Edmund S. Morgan. American Slavery American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1975.
Edmund S. Morgan Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University, in 1975, produced an illuminating study on the twin births of American slavery and liberty in colonial Virginia. The author observes that a strange paradox emerged in Virginia’s experience. That colony produced many key leaders of the early republic like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson who secured American independence from Great Britain. He also observes that many of these same figures were slave holders. In his work, Morgan attempts to explain, using colonial Virginia, how American conceptions of freedom and liberty accompanied the rise of slavery.
Morgan begins his exploration of the issue by examining conceptions of freedom during Elizabethan-era England. Many English citizens thought that their country provided the greatest degree of freedom that existed in sixteenth century Europe. England represented a society based upon liberty with its representative parliamentary body and its adherence to Protestantism. This was in stark contrast to the absolute monarchy and tyrannical Catholicism that existed in Spain. Some English writers like Richard Hakluyt thought that Britain should spread this freedom to the New World. This dream of spreading English freedom motivated many that challenged Spanish rule of the Western Hemisphere. Sir Francis Drake, one of the English privateers that plundered Spanish settlements and treasure ships, attempted to give his activities some moral color by professing that he was liberating Indians and Africans from Spanish slavery. Many English leaders contrasted their country with the brutal and autocratic colonial rule of the Spanish. This dream of spreading English freedom also fired the imagination of those that wanted to colonize the New World.
Sir Walter Raleigh and others harbored dreams that they could construct an ideal colony in North America. A bi-racial society based upon English conceptions of liberty would emerge from these plans. These early English colonizers thought that it would provide opportunity for England’s poor and North American Indians. The lower classes could find work and escape the gallows or workhouses that removed the idle from British society. In addition, Indians schooled in English civilization would also provide another source of labor for the proposed colonies. However, these Indians remained resistant to English attempts to civilize them which led many to regard them as savage or inferior. In turn, some Englishmen were less than hesitant in their efforts to enslave or remove these native populations. It would appear that these conceptions of inferiority and savagery would be easily transferable to a growing number of Africans that began arriving in Virginia in 1619.
While Roanoke failed and Jamestown struggled through its first years a new cash commodity promised that the English presence in Virginia would succeed. Tobacco, introduced by John Rolfe in 1610, proved to be an economic boon for the Virginia colony. However, labor was needed to cultivate and harvest the plant. Indentured servants that came from England’s poor provided the first source of labor in the tobacco fields of Virginia. The colony provided a better opportunity for the lower classes, despite the high mortality rates of Virginia, than if they remained in England. Additionally, the high morality rates also made indentured servants as cost effective as slaves during the early years of the colony However subsequent events that culminated in Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 changed the labor force and the worldview of colonial Virginia.
Several factors predicted the introduction of African slavery into the colony. Young men who had served out their indentures roamed Virginia without property. Opportunity closed as Virginia’s planter class acquired much of the prime acreage of the colony. Land scarcity provided the main source of class antagonism. This discontent exploded into Bacon’s Rebellion in which Virginia’s poor took out its resentments by plundering the estates of the planter class. In addition, mortality rates dropped and the flow of English servants stopped. These conditions all contributed to the employment of a new labor system in Virginia. Colonial leaders did not want a roving class of the English poor in their colony. Officials had taken steps to ameliorate this problem with extended periods of servitude and taxes. However, it was almost unthinkable to enslave an Englishmen who had been born free under English law. In order to solve the labor problem and end class conflict Virginians began to turn to African slaves. These slaves born into “savagery” would never be considered English citizens. The emergence of racism also made it easier to enslave Africans over free born white Englishmen. Only when class differences disappeared, in Morgan’s opinion, could liberty flourish in colonial Virginia. Morgan constructs a well- written and researched narrative. He produces a thought-provoking work about the relationship between American slavery and freedom.
Robert H. Butts
American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonia Virginia. By Edmund S. Morgan. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1975
The venerable Edmund Morgan, prolific historian of the colonial era,
weighs in on perhaps the most complex paradox of the United States experiment—the
holding of slaves by those who touted liberty and freedom for all men.
The cradle of the irony, in Morgan’s mind, is Virginia—both the home of
proponents of liberty such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and
Samuel Davies, as well as the colony housing the largest population of
slaves at the time of the Revolution, and in order to find the answer to
the paradox, one must look here. With grace and precision, Morgan
details the rise of labor theory as well as the beginning concepts of Republicanism
in Virginia and in the end demonstrates how slavery itself became a necessary,
although horrific, component in Virginia that enabled the rise of the Revolutionary
concepts of liberty and equality for all (white) men.
Morgan’s book breaks down into four basic sections: early English colonization, the beginnings of a stable colony in Virginia, the growing problems of maintaining an indentured servant class, and the acceptance of African slaves as a permanent labor force. While the first two sections provide the necessary context for the English colony, the final two parts are where Morgan brings together the meat of his argument. Throughout the early stages of Virginia’s development, the leaders rejected the use of Native American labor and instead relied upon the importation indentured servants from Great Britain. Under this system, men would be allowed over time to work off their slave status and eventually rise to a level of small farmer in Virginia. According to Morgan, given the high mortality rate during this period, the indentured system seemed the best labor option for the period—if the servant dies, the owner only lost the cost of Atlantic passage. However, the growing number of yeoman farmers and indentured servants within the socially stratified society led to some tense moments—the most famous being Bacon’s Rebellion. Fearing a continued importation of radical and potentially uncontrollable elements in their Virginia, the planters decided to turn elsewhere for their labor supply. Thus, Virginians began to heavily import African slaves.
