Analysis – American Slavery American Freedom

American Slavery – American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (Edmund S. Morgan, W.W. Norton & Company, 1975).

Author and historian Edmund S. Morgan takes a very thorough and chronological approach to the growth of slavery as an institution starting from the very first landed settlements all the way to the first struggles of the American Revolution.  More importantly, as Morgan focuses on Virginia, he strives to explain the great paradox of how both slavery and freedom can emanate from the same roots of this influential colony.  How could self-proclaimed bastions of virtue, liberty and equality possibly foster two diametrically opposed ideals of freedom and slavery at the same time?  Morgan puts the history of the Virginia colony under the microscope to assess this problem.

According to Morgan, colonial conditions in the seventeenth century are grim at best.  He denotes a toxic mix of corruption, laziness, greed, xenophobia, class exploitation, and cold calculating political self-interest.  The treatment and contempt of Indians and poor, as displayed in the political corruption and struggles between Nathaniel Bacon and Governor Berkeley, suggests one of the root causes of the growth of racism according to Morgan.  “Resentment of an alien race might be more powerful than resentment of an upper class.” (p. 269)  The first of these alien targets were the Indians.  Resentment sprang forth during the original landings and settlements.  “Indians, keeping to themselves, laughed at your superior methods and lived from the land more abundantly and with less labor than you did. They even furnished you with the food that you somehow did not get around to growing enough of yourselves. To be thus condescended to by heathen savages was intolerable.  And when your own people started deserting in order to live with them, it was too much. . . So you killed the Indians, tortured them, burned their villages, burned their cornfields. It proved your superiority in spite of your failures” (p. 90)

The next target, according to Morgan, would be African black slaves. As the book takes detailed aim at the seventeenth century, the author demonstrates a perfect mix of a diminishing Indian population, a reduced white indentured servant population and a growing African black labor pool as critical factors in the shift towards racism.  “Anyone could tell black from white, even if black was actually brown or red.  And as the number of poor white Virginians diminished, the vicious traits of character attributed by Englishmen to their poor could in Virginia increasingly appear to be the exclusive heritage of blacks.”  (p. 386)  This created a propertied aristocracy at the top of a distinctly English style society.  Blacks quickly became the new ‘alien race’, one that conveniently did not qualify to have the same principles of liberty, equality and freedom afforded to them.  These were proud English rights.  As the growing aristocracy took on a distinctively white nature and the poor population increasingly shifted in makeup to the African black, the ongoing English contempt for lower class poor morphed into racism.

There are a couple of issues with the book.  From the reader’s perspective, this book becomes mired down in detail.  This is true to the point of fatigue as the reader struggles to discern the real crux of the issue, which Morgan returns to only in the end.  In addition, the book tends to shut down too quickly, only focusing on the early beginnings of the colony through the end seventeenth century.  Morgan only presents brief early eighteenth century information.  It would be fascinating to push further, to explore how the growth of racism and liberty weave their way into a symbiotic relationship during the formation of the Constitution.

Despite these small shortcomings, Morgan lays out a thorough roadmap to discern the origins of the great Virginia paradox of liberty and slavery. As we come full circle, we remember that the initial target was the Indian population.  They were the poor ‘alien race’, insignificant to English settlers.   They did not challenge whites for land or profit, but they, along with the colonial poor, became a palatable target for contempt.  According to Morgan, “Virginia looked like the best poor man’s country in the world.” (p. 184)  Nathaniel Bacon’s example proves that the poor historically rise up from time to time.  This gives insight to a growing fear of such factions.  According to republicanism, such factions could upset or threaten liberty.  Federalists later addressed this very issue in their push to form a strong national government through the Constitution.   That brings us to the paradox of the Virginia colony and to Morgan’s seminal argument – racist slavery evolved into ‘a necessary evil’ that both kept the poor in check and promoted English views of equality and liberty for the upper classes. (p. 384-385)