American Slavery, American Freedom

By Edmund Morgan (1975)


I have Ta-Nehisi Coates (and his compelling reading list) to thank for reading what turned out to be an absolutely vital work for anyone wishing to understand what principles and values our country was truly founded upon.

Remarkably, Morgan employs original, 1st-person research — principally letters and laws — to deduct a convincing, authentic analysis of how the U.S.’s first colony was built and upon which principles it operated. Spoiler alert: it’s not a pretty picture. Begun in earnest as a for-profit settlement of the Virginia Company, the colony was born as an almost stereotypical caricature of land barons exploiting indentured servants in virtual slavery conditions.

Actual slavery, too, was born here, and the ostensible purpose of the book is to examine how the most ardent, liberty-loving Republicans — Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton — all hailed from the birthplace of slavery. Morgan determines, in fascinating fashion, that perhaps the biggest determinant of Virginia switching from servant-exploitation to slavery was the fact that servants stopped dying due to disease and malnutrition.

Before the mid-17th century, laborers reliably died after 5-7 years (often before their indenture was over), making slaves not only redundant but less cost-effective, since they were more expensive to purchase, died just as fast as servants, and if surviving had to be fed/clothed even past their utility. By mid-century, however, improved diet, wealth, and habituation to the environment meant that many more servants were obtaining liberty. Consequently, because the colony’s elite had hoarded all of the available land, these freed servants were becoming indigent and angry. It was only at this point that landowners turned to slavery in earnest.

Much of the first half of the book is too exhaustively detailed for my taste, reporting the minutiae of early colonial government and explaining all of the various dynamics at play. The roundabout approach to the thesis arguably pays off at the end, but I think it would have been just as effective minus a hundred or so pages. Slavery isn’t even directly addressed until the last third of the book.

The last chapters, however, are terrific: as revelatory as they are compelling. Morgan traces racism from its sprouting against Native Americans to its full flower, well after Blacks became the dominant source of labor. He notes, surprisingly, how the comments made about “brutish” Natives and Blacks weren’t substantively different from the claims made about poor whites in England, and that miscegenation laws weren’t even considered until it began to affect the prospects of landowning whites, i.e. when white women began having “mulatto” babies. In essence, Morgan convincingly argues that racism was just a convenient displacement of the already prevalent class hatred, a contempt which already had English aristocrats wondering aloud whether they should just go ahead and enslave poor whites.

Morgan’s powerful (and under-recognized, even 40 years later) implication is that racism is artificial and has much more to do with class than race. In Virginia, it was developed almost organically as a way to stymy rebellion from non-elite whites. And shockingly, Morgan observes that slavery itself may well be responsible for the uniquely fervent Republicanism among Virginians, and for the resulting conspicuous representation of Virginians in our revolution and young nationhood. By turning the poorest class into slaves, Virginia achieved a unification among its white inhabitants — a dedication to liberty and equality among peers — that existed nowhere else.

Most shockingly, Morgan suggests that U.S. values of liberty and equality, indeed the very birth of our nation, were not only linked to slavery but were dependent upon it. Further, until we recognize and address this inextricable connection, we will not be able to progress as a nation. His closing paragraphs are profound:

How Virginian, then, was America? How heavily did American economic opportunity and political freedom rest on Virginia’s slaves? If Virginia had continued to rely on the importation of white servants, would they have headed north when they turned free and brought insoluble problems of poverty with them? Would they have threatened the peace and prosperity of Philadelphia and New York and Boston, where the poor were steadily growing in numbers anyhow? Would Northerners have embraced republican ideas of equality so readily if they had been surrounded by men in “a certain degree of misery”? And could the new United States have made a go of it in the world of nations without Virginia and without the products of slave labor? Northern republicans apparently thought not. Some could not condone slavery and talked of breaking loose from the South in their own independent confederation. But the fact is that they did not. They allowed Virginians to compose the documents that founded their republic, and they chose Virginians to chart its course for a generation.

Eventually, to be sure, the course the Virginians charted for the United States proved the undoing of slavery. And a Virginia general gave up at Appomattox the attempt to support freedom with slavery. But were the two more closely linked than his conquerors would admit? Was the vision of a nation of equals flawed at the source by contempt for both the poor and the blacks? Is America still colonial Virginia writ large? More than a century after Appomattox the questions linger.

This book is essential and should be read by every thinking North-American.

%d bloggers like this: