American Paradox Explained? An Analysis of Edmund Morgan’s

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Levi Fox Page 2/2/2021

American Paradox Explained?

An Analysis of Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom
That the institution of black slavery and a strong love of liberty had both developed in Virginia by the time of the Revolution is hard to dispute. That they “grew there together, the one (slavery) supporting the other (liberty)” (Morgan, 11) is the central argument put forth by Edmund Morgan in his American Slavery, American Freedom. In order to determine the validity of Morgan’s claim it is first necessary to summarize his argument as it is developed over the course of the book. Morgan looks for the roots of both slavery and liberty in earlier times and, to this end, divides his examination of colonial Virginia into different periods, which correspond to differing societal conditions. These three periods can be seen as being roughly divided into the time before 1630, that between 1630 and Bacon’s Rebellion of 1675-76, and the period following the rebellion. Morgan sees all three periods (as well as Bacon’s Rebellion itself) as containing important elements which support his thesis, and all will thus be examined in turn.

Morgan sees the first period as being one of much uncertainty, while also containing many of the roots of Virginia society. His discussion of the alliance between Sir Francis Drake and the Cimmarons demonstrates that racism against blacks was not nearly so strong at this point as it would become later. Indeed, Morgan sees the beginnings of anti-white racism taking place in this period as white colonists, angered by Indian labor ethics, their unwillingness to convert, and especially a 1622 attack on whites, began to think that killing or enslaving Indians was the best policy. Morgan also demonstrates that, at this same time, a tobacco boom was taking place in the colony, one that established constant and required hard labor as the norm for the unfree (white servants at this point). Thus, for Morgan, this first period contains both the seeds of racism and the beginnings of an ethic that encouraged the owners of unfree labor to work that labor as hard as possible in the pursuit of profits, an ethic that would persist for years to come.

The second period, for Morgan, is marked by social mobility of the indentured servant class that encouraged large-scale immigration to the colony. During the early part of this period, and owing to high mortality rates, the wide availability of land, and relatively low start up costs, those indentured servants who survived their term could, in turn, expect to prosper and to grow their own tobacco crops often with their own servants. Along with this economic mobility there existed social and political mobility for ex-servants during this time. All free colonial Virginians had the vote until 1670, while the House of Burgesses (established in 1619) “would find ways of defeating any English policy toward them that they did not approve of.” (Morgan, 144) A former servant could “even aspire to represent his neighbors in the House of Burgesses” (Morgan, 178) if he was successful enough. Indeed, as Morgan shows, this period was marked by attitudes of political independence as well as by economic opportunity, and thus contained within it many of the seeds of Virginian attitudes about personal and political liberty.

After about 1660, according to Morgan, declining morality rates led to a growing number of ex-servants seeking property and political power. He argues that, in order to combat the resultant rise in competition, the established leaders passed laws “that curtailed and threatened the independence of the small freeman” (Morgan 216) during this period. Laws extending terms of service, creating an “artificial scarcity of land,”(Morgan, 223) and restricting the vote all contributed to a loss of opportunity for the common Virginian. These changes created feelings of discontent especially among the newly freed ex-servants, who would often move seek land in the west and thus often came into contact (and soon conflict) with the remaining Indians. The arrival of Nathaniel Bacon to lead these former servants and internal pressures among the Indians that resulted in attacks on whites in the west were the two remaining ingredients that led to brutal conflict with the Indians and soon to an all out civil war against the colony establishment. In Morgan’s view this conflict was key both because it revived race hatred among poor whites and because of the serious political ramifications that it would have in the years to follow.

