Edmund S. Morgan.  American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia.  Edmund S. Morgan. New York: W. W. Norton, 1975.

Edmund S. Morgan is Sterling Professor Emeritus at Yale University.  Morgan, born in 1916, studied with Perry Miller at Harvard University.  In American Slavery, American Freedom, Morgan calls the simultaneous development of slavery and freedom “the central paradox of American history.”  The book explains “how a people could have developed the dedication to human liberty and dignity exhibited by the leaders of the American Revolution and at the same time have developed and maintained a system of labor that denied human liberty and dignity every hour of the day.”  Virginia’s size and its role in funding the Revolution with profits derived from slave-grown tobacco attracted Morgan’s interest.  Slave-holding Virginians led the Revolution, helped form the government, and served as leaders of the new nation.  American Slavery, American Freedom deserves its reputation as one of the most important books written on American history.

            In the first of the book’s four sections, Morgan discusses the origin of the poor relationship between Virginia colonists and American Indians and the rise of tobacco as an important crop.  Hostility between the colonists from England and the Indians began at the ill-fated Roanoke colony. The Virginia Company, unlike the founders of Roanoke, did not want to rely on the Indians for subsistence and, when the king placed the company in charge, its leaders did not envision Indians as part of the colony even as slaves.  Virginia subsequently suffered a labor shortage.  The poor character of immigrants, including gentlemen unwilling to work, contributed to Virginia’s failure to feed itself.  The company decided to give land to some planters in an effort to encourage investment and productivity.  These new landowners quickly began growing tobacco despite the company’s objections.  A more liberal form of government kept the company from enforcing restrictions that limited tobacco production. Meanwhile, Conflict continued between the colony and the Indians.  An investigation after a brutal massacre revealed the colony’s high mortality rate.  In 1624, the king intervened and reassumed control of the colony. Disease limited Virginia’s population.  Most tenants, servants, and apprentices died before obtaining freedom.  Servants in Virginia worked for worse terms and suffered worse discipline than those in Britain.  Virginians bought and sold servants in the same way that Englishmen traded land or livestock.  Wealth concentrated in the hands of a few men.  The Virginia Company in London failed as many of its officers in Virginia grew rich.

Wealthy Virginians asserted freedom from crown and company as conditions in the colony and the tobacco market changed, Morgan writes in the book’s second section.  The Virginians’ demand for labor temporarily collapsed when tobacco prices fell in the 1630s.  The end of the tobacco boom failed to slow English migration to Virginia.  Life expectancy and standards of living increased prompting Virginians to consider the colony a permanent home rather than a temporary stop.  The Virginia assembly, created under the company’s control, wanted to retain its authority under the king.  The king refused to allow the assembly to continue, but Virginians found ways to cancel demands they did not support.  The assembly’s power increased during the English Civil War.  In 1660, Parliament required that all tobacco from the colonies be shipped to England so the king could collect a duty and the merchants could profit.  The king’s income from tobacco was tied to weight rather than prices so the crown’s duties remained high even as the crop’s value dropped.  Government office holding replaced tobacco growing as most profitable enterprise in Virginia. Meanwhile, there were fewer than five hundred black slaves in the colony in 1650.  Some were granted freedom after service and they were not treated any more harshly than white servants.

            The third section of American Slavery, American Freedom tells of discontent and rebellion among the colonists.  Servitude terms lengthened and rules tightened as more servants survived.  Land values increased as more freedmen sought to purchase property.  Servants freed after 1660 had trouble finding land.  Landlords acquired large tracts to rent and made land even more scarce.  Freedmen viewed Indians as rivals for land.  If Indians damaged white property then others from the offending tribe were captured and sold as slaves to other tribes.  Discontent simmered throughout Virginia.  Ship captains brought desperate men, even criminals, to Virginia.  The increasing number of unsavory and displaced men prompted the colony to restrict the ability to vote to landowners after 1670.  The large number of discontent freedmen posed a threat in a society where all men were expected to have guns.  The discontent exploded into violence and conflict between colonists and the governor during Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676.  Nathaniel Bacon and his supporters wanted the governor to approve aggression against the Indians.  Morgan writes that the obvious lesson of the rebellion was that “resentment of an alien race might be more powerful than resentment of an upper class.”

In the fourth and final section of American Slavery, American Freedom, Morgan explains the conversion of Virginia’s labor force from servants to slaves, the introduction of racism, the alliance of poor and wealthy whites, and the first stirrings of revolution.  The slow evolution of Virginia’s labor system and racial views made for a seamless transition to a slave society.  “They converted to slavery simply by buying slaves instead of servants,” Morgan writes.  African slavery probably existed in Virginia since 1619, but it wasn’t profitable because of the high mortality rate.  Conditions improved and half of the labor force was enslaved by the end of the seventeenth century.  The first official recognition of slavery came in 1661.  The ability of slaves to reproduce made human chattel an attractive investment.  The problem was that slaves lacked an incentive to work.  Virginians willingly inflected pain to make slaves fear for their lives.  Wealthy Virginians introduced racism to prevent any sympathy between poor whites and African slaves.  Virginians dehumanized slaves by prohibiting baptism, preventing sexual relations among the races, and, in 1691, outlawing emancipation. Morgan argues that slavery helped poor whites by reducing the number of new freedmen competing for land and by prompting concessions from the wealthy. As the prosperity of the small planters increased, they began to see common interests with wealthier neighbors.  This new relationship fostered the growth of republicanism.

Jeff Wells


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.

Blake Killingsworth

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.

Harold Rich