more confusing to see it entirely in terms of racism.

It is good to see so many of the best American historians tackling one of the greatest historical problems of their society—the slave South and its complex repercussions. Among these Winthrop Jordan has won a deservedly high place with this magnificent book—scholarly, perceptive, and intellectually sophisticated. After reading it, turn to Michael Banton’s Race Relations, which gives a remarkably panoramic view of a problem that goes deeper into human society than slavery, a hideously complex problem whose solution will not be so easily achieved as abolition was.

This Issue

March 13, 1969