The last section of Morgan’s book, where his argument concerning the relationship between race-based slavery and liberty is made most explicit, covers the period after Bacon’s Rebellion, during which Virginia converted from servants to slaves. Morgan argues that the conversion to slaves was not deliberate, but simply resulted from individual planters making the decision to purchase slaves (which had increased in availability and become better values as mortality rates fell) instead of servants (which were likely decreasing in availability during this time). However, Morgan does argue that the new laws which were enacted during this period placed the status “of slavery on a squarely racial foundation” (Morgan, 329) for the first time. He goes so far as to assert that, having learned from Bacon’s Rebellion that “resentment of an alien race might be more powerful than resentment of an upper class” (Morgan, 269-70) “the assembly deliberately did what it could to foster the contempt of whites for blacks and Indians” (Morgan, 331). Thus, he views racism and extreme race-based slavery as a public policy decision enacted by Virginia politicians, in order to divide lower class whites and blacks. From this point Morgan proceeds to argue that it was this racial separation which encouraged (or perhaps more accurately permitted) white notions of liberty to exist. He points out that “the status of poor whites rose” during this period while arguing that the presence of slavery all around them gave white men of all classes “an immediate experience of what it could mean to be at the mercy of a tyrant” (Morgan, 376). This, in turn, encouraged them to see their interests as lying together and would encourage the consistent election of representatives (the large planters) who could best represent these common interests against any possible threats to their liberty which might come from England. However, Morgan’s sees his strongest argument as being that the Virginia gentry “could more safely preach equality in a slave society than in a free one” (Morgan, 380) since they need not fear political takeover from a poor (and therefore corruptible) class so long as that class was wholly without political and social rights. Moreover, by transferring traditional English upper class hatred and distrust of the poor onto blacks and Indians the ruling class created “a single pariah class and paved the way for a similar lumping of small and large planters in a single master class” (Morgan, 386) which, in theory, all enjoyed the same basic rights. Thus, in Morgan’s view, race-based slavery and liberty are not simply related, but the latter was able to exist in colonial Virginia only because of the presence of the former.

Having laid out Morgan’s argument concerning the relationship between slavery and freedom in Virginia it can now be analyzed and its merits judged. Morgan does an excellent job (and is probably correct) in his tracking of a number of traits which would come to characterize Virginia society. His locating of the roots of the notions of individual and political liberty in the mobility of the mid-17th century (notions which could be staunchly defended by freedman against the encroachment of the establishment, as Bacon’s Rebellion showed) seems correct. Additionally, his argument that Virginians did not come out of a strongly racist society, but developed this trait over time through repeatedly coming into conflict and competition with the Indians also appears correct. Morgan’s argument that Indians and blacks began to be viewed as an alien and inferior “other” (the “pariah class” he describes) in the years following Bacon’s Rebellion seems well supported by his evidence. And his argument that the conversion to slavery was done largely unconsciously seems to make good economic sense as well as to fit logically with what we know about the period. However, Morgan’s views concerning the fostering of racism by the Virginia establishment following the rebellion do not seem to hold up nearly so well under scrutiny. While public policy may well have served to solidify racist views (culminating in a the slave code of 1705) the notion that this was a conscious decision of the higher-ups that was somehow imposed upon the rest of the population assumes both a form of conspiratorial planning and a Marxist view of the top down imposition of an ideology that simply does not seem justified in this case. The gradual adoption by the masses of a negative view of Indians (and blacks as they quickly became a large segment of the society in the last quarter of the 17th century) seems to fit Morgan’s data far better than the argument he puts forward. His equally controversial argument about the relationship between slavery and notions of freedom in colonial Virginia may have a bit more validity. While the almost causal relationship which Morgan draws seems extreme and unfounded (especially since his arguments support the notion that ideas of liberty were prevalent long before the mass conversion to slavery), the assertion that the presence of slavery had an equalizing affect upon the white population appears quite plausible. That the idea of a master (white) class identifying itself in opposition to a slave (black) class did come to exist in Virginia is hard to dispute. And that it was this oppositional identification which allowed notions of equality and liberty to exist (and to be encouraged rather than feared by the gentry class) even in the absence of true equality would seem to fit the facts rather neatly and thus supply strong credibility to Morgan’s argument.

Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom, while as controversial today as when it was first written, still remains one of the most comprehensive and thoughtful studies we have on colonial Virginia. His identification of a number of traits that would come to characterize later Virginia society and his tracing of the evolution of these traits through changing societal conditions adds much to contemporary understanding of the period. And while many (including myself) might disagree with his conclusions, they are well reasoned and not without merit, and provide both a useful model and a good starting point from which to examine colonial Virginia.

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