The Origins of Slavery

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Where Historians Disagree:

The Origins of Slavery
How did the institution of slavery establish itself in the New World? How did white people come to believe that Africans should be kept in bondage? Historians have offered a number of different interpretations.

The debate had its origins in an important 1950 article by Oscar and Mary Handlin (“Origins of the Southern Labor System,” William and Mary Quarterly). They pointed out that in the seventeenth century many residents of the American colonies (and of England) lived in varying degrees of “unfreedom,” that there was nothing unusual or new about a dependent labor force. What was new was the transformation of black servitude in America into a permanent system, based on race, with the condition of slavery passed from one generation to the next. The Handlins identified this transition from “servant” to “slave” more as a legal process by which colonial legislatures sought to increase the available labor force than as a response to racial prejudice. The leaders of the Chesapeake hoped to attract white laborers to the New World; to do so, they had to make clear the distinction between voluntary and involuntary servitude. Hence the institutionalization of slavery: It was an effort to persuade whites that their status would be higher than that of blacks.

Winthrop Jordan, in White over Black (1968), offered a different view of how slavery developed in America. Jordan emphasized that Europeans had long viewed people of color – and particularly black Africans – as inferior beings preeminently fit to serve whites. Slavery did not evolve slowly from a system of relative racial equality. Blacks and whites were viewed and treated differently from the beginning; and the institution that finally emerged was a natural reflection of the deep-seated racism that the white settlers had brought with them. David Brion Davis, similarly, argued in The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (1966) and later works that American slavery emerged not so much from the legal or economic conditions of the colonies as from a deeply embedded set of cultural assumptions. Davis placed less emphasis than Jordan on racism; he argued, instead, that the notion of slavery was an integral part of Western culture and that African servitude in America was not profoundly different from other forms of slavery in other societies.

Several historians in the 1970s returned to an emphasis on the particular conditions within the American colonies that helped produce the slave system. But unlike the Handlins, they saw the legal process by which slavery emerged as secondary to other issues. Peter Wood, in Black Majority (1974), emphasized the economic benefits that the black labor force provided whites in colonial South Carolina. In the early years of settlement (the “frontier period”) in South Carolina, blacks and whites often worked together. Black workers were relatively few in number, and differentiations in status were relatively vague. After the 1690s, however, whites discovered that African workers were better suited than Europeans to do the arduous work of rice cultivation, which was now coming to dominate the economy of the colony. Importation of black workers rapidly increased; and by the early eighteenth century, whites were becoming uneasy about the presence of a black majority in the colony. The hardening of the slave system, through legislation and in practice, reflected white fears f black resistance or even revolt.

Edmund S. Morgan, in American Slavery, American Freedom (1975), also argued that the labor system in the South was at first relatively flexible and later grew more rigid. In an examination of colonial Virginia, Morgan suggested that the early colonists did not at first intend to create a permanent system of human bondage. By the late seventeenth century, however, the flourishing tobacco economy had created a growing need for cheap labor. The existence of a large, dependent white labor force, which was difficult to recruit and even more difficult to control, was unappealing to the colonists. African workers could be recruited and controlled more easily. The creation of a rigid slave system in the eighteenth century was, therefore, less a result of historic racism than a response to economic and social needs. Racism emerged largely as a result of slavery; it was not the cause of slavery. (Morgan went on to argue that the later development of democratic ideas in Virginia was made possible by the existence of slavery. A dependent white labor force would have made the idea of political equality difficult to sustain; but by making the dependent workers into slaves, outside the political world of whites, it was possible to believe that all white citizens were politically equal.)

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