In the Virginian’s mind, slavery benefited the society by providing a labor force whose social status could remain permanent. In addition, the rising racism or British elitism of the colonists caused them to view the Africans as a permanent “other,” thus allowing for mistreatment of slaves with little to no remorse. As the Africans came in, a new level of society emerged, and the white working and yeoman classes were thus elevated in social status and united in likeness with the aristocrats. Therefore, Virginian leaders were in a position to begin to espouse Republican ideals of equality and freedom without fearing the loss of either their economic or social structure.
American Slavery American Freedom is wonderfully easy to read and presents a compelling solution to the American dilemma. Although some critics have disagreed with some of his arguments, such as the low mortality rates or his analysis of the development of racism, the work nonetheless became a standard when it was published over twenty-five years ago and continues to hold its own today in both scholarship and interpretation.
American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. By Edmund S. Morgan. (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, c. 1975. Pp. x, 454.)
Edmund Morgan, who is Sterling Professor of American History Emeritus
at Yale, has written a history of Virginia during the first six decades
of the seventeenth century. The study featured original source material,
including county court records, diaries, reminisces and correspondence
as well as secondary sources. Morgan provided excellent footnoting,
many with annotations, a bibliographic essay, index, and added an impressive
appendix filled with statistics and graphs. Indeed, statistics played
a major role and are found throughout the pages, providing interesting
perspectives that at times overwhelm the reader.
Morgan argued that the central paradox of American history was that the colonists who began and won the American Revolution in the eighteenth century obtained both their ideas of freedom and their slaves from the generations that settled Virginia from 1600 to 1660. He, however, argued that the simultaneous development of two seemingly dissimilar events was neither contradictory nor inconsistent, suggesting that the two aspects of Virginia society were, in fact, complementary, that one supported the other in a symbiotic relationship. Societies free of slaves actually hindered establishment of equality because the upper classes would always fear that their support of democratic ideas would unleash a mass of free poor who would use those beliefs as a force to undo the social and economic order. Slavery, by providing a controlled, confined, and unarmed lowest class, allowed Virginians to profess a love of liberty and democratic ideas without worrying that they might incite rebellion. Therefore, aristocrats might more safely preach and believe in equality when they do so in a slave society rather than in a free one.
Facilitating the process were forces that prevented the unification of slaves and the free poor at the same time that other issues began to provide a common ground of interests between the aristocracy and the freedmen. Slavery removed a large source of friction in that it ended the exploitation of freedmen by large planters, who Morgan called “big men,” because slaves now worked the fields, providing the labor on which the colony’s wealth depended. Racism, a development of the mid-seventeenth century, prevented any serious thought of poor Whites and slaves aligning while a pervasive dependence on tobacco as the single most important money crop gave all colonists a shared stake in ensuring larger and larger crops. This unification of interests led the commoners to have such confidence and trust that they routinely elected members of the landed gentry into political office, allowing them a control of government that their numbers did not warrant. By the time of the revolution the circle became complete as republican ideas of limitations on royal power segued into freedom from control by England, a change that contributed significantly to the eventual break.
Morgan began by arguing that Virginia was the key to the issues because it was the largest and most important colony, owning more than 40 percent of all slaves during the period surveyed. He then went into a history of early settlements, noting that no idea of slavery existed initially, although he cites early Indian relations as the first step in the development of racist attitudes. The road to defining Virginia as both a slave and free society began when tobacco became the colony’s money crop, overshadowing all others and creating a chronic demand for labor that always far exceeded supply. Shortage of workers to produce a somewhat labor-intensive crop led to efforts by the aristocracy (the large land owners and members of government, both locally and in England) to attempt to get as much work from servants and tenant farmers as possible. Indentured workers could have their term extended for almost any offense and faced hardships when they tried to go independent, including a contrived scarcity of land. Not only was the working class exploited to produce more for the benefit of their “betters” but they also had to pay all manner of fees and taxes and bore the brunt of fluctuations in price. Morgan also argued that the emphasis on tobacco was deleterious to the colony because it stunted the growth of cities and hindered the development of other industries.
The demand for tobacco and the desire to exploit the common farmer for greater profits combined to curtail freedoms at the lower end of the economic ladder, resulting in widespread discontent that led to Bacon’s rebellion, among others. The uprising was put down without any significant impact but may have suggested that racism could be used to supplant class resentment. The revolts also made clear that the gentry’s problem had become how to keep freedmen working at the highest possible level short of creating unrest. In New England the protestant work ethic had succeeded but Virginians never exhibited an equal religious fervor. Therefore, slavery became the obvious answer, allowing owners to compel men to maximum output without the risk of rebellion. The decision to adopt slavery was eased because it had a proven record of success in areas, like Virginia, in which land was abundant but labor was not and because it was not necessary to enslave anyone, just to buy those that were already slaves.
Morgan’s work is a brilliant piece of scholarship that generally supports his ideas. I am comfortable that he made an adequate case that slavery fostered the development of democratic ideas but the evidence seems weaker that equality fostered slavery. The argument that slavery provided a non-threatening lower class, thereby allowing support for freedom, seems well done but the other side of the coin is not as well documented or discussed. My major objection with the work is that Morgan strays too far and too often from his main points, going into historical narratives that have little to do with his arguments. Rather than chapters on establishing Jamestown and Bacon’s rebellion I think he would have been better served to have used paragraphs that noted their relationship with his study. His diversion into indirectly related events acts only to distract from his rather fascinating ideas while adding little. I believe he could have written a shorter and better book by focusing on original scholarship and leaving textbook work to others.