I came to this 1975 classic of historical writing by way of a recommendation from Ta-Nehesi Coates:
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.
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.
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.
The new labor system posed a new version of an old problem: how do you get the workers to work?
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.
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.