Monday, June 30, 2014

Our enduring paradox: slavery and freedom born together

What to do if the people supposed to serve as the "workers" won't work? In American Slavery, American Freedom, Edmund S. Morgan makes the case that in early Virginia the plantation-owning class solved this ongoing dilemma by instituting chattel slavery and further securing their economic and political power by creating the racial caste system peculiar to this country.

I came to this 1975 classic of historical writing by way of a recommendation from Ta-Nehesi Coates:

Morgan is indispensable. There is no single book I've found myself reviewing more over the past five years.

There are few books I've ever encountered that did more to deepen my understanding this country's historical and contemporary contradictions.

Morgan seeks to explicate "the American paradox, the marriage of slavery and freedom" and suggests "Virginia is surely the place to begin." The men who brought English rule to Virginia in the 1600s came with visions of easy living in idyllic harmony in a bountiful land as well as with dreams of acquiring treasure, either from the colony itself or seized from the proceeds of Spain's South American colonies. According to the historian, they were proud of English "freedom" -- of a somewhat constrained monarchy that nonetheless gave the prosperous confidence in a stable regime of laws. What neither their leaders who came from minor but ambitious gentry at home nor the dregs of England's excess working class who were the bulk of the colonists were prepared to do was to work hard at making a living.

The colonists nearly starved for most of a decade, They soon discovered they could not extract riches or even food from the natives -- nor could they bind the Indians to service. Disease and brutality quite rapidly drove the natives into resistance or simply away. But how were the colonial leaders to make a living? Their only hope was to import an indentured servant population, Englishmen so desperate that they signed away their freedom for a term of years in return for passage across the ocean and perhaps a better life at the end.

These colonists weren't much for working. After all, back in England most people, middling or poor, managed to only work the necessary amount to sustain life. They were not gripped by an ethic of labor. Dissenters and Puritans (who were founding New England in the north but were barred from Anglican Virginia) may have come to believe that earnest toil showed the favor of the Divine. But this was not the attitude of most poor servants.

Laborers were the despair of everyone who employed them, large or small. ... Besides loafing and sleeping on the job, laborers were notorious for spending their small wages on drink and failing to show up for work at all. Since the Reformation had done away with the celebration of the traditional saints' days, they took off frequent "Saint Mondays" to nurse their hangovers....

Through the labor of such inferior human instruments, Virginia's big men aimed to enrich themselves.

Gradually Virginia's leaders settled on an export crop. Tobacco was thought a disreputable product, but there was a clamoring English market for this mild vice. Men who could assemble large acreage (some grandees specialized in marrying widows who had come into property from diseased husbands) could make themselves very rich indeed. But always there was a labor shortage. Imported servants had to be paid off at the end of their indentures. Land unclaimed by Europeans was still abundant; free men could and did take off for new lands, sometimes without completing their legal obligations. Planters brought in a few African workers from the Caribbean alongside their English laborers as early as the 1650s, without making any distinction between them. These blacks were semi-free laborers, not slaves.

While racial feelings undoubtedly affected the position of Negroes, there is more than a little evidence that Virginians during these years were ready to think of Negroes as members or potential members of the community on the same terms as other men and to demand of them the same standards of behavior. Black men and white serving the same master worked, ate, and slept together, and together shared in escapades, escapes, and punishments. In 1649 William Evans, a white man, and Mary, a Negro servant, were required to do penance for fornication, like any other couple, by standing in the church at White River with the customary white sheet and white want ...

By the end of the 17th century, planters became ever more fearful of the people who toiled on their expanding lands. Economic opportunities for free laborers contracted as land ownership became more concentrated. Might freed servants and natives make common cause to overthrow the emerging gentry? Small rebellions and general lawlessness seemed to be increasing. Something had to give. A new sort of Englishman came into this troubled situation and changed the course of the colony's development.

Englishmen with spare cash came to Virginia also because the prestige and power that a man with any capital could expect in Virginia was comparatively much greater than he was likely to attain in England, where men of landed wealth and gentle birth abounded. ... these were the men who brought slavery to Virginia, simply by buying slaves instead of servants. Since a slave cost more than a servant, the man with only a small sum to invest was likely to buy a servant. In 1699 the House of Burgesses noted that the servants who worked for "the poorer sort" of planters were still "for the most part Christian." But the man who could afford to operate on a larger scale, looking to the long run, bought slaves as they became more profitable and as they became available.

... Virginia had developed her plantation system without slaves, and slavery introduced no novelties to methods of production. ... The plantation system operated by servants worked. It made many Virginians rich and England's merchants and kings richer. But it had one insuperable disadvantage. Every year it poured a host of new freemen into a society where the opportunities for advancement were limited. The freedmen were Virginia's dangerous men.

