Wednesday, January 23, 2008

American Slavery, American Freedom

Title: American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York: Norton, 1975)

Author: Edmund S. Morgan, professor emeritus of the Yale history department. Studied under Perry Miller at Harvard. Teacher of John Demos. Winner of many awards for his books on colonial and early Republican history, and for his life work in general, including the National Humanities Medal in 2000 and a Pulitzer "special citation" in 2006 (is that like an Oscar lifetime achievement award? I think so). Other notable books (he wrote a bunch) are The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop (1955); The Birth of the Republic, 1763-89 (1956); and Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America (1988), which won the Bancroft Prize. Morgan has also written biographies of Ezra Stiles, Roger Williams, and Benjamin Franklin.

My Review: This book attempts to answer the paradox embodied in its title: how could a society founded on the ideals of human freedom accept the blatant violation of that ideals in its very midst? (Morgan sees this as the fundamental paradox of America as a whole.) In order to answer the question, Morgan looks at the hundred years during which Virginia existed previous to the beginning of wholesale African slavery, describing the social and labor conditions of the colony.

The Jamestown colony, he writes, was founded with a great need for labor - indeed, those who became rich at the outset were those who could manage to marshal the greatest number of servants, not those who had the most land or the most capital. The upper classes of Britain looked at Virginia as perfect place to offload the lazy, unproductive classes of people who were unemployed in the home country. These people would accept contracts to come to Virginia as servants and serve a certain term to pay for their passage. Once in the colony, excuses would be made to extend their term, and once they were set free, there was very little hope for the American Dream - land was difficult to work if you were doing it on a small scale; land was only available on the dangerous, Indian-proximate frontier; and women were scarce, meaning family life for these "small" ex-servants was nonexistent. More than anything, though, these servants usually just died so early in life (as did most people in Virginia) that they didn't have a chance to ask for their rightful place in Virginia's economic order.

For Morgan, this short life expectancy is one of the major reasons why Virginia's planters saw it as economically more advantageous to import English servants, rather than African slaves - why pay the higher price for a slave when s/he was likely to die soon, leaving a planter without having exploited the full "term" of their labor (that is, their lifetime)? There were some Africans in the colony before the end of the seventeenth century, but Morgan says that they were unaccompanied by the later racism they experienced. They worked alongside white servants, and intermarried with whites.

When life expectancy began to go up, and events such as Bacon's Rebellion convinced the upper classes that the lower classes were indeed dangerous, slavery began to look like a better option. With a plantation of African slaves, control would be easier and economic advantage easier to extract. In a story familiar from such books as Roediger's Wages of Whiteness, the white lower classes were pacified with minor economic advances, begrudging cession of political rights, and the knowledge that they, at least, were "better" than the Indians and black people living alongside them in the South. Meanwhile, the upper classes could (mostly) rest safe in their beds, knowing that the poor people who supported their wealth were enslaved and controllable. (The "mostly" refers to the fear a lot of them retained of slave rebellions, which were actually rare.) Voila - slavery and freedom, side by side.

Souvenir from the 1907 Jamestown Exposition ("Meet Me On The War Path"!)

Reviews: The book won the Francis Parkman Prize, as well as others. In the Journal of American History, Russell Menard wrote that the book was "graceful, learned and witty" (it is that) and loves it, mostly, except when he worries that by attributing all of English racism to economic need, Morgan gives short shrift to any possible other explanation - it's almost mechanical, an account which Menard compares unfavorably to Winthrop Jordan's more subtle work (presumably White over Black [1968] though Menard doesn't specify). Menard also wants more evidence about the decline in mortality, a point at which I found myself confused as well, and wants more drawn-out analyses of the difference in prices between slaves and servants. In the Journal of Social History, Lois Green Carr said that she liked the book, too, but thought that actually servants had more opportunity when "graduated" from service than Morgan had it, and that those who joined Bacon's Rebellion were not actually reacting from stringent conditions for freedmen at the time - that things were status quo for them, until about the 1680s.

Words: "feeoffee" ("a person invested with a fief")

Poster for Terence Malick's 2005 film "The New World," with Colin Farrell as John Smith - a film I have to admit I found myself embarrassingly swept away by, with a good representation of the dirtiness and desperation of the Jamestown settlement, and a really romantic one of the nobility of the Indian.

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