... The substitution of slaves for servants gradually eased and eventually ended the threat that the freedmen posed: as the annual number of imported servants dropped, so did the number of men turning free.... With slavery Virginians could exceed all their previous efforts to maximize productivity. In the first half of the century, as they sought to bring stability to their volatile society, they had identified work as wealth, time as money, but there were limits to the amount of both work and time that could be extracted from a servant. There was no limit to the work or time that a master could command from his slaves, beyond his need to allow them enough for eating and sleeping to enable them to keep working.

The new labor system posed a new version of an old problem: how do you get the workers to work?

... The only obvious disadvantage that slavery presented to Virginia masters was a simple one: slaves had no incentive to work. ... In the end, Virginians had to face the fact that masters of slaves must inflict pain at a higher level than masters of servants. Slaves could not be made to work for fear of losing liberty, so they had to be made to fear for their lives. Not that any master wanted to lose his slave by killing him, but in order to get an equal or greater amount of work, it was necessary to beat slaves harder than servants, so hard, in fact, that there was a much larger chance of killing them than had been the case with servants. Unless a master could correct his slaves in this way without running afoul of the law if he misjudged the weight of his blows, slave owning would be legally hazardous.

And so men who had seen themselves as bringing civilized law and freedom to a benighted new world conformed its laws to the economic interests of slave masters. Brutal punishments became the law.

But still the danger remained: what if the African-origin slaves made common cause with the freed English men against the planters? This was an unruly society. Perhaps such a combination of the lowly could come about.

Although a degree of racial prejudice was doubtless also present in Virginia from the beginning, there is no evidence that English servants or freedmen resented the substitution of African slaves for more of their own kind. When their masters began to place people of another color in the fields beside them, the unfamiliar appearance of the newcomers may well have struck them as only skin deep. There are hints that the two despised groups initially saw each other as sharing the same predicament. It was common, for example, for servants and slaves to run away together, steal hogs together, get drunk together. It was not uncommon for them to make love together. ... as long as slaves formed only an insignificant minority of the labor force, the community of interest between blacks and lower-class whites posed no social problem.

But Virginians had always felt threatened by the danger of a servile insurrection, and their fears increased as the labor force grew larger and the proportion of blacks in it rose. ... the answer to the problem, obvious if unspoken and only gradually recognized, was racism, to separate dangerous free whites from dangerous slave blacks by a screen of racial contempt. ... if Negro slavery carne to Virginia without anyone having to decide upon it as a matter of public policy, the same is not true of racism.

And so discrimination between persons on the basis of color of skin was enshrined in law and encouraged in practice in colonial Virginia.

Morgan asserts that it was living in -- and on the products of -- a slave society that made the founding generation of United States Virginia leaders like Washington, Jefferson and Madison, such enthusiasts for the independence of the colonies and the colonists.

The presence of men and women who were, in law at least, almost totally subject to the will of other men gave to those in control of them an immediate experience of what it could mean to be at the mercy of a tyrant. Virginians may have had a special appreciation of the freedom dear to republicans, because they saw every day what life without it could be like. [Moreover] ... aristocrats could more safely preach equality in a slave society than in a free one. Slaves did not become leveling mobs, because their owners would see to it that they had no chance to. ... The most ardent American republicans were Virginians, and their ardor was not unrelated to their power over the men and women they held in bondage.

...Racism thus absorbed in Virginia the fear and contempt that men in England, whether Whig or Tory, monarchist or republican, felt for the inarticulate lower classes. Racism made it possible for white Virginians to develop a devotion to the equality that English republicans had declared to be the soul of liberty. There were too few free poor on hand to matter. And by lumping Indians, mulattoes, and Negroes in a single pariah class, Virginians had paved the way for a similar lumping of small and large planters in a single master class.

Edmund Morgan's American Slavery, American Freedom is over 40 years old. Reading it, I looked around for the arguments and refutations from other historians likely to have followed on such a bold and combative work. I found much less than I expected. Subsequent writers chip away at the edges of Morgan's thesis and accuse him of channeling the passions of the socially disruptive civil rights movement of the 1960s, but they don't really refute his line of argument. The contradictions of a country founded amid racially-defined slavery for some and expansive freedom for others march on in our lives.


Hattie said...

Thanks for this fascinating and thorough review.

Nell said...

You've spurred me to get hold of the book. My exposure to it is through citations and a condensed version of the history from Annette Gordon-Reed's The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family.

Hard to imagine how Morgan's argument could be refuted, given the laws that were put in place and the documented discussion that led to them.

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